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On February 12, I visited the McDonald’s in Boston’s Chinatown. The following week, on February 18, I visited the Starbucks in Boston’s City Place food court. These two fast food shops may differ in appearances, but I observed many similarities in the way each followed the McDonaldization process, including four specific principles. While McDonaldization can be beneficial, this fast food system appears to come with just as many disadvantages to society as advantages.
In his book, The McDonaldization of Society, sociologist George Ritzer outlines the four principles of McDonaldization. The first of these principles is efficiency, defined as “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (Ritzer 13). On my visit to each, McDonald’s and Starbucks both had efficient methods to ensure their customers ordered and received their food and/or drink in as little time as possible. I found McDonald’s to be much quicker in getting customers their order, considering most of the food is prepared ahead of time. I ordered a milkshake at McDonald’s, which was dispensed from a machine and handed to me, all in under a minute. Starbucks also employs this pre-made practice. All food products, such as sandwiches and bagels, are made earlier in the day and then warmed up when ordered. On the other hand, Starbucks’ baristas make their speciality drinks (or anything that is not plain coffee) manually, right after the customer orders. At slower times of the day, like 1PM when I visited, Starbucks’ efficiency is rarely a problem. However, at busier times of the day (8AM or noon), I’ve noticed customers tightly piled up next to the barista’s counter, waiting for their food or drink. This is especially a problem in Starbucks shops where standing room is scare, including the City Place location. I noticed another difference in efficiency when the McDonald’s employee who handed me my drink asked how many creams I wanted (I found this odd since I ordered a milkshake). Oppositely, Starbucks has a milk and sugar counter in order to save the time and effort of the barista’s.
The next principle Ritzer evaluates is calculability, defined as an emphasis on “the quantitative aspects of products sold (portion, size, cost) and services offered (the times it takes to get the product)” (Ritzer 14). I noticed McDonald’s and Starbucks approach calculability through different versions of the same method. Both stores have methods of making their customers believe they are getting more for their money. While McDonald’s has the Dollar Menu, Starbucks’ drink sizes are named so that every drink seems as if it is a large. The smallest size at Starbucks is referred to a “tall”, with the two larger sizes being “grande” and “venti.” Still, McDonald’s does provide customers with more for their money compared to Starbucks. Many of the drinks on the Starbucks menu start at a little over four dollars. Ritzer writes that Starbuck’s high prices play into its effort to establish itself as sophisticated. He states, “This is a high-end, ‘classy’ show, not the cheap and garish one on view at the McDonald’s down the road” (Ritzer 175). The speed at which one can receive their food or drink at both stores also plays into calculability. Ordering a meal from McDonald’s is much quicker than preparing one at home. Ordering a drink from Starbucks is debatably less complicated than making one at home, though it is convenient to those who may want a cup of coffee “on-the-go.”
The next principle of McDonaldization is predictability, which Ritzer defines as “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” (Ritzer 14). Both McDonald’s and Starbucks have the same interiors concepts in each location. In McDonald’s, this is usually white-tiled floors and stiff chairs. Starbucks’ cafes often follow a relaxed and rustic theme, with employees dressed in black under their green aprons. Starbucks also features several merchandised items in each store, such as mugs or instant coffee packets. The employees at McDonald’s and Starbucks both follow similar scripts when taking orders, like “Would you like a drink with your food?” or “Would you like whipped cream?” Predictability can also be seen in the quality of McDonald’s and Starbucks products throughout each location. A major selling point of both stores is the fact that the products will taste the same, despite the location. A McDonald’s cheeseburger from New York will taste the same as a McDonald’s cheeseburger from Boston. This is assuring to customers who are simply looking to eat and not looking to try something new. However, I often find that Starbucks is very unpredictable in the availability of its food items, as opposed to McDonald’s. On this particular visit, to Starbucks I ordered a grilled cheese, along with my drink. The employee taking my order informed me that the store was out of sandwiches for the day. I find this sometimes happens at later hours of the day, but this was the first time I experienced this so early in the afternoon. Another aspect of both stores’ predictability are their season-exclusive items. On my visit to McDonald’s, I ordered a Shamrock Shake. This mint-flavored milkshake is available only from mid-February to mid-March and did not become available in every United States store until 2012. Likewise, Starbucks features several seasonal drinks, the most famous of which being the infamous Pumpkin Spice Latte. This drink is available during Autumn and celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2013. Fans of both seasonal drinks eagerly await their return every year, knowing exactly what to expect in the month of either September or February.
The final principle of McDonaldization is control, which is “exerted over the people who enter the world” of either McDonald’s or Starbucks (Ritzer 15). Employees are trained to do tasks and expected to perform them in the same manner each time. Ritzer comments that McDonald’s works to control customers according to its own philosophy of “eat quickly and leave.” He states, “Lines, limited menu, few options, and uncomfortable seats all lead diners to do what management wishes them to do” (Ritzer 15). On my trip to McDonald’s, I felt myself wanting to finish my drink and leave as soon as possible. On the contrary, I brought work with me on my trip to Starbucks with the intention of staying after I received my order. Control is also present through the non-human technologies McDonald’s and Starbucks both possess. Starbucks’ baristas are taught to use the espresso machines, as McDonald’s employees are taught to use the milkshake or ice cream machines. This saves time and money, but leads to these products being given a negative “manufactured” reputation.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to the McDonaldization process. One of the most important advantages is the instant gratification for a low price. Specific advantages include McDonald’s efforts to hire and promote minorities and Starbucks’ promotion of coffee culture in countries that did not originally have one. The disadvantages of this system are usually ignored by society. While it is no secret that the majority of the McDonald’s menu is extremely high in calories, sodium, and fat, customers settle for it because of its convenience in both speed and price. Similarly, many Starbucks drinks, including the sugary Frappucinos which appeal to younger customers, are comparatively high in calories and sugar. Starbucks’ reputation as “high-end” may distract some customers from realizing their drink is just as unhealthy as a meal from McDonald’s. In keeping with efficiency and control, both stores are employing new technological ways of operating (i.e. paying and ordering through iPhone apps), which lessen the need for the manual labor of a paid employee. There is a uniformity in both McDonald’s and Starbucks, which is dampening to employees and customers. We enter, place our typical order, wait for it to be handed to us, and leave, just as we always do. We do this without questioning our consumption or spending habits. McDonald’s and Starbucks may not seem to have much in common from the outside, but their insides eat, sleep, and breathe the process of McDonaldization.
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