Pay It Forward … Why Now?

August 22, 2014

Over the past few years, I’ve heard the stories from friends who have had a “pay it forward” experience. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, it became popular in a 2000 movie of the same name starring Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment, and essentially it’s the concept of doing a good deed randomly for someone, generally a complete stranger, and to encourage them to pay it forward.

The stories my friends have told me stem from the same general experience; purchasing a coffee/drink from Starbucks drive-through (that’s key) and the customer in front of them in line has paid for their beverage. The customer then feels inclined to pay it forward and purchase the customer behind them in line’s order. While I have not personally experienced this (I always go inside, and yeah, I’m a Gold Card member), I’ve always been somewhat surprised at strangers’ generosity.

Today I read two stories that were also trending on Facebook about 450+ customers who paid it forward at one Starbucks location, and more than 375 who paid forward in Florida. The concept wasn’t new, the idea wasn’t foreign, and I’m actually not sure if it’s the first time stores have gone for nearly a full day with the pay it forward customer line.

However, what did got me thinking was WHY is this a trend I only hear and read about from Starbucks customers? Neither coffee, nor drive-throughs are unique experiences beyond this brand, but, when the two are combined we see the “pay it forward” model. Huh?

Why hasn’t this happened at any other fast food or drive-through location? What makes Starbucks unique? The average price point? The type of consumer? Why aren’t customers of the double arches offering to pay for the chicken nuggets and large french fries of the customer behind them in line?

That’s what I don’t fully understand. Is there a character trait of customers who purchase what has notably and infamously been expense coffee that apparently elicits guilt to purchase the pricey frapp of the guest behind them, because their mocha latte was paid for by the car in front of them? Again, I only hear about the pay it forward phenomena in drive-throughs and not in-store. Does this make a difference? Does the anonymity of not seeing/encountering face-to-face the guest behind you make this a cerebral gesture of goodwill?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It’s an interesting social dichotomy. Almost that rich guilt spawns immediate “giving” by passing along good passed on to me. “Oh, this really expensive coffee isn’t too bad because I didn’t pay for it, but instead the random order behind me.” Instant Karma?

I don’t know why, but one day I hope to get the gift of my order paid for, and hopefully I’ll advance it backward to the car/customer behind me.

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Pay It Forward, Social, Social Experiment, Society, Starbucks,