a third-place experience

Our sense of place—a feeling of belonging—binds us to each other; connects us with our environment; shapes our society. Defined by a sense of common comfort, one develops a sense of place by growing close with their surrounds, whether sentient “others” or simply an inanimate environment. One’s predominant place, the home, embodies where they find their most secure feeling of belonging. Subsequently, one’s “second place” of belonging is their work. By identifying with a fairly closed-system of common purpose, one develops a sense of place congruent with their colleagues and their work environment. In our existential search for meaning, these largely insular places help us define ourselves in the context of a social environment. Similarly, civil societies develop common places that anchor communities and encourage interaction. In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg explores the importance of these social anchor-points, which he coins as third places[*], for a society to develop a common sense of place and to motivate civic engagement. At their core, third places are our society’s commonly accessible spaces in which people may find new and old friends alike. Such places are generally defined as inexpensive, comfortable and welcoming, while often providing food and/or drink as well as encouraging regular gatherings. In essence, third places allow free societies to flourish by providing a common sense of place in which people may find common ground. “Third-places…exist between the formality and seriousness of the work sphere and the privacy and familial intimacy of the domestic sphere.” (Thompson, p.633) Whether consumers are simply taking in the vibe, meeting acquaintances, participating in civic engagement or enjoying a creative endeavor, third places are central to a community’s collective identity and the health of a democracy.

In the course of the 20th century, America saw a decline in third places. With the creation of suburbia and the diversification of its people, America began to loose its common identity and with it, it’s use of open community spaces. Towards the end of the 20th century Americans had found a new forum for collective communication: the Internet. With the Internet came what has been called virtual third places. With the advent of the 21st century, however, one company reversed this trend, creating a third place now equally associated with its atmosphere as it is with its core, quality product: coffee. Starbucks has gained a reputation for being that special place people go to do more than simply buy and drink coffee. People enjoy the experience of going to Starbucks as much as they enjoy the taste of the coffee they buy there. By cultivating a welcoming atmosphere and encouraging customers to treat the café like their home or office, Starbucks has revitalized the concept of a third place in a modern setting.

Starbucks achieved their success by engineering a close customer relationship and a comfortable café atmosphere. In doing so, “the Starbucks revolution transformed gourmet coffee from a yuppie status symbol into a mainstream consumer good, and essentially created the American coffee shop market.” (Thompson, p.631) In The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, Joseph Michelli argues that this transformation was accomplished through the five guiding principles of making it your own, realizing that everything matters (from store environment to product quality), seeking to surprise and delight, embracing resistance (working with negative customer feedback), and finally, by leaving a distinctive mark. Michelli explains the importance of leaving a powerful and positive mark in the community in which the business operates. He examines how Starbucks does this both through the creation of a third place environment and through giving back by promoting and contributing to charities. In the article “The Starbucks Brandscape and Consumers’ (Anticorporate) Experiences of Glocalization” the authors suggest, “The global structures of common difference that emanate from Starbuck’s market dominance correspond to the quintessential qualities of “third-places” detailed by sociologist Ray Oldenburg (1989),” (Thompson, p. 633). The authors go on to say “Starbucks’ success is due in large part to its skill at creating, standardizing, and implementing an upscale third-place ambiance on a global scale,” (Thompson, p. 633). While Starbucks’ achievements can be correlated with its success in creating a profitable third-place, this does not necessarily explain why third places themselves are so crucial to our society’s social webbing.

In order to understand the social importance of third places we will explore their attributes that add value to society. As previously discussed, Third places exist as a welcoming place for individuals to hang out and as meeting ground for groups of people, but their positive impact is further-reaching. In “A Cup of Coffee with a Dash of Love” Rosenbaum (et al) explore how deficits in social support at home and at work encourage people to form relationships with both customers and employees in commercial third places. The value added to society here is obvious, but with it comes a more subtle value added to the third place itself. Rosenbaum explains that customers who find companionship in commercial third places experience a sense of attachment to the store itself as well as the people with which they associate there. “Although the majority of consumers do not seek support from others in third places, for those who do, third places can become integral to their personal lives and experiences, (Rosenbaum, p. 47). This may help to explain a core element of why Starbucks’ successful implementation of the third place concept is central to their past and continued success.

Starbucks’ success, while primarily a consequence of their devotion to being a third place for its consumers, is also supported by their innovative customer experience and corporate responsibility. Starbucks provides its customers with free music downloads from iTunes, was among the first to promote and accept mobile payments and delves extensively into its customers’ feedback. While these “add-ons” may be insubstantial by themselves, they add great value to the customers’ experience and to the customers’ perception of value. More core to their continued success and the public’s perception of their corporate-level business model is Starbucks’ commitment to local communities, global charities and the environment. A quick viewing of their website illuminates the emphasis they place on service to others and the extent to which they value corporate responsibility. While this only marginally affects the immediate experience customers have in their beloved third place, it speaks to the virtue of the company as a whole. Aristotelian ethics dictates that one’s virtue is to be judged according to the highest moral standards. While corporations would not come into existence for well over a thousand years after his death, Aristotelian ethics can be used to evaluate the inherent virtue of a corporation. The primary question is what would be the defining attributes of the most virtuous company possible and to what extent does the company in question live up to that highest moral standard. If one is to define a virtuous company as one that seeks to better the communities in which it functions and simultaneously bettering the global environment, all while creating a great customer experience complete with a comfortable atmosphere and quality products, Starbucks is, by every measure, a truly virtuous company.

In conclusion, Starbucks’ previous and continued success relies heavily on its commitment to the in-store customer experience and its global, corporate-level responsibility. Beyond these core elements, Starbucks propels itself forward by creating deeper ties with its customers by offering innovative experiences that other coffee shops don’t, like mobile payments, a seamless reward system and free music. As one considers the extensive reach of their global presence and the virtuous foundation upon which the company operates, one can only conclude that Starbucks is truly in a league of its own. Finally, in showing itself as a paradigm of the new-generation third place experience, Starbucks has set the golden standard for others to follow – and I hope they do.


“Starbucks Coffee Company.” Starbucks Coffee Company. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2013. <;.

“Third place.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2013. <;.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York: Marlowe.

Rosenbaum, Mark S., et al. “A Cup of Coffee With a Dash of Love An Investigation of Commercial Social Support and Third-Place Attachment.” Journal of Service Research 10.1 (2007): 43-59.

Michelli, Joseph A.. The Starbucks experience: 5 principles for turning ordinary into extraordinary. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Print.

Thompson, Craig, and Zeynep Arsel. “The Starbucks Brandscape and Consumers’ (Anticorporate) Experiences of Glocalization.” Journal of Consumer Research 31.3 (2004): 631-642. jstor. Web. 1 Apr. 2013.

[*] With one’s home and work being one’s first and second “place,” respectively.

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