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Should There Be a Way to Standarde Exceptions?

I’ve been ordering a new drink at Starbucks lately. I’ve had this drink at one airport, one hotel, one highway rest stop, on two coasts, in three states, and at a number of local stores. It doesn’t appear on any published listing — and the price has never been the same.

Starbucks has always varied its pricing depending on the establishment (airports, as opposed to storefronts, for example), geographic region (East Coast vs. West), and level of population density (major metro vs. far-flung suburb). But the range in prices — from a low of $2.83 to a high of $4.86 — has just floored me.

Even more surprising are the swings of up to $0.60 that I’ve been charged for the very same drink at the very same store — once, for instance, by two different baristas in a 90-minute period and, at another location, by the very same barista two mornings in a row.

Making It Up as We Go Along

I haven’t questioned anyone yet because, frankly, I’ve been marveling at the way different people figure out what to do: Some consult the air or another barista; others act with complete confidence, as if it’s absolutely obvious how the drink should be rung up.

Here’s the brew:

  • Size: Grande
  • Liquid: Nonfat milk (No coffee is involved!)
  • Process: Steaming
  • Extra ingredients: A single pump of syrup, usually caramel (I’m considering trying the gingerbread, though, just to be seasonal.)

What could be causing such significant variances in price?

How much discretion does and should a counterperson have — or is the question really about how much training?

Why do some Starbucks employees charge for a base of steamed milk plus an extra, while others charge for a full “menu” item — a crème or latte — plus an extra? Charging for milk-plus-syrup makes the most logical sense to me. Could it be that some baristas want to get the most money for the company? Are they annoyed by the special request? Or is it just too hard to figure out what cost components to subtract from a standard drink to get down to an appropriate price for this one?

Do Exceptions Prove the Rules?

Starbucks already has a gazillion drink permutations, and the staff is trained to identify these permutations and hit the corresponding keys on the cash register. What amazes me is that although every single barista has made the drink correctly, there seems to be no consistent methodology for calculating exceptions. Given that so many customers in so many locations order so many different varieties of drinks every day, shouldn’t there be a rule for pricing a non-standard drink, based either on the liquid used or the process for making it?

Can you think of any other circumstance in which exceptions to the rules overwhelm an employee’s ability to process logically? Or have you experienced instances of employees who intentionally charge a higher price than necessary even though they get no personal benefit?

Onward and upward,


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2 thoughts on “Should There Be a Way to Standarde Exceptions?

  1. What is also interesting is that they actually make it. Has anyone ever told you “no”? This, too, is an intriguing take on exceptions. Though the price my vary depending on how they choose to account for the exception, they always do. Many organizations would simply tell you “no”. Interesting.

  2. That’s such an interesting point, Micah! I suppose it comes down to the fact that they certainly can make the desired combination, even though it’s non-standard — and that the company actually promotes a certain “Have it your way” expectation. So they’re only deterred by the pricing, not the manufacture.

    And since I’ve kept asking for it, I’ve learned that there used to be a drink called a “Steamer,” and more experienced and more thoughtful baristas recognize the name or the validity of such a call. It also sounds like there used to be (and may still be, I haven’t verified it yet) a guideline that there is no charge for the single pump of syrup — so the “best” baristas only charge for the milk. I will persevere with my field-testing!

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