In a perfect world, technology solves problems instead of creating them. Things don’t always go that way. Take, for example, Starbucks’ mobile ordering. This is, in theory, a convenience for users of their app. They can place an order before hitting the store, pay automatically, and get their drink and food without waiting in line.
Or at least that is the theory. The reality is that a surge in mobile orders has created a bunch of headaches for the coffee chain. Here are some details from when they announced their earnings at the end of January (Starbucks Tempers Revenue Forecast, Jan 26, Wall Street Journal).
Mobile order-and-pay represented 7% of U.S. company-operated transactions in the quarter, up from 3% in the prior year. The number of its highest-volume stores for mobile order-and-pay, where orders placed via the app account for more than 20% of transactions during peak hours, doubled to 1,200 stores over the prior quarter.
The high rate of mobile ordering was blamed by Starbucks for increased waits and with that lost customers. In the last quarter, dollar sales were up because the average purchase size outweighed a 2% decline in transaction.
But just how bad is the delay? That’s the subject of a recent Business Insider piece. The headline pretty much lays out the article’s agenda: We went to Starbucks every day for a week to see how the coffee giant is dealing with its biggest problem (March 19).
I must say upfront that I admire the approach of getting an article out of doing something that one would likely have done anyway. I only wonder whether the reporter was able to get Business Insider to pick up the tab for her drinks.
So what does one find by going to Starbucks every day? That waits can be long.
While Starbucks promises that mobile orders will be ready within three to five minutes of placing an order, the chain fulfilled this promise in just one out of five visits. Three of my orders took roughly 10 minutes — more than twice as long as promised.
The process was far from seamless. Customers crowded around in the back of the store waiting for their drinks. And baristas at times called out mobile orders for customers who were not yet there to pick up their beverages.
There was no discernible relationship between the numbers of people waiting in line and of people in the crowd waiting for their beverages. One of my longest waits, which took 10 minutes, 35 seconds, occurred when there was no line at the front of the store; another day, I received my drink in 4 minutes, 15 seconds despite a crowd of customers waiting to order.
The worst part: Ordering via mobile didn’t necessarily save time. Walking in, waiting in line, and ordering at the counter also took me about 10 minutes.
The article also reports that baristas have taken to Reddit to complain about the hassles (and pissed off customers) created by mobile ordering.
A fundamental problem here is that mobile ordering has been tacked onto existing stores without fundamental changes in how the stores are organized. At first glance, that may not seem like a big deal. Mobile customers are ordering the same lattes and cookies as those standing in line. However, they do bring different steps to the process. For example, where do they pick up their orders? Do they join a scrum with those who sucked it up and waited in line or is there a separate spot? Check out the Business Insider article for some pictures of the less-than-elegant solutions found at different locations.
So what about the waits? According to the Journal, Operating Chief Kevin Johnson claims “the company plans to fix the problem with better signage, text messages telling customers when their orders are ready, and the deploying of employees to hand off mobile orders.” Better signs might help customers figure out where to grab their drink but it may not be a panacea. I would guess that the biggest problem here is that customers are annoyed with the delay at the Starbucks that’s near their office. That is, their regular Starbucks where they have already figured out where to grab their drink. Similarly, it’s not clear how a text helps reduce the wait — although it might reduce the aggravation of line waiters who hear baristas calling out names for mobile orders that were processed before theirs.
A simple solution here might be to give priority to mobile orders. You have promised a short time to one group and haven’t really made a commitment to another. Taking care of the former seems a like an obvious solution although it also will obviously negatively impact regular customers. Priorities, of course, don’t have to be absolute and set in stone. There are a number ways adjusting them dynamically so that the line-waiters don’t get too badly abused. For example, one could give priority to mobile orders as long as no regular order has been waiting for more than, say, two minutes. Similarly, one should not treat all mobile orders the same. If Starbucks can see how far way the customer is when they order, one could do those nearest to the store first.
A solution that makes all of these problems go away is adding more capacity. If any orders are routinely waiting over ten minutes, then Starbucks may just have an understaffed store. Improved signage and text message won’t fix that. Only more baristas will.