Starbucks’ Sign-Language Cafe

At the end of this past October, Starbucks unveiled its first sign-language cafe ever. The store is located in Washington, DC, near Gallaudet University. In the light of the recent tension in the United States, this act of inclusion feels like a breath of fresh air. While I am very happy with the result, I’m also aware that the cause is not merely to combat the hostile environment that is developing in the country; it is a strategic move.

In recent years, Starbucks has been struggling to find avenues for growth. As a result, they have been pursuing an aggressive international expansion policy, with the most recent international store being opened in Milan, Italy at the end of this past summer. Now, it seems like Starbucks has finally been able to find an under-served consumer in the domestic market: the deaf and hard of hearing community.

This initiative is clearly a well thought out strategic move that can not only grow their customer base but can also soften their brand image. First, this sign-language Starbucks was opened in place of another (likely under-performing) cafe. Given that the store is near Gallaudet University–the only university in the US for deaf and hard of hearing students–one of the largest consumer profiles in the area must be people who are deaf and hard of hearing. In fact, the area around the University is home to one of the largest deaf communities in the country. As a result, Starbucks smartly revamped the previous store to fit the needs of the local community in the hopes of attracting more customers and of gaining brand loyalty with current customers.

Additionally, Starbucks is capitalizing on the sign-language trend in the country. A mere several decades ago, sign language and deaf people were taboo topics and this store would have never worked. Now, though, people are not only not afraid to broach the subject but they are even eager to learn the language. While ASL is definitely not easy to learn, simply due to its nature, it has less grammatical rules than written languages and thus feels like a less daunting language to learn when compared to others like French, German or Mandarin. Moreover, it may seem like a fun language to learn since you have to use your hands to communicate. Regardless of the reason, there is definitely a sign-language trend taking pace throughout the country as evident by popular TV shows, like Switched at Birth, and Starbucks has done well to jump on the bandwagon. Therefore, not only will the local community visit the store but so will enthusiasts in the region who are hoping to improve their ASL skills. This is one of their major selling points as the baristas are very open to teaching customers how to spell their name and how to order their coffee.

A final benefit is that, as mentioned in the video, the cafe gives the complete experience with the lack of music and the many visual cues. Thus, visitors might gain some empathy for the difficulty that the deaf community faces in the everyday environment. This gain in perspective might be

Would you visit this store? Do you see it as more of a space for the deaf community or as a bridge between the deaf community and those around them?

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