Should Starbucks end its open bathroom policy?

Discussion
Photo: @shutterbugshirley via Twenty20
Jun 15, 2022

Starbucks may end its open bathroom policy as the challenges its stores face dealing with the mental health crisis now outweigh the risks of racial bias.

“We serve 100 million people at Starbucks and there is an issue of just safety in our stores, in terms of people coming in who use our stores as a public bathroom,” said Starbucks founder and interim CEO Howard Schultz last week at The New York Times Dealbook D.C. forum. “And we have to provide a safe environment for our people and our customers. The mental health crisis in the country is severe, acute and getting worse.”

He added, “We have to harden our stores and provide safety for our people. I don’t know if we can keep our bathrooms open.”

Starbucks established its policy that allows anyone to use its bathrooms in 2018 after a manager in Philadelphia called the police when two black men, who didn’t purchase any items, refused to leave the location. The two claimed they were waiting on an associate. A video of the arrest went viral and led to protests and calls for a boycott.

Starbucks apologized and closed all of its stores for a day of “unconscious-bias” training for employees.

Like many other quick-serve establishments, Starbucks previously allowed the occasional non-customer to use the bathroom but enforced the “customers only” policy for chronic and problem users.

As learned from anti-maskers during the pandemic, enforcing a bathroom-limits policy poses risks for baristas. However, many may welcome steps to limit the disruptions caused by vagrants.

The discussion comes as homelessness and its alleged link to rising crime rates has become a hot button political issue in many major and minor cities.

In a column for INC, tech columnist Jason Aten wondered if turning away a portion of customers aligns with Starbucks’ “third place” positioning. However, he concluded that a major lesson from the pandemic was that the health and safety of associates comes foremost, and that extends to customers as well. He wrote, “If limiting the number of people who come in your store allows you to better serve your customers, that’s, well, good for your customers.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Should Starbucks shift from an open-access bathroom policy to one limiting or prohibiting access for non-customers? Would a more restrictive bathroom policy create too much bias risk or possibly drive a consumer backlash?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Retailers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for shoppers and associates."
"Starbucks ought to limit access and – at the same time, if not before – start working with local mental health offices, rescue shelters, etc., to see what can be done."
"Funny, I never heard of a gas station that requires a key to go to the bathroom getting accused of racial bias."

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13 Comments on "Should Starbucks end its open bathroom policy?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

The safety issue is a real concern, and so as much as I appreciate Starbucks’ open-access policy, the motivation to change it is understandable. It’s important to remember that, even if Starbucks changes their policy, they’ll also need to enforce it which will in itself cause issues, as staff will be forced to act as enforcers of the policy. Ultimately, Starbucks has an obligation to keep employees and customers safe, and if this policy is required to accomplish that then it’s reasonable.

Nikki Baird
BrainTrust

I think that last paragraph is the most important: if you don’t have safe and happy associates, you’re not going to have safe and happy customers. And if limiting the number of people in your store helps associates better serve customers, then that’s a good thing for customers.

And while I realize that Starbucks had inadvertently taken on a challenging social issue, I do question why this is all on Starbucks. What has happened to public restrooms that Starbucks has become the de facto provider? I know the answer – budget cuts, unsafe spaces, unclean spaces that aren’t monitored or maintained. But cities have a responsibility here too!

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

The bottom line is that Starbucks is a private company and there is no right to use its bathrooms without buying things – especially if that causes disruption for paying customers and the staff serving them. However Starbucks needs to balance that truth with the goodwill that an open bathroom policy creates, and the potential problems having to enforce a closed policy can cause. Ultimately, this should really be looked at on a location-by-location and a case-by-case basis, but the problem there is it is inconsistent and easy for bias to creep in. All that said, this isn’t all about Starbucks. If the issue is one of, say, homeless people needing to use bathrooms then city and local authorities also need to shoulder some of that responsibility.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

You are absolutely correct, ” this isn’t all about Starbucks. ” It is a problem that should not exist. It exist because the is a basic problem with American culture.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Both of my children worked at Starbucks as teenagers, and came home with insane bathroom stories. If the public can’t be trusted to use a restroom responsibly, the logical result is to close those facilities. It’s sad.

