Thursday, February 13, 2020
A few weeks ago, on a cold, rainy evening, I saw the future. It was a future clear as day and almost as if Doc Brown himself had jumped out of a stainless steel DeLorean, threw a banana peel inside Mr. Fusion, and whisked me away on a ride of a lifetime, for I had just paid my first visit to the new Starbucks Pickup store just off Penn Station in New York City.
While much has been made of this new Starbucks store, until one sees it for oneself, it is really hard to grasp its meaning.
It looks like a Starbucks, it walks like a Starbucks, heck, it even quacks like a Starbucks, but there is one big difference — customers place their orders from their mobile phones.
While it all sounds strange at first, once one gets past the novelty of the expression, “pickup only store,” one soon realizes that the experience is almost identical to every other garden variety mobile order pickup experience at nearly every other Starbucks in the world. Only at this Starbucks, the operations and architecture are designed 100% for pickup rather than mobile ordering feeling like a bolt-on design option.
Architecturally, everything is reconfigured for a mobile-first experience. The back-of-house operations are bigger and placed well out of view from customers, and the front-of-house is merchandised to facilitate quick order fulfillment. To order, the process is simple. Customers order a drink on their phones, go to the store, see their names within a digital queue on the wall (see image above), and, when their orders are ready, their names get called and the screen alerts them that their orders are available for pickup. Then, as a final wave and gesture, a super nice barista (mine was named Alberto — see below) hands customers their drinks, says a few pleasantries, and everyone is off and on their way.
No friction. No fuss. Just the same great Starbucks experience thousands of people have had, thousands of times.
All of which is what makes this store so important — humanity is as present and as valued as it ever was. It is just the lines and the scribbling of names on white cups that are gone. Every other hallmark of a great Starbucks experience still remains.
Embedded retail — i.e. retail that meets consumers within the moments and spaces when consumers need retail the most, like at subway stations, airports, gyms, coworking facilities, etc. — is only now just starting to gain momentum. Starbucks’ pickup-only store is one example. Nordstrom Local is another. So, too, are simple expressions like BOPIS (buy online, pickup in store) or BOPIL (buy online, pickup in locker) with which many retailers have begun experimenting.
They all point to a new reality, a reality in which brands will be built, not on the backs of helpful sales people pushing products, but by way of digital tools that help customers acquire what they want on their own and then leave humanity to solve the problems customers cannot solve themselves or to give customers a wink and a smile, as Alberto did at Starbucks, just at the right moment, post-purchase, to make them feel special and to leave them wanting more.
Human interactions, in other words, will shift over time from pre-purchase activities to post-purchase sales support. Humanity will always be important in the right context, but understanding when it is most important is the still the question that will separate the haves from the have-nots in the future. Great customer service in 2030 will be a far cry from 2010.
Involving humans in ordering, payment, etc. vs. submitting data electronically just adds subjectivity and precious time few people have to what should be an objective process. Humanity exists within these processes only because it always has and not because it needs too. The world has just never known any better.
The beauty of Starbucks Pickup is that, with just a slight tweak of its human interaction model, both the future and the past can coexist against an ever advancing premium on the economy of people’s time. Just as Starbucks blazed the trail of mobile payments, so too is Starbucks now giving the world a first glimpse into what customer service post-purchase, amid an on-demand world, could and should look like.
And, though it all sounds like one hell of a white whale to harpoon amid centuries of old habits, the aptly named Starbucks may be the best of the bunch to serve as first-mate and to steer the ship of American consumerism in the right direction, one busy thoroughfare and countless caffeine-addicted people at a time.