Think Tank: Starbucks Mobile Ordering

I walked into Starbucks this afternoon craving an iced coffee, and one of the first things I noticed was this humongous cardboard sign.

Very interesting. Very, very interesting.

Very interesting. Very, very interesting.

My 15-year-old sister explained to me that in a lot of states across the country, you can now order and pay for your Starbucks order — both drinks and food — through the Starbucks mobile app. You skip the line, pick it up at the bar and go on about your day.

I’ve used online ordering for food before, and I don’t have a problem with the general concept of it. It makes both Panera and Chipotle much more pleasant, especially if you’re ordering in a big group. Everyone can pay separately, and one person can go and pick up everything without having to collect money and make a million orders. In the age of the credit card, it makes a lot of sense and streamlines a process. I spent most of the afternoon thinking about  this new way of ordering at Starbucks and why it seemed and felt wrong to me, and I came up with two reasons.

The experience of ordering coffee should be sacred. 

I know this is a really funny statement considering we’re discussing Starbucks, which is so commercialized I’m surprised they don’t do celebrity endorsement deals. This is the same chain the mainstream media covers like national news when it announces six new Frappuccino flavors. Hell, I don’t even really Starbucks coffee that much. I’d rather go somewhere else or make my own coffee, unless I’m really craving it (like today) and it’s convenient (like today).

There’s something about the experience of walking into the cafe, ordering your drink from a barista and waiting to get it. You have the ambience of the making coffee noises, the music (which is almost always pretty good) and people chatting or working away. If you go often enough, it becomes an entire ritual. And I like it: I like looking at the new cups they have, hearing what other people are ordering and maybe even running into someone I know. It’s an experience I really enjoy, especially if it’s a coffee shop that’s relaxing to be in. It seems much more relaxed than say, shopping for clothes in a store, which has become an altogether unpleasant experience.

I guess getting rid of all of this via ordering at home and picking it up in the store isn’t a bad thing if you have social anxiety, you’re picking up a bunch of drinks for a lot of people or you really are too busy to wait in line. Convenience can really make it all the more pleasant. But by ordering and paying through an app, you eliminate all of those other elements that I think are just the simple joys of living life.

It also fosters a world where we don’t have to interact with each other. 

Life requires interaction, and I’m not sure why people gravitate towards things that ensure that they don’t have to engage. While online transactions make things much more convenient, it eliminates face time that people need to build interpersonal skills. Sure, people can be really terrible, but that’s the point: you learn by talking to people and realizing “I shouldn’t act like that because it made me feel a, b or c” or “I should act like that more because of x, y or z.” I would imagine even little kids learn a lot from these kinds of exchanges: the procedure of waiting in line, ordering food, saying “please” and “thank you” and being patient in waiting. If children grow up knowing that you can do just about anything through a phone app, this will change the way they interact with the world and other people in it. We’re seeing this now with online shopping, which I acknowledge as something I do but would change if the conditions were better.

People have always been afraid of robots, and we tell so many “What if robots take over the world???” stories through movies, television shows and novels. But this is basically what is happening right now with something like Starbucks mobile ordering. I realize that’s a gross overstatement, but it’s worth suggesting. There are people who are making and monitoring the app, but they are entirely behind the scenes. The app will treat your drink as a statistic, not as a personal order (which also brings me to believe that this will give Starbucks a whole new mine of demographic and business figures). By introducing this digital component, Starbucks is also opening up a new can of worms. I’ll be interested to see what happens when mobile orders get messed up, or how the staffs will juggle a queue with both in-person and virtual orders.

Another thing about this app is that I’m curious about how many jobs the app will erase. Starbucks obviously still needs baristas to make the drinks — unless they also make that computerized, which will be even scarier — but what will happen to the staffs that previously needed a certain amount of people on register with an additional number actually making the drinks? Even though 64 percent of adult Americans own a smartphone, I don’t think mobile ordering would ever supplant the traditional ordering method — or at least I hope not. But in the face of such a paradigm shift, these are the kinds of questions we should be asking.

What do you think about Starbucks mobile ordering? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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