David Spear
BrainTrust

Retailers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for shoppers and associates. If this is violated by anyone, homeless or not, then Starbucks reserves the right to take action. This will require Starbucks to re-engage with local communities and law enforcement to ensure procedures and protocols are put in place, practiced and enforced.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

I certainly agree with the Starbucks decision. I am a little surprised that there was an open bathroom policy at all. I live in Manhattan and the Starbucks stores I am familiar with have always had coded restrooms.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust
Let’s set aside Howard Schultz’s ominous choice of language, i.e., “We have to harden our stores and provide safety for our people,” – verbiage most often associated with arming people – for a moment and ask about the consistency of the proposed response. On the one hand Starbucks has had a policy of being overly accommodating to certain customers so as not to appear racist in its policies. So, people coming in, sitting down, and possibly not ordering are rarely challenged – regardless of race and/or behavior. The result, in the Starbucks a five-minute walk from my loft, has been chaos. At times (presumably) homeless and/or mentally ill folks have created scenes — from the classic street evangelism that screams, “You are damned,” in your face to outright physical fights over chairs. Clearly nobody should have to work, or shop, or dine in those conditions. And the bathrooms? Three guesses. We have to remember that a growing percentage of the population doesn’t have access to bathrooms so “public conveniences” become spots for “bird bath showers,”… Read more »
Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

Funny, I never heard of a gas station that requires a key to go to the bathroom getting accused of racial bias. I guess that’s what happens when you’re just too darn famous (famously progressive, that is)!

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

Interestingly, we have to have this conversation at all.

In today’s world, you’re dammed if you take a stand to protect your physical property, customers, and employees.

I applaud Starbucks for being willing to bring this problem to the forefront.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

No, no, no. Coffee, community and chat. The original slogan that Howard Schultz created to support Starbucks should never be forgotten. This is the mainstay of Starbucks’s business model, success and approach. Stopping any part of this only questions the reason why Starbucks has fueled it ability to differentiate itself from just a coffee shop. If they need to increase safety in the bathrooms, use a temporary code to access a lockable door, that is good for that hour, before another is created and must be used in the store. Simple, easy and friendly. Codes are given out during each purchase, either virtually or directly on your receipt.

Anil Patel
BrainTrust

For Starbucks, the safety of its associates and customers is the top priority. The open bathroom policy is creating an unsafe environment for the people who work there, so it’s important to address this issue and change the policies. I don’t think customers will be bothered by this decision. The whole situation reflects the persistent social problem and Starbucks has unnecessarily got tangled up here.

Janet Dorenkott
BrainTrust

They have to protect their employees and customers. This is true, not only for restaurants, but also hotels. While staying at a hotel in Santa Monica recently, there were multiple people trying to come into the lobby trying to take coffee that was made available, free to their guests. I witnessed front desk clerks having to ask non-guests to leave while they tried to find the bathrooms. I’m sure Starbuck’s employees have the same problem. It is not safe and it’s not their job to police, yet, that’s what I saw happening. Every time we left or came back in, we had to wade through loiterers. We were yelled at and made to feel very unsafe. Cities with this problem have to start providing protection to their citizens and guests and respecting law and order.

I would imagine that most people who have to stop at a Starbuck’s or another restaurant, are probably either regulars or will typically buy something. If you’re not, I don’t see anything wrong with asking them to leave.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Retailers have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for shoppers and associates."
"Starbucks ought to limit access and – at the same time, if not before – start working with local mental health offices, rescue shelters, etc., to see what can be done."
"Funny, I never heard of a gas station that requires a key to go to the bathroom getting accused of racial bias."

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