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Starbucks’ Open Bathroom Policy May Be Hurting Its Bottom Line
Starbucks Coffee logo is seen in Krakow , Poland on 27 October 2019 . (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Starbucks’ open bathroom policy, adopted in the wake of a racially tinged incident back in May of 2018, may be having an impact on the coffee chains bottom line, according to a study reported by Forbes magazine.

Last year, Starbucks updated its employee handbook, instructing baristas that they were no longer allowed to turn away individuals who needed to use the bathroom but either would not or did not plan to make a purchase. “Any person who enters our spaces,” an email sent to employees read, “including patios, cafes and restrooms, regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer.”

The change came in response to an incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks, in which a Starbucks manager called the police on two black men who were occupying a table, waiting for a third man so that they could start a business meeting, but did not make a purchase, according to People Magazine. The two men were “escorted outside and arrested,” and video of the incident went viral.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson was forced to apologize and the coffee chain’s chairman, Howard Schultz, turned the situation into a social justice crusade.

“We don’t want to become a public bathroom, but we’re going to make the right decision 100 percent of the time and give people the key,” Schultz said during a panel discussion at the time. “Because we don’t want anyone at Starbucks to feel as if we are not giving access to you to the bathroom because you are ‘less than.’ We want you to be ‘more than.’”

Starbucks reported a jump in profits in 2018, and most stores have seen an increase in sales year over year. But, a recent study conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas and Boston College, in partnership with data company SafeGraf, shows that foot traffic to Starbucks stores has declined dramatically.

“Monthly visits to Starbucks dropped 6.8% compared with other nearby coffee shops after the open-bathroom policy was put in place in May 2018,” Forbes reported, adding that the study covered data from cell phone location pings sent between January 2017 and October of 2018.

The stores that saw a decline had very specific problems.

“With the free bathroom access, the researchers looked at the proximity of a given Starbucks store to a homeless shelter and found that customer traffic declined at almost double the rate at stores closest to homeless shelters versus those farthest away. The researchers also found fewer citations for public urination in nearby Starbucks locations as a result of its policy change,” Forbes said.

The average income of Starbucks customers also declined because Starbucks lost high-earning customers. People also spent around 5% less time in Starbucks restaurants overall. “This would be consistent with them being more sensitive to crowding and the new visitors brought in by the bathroom policy,” a statement accompanying the study noted.

“The small number of non-paying visitors who do linger and use tables and bathrooms have an outsized effect on the total number of visitors, who either stop coming and/or spend less time in the store,” the study said. “It’s unlikely that moving from the quasi-public bathroom policy to a completely open public bathroom has benefited Starbucks unless the customers increased their purchase significantly. None of this considers any extra staffing costs involved in greater bathroom maintenance.”

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