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Which place is friendlier, Starbucks or a local Boston coffee shop?

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  August 20, 2013 09:56 AM

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The knock on chain stores is that they hurt community. Starbucks comes in, drives your local barista out of business, and a formerly chummy group of neighbors turns into a bunch of anonymous latte drones.

Or at least that’s the idea. A trio of anthropologists from West Virginia University recently published an article based on observations at six coffee shops in and around Boston—three that are independently owned, and three Starbucks locations. Their intention was to determine how effectively Starbucks outposts are able to provide the same community-based social environment associated with traditional coffee shops (or, to pull from a different realm, a place where “everyone knows your name”).

The anthropologists conducted their observations at Pavement Coffee House in Copley Square, 1369 Coffee House in Central Square, Diesel Café in Davis Square, and in three nearby Starbucks locations. They focused their observations on five categories, derived by sociologist Ray Oldenburg, that describe how urban, social spaces function: how social and welcoming a place is; the arrangement of seating; the activities taking place there (work, socialization, leisure); amenities (like wi-fi and power outlets); and the overall atmosphere, as measured by music volume, volume of chatter, wall color, lighting, and décor.

The biggest surprise was that, on the whole, Starbucks actually provided a more welcoming environment than any of the three local coffee houses. They credited the Central Square Starbucks with having the most vibrant sense of community, and observed that the baristas there knew many patrons by name and could anticipate their orders. The anthropologists also noted that the Starbucks baristas were friendlier to new customers than the bespoke hipsters behind the counter at the local places: “The Starbucks baristas would help customers by explaining the many options available and even offering suggestions. In contrast, the baristas at the independently-owned coffee houses were more aloof and would just wait or sometimes stare at a customer, offering minimal assistance.” The Starbucks friendliness advantage was further accentuated by its greater amenities. In particular, the locally owned coffee shops were more restrictive with their Internet policies, either charging for wi-fi access (Diesel Café and 1369 Coffee House) or setting a cap on daily Internet use (Pavement Coffee House).

The observations may not be a complete surprise to experienced Boston-area coffee drinkers, but they do point to an important difference between corporate chains and some varieties of locally owned stores. Chains make money by being maximally welcoming, even if such openness verges on blandness, while a distinctively parochial (or even slightly unfriendly) edge helps independent shops create identities.

You can read the full text of their observations here.

Correction 8/26: The original version of this post identified the researchers as anthropologists at the University of West Virginia. In fact, they are from West Virginia University.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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