Business is booming for a Japanese coffee chain in New England with a new business model. Instead of selling coffee or tea to its college student clientele, it is offering these beverages for free — in exchange for some of their personal information.
Shiru Cafe opened its first store in Providence, R.I., by Brown University and is planning to open new locations at Amherst in November and Harvard this winter. It’s also eyeing Yale and Princeton.
Shiru requires its customers to register with their name, email address, college, major, date of birth, and professional interests. The company then shares that information with its sponsors, which includes potential employers who come into the cafe to meet with students and advertise via printed logos, apps, digital ads, and trained baristas.
The cafe only serves students or faculty members (who pay). All other potential patrons are turned away. According to its website, its mission is “to create a place where students can learn about the professional world and envision their future careers.”
After giving out their personal information, students can enjoy free coffee or tea, or buy drinks to go for $1. The cafe prefers their customers to stick around, as they like to have a captive audience for additional sponsorship activations.
"Whether it's Facebook or Twitter, anything that you’re getting for free, it’s really not free because you’re giving up your data,” notes Emerson College professor David Gerzof Richard, in an interview with Boston 25 News. “You’re giving up privacy. You’re letting a company know a lot about your likes and behaviors, and you’re giving them the ability to market to you."
In this age of social media, students don’t seem to care. Shiru Cafe branch assistant manager Sarah Ferris told NPR that she doesn’t think she has seen any customer refuse to give up their personal information for a drink. When most of their info is public through their social network profiles, students don’t see any risk in filling out an online form with similar information.
New York Magazine notes that the sale of personal consumer information has been happening for decades and that the advent of “smart home” gadgets has further contributed to this carefree attitude toward privacy.
While at first glance, this general willingness to sell one’s personal data for a cup of joe may seem harmless, it is a bit concerning how far we’ve come since the skepticism of our parents’ generation. Has Gen Z become too trusting, or are they just so broke that a free latte is worth the data share?
If Shiru holds true to its promises and offers hack-proof protection of its data, then this business model may be a win-win for everyone. However, as we’ve seen with some of the more high-profile data breaches in the past couple years, data is never really 100 percent safe in any company’s hands.
Brendan Pringle (@BrendanPringle) is writer from California. He is a National Journalism Center graduate and formerly served as a development officer for Young America's Foundation at the Reagan Ranch.