Ethnographic Study: Starbucks

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For this assignment, I choose one of Seattle’s world-known features – Starbucks, the place I walk past every day. I spent a whole afternoon in the store and made a thick description of it. I hope to experience and digest what it brings to people by the participatory observation.

 All the photos used here are authorized by this Starbucks store. 

Here comes the autumn season. It is an ordinary sunny Thursday afternoon in U-District, Seattle. Around the corner of 42 St and U-Way, Starbucks stands leisurely in the sun, welcoming people from near and far, as always.

A look of age differentiates the Starbucks in its birthplace from those located elsewhere in the world. This one in U-Way is not an exception. The brick built architecture reminds people that it has been their company for quite a while.



As I am approaching, the khaki bricks, green awnings, and the big green-white logo become more clear and vivid. Their colors are full of harmony, and the ranch house itself is even better blending in the surroundings.



I pull the glass door and walk in. Immediately I am wrapped by the familiar scent of coffee and the faint music of Jazz.  It is a little weird that we hardly care about the scent or the music, but we would feel something missing if they are gone. That is because they are the indispensible “Starbucks element”.

There are three staff working behind the counter, dressed in Starbuck's featuring green aprons. One boy works as cashier and two girls are busy making coffee. They were all young and nice looking people, energetic and friendly.  Like the way she greets all other customers, the girl behind the counter greets me, just as we are her old acquaintance. I notice a relaxed expression on people’s face when they are having conversations and eye contact with the girl, which might be an enjoyable time of coffee experience in Starbucks.



I order a tall cappuccino and the girl writes my name on the paper cup. Oddly, in my country China, Starbucks don’t write names on cups. Is it because Chinese characters are hard to scribble down and recognize? Anyway, it is good to have my name on, which brings me a sense of intimacy with Starbucks. The paper cups look different from last time I came. They are dressed up in bright red with white snowflakes. This is for the coming winter and Christmas, I guess.


After placing the order, I walk to a window, starting to read the store and the people here. This store is small yet not cramped. Space is fully used and deliberately adorned. Pictures on the left wall introduce the manufacturing process of Starbucks’ coffee. There are shelves and baskets in the middle or around the counter, loaded with beautifully packaged coffee and other Starbucks products, such as mugs and chocolates. Sometimes it is just hard to tell whether they are here to be sold or to decorate a “Starbucks atmosphere”. Tables and chairs are laid on the left corner and along the right window in a row, leaving enough room for the lines in front of the counter.



It is interesting to watch people waiting in the line. Some are just standing quietly without doing anything; some are fiddling with their cell phones; some are impatient, moving around while keeping their eyes on the counter. Once the orders are done, they grab their coffee and dart out of the store.

Most customers are UW students and they come in pairs or flocks. They treated the period as an opportunity to chat. There, two twenty something girls in purple UW sweaters are having a lively conversation on their Spanish class. Two guys in flip-flop seemed to run into their schoolmates and catch up with them for a while.

This cozy area must have magic power to draw people closer, even those who don’t know each other start to network. A middle aged man in wine shirt and grey jacket approaches me: “You are typing very fast, how can you do that? I can only type with two fingers.” He smiles at me and hangs his two forefingers in the air to show me how he types. I do not feel disturbed and told him with pleasure: “Practice makes perfect.”  We both chuckle and roll into a conversation about computer skills. When his coffee is ready, he shakes my hand and says goodbye. I feel a subtle hit of warmness, which makes my afternoon a better one.

Apparently, I am not the only person who bring my laptop for assignment in Starbucks.  Two students sitting in the corner are concentrating on some projects, with their faces warded off by the screens. They exchange notes once in a while then continue working on their laptops again. A male teenager in blue stripe sitting by the window rests his chin on his hand, gazing out of the window.  Suddenly, he seems to have hit on some great idea and writes on his notebook with full speed. Sometimes Starbucks turns out to be a better place to study than library. A slightly noisy place with people around makes me feel more secure and relaxed, while an absolutely quiet atmosphere could be suffocating enough to daunt our inspiration.

For those who just want idle talk, the outside seats are the best choice in a sunny day. There are six round black iron tables outside by the window. Each of them is accompanied by two black iron chairs. But the seats of the chairs are made of wooden battens. Thanks to this considerate little design, our bottoms won’t get chilled in cold weather.

There are two men sitting outside by the same table at the time, middle aged and casually dressed in dark jackets. Unlike other pairs, they both sit towards the street instead of face to face. They hardly make any movements, except rubbing the cup cover. They talk without looking at each other. Blocked by the window, I have no idea what they are talking about, but it seems to be some heavy topic, because of their poker faces and the long silence between every conversation. Maybe this one or two-hour time is the most soothing period of their day filled with chores.


Rush hour comes around 4 o’clock, students are back from classes. They need a little break before dinner, a buffer zone from intensive class, a public space to connect, and a warm life taste. Luckily, Starbucks provides all of these purposes, which makes it far more than a fancy coffee store.