Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Starbucks and the Tragedy of the Commons

My wife and I were killing time in two separate branches of Starbucks yesterday. In my branch, I noted a man who had taken over a window table by covering it with a huge laptop, books, files, newspapers and a token coffee. He regarded the place as his office. My wife, at her branch, had seated herself at an empty, four-seat table. A man called to her that this table was being 'held' for somebody. She rose and went over to his table, another four seater occupied by three people plainly having a meeting - files, papers etc. She sat down at the fourth chair. 'You can't sit there,' cried the man, horrified, 'we're having a meeting and you haven't even got a coffee.' 'I know,' said my wife, 'I'm torn between a latte and an Americano. Should we discuss it at this meeting?' These grade-one-listed jerks then flounced off to the table she had just been told to abandon. She waited for a moment and then left the cafe, the better to irritate these fools. The jerks and Huge Laptop Man plainly thought they had some proprietorial interest in Starbucks' seating arrangements. The company encourages this by providing web access and a policy of absolute tolerance towards long-stay, low-spending, table-hogging customers. But now their branches seem to be suffering from the familiar Tragedy of the Commons phenomenon whereby individuals exploit common resources until they are exhausted or useless. The problem is: how do they relieve their customers of the illusion that they own the joint without compromising their laid-back, corporate style? My solution would be sudden bursts of gunfire.


  1. As usual, you pinpoint the problem perceptively and accurately - it is a tragedy of the commons situation. And there's no solution, because as with pubs (and perhaps some blogs?), regulars have the power and occasional passer-by have none.

    Similarly, four-seater tables on trains have become desks for laptops and conference calls. And the Quiet Carriage has become the Mobile Users vs Tutters carriage.

    A similar phenomenon that irritates me is the monopolising of the running machines in the gym by walkers. Invariably these are women of advanced age. Now I can understand people running in the gym, indeed I do it myself. Running involves sweat and changes of clothes, so a gym is perfectly appropriate. But paying a monthly subscription to walk is just ridiculous and should not be tolerated. I have mused on this very subject poetically.

  2. I think it was Kingsley Amis who once said everything wrong with the modern world could be summed up in one word: workshop. My vote for the 21st century would be Starbucks.

    But the end of civilization as we know it may be forestalled as long as there are people like your wife around.

  3. Oh, but what you have perhaps forgotten, Peter Burnet, is that it wasn't possible to get a decent cup of coffee anywhere in Britain, before Starbucks came along!

    My own solution to the seating problem is to invest in a Nespresso Krups coffee machine. Or rather, get your richer son to give you one for Christmas. I have had many a coffee-maker in my life, but this one is absolutely fail-safe, every time!

    (Also, my husband tells me that if it fails as a coffee machine, I can always convert it into a flame-thrower...)

    Shame about the company of course, but then one can't have everything, can one?

  4. Are you implying, Beatrice, that you take the machine in question into Starbucks? A bold move indeed.

  5. Beatrice, I agree the coffee is great--it's the culture of the place I can't abide. I believe James 1 closed London's coffee shops because he saw them as dens of subversion and treason. Would that we had something so exciting. All I ever see are know-nothing beautiful people with Volvos and Beemers parked outside who like to put on intensely serious looks and spout drivel like "we shouldn't be trying to fight terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should be nation-building instead".

  6. I hate Starbucks coffee (tastes burned), but I do like the fact that they're everywhere and hence one can hang out in them while waiting for people or events.

    Your wife's approach was perfect. I've done the same thing, or close to it. I've discovered the phrase "Excuse me" can be used more aggressively than one might think. As in, "excuse me, are you using this chair?" for the individuals who have hogged a huge table to themselves.

    Also works on the train: When people spread out their laptops and bags across the seat of a crowded train, I have no problem indicating that I intend to sit on their Dell rather than stand in the aisle.

    Some people are rude, sadly. If their parents didn't teach them manners, then it's up to others in society, such as Bryan's wife, to do the job.

    By the way, Bry, you should do a list of pet peeves. Here's one of mine. Two talking ladies taking an escalator in a dept. store. So busy are they in their chat that, when they step off, they just stand there: Right in front of the escalator where other people are trying to get off. "EXCUSE ME" works in that situation, too. As in "Excuse me, could you please get your fat ass out of the way!"

    The root of all evil: Selfishness.

  7. top marks to your wife, who's obviously no pushover -- what a pity the table-hoggers were so obtuse, but it seem some people are incapable of feeling shamed. A friend of mine, when heavily pregnant, had need of a seat in a tube carriage and no one offered her one until a rough-looking young guy standing at the other end of the carriage called out,'If I had a seat, I'd give it up for you, love!'

  8. Tell them to fuck off home.

  9. You could add, the ad hoc poetry meetings. They are a bit like amateur drama, life in ones own hands. The vision of a lever arch bulging with the latest version of an Iliad is a truly terrifying encounter when all that's needed is caffeine. I'm with you on the gunfire. In these situations, left bank in a pigs eye, West bank !. Don't get me wrong I'm all for the public Arts. Though, I like to prepare for them.
    But they could be the answer to your problem. Picture; black clad, thin, indeterminate sex and enough steel to produce their own magnetic field. With a voice pitch nearing that of a steamwhistle. Wielding, a Poem.

