Starbucks and the dynamics of trust

Published: by

You are sitting in a Starbucks. Perhaps it is a business meeting, maybe catching up with an old friend or enjoying a short break with a significant other. You might be alone, working on your laptop or iPad or even reading a book.

Suddenly, the person next to you, someone with whom you have never exchanged a single word, asks if you will be there for a few minutes, and would you mind watching their bag, book, or even MacBook Pro, while they use the washroom or get a drink.

No one would dream of asking it of a stranger on the subway or in a train terminal; we are convinced that the risk is too great that the person whom we are asking is less than scrupulous. Yet thousands, if not tend of thousands, trust absolute strangers with their expensive property every single day.

What is it about the Starbucks (and possibly other coffeehouse) environment that inspires instinctive trust of the stranger? I doubt it is intentional through environment design by Starbucks, although it may be a side effect of the comforting environment that is by design. It may also be self selection; someone who can afford a Starbucks coffee is far less likely to need to resort to thievery to get the laptop. It may also be due to visible but subtle cues; if we see someone else with a laptop, we know they are in the same boat and more likely to be trusted.

Whatever the cause, Starbucks has created a "peer trust zone" in its stores, one that has immense value for its brand.