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Could I Have a Double Tall Nonfat Split Shot Mocha . . . by the Time I Get There?

Sizing up the Starbucks Mobile Order and Pay feature

Ah, the joys of getting your morning beverage when you want it, where you want it, how you want it. Wouldn’t that improve the daily routine of, say, every single person you know? Following in the growing trend of pay-ahead apps that range across demographics—from Taco Bell to Starwood Hotels—Starbucks recently launched their own pay-ahead feature as part of their mobile app. On a recent sunny Seattle Friday, we headed to three different Starbucks locations in downtown Seattle to find out how well the feature was working, and its implications for the future of this trend.


To order is human, to be patient divine.

While standing outside of a Starbucks and approaching strangers is a tough sell, we put on our best Seattle smiles and, with the enticement of gift cards, were able to get several individuals on board.


While our participants were familiar with the Starbucks Mobile app, and all agreed that it was a “cool” and “original” idea, most of them didn’t have it, nor knew about Mobile Order and Pay. One who did reported that he’d become frustrated with the number of times he was asked to login so he’d stopped using it—when using the app this time around, however, he found the ordering process largely intuitive, though he was uncertain about the size he’d gotten, joking, “Wait, did I just order five gallons of coffee?” Several people said that they found the design more in need of the personal touch—that it was weighed too much towards efficiency and away from the Starbucks look-and-feel they are used to and expect. For example, they agreed that customizing an order, which is so essential to the Starbucks user experience, should be easier to do. In addition, the question of location often came up, as several individuals became confused about which store they were ordering from.

Pickup at . . . where?

With drinks ordered, our participants joked that they were not sure what to do next, and where their drinks were in the queue—if there was a separate one for pay ahead orders or if they were in the same one as those who ordered in-store. What happened next depended on which store they were in. Sometimes participants’ names were called out, and other times they had to just sift through the cups on the pick-up counter. In all the stores, pre-orders did have a slip of paper with the customer’s name attached to a cup to differentiate them from in-store orders, but not knowing that in advance didn’t help these first-time users. If efficiency is taking precedence over the personal touch in the user experience, in this aspect it failed.


Then there was the question of tipping. The app gives you the opportunity to tip, and while all our participants appreciated the option, some felt that tipping was best left to being done at the physical location. All but one had their favorite local Starbucks, and said that tipping was an important part of the relationship they have with their barista, a personal aspect of the experience that they preferred to do in-person. Some also commented that while customization options are hard to find, the option to tip jumps out at you after you place your order, which seemed a little out of whack.

What kind of app is Starbucks aiming for?

Starbucks’ brand proposition is focused around treating every customer like the only customer, so in a sense they are a victim of their own success—the expectation customers have is that they’ll have a flawless experience. So while our participants were pleased overall, the bumpy spots in the process felt exaggerated. Furthermore, this existing customer dynamic brings up a foundational question: what’s the ultimate purpose of this feature? Does Starbucks want to enhance brand experience and offer more of a concierge type of service, such as with hotel chains such as Hilton, or does the feature exist to help people fast-track their day, as it is with Taco Bell. Another way of looking at this issue is considering who the audience is. If it’s die-hard Starbucks fans, then the feature—and the app in general—has a very different standard than for the general user. Either way, a few elements of the process appear to need more ironing out to make the Mobile Order and Pay feature truly effective.