I look for just a few simple things in coffee shop; a comfortable place to sit down, a decent internet connection, and the ability to get in and out without too many issues. I could not care less about the quality of the coffee or the baked goods. In this respect, elsewhere in the world I was an extremely passive consumer of coffee shops, going to the closest one to me and not caring a wit about where I landed.
China has unfortunately started to change this for me. Here, like pretty much anywhere else, Starbucks is the default coffee shop of the country, with a location frequency of about at seven every city block. .I can’t however go to Starbucks, grab a coffee, and sit with my laptop for a few hours and get some work done. This is because Starbucks in China is a horrible place. It has some advantages, and I should mention them right away. The staff is for the most part friendly, they generally speak English well, and they have some overpriced food that is nice.
But those niceties aside, Starbucks in China is a terrible place. That I can gather, coffee is not the most popular drink in China, but for some reason every Starbucks I have gone to is packed. I feel that this is because it is foreign. But it isn’t the popularity of Starbucks that makes it a problem. The first problem is one that Starbucks shares with lots of other places; a lack of Fordism. When you go to a Starbucks (or for that matter a KFC, a McDonalds) there isn’t a single person doing a single job, each ensuring that the job as a whole gets done quickly. No, you have one cashier, and three colleagues there for support/discussion. Nor is this just something they do for when the foreigner shows up. It seems to be a regularly reoccurring commonality.
The second problem is the Starbucks bonus card. Actually, it may be a bit mean to blame the card itself as the problem stems from the fact that no one seems to have even the slightest idea how the damn card works. I am not too sure about much of this, as all of the actual communication happens in Chinese, but from what I can gather the clientele thinks that they can pay with the card. I’ll often see the following play out as I am waiting in line; a lady hands the cashier her Starbucks card, which is scanned and then returned. The cashier then says something, while pointing to the register’s display. The customer will argue (their tone changes, and you can tell they are getting irate) while gesturing with towards their card. There will then be a back and forth between the two, until with a bit of anger the customer will finally pay. I haven’t done the math yet, but with a billion and a half people in this country I do not think I will live to see the day when every potential customer is educated into understanding how a rewards card actually works.
Similar to this problem is the one caused by Alipay. When it comes to Alipay, the Chinese are suffer from a pride that borders on the paternalistic. I don’t see what the big deal is. As with my previous point about the Starbucks card, I haven’t worked out all the details but from my observations uses some pretty old technology. I does not use NFC (and this makes me wonder why the Chinese brag about it so. They might as well be bragging about a horse and buggy), but rather generates a bar code which must be scanned by the cashier. This never seems to work on the first try, and sometimes not on the second either. Nor does anyone ever have their barcode ready; you always have to wait t ill they open some app or the other which seems to take a century on its own. It is surely not the super-fast process that ApplePay is.
Now that we have managed to order and pay for a coffee at Starbucks, we return to our original point about one person working while the rest of the staff provides moral support/running commentary, and note that this will mean that it takes an hour for you to get said drink. It does ultimately get made though.
And then, as a final kick in the pants, once everything is done you look around the Starbucks and notice that it is packed to the gills, and there is nowhere for you to sit down and get some damn work done. Apparently, everyone in the damn country is at Starbucks right at the moment when you wanted to go there too. So you look hard and long, find a mom and pop shop, and embrace your inner hipster. I don’t want to be that person, but here it must be done.
This post was begun, but not completed, at a Starbucks.