Inside the wild, ultra-competitive world of Starbucks cup ‘resellers’

For even the most casual Starbucks customer, the holidays are a special time of year.

It’s a season that is, in many ways, centered around hype. Starting in early November, the chain rolls out a full list of its seasonal-specific items — from specialty treats to limited-edition cups to, of course, plenty of new drinks.

But there’s another kind of Starbucks fan, a much more serious kind, for whom the holidays are a lot more than a chance to order Peppermint Mochas. For Starbucks resellers, the holidays are prime time.

A reseller, at its simplest, is someone who buys something with the intention of “flipping” it — that is, selling it on a secondary market in order to make a profit. Some reseller markets, like those for sneakers or Pokémon cards, are incredibly competitive and therefore incredibly profitable.

It might surprise some Starbucks customers to hear that there’s a similar cottage industry around Starbucks merchandise. Cups, tumblers and other merchandise items are often resold in a similar fashion to vintage Nikes and Charizard cards.

Starbucks baristas, meanwhile, are no strangers to the craze. In the past few years especially, employees have become deeply familiar with the reseller community — and how some of these individuals impact their jobs.

Sen, a former Starbucks barista, told In The Know that they witnessed countless heated interactions during their three years with the coffee chain.

“I’ve seen people get into physical altercations over cups — and not just during the holiday season,” Sen, whose pronouns are she/they, said. “We’ve had a few screaming matches between resellers and between my coworkers and me.”

Earlier this year, just as Starbucks’ holiday season was kicking off, Sen posted a viral TikTok discussing her past encounters with resellers.

Disclaimer: Video contains profanity.

@senjumarus

#stitch with @haley.n.b00 they used to try to make up sob stories to get me to bend and if they entertained me enough I would #starbucks

♬ original sound – sen

Expanding on the video in an interview with In The Know, Sen described resellers as “insanely rude.” The 22-year-old claimed she’d dealt with all kinds of issues over the years — including resellers yelling, searching through storage cabinets for extra products and “demanding” that baristas help carry purchases to their cars.

The clip was posted in response to another barista, who shared a TikTok complaining about resellers allegedly buying over 40 identical cups from their store. Searching across TikTokwhere many baristas go to voice their frustrations — it’s easy to find employees with similar issues.

Reselling is not a new phenomenon at Starbucks, but the hype has been magnified during the pandemic. In fact, sales of Starbucks-branded merchandise increased by a full 100% between March and May of 2020, according to CNN Business. This newfound demand is only exasperated by the fact that, since Starbucks closed its online store in 2017, the chain’s merchandise is now only available in-store.

Sen referred to resellers as a “growing problem.”

“I think the pandemic really made ‘hustle culture’ a lot more prevalent,” she said. “It’s about making the quickest buck off of literally anything.”

As Cary Williams points out, there’s good money in the Starbucks reselling game. Williams is a thrifter, antique hunter and all-around “picker” who specializes in flipping secondhand goods. He even runs a popular TikTok page called American Arbitrage (@americanarbitrage), where he chronicles his process.

Williams became aware of Starbucks merch “early” in his reselling career. These days, he believes the intensity of the secondhand market has reached a “nine or 10” out of 10.

“I’d compare it to when new sports cards are released and then immediately sell out,” Williams told In The Know. “Then, because of the huge demand and quick sellouts, [those items] have heavy secondary market demand.”

Evidence of the demand is especially apparent on eBay, which Williams noted as one of the best places to find Starbucks merch. Some items, such as the chain’s famous rainbow-studded tumblers, can go for over 10 times the price they sold for in stores.

One listing for a set of matte studded tumblers is currently set for bidding at $500. Meanwhile, a black 2015 “NYC edition” tumbler is listed for $1,000.

Williams, who has profited off of special edition cups himself, said he understands the hype.

“People love to collect things they love, and Starbucks has a passionate base of people who love their coffee and love to show it,” he told In The Know. “The mugs and tumblers sell out fast. Many people want to complete collections for older tumblers and mugs.”

Williams doesn’t see the secondary market as a bad thing. Still, he understands why baristas would want Starbucks to take some action against resellers — such as limiting the number of cups they can purchase at once.

“I understand their thinking and position,” he said. “They want as many people to get the cups and tumblers as possible.”

In her TikTok, Sen explained that their particular store instituted its own limit on newly released merch.

“We put in a two-cup limit,” Sen explained in the video. “Resellers hated us, but we had a lot more grateful people.”

This policy helped quell some in-store issues, Sen said. But even with those changes, they were still constantly aware of resellers and the problems they might cause.

“Resellers stick out like a sore thumb to us,” she said. “Regular customers mostly remembered to treat us like half-human at the very least, [but] resellers were usually desperate and frantic — more wired and trying to get to the next location to [buy more cups].”

During Sen’s shifts, resellers would allegedly come in and insist on information regarding new merch. In one case, they claimed, a customer showed up with a photo of a soon-to-be-released product that was so new, Sen hadn’t even heard of it.

This behavior, combined with the issues Sen and other baristas claim to have faced, can have a negative impact on customer service overall. As Sen pointed out, dealing with resellers can distract from a barista’s regular duties, which can, in turn, make it seem like they’re bad at their job.

“Starbucks customers rarely get to see how much of a mess it is behind the scenes, only the consequences,” they said.

Sen was quick to note that while their own experience was fairly negative, these issues vary “by location.” Still, she imagines these problems getting worse in the future.

“I doubt Starbucks would even do anything about it,” they said. “Because at the end of the day, these scalpers do pay for the cups in-store.”

Even store-by-store policies — like limiting cup sales — aren’t doing enough, Sen said. As she put it, those rules are like putting “a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”

If you liked this story, check out our deep dive into TikTok’s “life hack” phenomenon.

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