Starbucks and the Economy – Why They Need More Plugs

Working at Starbucks on a LaptopThis morning, a Starbucks employee asked me a pointed question:  “What do you do, that you can sit here every morning?”  The question was friendly and conversational, though there was something else in her voice, jealousy?  Cynicism?

I’m not sure.

I answered with a kind of vague answer.  I said, “I am an Internet Marketer, I help people get found in Google.”

Most of the folks working at Starbucks are younger and get the Internet, so she knew what I meant.

The question made me look around at the other people who were perched at the tables.  As I write this, there is a person at every one of the tables with a laptop.  Every table!

Have you seen this phenomenon?

Have you ever been annoyed that there is no place to sit, because all the tables are occupied by laptoppers engrossed in whatever it is they’re staring at on their screen?

After a little thought, it occurred to me that Starbucks is an excellent economic indicator.  Not in terms of coffee sales, but in terms of who is sitting at Starbucks and what they’re doing.

Here is a brief description of the others at my Starbucks this morning:

Table 1: 55ish year old guy wearing an unbuttoned flannel shirt, khaki shorts and slip on, clog-like suede shoes that look like he had them in college.  He’s got an iPad on the table, but he’s doing a Washington Post crossword.  I’ve seen this guy on and off for over a year – I know he got laid off back in early 2010.  I guess he’s still laid off.

Table 2: There’s a middle-aged Asian guy wearing slacks and a black golf shirt with a corporate logo on it.  He’s working away on a Lenovo laptop with a company ID sticker on the back.  I guess he had liberal leave today with all the flooding in northern VA.  Clearly one of the tech workers for one of the many companies in Reston or Herndon.

Table 3: There’s a guy about my age – 40ish (jeez, is that middle aged??) – and he’s talking to a client.  More likely, he’s talking to a prospective client.  Best I can tell, he is selling insurance.  I heard him talking about the difference between “whole and term” so I think this is a sales meeting.

Table 4: Yours truly.  I stop here most mornings to answer some email and grab a cup.  Sometimes I blog from here, sometimes I work on a web project (many of you know my day job is running Conversion Pipeline.

Tabel 5: There are two guys wearing construction boots (dirty) with jeans and corporate shirts.  If I had to guess I’d say foreman types.  They’re set up with laptops back to back, both working away on something.

Table 6: A man with his 14 year old daughter (I’m eavesdropping) with a woman who I think is a counselor of some sort.  They’re discussing everything from the young girl’s college aspirations, to something about project organization.  I think she’s some kind of personal consultant.

What’s the point?

The point is that Starbucks is where people work, or look for work.

I have signed 3 clients in 2011 after meeting them in Starbucks.  One is an online investment service, another is a local political candidate, and a third is a local print shop.

What can we tell about the economy from this little microcosm of modern americana?

First, the self-employed love Starbucks.  On any given day, half the people sitting in Starbucks on computers are realtors, insurance salespeople, consultants, bloggers, and anyone else who manages their own time. I even saw a guy from an Audio Visual company giving a client a presentation one day.

Second, Starbucks is the realm of the unemployed.  If you are looking to hire someone, hit a local Starbucks and look for the guy or gal browsing Monster or Craigslist.  Strike up a conversation, you may well find a good new employee.

Third, people are hungry for interaction.  The reason I come to Starbucks most days (I have an office right across the street) is because I would rather sit at a table and observe those around me, have an occasional conversation, and maybe even drum up some business, than sit in my dark (by design) office and stare at a pair of monitors.

Ha!  A guy I have talked to a couple of times just walked in and said good morning…he is a retired chemical engineer, who is trying to set up an ecommerce website for his wife’s art work.  Entrepreneurism is alive and well at Starbucks too.

The only problem, near as I can tell, is that Starbucks doesn’t spend any time catering to us, the laptoppers.  Every morning I see dozens of people, just like those I describe above, sitting in Starbucks working, or searching away.  Yet, the only marketing I see Starbucks engaged in is saving the rainforest, certified pro-growth coffee, and the latest from Sundance Films.

If Starbucks had a clue, they’d begin to nurture the economic relationship with self-employed and entrepreneurial laptoppers.

What do you think?  Should Starbucks just do the feel-good, liberal, I’m a compassionate coffee shop?  Or should they embrace the constituency they clearly have attracted and get into the local economic scene?

I know what I think…Starbucks needs more plugs.


  1. First of all, I am as jealous as I can be. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sit at a Starbucks and blog, even though I don’t drink coffee.

    One would think that Starbucks would cater to the people who are making them successful.

  2. Oh, don’t be jealous, Larry! There is also a Caribou Coffee nearby my house. They do a pretty good job at catering to the laptop crowd. They keep extra power strips around just for us. A small gesture, but definitely appreciated…

  3. Starbucks makes wi-fi and outlets available, and it seems like most of the people there are already the demographic you’re suggesting they target. Seems like they’re already attracting the entrepreneureal, business crowd to me.

  4. You’re right, Sherry – they actually do an okay job. I think what I’d like to see is some active marketing to us. Things like organizing networking groups, business appreciation days…things like that. TYhey could really endear themselves to the local business community if they tried….

  5. Loved it! “the only marketing I see Starbucks engaged in is saving the rainforest, certified pro-growth coffee, and the latest from Sundance Films”….fave statement!

  6. Thanks, Lee! It’s so true. To be fair, they do have a pretty good music selection going on. But damn if I’m not tired of the quiet preaching.

    …Full disclosure: I drink 2 venti coffees every day…

  7. This is very true. Deval Patrick tried to opaerte in this sphere as well in 2006. Granted, it wasn’t to this extent. The Internet allows grass roots campaigns to extend their reach well beyond what was previously possible.It would serve Obama well to continue his new media marketing throughout his first term. Much like Patrick, he is inheriting a wicked mess, which will not be fixed in 4 years. Much of the work needing to be done in the first 1 or 2 years will be laying a foundation, which will seem like not a lot is happening to the outside observer — “inside baseball” stuff. New media is a great tool for transparency, something government has lacked and desperately needs. He has a direct connection to citizens without the filter of the media. He must use it keep people engaged especially those who might think politics only happens every 4 years.

  8. Hi Wilde, I’m not sure which post you’re trying to comment on… But since we’re here… This “he inherited it” and “can’t do anything about it in 4 years” is hogwash. It’s boring and ridiculous on its face. With more than 3 years under his belt, Obama has only exacerbated our problems, and done nothing to solve them.

    Now…that out of the way… I sit here in my Starbucks enjoying a Venti Casi Cielo. Thank GOD. We endured some 4 weeks of Verona. It’s not terrible but it has a blandness to it. Unremarkable. So, now we have Casi Cielo. Fat bodied, heavy mouth feel, a kind of smokiness to it. Great coffee.

  9. Love the article, and this is so me! I get asked by friends and family all the time why I choose to sit at starbucks when I could have an office, etc. Me and my partner are known well by the starbucks staff at the local shop, but unfortunately, we haven’t had any ‘business’ by sitting there. We love the atmosphere, but would LOVE it if starbucks had a ‘mochas and marketing’ day of the month or something.

  10. Hey Chris – checked out your website – very nice. Hope business is going well in Atlanta! Here’s a virtual cheers from Virginia…

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