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Starbucks offers omnichannel latte

By Ben Ames | October 28, 2016 | 1:21 PM

Stop by your local Starbucks coffee shop and you may see a strange phenomenon; there can be a dozen steaming-hot prepared drinks waiting on the counter, but only a scattered handful of people on foot standing in the café to get them.

What gives? Is the popular coffee chain going out of business? Are the busy employees just training, learning how to make the latest designer latte and generating a stack of free drinks?

No, it turns out that Starbucks is doing just fine. In fact, the unclaimed drinks are a sign that its latest e-commerce fulfillment effort is a hit with consumers. Just like major omnichannel retailers like Walmart and Best Buy, Starbucks has launched a buy-online-pick-up-in-store plan. Retailers across the shopping spectrum offer similar "BOPUS" plans, with giants like Macy’s, Kohl's, and Nordstrom often offering discounts for consumers to pick up purchases themselves and save money on shipping.

Of course, Starbucks doesn't ship hot coffee, but the massive chain sees significant time savings in allowing customers to order ahead. Starbucks rolled out its “Mobile Order & Pay” plan in 2014 for Portland-, Ore.-area users of its mobile app. The offer spread quickly, and the system is now available at some 7,400 stores. If that sounds like a lot, remember that the coffee giant has 24,000 retail stores in 74 countries worldwide.

Clearly, customers enjoy ordering their drinks online, but the new approach is not so popular with some of the chain’s green-aproned employees. It turns out that online orders have a tendency to arrive in massive numbers, burying baristas under a sudden wave of demand for scones, muffins, and cappuccinos. Since consumers can place orders on their own phones nearly simultaneously, the orders accumulate much faster online than when people wait patiently in line to place those orders one by one.

Just this week, I stepped in to my local Starbucks in the middle of the morning commute, and was startled to find it nearly empty at 8:05am. The barista shrugged and said it had been a hectic morning because they’d had 40 orders come in all at once from Starbucks Mobile. He started to explain that some orders took longer to fulfill than others when his colleague called out in a clear voice: “Mobile order for Madeleine!”

And another virtual sale was made.

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