See and be Seen

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When I turn on my phone and go through Facebook, there is at least one photo like this: taken in a Starbucks, no character, cut-off background, catching the dim light of Beijing’s afternoon. The person who took the photo picked specifically the seat close to the window, some sunlight shines through the window on the surface of a coffee table.

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There may be some top- level magazines in foreign languages, such as English, French, German, usually western. The composition of the photo will make sure you would not miss every single detail, for instance,whether it is an iPhone 6 or an iPhone 6s. But all of these are less conspicuous than the coffee cup on the table. The coffee cups are the focus of the entire picture, with its inevitable logo which has to face the camera, the green mermaid with two tails. It is the Starbucks cup, latte for winter, frappe for summer. Starbucks has already released many unique cup designs, but the most popular one on camera (or maybe all of them) is always the white paper cup with the green logo. In brief, Starbucks is just a coffee shop that offers coffee and pastries. Customers order their coffee, pay at the cashier, wait for the coffee, add some sugar and milk, then they get out. That’s the stereotype of getting a cup of coffee, and this is what a coffee shop is supposed to be. Starbucks is just coffee, however why is it so different than other coffee in China? In its simplest term, it’s because Starbucks represents the Western culture, a sign of a prosperous economy, a place filled with freedom and dreams, wealth and extravagance. Going to a Starbucks is a sign of status, a different image they can project themselves as.

There is no around-the-corner Starbucks in China, but there is always at least one at every single deluxe location. For instance, take one location in the fanciest financial district in Sanlitun, Beijing, the most bustling zone in Beijing, it is very close to the embassy, which attracts tons of foreigners. This part of the city is loaded with nightlife filled with glamor and luxury. No one can really define what Sanlitun is, it’s like a mystery which only leaves the impression of dazzle. 

Starbucks made a great decision to place itself here. You don’t even have to know what the store looks like, it already accommodates every needs for people who come here. It already has its brand, has its perfect location. Now it just needs a store designed to match everything it is suppose to be, or everything that the Chinese people would expect it to be. A sign of being in the center of everything, a place where they can see and be seen. The perception of seeing and being seen sometimes makes me feel that I am a plastic model in the shopwindow— everyone passes by, they may stop for a second but never really care who you really are. 

People go crazy about Starbucks the same way they go crazy for Apple, they wait in line for hours the first day new products come out. They will be fully prepared for a trip to Starbucks. They will have the perfect outfit, perfect makeup, and perfect accessories. This particular store at Sanlitun has two floors with glass window from top to bottom like the Apple store would have.

When you walk into the store early in the morning, that’s probably the only time you can see what the interior really looks like. Around 6:30 in the morning, you will get the whole picture of this shop. On the first floor, it has a big room and two open coffee bars, spacious and bright, feels like a private club that cost $200 per month for membership. People like to sit along the window, there has unique designed log table and chair, they are all kept in the color of wood, painted nicely, feels smooth and organic. Some are decorated with black wood frames, some are paired up with darker walnut. All shows very professional while creating a North American romantic atmosphere. Some of the coffee bar counter tops kept the original wood form, some tables are even designed as piled up cuboid logs, some are just using the cross section of a tree. Chairs are made with waving rattan, cushions are using earth color, beige and brown.

Other times throughout the day, Starbucks is packed with people. People who take an entire table, typing on the keyboard really fast like they are in a hurry, these are the people who like the free high speed internet in Starbucks. There are also groups of friends sitting down with cool stylish clothes, they are the ones who come here wishing for some street snaps. Later, around afternoon, a lady will walk in, she has her rose gold iPhone 6 Plus in hand. She is looking around while calling someone, she might have a Burberry trench coat on and with a Louis Vuitton Never Full bag. The lady puts down her phone, orders a Venti skinny latte because she has to stay under 100 lbs, and she is waiting for her girl friend to catch an afternoon tea and maybe some gossip on who got another plastic surgery.

Everything works together, there is nothing about showing off the luxury, in contrast, it represents a comfortable lifestyle, and yes, this is the essential difference that consumers are looking for. Starbucks seems to be for petty bourgeois: people who picture themselves as someone they are not, who are pretending to blend into this environment. We can not really tell the difference among the people, who are the real upper class, who are the pretenders, who are just going for coffee. For these people, they are not looking to be millionaires, but they are pursuing a life they perceive is superior to the average. What Starbucks provide for them is not coffee, nor the service, but a place for an experience that makes them someone else. Some people like to sit along the window, they can view the crowd on the square through the window, they can see their shadows on the it as if they are part of the crowd. Some people like to sit on the second floor, its more quiet, and sometimes it feels like you are overlooking at all of the human creatures on the ground. The feeling is power.

The only cost of getting all kinds of everything from Starbucks is just a cup of coffee. The coffee is not cheap, but for Starbucks-goers, it is very cost efficient. The price of Starbucks coffee is very expensive compared to other goods. A delicious hot meat bun is ¥ 2.5, but a Venti Starbucks latte is ¥ 36. Not as expensive as other luxuries, even if you have to pay ¥5000 mortgage every month, you can still afford a Starbucks once in a while. People come here to drink coffee because it is coffee, not for its taste. To them, Starbucks may taste no difference than McCafe, Starbucks represents high-quality life, it means that you are of the moment. It also mean a comfortable lifestyle, a pleasant life and a not worried life, it projects you with all the Utopian image that you dreamed of. By that one single time, you just need perfectly fake yourself, and share the picture on Facebook later, that’s really all the effort you have to make.

Starbucks signifies a fancy and pleasant lifestyle through its brand experience and its western culture background. Coffee is already a great start, the location sets a great scene for Starbucks to have the show. The brand experience does not have to be luxury, it only need to show a superior lifestyle. However after all, what do the Starbucks-goers really want and what do they really need? I doubt they even know the answer themselves. Coffee is not a drink anymore, Starbucks is not for coffee anymore, photos are not for memory anymore, people are pretending to be someone else. It’s funny and pathetic.

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