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Starbucks and Complexity

October 13, 2007

As a frequent consumer of its products, I have often pondered the Starbucks phenomenon. A ‘Tall’ tea at Starbucks cost one pound sterling and 45 pence. To get your tall tea, you may have to stand in line for anything between ten and fifteen minutes waiting to be served – often longer at airports. When this happens, being of an impatient nature, I start reflecting on the deeper structure of the experience. If I were to put a value on my time at say, six pounds an hour – approximately the minimum wage in the UK – I would conclude that the real cost to me of a ‘Tall’ tea at Starbucks was approximately two pounds and 45 pence, the extra pound being the cost to me in time lost in waiting in line. So why did I not go somewhere else where I could sit down and get a waiter to serve me? It would almost certainly cost me less.

I never managed to fathom my irrational willingness to stand in line at Starbucks until today when, while waiting in line, I picked up a leaflet entitled Starbucks Beverage Order Guide. Then the penny dropped. If you are willing to re-frame your experience of waiting in line, you discover that it has a value way beyond that of the time you think you are wasting. Properly considered, Starbucks is offering you some basic training in complexity theory. This is what I must unconsciously have intuited.

To see this, return for a moment to the leaflet. Open it up and on the first inside page you discover that you have a choice of beverage size: Venti (large), Grande (medium) and Tall (small). Why the specialized jargon? Clearly, to avoid confusion. An elephant can be ‘large’, for example, and so referring to your beverage as ‘large’ would incur a loss of precision that could lead to your tea being served in something the size of a bath. Alternatively, a bug can be small, and ordering a ‘small’ tea could then make it difficult for the bug to then fit in the cup. Better, then, stick to Starbucks’ private language and just live with the resulting cognitive overload you incur as you struggle to relate it to something more familiar than an elephant. On the second inside page of the leaflet, you are introduced to the options: decaf, shots, syrup, milk, custom, drink, and ice. Each of these options is further subdivided so as to expand your choice – and further increase your cognitive overload. It is important to understand that these options are not all mutually exclusive so that you could, if you chose to, order a beverage that is extra hot and then ask to have ice added to it. Finally, on the back page of the leaflet, you are given the descriptions of the beverages to which all these sizes and options apply: caffe latte, cappuccino, caffe mocha, caramel macchiato, expresso, Americano, and filter coffee.

While perusing this leaflet, it finally dawned on me that what was being described here was a consumer’s version of what mathematicians refer to as a combinatorial problem and that the whole of Starbucks’ strategy consisted of expanding the choices available to you from the one or two traditional options – ie, coffee or decaf – to several hundred billion. Now if you think about it, with that number of choices available, you are more than likely to be ordering a drink that no one in the history of the universe has ever drunk before. Call this the mystery of mass customization. This is designed to confirm to you that you are a unique individual since, by confronting head-on the computational complexity of the choices that Starbucks puts before you, you succeed in creating for yourself a unique drink. Talk about differentiation!

If my intuition is correct, then all this standing in line is not designed to waste my time at all. Rather it is a subtle and non-obtrusive way of securing the time necessary for me to compute what my order is going to be – call it computational queuing. I have now realized that, once framed in this way, and given the plethora of choices available, the waiting lines at Starbucks are not nearly long enough since, if the service ever got efficient – and God preserve us from this – it could lead to unnecessarily hasty choices. It is now obvious to me that if one really wants to enjoy a truly unique Starbucks experience, then one should be queuing for at least an hour. This would mean the line spilling out of the shop and probably going round the block. Now, if Starbucks ever decided to expand their menu….

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