I just watched a controversial Starbucks idea in action. It put me off coffee

Is this really a good thing? Is it the future?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Icy coffee?

Screenshot by ZDNet

Perhaps, once or twice during the COVID-19 pandemic, you thought back to how things used to be.

To a time when everything made more sense, a time when humans seemed to quite like each other.

You'd go to your local Starbucks for a quick chat with a barista and even people you regularly saw in line.

But along came isolation, which only fueled the dependence on apps.

Chats were out, and speed was in.

Starbucks was perhaps the earliest to understand that this was the way things were going anyway. Younger people think they can poke a screen and prise whatever they want out of the world.

Two years ago, the company realized that it might be an idea to open stores where no one stops for a chat, and everyone has ordered via an app.

Which tends toward the slightly dystopian, perhaps.

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On one of my painfully irregular meanderings through TikTok, I came upon a little video of one of these pick-up only Starbucks.

What a soulless thing this is. Not the video, but the Starbucks.

The video explains: "The baristas are hidden, and this screen tells you when your order is ready." It's a nice screen, of course.

Yet what may seem surprising is how much baristas -- and former baristas -- seem to like it.

Sample: "As an ex barista who loved making the drinks but hated being harassed by customers, I would work this job for FREE."

Second sample: "Oh, this is my literal dream; I do like talking and connecting with customers, but when it's 1 good customer for every 50 bad, I'd rather just do this."

The third sample lays bare what so many seem to feel: "The fact that they're starting these because of how awful the customers are. Convenience too... but believe me when I say the main factor was 'Karen's'."

One barista isn't quite so optimistic about the peace these stores create: "A dream, but customers will still find a way to constantly yell in our faces."


Surely customers want a happy interaction that lifts their day just a little. Perhaps no longer.

Here's one commenter on the video: "I don't get why more places can't have order screens like they do now in McDonald's. Drinks would be faster if they didn't need to run a register."

So we arrive at the "what has become of us?" part of the program.

Does Starbucks realize that a non-human interaction retail construct is the true future of, well, humanity?

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Has the pandemic in some way exacerbated the unpleasantness of customers so much that many retail employees just don't want to see them, much less talk to them?

Or is technology naturally driving people apart? After all, Amazon is glorying in its Go concept where you walk in, take what you want and walk out, with nary a word to a soul.

This Starbucks video is from Raleigh, North Carolina, where you'd think humans would be a touch more serene. If the concept works there, then surely it's all over.

And it's all part of a more general remodeling of fast-food restaurants into vending machines. Order on an app, go there, pick up in silence and go.

I do feel the need to offer one tiny tinge of hope. I hear that orders at these pick-up stores can become just as backlogged as orders at the more human stores.

When that happens at a human store, you can at least -- perhaps -- chat with a barista. While you overhear a frustrated app-ordering customer whine that their drink isn't ready at the precise moment, it was supposed to be.

Whom can you talk to when the barista is hidden?

Oh, silly me. You don't need to talk. You just look down at your phone and keep poking it in search of pleasure.

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