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Starbucks Walk-Thru Brings Drive-Thru Feel to City Locations

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Brooke Lynch


Starbucks is considered one of the lucky ones; throughout the pandemic, customers have continued to head to the chain each day to pick up their favorite coffee. To maintain this consistent growth, the company is working to expand its stores to reflect customers’ ever-evolving needs. 

One of the most interesting concepts being discussed by the brand is a new walk-thru experience called Starbucks Pickup. This new approach attempts to mimic the suburban drive-thru in denser metropolitan areas, according to CEO Kevin Johnson. At each Pickup location, customers will order and pay on their Starbucks app before heading in-store. Its purpose is to offer a completely contactless experience; acting as a mobile pick-up site rid of the classic dine-in cafe features. These locations will likely act as a counterpart to their more traditional storefronts and will exist within a three to five-minute walk from each other. 

I found this concept particularly exciting as a frequent Starbucks customer. Although the mobile app is convenient, I often found myself waiting in line for my mid-day caffeine fix (probably out of habit, but I was rarely in a rush).  Because of this, even when there were only two to three customers ahead of me, I often waited up to fifteen minutes to actually receive my drink, while mobile orders were called left and right. This primarily occurred in my local New York City location, with exponential foot traffic and non-stop online orders, but it was noticeable nonetheless. I began begrudgingly ordering off the app, even if I was in the store already, knowing my mobile drink order might be prioritized. This always felt like a bit of a service flaw, like there could be a better way to still prioritize customers who do choose to patiently wait for their coffee in-stores while continuing to offer seamless mobile ordering. However, according to former Starbucks baristas on Reddit, the orders are all processed in the same system, and stickers used to determine the drink orders are printed as received either by mobile or in-store, so there may be no actual prioritization.

Intentional or not, this new Starbucks Pickup seems like a fairly reasonable fix for this in-store vs mobile order discrepancy. With mobile app users heading to pick-up locations and cafes focused on the slower, more traditional sit and stay awhile approach, it may work out in everyone’s favor. Although Starbucks notes that this new store format is focused on safety and convenience, it provides this unintentional benefit that almost feels like a personalization effort; Starbucks is effectively catering to both mobile and in-store customers by defining new spaces to interact with each. Now when customers enter a traditional location, they can set the pace and order as they please avoiding the rushed and hectic interaction. 

Starbucks' new concept parallels the quick-service industry’s emphasis on convenient and contactless restaurant experiences. With lockdowns in full swing, it's unlikely that customers will be sitting in cafes in the near future, but this concept definitely represents expansion that still encompasses both the present and future customer experience. This pickup restaurant counterpart could act as a blueprint for other restaurants and even retailers operating in metropolitan areas. Additionally, it still offers a valuable alternative once restrictions begin to lift, acting as a personalized solution for customers seeking different purchasing experiences. Ultimately, focusing solely on contactless experiences can disregard a whole demographic of customers seeking a different pace, therefore maintaining boundaries to include traditional aspects can work to facilitate more seamless experiences overall.