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Monday, September 28, 2009 6:44:22 PM

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Starbucks kills communities, academic claims

Starbucks and its latte-frothing emulators have helped to kill off community life, according to an academic who conducted a study of the world’s biggest coffee chain.

Small and widely spaced tables, free wireless internet access and a preference for take-away customers are among the conversation-killing factors that have encouraged patrons to cut themselves off, Bryant Simon claimed.

The seemingly ubiquitous Starbucks, which has 16,000 outlets worldwide and last year earned nearly $10.4 billion (£6.5 billion), had made great play of how it encourages people to come together, he said.

Many branches had community message boards and – borrowing from sociology – the company marketed itself as a “third place” between work and home. But Prof Simon, an academic at Temple University in Philadelphia, said the communal feel was an “illusion”.

“People immediately create their own little private, gated communities. You come in, set up your laptop and put on your headphones,” he said yesterday. “You couldn’t be more alone in public if you wanted to be.”

Prof Simon visited 425 Starbucks branches in nine countries, including Britain, over a year and talked to customers. He said he witnessed few spontaneous discussions or interactions. He said the rise of Starbucks and its rivals was a far cry from the British coffee houses of the 18th and 19th centuries “which were the cornerstone of democracy with a small 'd’”.

In his book, Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks, Prof Simon also pointed out that the company’s sense of community was very narrow.

It ensured its prices were high — a latte can cost £3 — and opened only in upmarket areas in order to maintain an aura of exclusivity, he said.

Prof Simon concluded that Starbucks’s success had little to do with the coffee and everything to do with image and identity. “Time and again customers told me they would look at someone carrying a Starbucks cup and assume they were successful and moderately hip,” he said.

A spokesman for Starbucks said it welcomed all customer feedback.

By Tom Leonard in New York
Published: 7:25PM BST 28 Sep 2009

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