The barista – hairdresser or shoemender?

In my marketing course we learnt about the difference between shoemenders and hairdressers.

Of course there are plenty: for example they deal with different ends of the body. But this was all ab out the “Servicescape” – that is, the environment in which you do business with these providers. It proved a particularly useful distinction for me at work, in helping shift the film processing laboratory’s way of thinking to that of a digital postproduction house. Different headspace, different boots? Well it’s more than that.

The theory goes that when you need your shoes repaired, you simply go to the booth in the shopping mall and leave them there. The work isn’t done on the spot; it’s in some backroom somewhere, possibly off site in a workshop environment. You don’t know or care who does it or what their name is, and are don’t really care to stay around and watch the process or get involved in it. (“Could you try a touch more glue there, look, just under that corner of the heel?”). And there’s nothing really glamorous even about the sales counter. It’s functional, that’s all. You just drop the shoes off and pick them up a few days later. Job done.

The hairdresser is different. I’m not thinking of a traditional men’s barber (short back’n’sides, half price on Tuesdays). The modern hairdresser is quite different. For one thing you can’t leave the job there to be collected later! So the working environment is important, as you’ll be there for the duration. The décor, the music, and the type of chatter you have to put up with, all figure strongly. If they offer coffee is it up to par? You might ask your friends for recommendations before you walk into a new place. And you’ll want to know who is going to do your hair, and probably request them by name after you’ve been a couple of times. Finally, you are going to be involved all along. (How do you like that? A bit less weight on top, do you think?)

It worked that way for the film laboratory – shoe-mender model: you drop the film off to be processed – out the back where it smelt of chemicals but who cares, you aren’t going there. (Probably you don’t even go to the lab, it’s the runner who takes it). You don’t know the name of the processing operator, or which brand of chemicals will be used. And the film despatch counter is probably no more customer-friendly than the shoe-repair booth.

The digital post house is the hairdresser in this story. The environment is everything. The coffee machine almost as critical as the grading suite: you will certainly request a particular colourist (see, it is like a hairdresser), and you’ll certainly seek recommendations before you commit to a new place. Once you are there, you’ll be deeply involved with the whole process, and probably get to know the staff looking after you quite well.

It’s a clear distinction. Different businesses work on different levels of customer/employee contact, and build the business environment to match.

So where does the barista fit in? Many of us grab a coffee on the way to work – or duck out during the day to get a shot of caffeine. It’s become important that the coffee is just right. Baristas are as precious as good hair stylists, and customers will follow them from one place to another. They get to know you, and a good barista will get to know your choice of coffee shot after a day or two (so many of them are ‘he’, have you noticed?). There’s the daily chat, a bit of ‘attitude’ and pride in serving the best possible cup of coffee. Clearly this is the hairdresser model, not the shoemender (who’d probably serve you a weak instant coffee in a paper cup, with no ‘tude).

So what is it with the servicescape in a coffee shop? The most sought-after coffee places are crowded, uncomfortable (the most popular one up the road offers milk crates to sit on), and noisy. The coffee grinder makes a racket, drowning out the noise of the bus going past right outside, and the customers are all shouting at each other to get over all that other noise. Surely it’s not an environment you’d build deliberately to attract people. And yet, the place up the road that had big comfy sofas to sit on, peace and quiet, a door that actually closed to keep the street noise out, went out of business. (Of course it was Starbucks which explains a lot).

I think the Servicescape theory works well at either end of the body – heads and feet – but it’s got a bit of explaining to do before it can account for what goes in between.

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