Last week sandwich chain Pret A Manger announced that rather than introducing a loyalty card scheme for customers, baristas will be told to give away a quota of free drinks and meals to consumers they find extra nice or even good looking. I was a barista for many years and happily stamped people's loyalty cards more than once if they were particularly smiley but the idea that people would have to flirt with me in order to get a free coffee? I don't think I'd like that.
Loyalty cards, as keen coffee buyers and their caffeine dealers will know, are highly coveted items. I spent two years working in a busy independent coffee shop in Sheffield and I know just how important those loyalty cards are - once you'd taken the payment you had to be ready with the stamp or the conversation could turn sour.
Sometimes smudges on the card would be passed off as stamps and you might have a very serious conversation on your hands probably ending with you getting another, more senior, employee's opinion in order to determine just how legit those grey marks were. I particularly remember that the guy who had managed to put his card through the washing machine did have some trouble making his point (but I'm pretty sure he got his freebie in the end).
At other times people came in with cards that were several years old and rather than telling customers that, strictly speaking, the date had passed, we celebrated them for keeping the card and bringing it in. I managed to do the same the other week - the barista employed by the high street coffee chain clearly understood I was no regular when he pointed out that the card I presented him advertised a drink they no longer sell. I still got another stamp though.
Customers who had spent days, weeks or months earning a fully stamped card at my old shop presented it to us as if it was made out of gold. You could see the joy they got out of knowing that today was the day they could have their drink for free. On our side of the counter we of course encouraged them to get the most expensive drink possible for their freebie (a medium size hot chocolate with cream, marshmallows and a flake if you must know) and you knew you had made someone's day when they walked away with their most favourite beverage completely free of charge. They might only have saved between two and four pounds but the smile on their faces was always worth a million dollars.
Fully stamped loyalty cards were a serious peace keeping tool, handed out only very rarely if a customer for some reason needed a huge apology - and it always did the trick. After all, everyone loves free coffee.
I liked the stamp system and however well I knew my regulars I know that under Pret's rules I'd be worried to miss out on giving deserving customers their well-earned free drink. And knowing that my customers thought they had to be extra kind to get their free drink? It would create a very strange situation I think - rather than "earning" their freebie and saving it for a special day, they would have to smooth talk me into getting it? Seems a little off to me.
Still, if I could choose, the list of people I would give free hot beverages to might include the shy scientist who, practicing before his move to Scandinavia, mumbled his double espresso in Swedish, the retired professor who always ordered a cappuccino with no sugar ("I'm sweet enough already") and the father and daughter who spent their morning handing out flowers to people that passed them by. The world is full of wonderful people who deserve million dollar smiles and I don't envy Pret staff having to choose who to give them to.