Starbucks, the international cheese-and-Marmite-panini chain, has a new company-wide customer service policy. From this week, when you place an order for a coffee-themed beverage, your barista will also ask for your name, and then scribble it in black felt-tip on the relevant Tall, Grande or Venti cup.
This seems eminently sensible, particularly in the firm's more crowded branches. Plenty of busy cafés and take-aways have always done it, so as to deliver food and/or drinks to the correct customer. And if your Americano fails to arrive, you'll also be able to identify the negligent Starbucks employee by name, since he or she will now be wearing a larger, more easily readable name-badge, with extra space for emoticons.
Objections arose online, however, after Starbucks tried to explain the policy as something other than mere efficiency improvement. In a mass email to holders of the Starbucks loyalty card, under the subject line, "We'd love to get to know you over coffee", the company mused: "Have you noticed how everything seems a little impersonal nowadays? We've all become user names, reference numbers and IP addresses. That's why, from tomorrow, we'd love to call you by your name when you order your coffee." It gets worse: the chain's latest television advertisement compounds the insult, claiming: "From now on, we won't refer to you as a 'latte' or a 'mocha', but instead as your folks intended: by your name." My "folks"?!
This would be all very well if it weren't coming from Starbucks, the world's largest coffeehouse company, which owns around 20,000 stores worldwide, nearly 1,000 in this country. The email, incidentally, bore the signature not of a named Starbucks executive, but of the generic loyalty scheme, "My Starbucks Rewards". In the US, where the policy has been in place for years, entire blogs are devoted to the miswritten names on Starbucks cups. ("Starbucks," begins one, "Where nobody knows your name".) A practice designed to foster brand loyalty presumably has the opposite effect whenever Margaret becomes "Margit" and Hilary becomes "Hairily". Dispatched to patronise a local Starbucks yesterday, to test out the new system, I had the choice of five outlets within five minutes' walk of the office. The notion that, by imparting my first name, I would somehow develop a lasting relationship with a barista seemed, frankly, preposterous.
Still, Aga and Magda – the friendly baristas – were doing their best. Luckily for Aga, my name is dishearteningly common and contains only three letters. There did seem to be some teething problems: the gentleman ahead of me was bemused to be asked to identify himself. When he eventually muttered his name, it turned out to be something foreign, doubtless with a non-phonetic spelling. And when Magda delivered his cup of chai, it was adorned with a four-letter word, scrawled in felt-tip: "Name."
*Comedian Jimmy Carr takes a turn as a Starbucks barista in the video (above, left)