The most innovative brands are first to face the backlash

Starbucks, innovation, traffic

Starbucks made its way across the country in the 90’s bringing sophisticated coffee house experience to every street in the US. Everything most Americans knew about coffee was learned from Starbucks. The idea behind the experience, sit in a comfortable place and chat, work, and savor ‘premium’ coffee was amazing. It immediately impacted pop culture, inspiring a permanent set on the sitcom Friends (at least in part). It was counter to the fast food culture that it help supplant, while leveraging the real estate lessons of those same brands.

The promise was so simple. Come in, we won’t rush you. Sit, enjoy. As the brand grew in popularity, the experience strained at the seams, but somehow didn’t break. Most of the moves Starbucks made (and this is still true) work for both the customers and the brand. Even as the stores have filled up with ever expanding traffic counts, people kept coming back.

They were out in front of mobile commerce in the best ways, providing delighting experiences through their app which is considered best in category. The gamified loyalty component is as addictive as Candy Crush. But this app has caused other side effects for that simple experience.

The transaction is more akin to taking cash as a near physical handoff takes place when the barista aims the scanner and the guest fidgets with their phone.

Starbucks mobile ordering is a fantastic technical product. But it creates trouble in expectations for customers who may be waiting in line while mobile customers jump ahead of the line or join the second queue of people waiting for their order. Remember, the key to the Starbucks promise to customers was that everyone deserved a premium coffee experience.

Pre-Starbucks, coffee sold for 25¢ and expectations were low. But the green circle came to mean a better coffee, a nicer time buying and sipping it, and a higher price tag. When people refer to the brand as ‘four bucks’ they usually do so with a smirk because the elevated quality makes it more worthy of that cost.

The media is now covering the wait times as a cause for fears around the stock price. People have been left waiting for their mobile orders, because there are so many orders coming in at peak times. But before that, the experienced was getting whittled down by suboptimal locations, where lines and customer service fell below expectations. Think: airport locations.

Sure, it’s great that customers can tap their phone and have a coffee waiting for them en route to the office. Like anything, consumers have a way of getting spoiled. The last thing the brand can afford is people having time to stand at the end of the counter and think about the cost of the coffee while they wait in a crowd. It starts to feel less and less special. Less special means less valuable. Less valuable means high priced. This is how traffic slows.

During the recession, Starbucks thrived because it was a relatively affordable luxury during tough economic times. They did this with a focus on consistent service and intelligent products that played off of the psyche of their core consumers. The world-class app mentioned above has contributed to cutting down the experience in other ways. Though mobile pay is simpler than swiping a card, it creates a break in the engagement between staff and customers. The transaction is more akin to taking cash as a near physical handoff takes place when the barista aims the scanner and the guest fidgets with their phone. Powerful technology is reminding customers that they are paying, and paying quite a bit, for their morning coffee.

Starbucks is far from trouble akin to what fallen brands have dealt with. Too much traffic and too many orders are an issue most CEOs would long to discuss as a negative on earnings calls. But unless they adapt and align their fantastic technology with their in store experience (and brand promise!), it may have a negative impact yet.

Author: Adam Pierno

Adam Pierno has a one-of-a-kind perspective on restaurant and CPGs. He investigates the connections between strategy, media, digital and business goals employing social media listening, analysis and traditional consumer research to find meaningful insights for brands thinking about their futures.