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What Starbucks can teach tech giants about mobile payments : MoMa Trends: Mobile Payments

Blog: MoMa Trends: Mobile Payments

Apple, Google and Samsung are indisputably mighty technology giants, but with all the power they hold, none of them has so far succeeded in persuading American mass consumers to use their smartphones to pay for merchandise.

Instead, the only U.S. company that has cracked mobile payments is Starbucks, who claims that about 21 percent of all US transactions take place through its mobile app, letting people point their smartphones to a scanner at the cash register rather than pull out cash or a credit card. Customers can also place orders and pay for them ahead of time from their phones and skip the queue once they arrive.

Starbucks Chart

Getting one out of every five orders through its smartphone app is an impressive accomplishment for Starbucks, considering mobile payments accounted for just 2.1 percent of U.S. retail sales last year, according to estimates from Mercator Advisory Group.

“The app is very important,” said Adam Brotman, the Seattle-based chain’s chief digital officer. “It’s become one of our core strategies.”

How a coffee shop became a leader in mobile payments is a clear evidence of the intuition of CEO Howard Schultz. In 2011, while tech companies like Google tried to get consumers to use complicated mobile-payment systems requiring new phones and revamped in-store terminals, Starbucks introduced an app that used simple QR codes. And perhaps just as important, the chain offered rewards like free beverages for using it.

The app was an instant success, becoming what mobile-strategy specialist Crone Consulting LLC, called “the most successful launch of a new payment type in history.”

This year, Starbucks also is planning to start recommending additional purchases to its customers via the type of smart technology used by Netflix and Amazon. With more personalized recommendations, Starbucks could potentially increase each sale amount by as much as 50 percent, according to Crone, the mobile-payments consultant.

As the app continues to develop, it may even alter the way Starbucks operates and reshape how cafes look, putting Starbucks on track to become a mobile-first company, comparable to Facebook and Uber. “You might see a real change in the store layout,” said Crone. “You’ll see a Starbucks that looks like the Apple store. You got rid of the counter, you got rid of the queues, you have latte stations and espresso stations, where you simply walk up to the station.”

And customers may even see Starbucks-like technology at other companies someday. Because the app was created mostly in-house, other retailers are contacting the coffee chain about licensing it.

Tech giants Apple Samsung and Google trying to conquer mobile payments could use a basic sociology lesson: Changing habits is hard. It’s not enough for Apple CEO Tim Cook to tell people how amazing it is to use a phone or watch as a wallet. You have to prove repeatedly why a phone is better than cash or credit cards, until the behavior sticks.


So what did Starbucks do right, and how can the tech companies learn from them?


Rewards Program: A big appeal of the Starbucks mobile app is a connection with the company’s loyalty program, that grants customers a star for every dollar spent on a registered Starbucks card. After a certain number of stars are accumulated, the customer is eligible for free beverages. We know bribery can be incredibly effective at changing human behavior.

Mobile Order & Pay: For caffeine addicts, using a phone to order and pay for a Caramelized Honey Latte and then skip the queue to pick it up is a great benefit of the Starbucks app.

Innovate With Simple Technology: Starbucks took the very simple 2D barcode and inverted the use case that most companies were using.  By allowing the register to scan the 2D barcode rather then the user scan a 2D barcode. This simple technology is broadly compatible with iOS 8.0/ Android 4.1 or later.


2D Barcode

So if tomorrow there were to be an Academy Awards category for winners in digital payments, Starbucks would definitely have an Oscar for its Mobile Pay App. And runners-up like Apple Pay and Samsung or Google Pay would be frankly lagging behind.



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Ainara Gonzalez Abaitua
Master in Digital Marketing
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