Should Starbucks stick with its open bathroom policy?
A joint study from the University of Texas and Boston College found that Starbucks’ stores experienced a 6.8 percent decline in traffic per month compared “to other nearby coffee shops and restaurants” since shifting from a customer-only to an open bathroom policy in May 2018.
The study was based on anonymized cellphone data obtained near 10,752 Starbucks stores from January 2017 to October 2018.
Other findings from the study:
- The traffic decline versus the 6.8 percent overall drop was 84 percent larger for stores near homeless shelters;
- Individuals visiting Starbucks reduced dwell time by 4.2 percent;
- More affluent customers reduced their visits more, but black and white customers were equally deterred.
Starbucks’ shift to an open bathroom policy followed an uproar after one of its managers in Philadelphia called the police in April 2018 when to two black men, who didn’t purchase any items, refused to leave the location. The two claimed they were waiting on an associate. In addition to the policy change, all U.S. Starbucks locations were closed on May 29, 2018 for sensitivity training.
Starbucks disputed the study’s findings, telling Yahoo Finance that customers are visiting “at record numbers.” In its recent fourth quarter, Starbucks reported that its U.S. comps grew six percent, with traffic growth across all day parts.
The researchers said Starbucks isn’t correctly assessing the impact because the chain isn’t taking into account traffic at nearby coffee shops. Researchers said the findings show the difficulties “attempting to provide public goods, as potential customers are crowded out by non-paying members of the public.”
Regardless, bathrooms appear to remain a headache for all QSRs. A Business Insider article last year indicated Starbucks was installing needle-disposal boxes in bathrooms in 25 U.S. markets to address workers’ safety.
Not many laws require businesses to provide bathrooms to customers. Stores not offering bathrooms avoid loitering or improper activity that may occur in them, tasking someone to clean them and the risk of earning a reputation for dirty facilities. For food establishments, many laws require businesses to provide restrooms for customers if they have a specific number of customer seats, for example, more than 19 in New York City.
- The Perils of Private Provision of Public Goods – University of Texas
- Starbucks Visits Declined 6.8% After Switch to Open Bathroom Policy – Safegraph
- Starbucks’ open bathroom policy may be hurting foot traffic, new study finds – Yahoo Finance
- Starbucks attendance declines in wake of open-bathroom policy: Study – Fox Business
- Starbucks Reports Q4 and Full Year Fiscal 2019 Results – Starbucks
- Starbucks adds dirty needle disposal boxes to bathrooms – New York Post
- Starbucks is installing needle-disposal boxes in locations across America following OSHA penalties and worker concerns about drug use in bathrooms – Business Insider
- Restrooms for customers only? In most cases, it’s legal to enact such a policy – USA Today
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is an open, customer-only or no-access bathroom policy the best option for stores and food establishments? Are chains missing a customer service opportunity by not offering restroom access?