Tuesday, July 31, 2007

American Generosity: Borders Bookstore / Starbucks Coffee

Of the many bookstores in Singapore, perhaps only one has a significant number of chairs and sofas for folks to sit and read. This would be Borders bookstore, the subject of today's somewhat exaggerated theme: American generosity.

Borders was something of an anomaly when it opened its first and only store in Singapore some years ago. Sofas and chairs were provided so that people could sit and read for an extended period of time. Management refused to shrink wrap books, despite the risk to the bottom line if folks chose not to buy books and just come in a couple of times to finish them, which was exactly what I regularly did.

I believe this was an extraordinary development in the idea of a business affecting the cultural landscape of a place, It was also a very nice demonstration of the stereotypical generosity of an American chain, particularly with what happened next. At first, Singaporeans and others did not know how to respond. Actually, they responded quite poorly. People mistreated the books; they didn't know how to react to the possibility of browsing books for free. At the end of the day (it still closes at midnight on some days), the place looked like a war zone, especially in the kids' section. Generosity prevailed; management probably just wrote off the badly damaged books, tidied up the place and opened the doors the next day. Things have probably improved a little nowadays, fortunately. It often still looks more like a library than a bookstore, which I think is a very good thing. I've sent nights reading books that I'd otherwise had to spend hundreds of dollars on.

One night, I stood around and read a book on Starbucks, which is the second subject in my theme on generosity. Starbucks Coffee is an interesting place to study. It's associated with American hegemony and a usual target for WTO protesters. However, from personal experience, it's also one of the few places that I really like to visit. I realised intuitively that coffee, or the Frappuccinos, while excellent in their own right, didn't represent what Starbucks was all about. What intrigued me, after my first visit to Singapore's first Starbucks at Liat Tower with a Mocha Frappuccino, was that things were done differently here that did not make sense at first.

For example, consider the large sofas at each location. For a long time, I didn't understand the rationale for this. To have big chairs presents at least two problems. 1) It takes up space that might be better utilised if smaller chairs are provided instead. 2) It encourages people to hang around, thus reducing 'turnaround' and reducing revenue.

The book talks about the reasons for this. Starbucks aims to be 'the third place' (after the 'home' and 'place of work'). It's where people would be welcomed, and that means allowing them to sit and relax and 'form communities'. The book also mentions that in Starbucks, people do not get 'chased away' when they have finished their drinks. Even if one 'has only a drop of coffee' in the mug, they can stay for as long as they like. This resembles my own experience; staff never ask a customer to vacate the premises when the drinks have been consumed. This generosity has to be considered in light of new customers being turned away when the place is crowed; this is pretty common at some popular locations. Sometimes the service gets extraordinary. Another time at a crowded branch, I managed to find a seat, and put my bag on the floor. A staff came by and offered me another chair, not for my legs, but for my bag! Again, this makes no economic sense. An extra seat could have brought in another customer instead. Things are done differently here. A customer in the book said that the Starbucks concept would still work even if they stopped selling coffee and just charged people some money for them to come into the stores and relax. (I know I would pay.) This is pretty remarkable; again, it's the sense of community, and a place to relax, and not the coffee, per se.

Borders and Starbucks thus share one thing that I particularly like. The staff tend to treat people nicely, and without too much fuss, even if the business decisions they make have the possible effect of lowering sales. The service culture is also quite different; at Starbucks, it is not unusual for folks to have a decent chat while ordering (the barista would discuss the options), or while waiting for the drink. I'm not sure how much training is involved to achieve this, as it's quite difficult to train folks to be 'human' I think. It might just be that the interview process is skewed to hiring people who consistently are able to connect with customers.

I'm typing this entry at Starbucks, and observing the counter staff. Tonight's staff provide consistently good service; they smile at customers, and look into their eyes for a longer than usual time. Essentially, they seem to be genuinely interested in the customer. Since every counter staff is a pleasant female, I also have no problems conducting my field study. In almost every transaction, there is extended conversation and communication, and none of it seemed forced, nor a chore to them. Maybe it's just because they are really enjoying their work. Or it could just be another factor at work: American generosity.


voyager said...

jeff, i've been tagged so i'm tagging you. please feel free not to participate, if you do not wish to :-)

joy suzanne said...

Thanks, Jeff, I appreciate the advice!