  10. Bryan,
    I am heartened that you have finally come around to the utility of firearms, if only jokingly. These signs of discontent in Blighty are just more evidence to the contrary of Brit's contention that the English are a reasonable people. I've never encountered such behavior in America. I haven't ever visited a Starbucks where a seat and table wasn't available. Perhaps you just haven't acheived a critical mass of Starbucks yet there.
    These tales of mass transit woe are also an object lesson in why Americans will never give up their automobiles for public transport, no matter how intense the nannies lay on the eco-guilt. That's why we're so friendly and polite here, we're not suffering from the sardine effect.

  11. the Starbucks coffee i've had is awful, i much prefer Nero's if you're going with big chains; though Starfuck's blueberry cheesecake is good.

    your wife has moxie: she just needs weaponry and the right can-do Charles Bronson attitude, to sort these yuppy scum out.

    for these kind of group encounters, a flamethrower is really ideal, or a building-clearance weapon like a Heckler & Koch MP5. Otherwise a baseball bat for range, and a heavy mug or kettle cord + plug for close up. Some temps go for machetes, but it's kind of hard to explain away a machete to the cops, whereas Bryan could plausibly claim to be on his way to attend a baseball game, and obviously the players need tea, hence the kettle cord.

    Personally i blame 'Friends' for the 'this is our sofa' syndrome. As a fascist, i am a natural enemy of all hippies, and exude overpowering fascist pheremones, which disgust and repel long-hairs and budding poets.

  12. Beatrice, Peter Burnet et al - Shame on you for claiming that Starbucks, and all the other 'Coffee Bars', actually sells a drink that can be described as coffee. An Italian would choke on his Ristretto to hear it so described.

    They are simply purveyors of hot milky drinks with coffee flavouring. Meanwhile they are committing two egregious sins:

    -Making people believe that this is what coffee is.

    - Expanding their customer's girth in the process ( I hear on dubious authority, Associated Newspapers, that one Latte is equivalent to 10 rashers of bacon).

  13. I know a well placed "accident" say a Latte tipped over the laptop does wonders to ease the sitting arrangements.

  14. the controllerMay 02, 2007 3:19 pm

    I'm with recusant in that here decent coffee is to be translated as not Nescafe. However as one of the eminent Controllers of flickering remote-controlled happy happy people, I have to say I'm all in favour of the plastic homogenisation of the planet in the form of all these McStarbucks.

  15. I have to admit that this hasn't been a problem at any Starbucks that I have been to but the solution is very simple. "Fuck you" goes a long way in these situations. "That table is being held for someone." "Fuck you." "You can't sit there, we are having a meeting." "Fuck you." As soon as enough people take this attitude then rudeness will end. And before anyone says anything, "Fuck you" in response to rudeness is not rude.

    For the person hogging a table, the correct response is to sit down next to him and use his report as a coaster.

    When I was on a train a few years back, a man was taking up all three seats of a three-seater with his junk. So I took the seat right next to him, forcing him to move all his stuff. He asked me to take the end seat but I told him no, I wanted to sit next to him. He took all his stuff and left.

  16. also, for those anxious not to get blood on their clothes, i've found calling people 'pal' has an oddly chilling effect. For example, "I'm not moving," isn't anywhere near as effective as "I'm not moving, pal."

    i think it's the 21st Century equivalent of a neanderthal hunting roar.

  17. "The problem is: how do they relieve their customers of the illusion that they own the joint without compromising th"eir laid-back, corporate style?

    I would have the educated workforce explain to the troublesome customers the tenets of capitalism:


    An economic and political system characterized by a free market for goods and services and private control of production and consumption.

    As this applies here, the consumer should be informed that the premises is essentially one in which, in exchange for capital, goods such as coffee are consumed. The role of the consumer is simply to consume, and failure to do so at the required level will result in expulsion.
    It could be explained that were this a strictly communist system, the situation may indeed differ.


    An economic and social system envisioned by the nineteenth-century German scholar Karl Marx. In theory, under communism, all means of production are owned in common, rather than by individuals.

    However, this premises operates under the former economic and political system, which dictates a one seat per person policy along with certain rates of consumption guidelines.

  18. Duck, if you've never seen a Starbucks without a seat, you must live somewhere Minnesota. Indeed, I think that *is* where you live.

    Last Starbucks where I sat for awhile was the one on the top floor of the Barnes & Noble next to Lincoln Center, NYC. There were no tables available, long lines for the brew, and lots of people sitting on the floor. We ultimately got a table, when I snagged one that two old ladies were s-l-o-w-l-y leaving.

    A youngish rude male (a 'chav,' I believe, in your parlance) was keen to take it away from me, but had no chance with the New York crowd. Anyone who breaks into a line there is dead meat.

  19. I don't have a spare hour so can't read these comments, so forgive me if someone has already written this:
    Your wife sounds just like you, Brian.

  20. Well, coffee certainly brought everyone out, didn't it?

    And I don't believe there are any Starbucks in Italy, by the way. A considered decision apparently - nobody is going to teach an Italian anything about making coffee!

    And no, I don't go so far as to transport my machine there - just find I can now make a better cup at home.

  21. Susan B

    Yes, I live in Minnesota. Also there is fierce competition here between Starbucks and Minneapolis based Caribou Coffee. We may have the highest per-capita supply of coffee houses in the states.

  22. One of my small pleasures in life is to walk into Starbucks (almost always mostly empty in our town) and order a "Large coffee." It didn't translate that well in a Cafe Nero the other week.

    Bryan: You know, of course, that this post and the one just below it are the same post. This is not, though, actually a tragedy of the commons because the seats and tables at Starbucks are not held in common. Starbucks owns them and apparently believes that it is profit maximizing to take a laissez-faire approach to seating.

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