By Joseph Bona
Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences. Forward-thinking limited-service chains have spent the past few years searching for ways to ramp up the customer experience — up to and including encouraging people from all walks of life to use their stores as hangouts and even Wi-Fi-enabled “third place”-style offices. But now the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s face a chorus of criticism from camps with opposite agendas.
On one side are those who are outraged by the decision these chains have made to oust certain loiterers. A Jan. 27 article in The New York Times (“The Food May Be Fast, but These Customers Won’t Be Rushed”) called attention to the trend. It cited PR nightmares such as the Starbucks store that kicked out a group of deaf people who were not ordering enough coffee, and the McDonald’s restaurant that ushered out a group of older Koreans, sparking a worldwide boycott in the bargain.
Don Mitchell, a professor at Syracuse University, was among those none too pleased. He told the newspaper: “Taking up space is a way to claim a right to be, a right to be visible, to say, ‘We’re part of the city too.’ ”
But the online comments triggered by the article were full of exactly the opposite sentiment.
“Too often I’ve had to walk out of a Starbucks without buying a coffee and pastry because all tables and chairs are taken by people just reading books or laptops,” noted one reader. Another said his local McDonald’s was inhabited by scary-looking drug addicts: “Nothing makes a customer like me take his food and leave like a scary, skinny, dirty guy staring angrily at me while I am eating because I am in ‘their’ side of the restaurant.”
Kick loiterers out, and you get slammed. Ditto if you let them stay. So how can restaurants create an inviting customer experience without playing socio-economic favorites and incurring the wrath of the politically correct on one side, and their better customers on the other?
There are no easy answers here. Today’s chains face a massive threat from Amazon and other ecommerce retailers, which is why brick-and-mortar retail CEOs constantly talk about “place-making” and “destination retail.” Walk into the Nordstrom store at Bellevue Square in Seattle and you’ll find a full-fledged cocktail bar. Even some c-store chains now strive to create café-style atmospheres.
But chains cannot have their cafés and tell people to “beat it,” too. Once you start offering free Wi-Fi and putting in soft-seating lounges, you have to stand by your commitment to customers. Setting blanket time limits on how long people can stay is a formula for driving your customers to your rivals.
But limited-service chains do have every reason to protect their customers from behaviors that cross the lines of societal acceptability. If someone is drunk, loud, malodorous or abusive, that person can and should be shown the door. The trick is to train employees and managers, not only in how to recognize this behavior, but also in how to deal with it safely, sensitively, fairly and legally. The handbook should be explicit: People can stay here as long as they want, so long as their behaviors are consistent with societal norms and the law.
This is not about how much time or money people spend. It’s about making people feel valued and welcome — a legitimate basis for long-term customer loyalty if ever there was one.