The problem of too much unique

This past week, I was visiting with a friend in New York. There is a shop around the corner from his office. We stopped in on our way back from lunch to grab some coffee.

“I’ll have a small,” he told the guy behind the counter.

“Tall? Look, man, We ain’t Starbucks,” the server shot back.

Even if you overlook the server’s obvious hearing problem and surly attitude, you can’t ignore one of the biggest problems coffee shops have — how to order the size you want.

There used to be three sizes, small, medium and large. Then along came Starbucks who sought to change the coffee culture. Everyone in the “club” would be ordering coffee their way, short, tall, grande, venti.* It was fun; for a while. Now, it’s really a giant pain in the butt as other shops look to reproduce that magic cultship.

The next morning, I went to a Dean & Deluca’s for a coffee. They had three cups on the counter labeled small, medium and large.

“I’ll have a medium,” I ordered confidently knowing exactly what I was going to get. No sass-back, no attitude, no inferiority complex. Just coffee.

Here are the two basic problems all coffee shops have. Fix them tomorrow.

Coffee sizes labeled
It used to be cool for Starbucks to “own” their unique ordering language when they were hip. Now, they are the McDonald’s of coffee. Most people go to a Starbucks because they know what they are going to get. Almost no greater than than.

I can’t memorize your sizes. I don’t want to. Can you just put a display with the cups clearly labeled with how you want me to order? I’ll say “tall” if you prompt me to say the right thing. All I know when I belly up to the barista is that I don’t want the small one and I don’t need the 55 gal drum of coffee. What do you have in the middle? I’ll take that. Call it what you want.

Coffee-only line
I know you are supposed to suggest sell me when I order just coffee, but when I really, really, really only want coffee, selling me your daily baked good for only 1.99 just ticks me off. If you had a coffee-only line, it would move quickly and you would be setting some explicitly clear expectations for us both right from the start.

Set up a “coffee-only” line. You could even make it self-serve and we would not mind one little bit pushing our own button that says “tall” and swiping our own card.

The coffee shop did more damage to their brand in five little words than any twitterstorm or social media intern going wild could have done. They did it in real life, to real people who visited their shop every afternoon. And they exported their brand damage four states over and to several thousand readers, all sipping on their Sunday morning coffee, nodding in unison.

At least we know this ain’t Starbucks.

*I had to Google for the sizes. Really.