From a strict business perspective, the cards are a great idea for Starbucks: advance sales, shorter lines, detailed data on customers' drinking habits. Customers swipe the prepaid card, which holds between five and 500 bucks, get their coffee, and they're out the door. Efficient! But because the Starbucks card is similar to a debit card, there's no way to tip. Sure, you can pull some change out of your pocket, but that defeats the purpose of the card. So while customers get the benefit of quicker lines, the baristas, who depend on tips just like bartenders and waiters do, are making less money.
"Oh, it's been significantly less," says one barista at the new Starbucks Westlake Center location. (All baristas in this story wanted to remain anonymous.) Over at the Belltown Starbucks on the corner of Second and Bell, a barista told me employees were so concerned about the negative effects of the Starbucks card that they had a special meeting about it. "We all got together a few weeks ago to try and figure out how to get people to tip more," said the barista. "We were brainstorming psychology tricks and ways to, like, bait the tip jar or something." With the exception of employees at the Bank of America Tower Starbucks downtown, most baristas I talked to around Seattle were experiencing the same drop in tips--between 20 and 50 cents less per hour--due to the card. (The starting wage for a Starbucks barista is $7.25 per hour.)
Starbucks seems to acknowledge the baristas' concerns. "We're certainly aware of all the conversation going on," says Starbucks spokesperson Audrey Lincoff. In response, Starbucks is encouraging its managers to use the company hotline to report how the card is affecting baristas' tips. Lincoff said Starbucks is still investigating, and hasn't decided what course of action will be taken, or if baristas' hourly wages will go up to compensate.