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Study: Starbucks Foot Traffic Declines After 'Open Bathroom' Policy

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A new study showed that foot traffic at Starbucks stores declined after the coffee giant changed to an 'open bathroom' policy.

According to the study, store attendance per month at Starbuck stores declined 6.8 percent, relative to nearby restaurants and cafes, after the company made changes to its bathroom policy.

The joint study was conducted by academics from the University of Texas at Dallas Jindal School of Management and Boston College Carroll School of Management, in collaboration with SafeGraph.

SafeGraph is a company that compiles anonymous smartphone location data and conducts algorithmic analysis.

In May 2018, Starbucks announced a new bathroom policy, saying it will open its bathrooms to everyone regardless of whether they are paying customers or not.

The coffee giant's decision came following a backlash for the arrest of two black men while they were waiting at one of its Philadelphia coffee shops in April. The store manager called the police as the two men asked to use the bathroom without purchasing anything and also refused to leave the store.

Even taking into account new people brought in to the stores following the change in Starbucks' policy, the total number of visits was significantly lower, consistent with crowding of tables and bathrooms deterring customers, the study noted.

"Our team was very interested in what the economic consequences would be of an open bathroom policy as an example of providing a public good. While the hope is always that providing public goods will be rewarded by the market with increased sales and new potential customers, this isn't necessarily the case," said David Solomon, Associate Professor, Boston College, and Umit Gurun, Professor, University of Texas at Dallas.

The study was based on anonymized location data related to 10,752 Starbucks stores from the period from January 2017 to October 2018.

According to the study, individuals visiting a Starbucks reduced the amount of time they spent in the store by 4.2 percent relative to nearby coffee shops after the new policy enactment by Starbucks.

Wealthier customers reduced their visits to Starbucks stores more, but black and white customers were equally deterred.

These results show the difficulties of companies attempting to provide public goods, as potential customers are crowded out by non-paying members of the public, the study said.

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