Under my byline

Storm in a coffee cup

Posted in Architecture/Design, Health by Rrishi on 20 January 2008

Coffee shops are places to meet, unwind and work, so why are they so noisy?

“It begins from the outside,” says Rini Dutta, Barista’s VP of marketing, “with dramatic signage and warm colours. When people walk past they get a whiff of coffee, hear people talking and a hint of music.” It should tempt them in for “a short break of about 45 minutes, grab a coffee and a quick bite”.

It’s no secret that clever marketers use our senses to enter our minds and influence our behaviour. Visual stimuli abound, and we can guess that, for instance, the piles of clothing in stores are there to encourage us to touch, feel and be convinced. Fresh bread and coffee are compelling aromas, and most organised retail environments will do their best to replace stale smells with something nicer.

But sound? We are just about aware of piped music, but how much attention do we pay to total sound environments while shopping or eating out — or grabbing a quick cup of coffee?

“We are probably much more conscious of the emotional effect a piece of music is having on us, whereas the sound of a space is likely to affect us on a more subconscious level,” says John Bryant, a New York architect with a music degree and a professional interest in sound and space. “Starbucks controls most aspects of the design of their stores, and if a Starbucks is noisy, I’m guessing they intended it to be that way. A noisy environment can definitely feel more fun and lively than a quiet one, so that may be one intended effect.”

“Coffee shops are by origin an urban product — a high energy drug for a place that requires high energy, right?” says Nikhil Shah, a student of environmental design in architecture at North Carolina State University, USA. “Part of purchasing coffee is experiencing its associations and connotations — the loud noises, the crowds of people.”

Coffee shops embody and exploit this contradiction: people like to be around other people, but they also like privacy. “It may be more difficult to carry on a conversation with someone next to you,” says Bryant, “but it also means that it is that much harder for someone else to overhear. Imagine being surrounded by people in a very quiet coffee shop and trying to have a personal conversation.”

Rimona Ellis, a crime reporter in Mumbai, often talks to people “who would not like to meet in a five-star, police personnel” for instance. Coffee shops are the ideal rendezvous.

It’s not just the hubbub of voices and music that give coffee shops their sound level. There is the beep and buzz of coffee machines, ovens and freezers, the clatter of cups and plates, the hum of ventilation. Cappuccinos are frothed by a machine that can generate sound as loud as 85 decibels. The World Health Organisation says that levels above 80 decibels are damaging and that prolonged exposure can provoke aggressive behaviour, apart from a range of health effects.

Joyce Cohen, a barista at a Starbucks in Manhattan, recently sued the company for $4 million, claiming that the noise had given her excruciating ear pain. She requested lower volumes and floor mats, but Starbucks refused and she says she was fired. Cohen suffered from hyperacusis, or oversensitivity to everyday sounds.

Like that Starbucks, most Indian coffee shops don’t lay down insulation. Part of the reason, from a marketing psychology standpoint, is that while a loud environment appears more lively, it also encourages the customer to eat or drink and leave faster.

The noise at coffee shops doesn’t seem to deter Indian patrons — yet. “I have no problem with the noise. If I wanted quiet, I would go to a library,” says Basudha Basu, a biology researcher in Bangalore.

“The noise blends into the background,” says Shekhar Kaushik, her colleague, who likes Java City, a coffee shop that is “noisy, smoky and the tables are so close to each other that you can actually sit at two or three tables at a time”.

Western patrons, however, are beginning to be “noised out”. For many, coffee shops are an alternate workplace. “It sounds like a high-school cafeteria,” complained one blogger (among many), who now carries noise-cancelling headphones.

The coffee-shop demographic is generally young, a fact which the chains recognise and act upon. Costa Coffee, a UK chain now in India, aims at young professionals (in their “20s and 30s”). The colours are sober and the stores larger and plusher, hence quieter.

“In the morning, we play rock numbers with a low music background,” says Virag Joshi, president and CEO of Costa’s Indian franchisee Devyani International. “In the evening, people are not high on energy, so it’s soft numbers.”

Even the coffee-making is quieter. “The machines are the same,” says Joshi, but “the difference is in how you froth the coffee. We make and froth the coffee in a jar and only then pour it into the cup.”

Barista too has a premium outlet range, Créme, larger than its normal Espresso Bars. They have WorldSpace Radio and the head office tells outlets which channels to play; but “most of the time they gravitate to what works best”, says Rini Dutta.

In our noisy world, there are few places of respite from the buzz. Coffee shops follow the trend, but with an eye on their market. They sell themselves as a “third place” after home and work, a public living room. But, as young customers age, their demands will change. More and more people will work out of the office, on the go, so perhaps coffee shops will have to reposition themselves as “business coffee shops”.

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