Starbucks and the Concept of “Leisure”

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Outside View of Starbucks (ZhongGuanCun)

My designated field site for collecting data on the attraction of Western consumer culture towards Chinese society is none other than the well-known multinational corporation Starbucks. Over the past decade this massive coffee shop chain has been rapidly expanding, spreading its reaches further and further across the globe, especially East Asia. To provide a clearer picture, as of right now there are over 500 Starbucks spread throughout the Chinese mainland – making China, Starbucks’ second largest industry in the world, beaten only by the United States. Putting it simply, my research will be determining what driving social factors contributed to Starbucks’ unprecedented growth in China, and why does it appear to be so attractive to the Chinese people? What makes this topic so interesting is that it is contemporary, it exists now, and the change is evident. Although this field research project may only have the capacity to analyze the social factors which play a role in Starbucks’ expansion, it will hopefully allow for significant insight, and provide a pattern which can be observed in several other American (or Western) food chains.

 

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An inside view from Starbucks

After visiting several Starbucks in the Beijing area of China, I found several themes which were all strongly represented in each respective store; technology, wealth, American (Western). However, after some thought, the most significant recurring factor which related to each and every one of these themes was the word “leisure”. When describing a word as vague as leisure, it’s necessary to provide a sufficient definition to eliminate any misunderstandings. For the purpose of this project, “leisure” can be defined as the act of relaxing, socializing, or spending one’s time in an enjoyable manner without the burden of duties or work.

To describe the leisure present in every Starbucks: every individual was either locked in conversation, on their phone, listening to music, reading a book, or surfing the internet. During my second trip to my field site (Starbucks located next to ZhongGuanCun – a huge technology district), I recorded that 4/10 filled tables were casually talking, while another 4/10 were silently using their phones or laptops, and the remaining 2/10 reading books.

In fact, right before I interviewed my first interviewee, I noticed she was listening to music while reading a book at the same time. After introducing myself, I asked her specifically why she enjoyed spending her time at Starbucks, to which she promptly replied “环境很伟大” (the environment is very grand). Furthermore, I noticed that her and every other customer stayed for an extended period of time no less than 30 minutes. Overall, it appeared that everyone seemed to be successfully indulging in some form of leisure, regardless of any personal differences each customer may have had.

 

One possible explanation of this concept of leisure could be that with the introduction of a new “Western” social space comes the conception that it should represent a broad yet appealing microcosm of Western culture. It can be seen as popular, relaxing, or simply different than one’s daily lifestyle. It can be said that the Starbucks corporation is pinpointing the growing middle and upper-middle class within China by simply looking at the coffee prices, ranging from 20-40 rmb ($3-$7) – which an average working or lower class citizen would have difficulty paying on a regular basis.   Thus, Starbucks provides a social space where wealth is an apparent necessity – giving the store a somewhat “grand” feeling as one of my interviewees put it.  This could effectively increase the attractiveness to Chinese who can afford the prices and indulge in the luxurious atmosphere. Lastly, technology seems to be a recurring theme. In my first visit to my field site at a Starbucks in Wudaokou, every customer (over 15 of them) was quietly using a smartphone or laptop. Therefore this new concept of a social space with accessible Wi-fi may certainly play a role in the extent that the customers can partake in leisure activities, especially since the popularity of being “online” has become affiliated with being a major leisure activity in the past decade or so.  Furthermore This article from USA Today does a fantastic job in lining up several factors which have possibly led to Starbucks’ massive growth. Overall, with very limited interview data, it’s still hard to grasp the main factors contributing to Starbucks’ appeal to the Chinese people, however, after reading this article, I feel like I’m definitely on the right path to finding out.