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‘Customer-Workers’ Are People, Too: New Research Explores the Evolving ‘Third Place’


The coffee shop as the prototypical “third place” — a place that is not the home (first place) or the workplace (second place), yet provides important social functions — has suffered a series of definitive blows over the past two decades.

Nothing has challenged the third place archetype more than the COVID-19 pandemic, a time in which third places and most second places went into a hard shutdown mode, while many first places became hives of chaos or chambers of isolation.

Yet even before the pandemic, the concept of the third place in coffee shop settings was challenged by things like the widespread adoption of quick-service and drive-through models among retailers, the rise in office-less workers, and the very nature of human socialization in the digital age.

As the retail segment marches headlong into the post-pandemic era, new research from The University of London (UK) has emerged to further challenge the third place concept, while offering coffee shop owners and managers a vision for a potentially bright future in terms of customer satisfaction and engagement.

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In the paper “Consumer Work Practices and the Productive Third Place,” published last month in the Journal of Service Research, authors Laetitia Mimoun and Adéle Gruen argue that the third place “market,” so to speak, is not yet mature, and that few operators have adequately considered what type of third place their business may represent, or to whom.

The authors identified four types of third places:

  1. Archetypal, which “targets specific traditional customer segments and adapts its servicescape to their needs.”
  2. Status quo, which which “does not target a specific segment but adapts its servicescape to traditional customers.”
  3. Compromise, which “engages in some servicescape adaptation to suit customer-workers while not targeting any specific segment.”
  4. Performance Third Place (PTP), which “targets customer-workers and adapts its servicescape to their needs.”

The paper’s authors routinely suggest that coffee shop and other third place operators may need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the “customer-worker” as someone who may be deeply engaged with their surroundings, despite apparently just clacking away on a laptop.

“Customer-workers constitute an emerging strategic segment for third places that are beginning to recognize their value,” they wrote. “Our data challenge the typical image of the student who orders a single coffee and occupies a table for a day. Varying across types of third places, customer-workers can bring financial, marketing, and/or atmospheric value to businesses.”

That “atmospheric value” addition can also run both ways, the researchers stated, as customer-workers desire not mere work spaces, but places in which they can find various forms of social stimulation.

In short, the paper suggests that coffee shop operators might want to take steps to encourage comfortable workplaces while simultaneously encouraging social interactions and feelings of homeyness.

The authors wrote, “We expand existing literature by examining how, for customer-workers, third places are evolving from third spaces (a space where they go against ‘traditional’ practices) to third places (a place imbued with meanings where they are recognized as valuable customers).”

Find the full paper here.




As a Roastmaster for 15 years I hope I never see another manbun walk through my coffee shop again 🤣🤣🤣

John Rippo

For four hundred years, coffeehouses were the seedbeds of much of western culture, thought, politics and action. Now, they have devolved into a cross between Dairy Queen, Denny’s and office space with a curious fixation on the same coffees sold daily by competitors, both chain and individual. Trade and business media urged the change by indies to ape the fish tailings of the mighty mermaid, with scant respect for the long successful histories of houses that maintain their rank through their individuality. Perhaps a better future for coffee vendors will come when they realize they function in a society they can help to their own benefit.

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