It’s 9:30 a.m. outside Starbucks’s two-story flagship store in the heart of Chicago’s prime aged meat market, the Viagra triangle, and though rush hour is over and the streets are otherwise empty, the long line pushes out through the chic steel-framed doors. Sitting outside between two homeless men amidst a territorial spat, I realize Starbucks would be hard pressed to offer a better staged scene promoting its new mobile order and pay (MOP) initiative, which goes live across company-owned stores in the U.S. today.
Using the existing iOS or Android Starbucks apps, commuters can now preorder from the full menu of drinks and pastries on their way to work, get directions and a time estimate as to when they’ll be done, walk into the store, grab them, and go.
For Starbucks, it’s a way to reduce "line anxiety," which the company believes is eating into sales. Dan Beranek, the company’s director of digital strategy who is leading mobile rollout, tells me that when you couple a line with a commuter walking a block or two out of their way to grab a drink, it can add up to a daunting 15 to 20 minutes for a customer. Coupled with the fact that Starbucks can actually make more money per transaction by channeling customers to order via an app, increase order accuracy by making customers validate every part of their order, and even one day, load-balance stores by shunting customers to emptier locations, the update becomes a no-brainer. (These same reasons are why companies like McDonald’s and Chipotle are both working on mobile-based ordering strategies, too.)
"Table stakes for us when we built this out was that we wanted every customer to be able to customize every drink just how they would with a barista," Beranek tells me as we huddle over his iPhone, outside of the store. "We wanted mobile ordering to be an extension of the ordering experience. To do that, we had to offer every possible option."
Beranek isn’t exaggerating. While the app’s welcome screen is certainly tailored for speed—it can show you a menu of the nearest Starbucks location, present a montage of your most recent orders, and automatically remove items that have run out—the app’s most impressive feat is how deep it can bring you into the world of Starbucks order customization.
Any drink you select features a deep customization screen with every possible option inside, in a long list of toggles and subcategories that looks straight out of iOS Settings. That’s right, every possible option. Because Starbucks is so customization-focused, every drink has to be orderable in every conceivable way. This means there are over 80,000 potential combinations for each menu item.
It's absurd, yes, but absurd by design. This hyperspecific customization means you can count your packets of Equal and sugar. You can specify your pumps of PSL flavor. Dustings of chocolate powder, vanilla powder, sea salt topping, or cinnamon dolce can be dropped on top of anything. You can even tell the barista to prepare your drink upside down, with the cream on the bottom and espresso poured over top.
It’s almost laughable as I scroll through this unbridled reflection of our caffeinated ids. But after I place an order for my iced soy milk PSL with two pumps of flavoring versus the normal four (recommended personally by Beranek), the order beams through the cloud, past everyone in line, and prints out as an itemized sticker that the checkout person sticks to my future cup. And while that took a while, in the future, I could reorder this drink almost instantly because it sits as a custom PSL button right on my homescreen.
"One of the things that we’ve found is, because customers have to set their order just the way they want it, there’s been an increase in order accuracy," Beranek says. "When you communicate verbally with a barista, sometimes things are lost in translation."
The app tells me there's a three- to seven-minute wait time, calculated by Starbucks’s own algorithm that can account for the speed of each individual store, the average time it takes to make the drink(s) I ordered, and the relative hecticness during that time of day. If this wait time seemed too long, I could have sideswiped my way around other Starbucks in the area, to compare wait times.
Inside, a barista yells out, "Dan, your mobile order is ready." (Since I was ordering on Beranek's test account, I also assumed his identity.) The announcement is a way to keep these orders straight, and also a clever way the company is advertising mobile ordering to customers who might not be using it. I take a look at the icey PSL, and I realize, there’s just one thing wrong.
That itemized receipt of my order has been stuck on the side of the cup, and it looks just like an itemized receipt has been stuck on the side of the cup. There’s no hand-drawn name in green. Instead, the whole thing is becoming gooey with the condensation from chilled pumpkin spice.
Beranek admits it’s an inelegant solution for a company that’s so focused on the small touches of the Starbucks Experience, and shares that the team has been experimenting with printouts that are green and scripted, or that blend in with the side of a cup. "The benefit is we get your name right every time," he laughs, as he points to his blocky name printed on the watery receipt.
But there’s another benefit, too. While Starbucks has yet to share numbers from its mobile test market launch earlier this year, early polling shows that not only is mobile order and pay more accurate than talking with a barista, customers prefer this efficient, computerized experience to standing in line just to place an order face-to-face.
It’s a cold reality. But as Starbucks expands into tiny fringe markets, delivery, and large office buildings, the future of the brand may be less about a novel in-store experience than it is the omnipresent drip of corporate caffeine. Convenience will only become more important as a theme driving the company’s bottom line, and the green-markered hashtag explanations on race relations, less so.