Working in the service industry can be a thankless task at the best of times. With a general public that is little more than contemptuous of them at the very best of times and, within larger organisations at the very least, degrees of micro-management that border on the paranoid as a result of the ceaseless quest for a homogenised global brand, staff frequently find themselves stuck between the rock of the hopelessly unrealistic expectations of the customers that they serve and the hard place that is is the unrelenting forensic eye of their immediate superiors. And for all of this, of course, they are paid subsistence level wages, often made up with what passes for the “generosity” of said customers in the form of tipping. The irony of the fact that the work that few of the rest of us would ever want to do is also amongst the worst paid is, when viewed with any degree of removal, a striking one.
Over the course of the last twenty years or so, a new form of corporate entity has come to dominate our consciousness. These are the companies born of the post sixties generations. Their CEOs wear turtleneck sweaters and issue edicts clouded in the language of marketing meetings. They produce television adverts bathed in soothing pastel colours, with soundtracks consisting of saccharine cover versions of eighties songs performed by women with occasionally jarring child-like voices. They’re at pains to remind the outside world that, hey, they’re not the stiff-collared squares that you might believe them to be. They want to engineer a culture in which they’re the cool friend that you probably wish you had.
Business, however, is business, and when push comes to shove these friendly, faux-folk (“fauxlk”?) music-loving, eye-contact-making global entities are just as rapacious as anybody else. Studied policies of corporate tax avoidance are de rigeur these days, as are global policies of paying as little as they can get away with, to the extent that, across the world, nations that have minimum wage laws have found that this is simultaneously the most and the least that many of these organisations, and certainly those with an interest in customer service, are prepared to pay those that are on the daily receiving end of the general public. With the best of both worlds – low wages and tax avoidance as a way of life – at their fingertips, it’s unsurprising that they should post financial figures so huge that they pass beyond the realms of obscene and into the near incomprehensible.
Starbucks have, in spite of their insistence upon calling their staff “partners” (despite their minimum wages, zero hour contract pay) and having a Chief Operating Officer called Troy who almost certainly calls people he barely knows “buddy,” long been one of the centres of attention for the attrition of those that campaign against this culture. This coffee processing behemoth posted global revenues of $14bn for 2013 with percentage increases for each quarter of last year that induce nosebleeds in those who read them and pause to take in. In the United States of America, though, there have been signs that concerted pressure on the matter paying something approaching a living wage have finally had some effect. Last month, the company announced that it would be significantly increasing the wage that it pays its baristas, and this was accompanied by something of a relaxation on a dress code for staff which had been similarly widely criticised. It’s not much – and it will certainly be interesting to see whether they make much of an impact on profit figures for 2015 – but it’s a start, especially when combined with the promise of a free snack once a day and the partial relaxation of what had been sidey criticised as over-conservative rules regarding visible tattoos (coffee shops are hot, behind the counter, of course).
November, however, has seen the release of the Limited-Edition Sterling Silver Starbucks Card, which is apparently a nod and a wink to the apparently important “collectibles” market that has sprung up in recent years. This card is a loyalty card but, my goodness, the customer has to show a considerable amount of “loyalty” in order to get one. Two hundred dollars’ worth, to be precise. What you get for this is a sterling silver card pre-loaded with $50 worth of money to spend on Starbucks products, meaning that, of course, this singularly meaningless trinket will have cost the buyer $150 to buy, before they sell it on eBay to someone more foolish than they. It’s hardly surprising that this should happen. After all, as of the summer of 2013 there were more than 40,000 auctions for Starbucks merchandise taking place daily on eBay, and in August 2013 a crystal Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte cup which retailed at $150 sold out within two days of going on sale.
Now, some might say that this an odd definition of loyalty, that Starbucks might have better rewarded the loyalty of these customers by giving them these cards free of charge to the most loyal to thank them for (presumably) not buying their coffee anywhere else. This, however, doesn’t seem to be way that these things are done these days, such is the nature of the cult of branding in the twenty-first century. These days, there seems to be a very lengthy queue of people prepared to part with their hard earned (or, perhaps, not particularly hard earned – as we’ve already established, it’s the likes of Starbucks baristas whose cash is genuinely hard earned, it it seems unlikely that too many of them will be able to afford one, what with not knowing how many hours they’ll be earning on their next schedule, and all) cash on such ultimately meaningless items. But from the point of view of the corporation, the scramble that follows this sort of announcement and the fetishisation of its merchanside in intself most likely justifies the exercise in its entirety, with money made from actually selling them being at best a secondary consideration.
Of course, the concept of the brand as a commodity is nothing new, and neither is the notion that people will pay to be walking advertisements for some brands, particularly in the strange world of fashion. Where the Starbucks Silver Card is most interesting, however, is in terms of what may be interpreted as its attempt to give the gloss of allure to what would otherwise be considered an ordinary brand. Anybody who has ever entered a coffee shop will be fully familiar with the deflating feeling that comes with the knowledge that you’re about the be separated from several pounds in return for something that costs several pennies to produce, and many of us will also be aware of the scientific calculations that determine what is placed where in order to shift goods – with a similarly high mark-up – that are clearly and obviously not coffee. But the idea of Starbucks as a premium brand is a curious one, to say the least. After all, for one thing there are branches of it just about everywhere, and, for another, the coffee (and other products) that they do sell doesn’t seem to be noticeably more expensive or of a higher quality than any other coffee shops. The “premium” element to all of this, one might well imagine, is something that has been entirely created by the company’s marketing department.
None of this would be too much of an issue – above and beyond the normal holding of the nose that is required when mentioning anything relating to the corporate world whatsoever – were it not for the small matter of those pesky ordinary Starbucks staff. After all, we might find the fetishisation of, say, Apple or Google distasteful and their tax avoidance is most definitely revolting, but it’s difficult to imagine that even working there is particularly awful. Starbucks, however, keep the majority of their baristas on minimum wage (for the time being), whilst there seems to be no end of sight to the zero hour contracts that leave anybody in possession of one in a perpetual state of employment limbo. Once its baristas are paid at a premium rate on secure, permanent contracts, then perhaps we might be able to consider Starbucks to be a – excuse me moment while I suppress my gag reflex for a moment – “premium brand.” Until that time comes, though, it remains what it is. A brand – a successful one, admittedly, but still just a brand, nevertheless. As ever, though, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this entire culture, from the low wages to the fetishisation of corporations, is ultimately society’s fault for allowing them longer shrift than they have any entitlement to.
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