We went to Starbucks every day for a week to see if the coffee giant has fixed a potentially catastrophic problem

  • I visited a busy Starbucks for a week to see if the chain’s attempts to fix its mobile ordering process actually worked.
  • Speed and service have significantly improved — though there is still room to grow. 
  • Starbucks is rolling out waves of new tech this fall to further grow mobile sales, which the chain sees as crucial to survival.

Over the past year, one of Starbucks‘ biggest strength morphed into a huge problem.

In early 2017, Starbucks admitted that mobile ordering was creating bottlenecks during busy hours at some of Starbucks’ most popular locations. The company reported in January that crowds of customers waiting for their lattes and Frappuccinos had even started to discourage walk-in customers from entering stores, contributing to a drop in sales.

Starbucks promised it would find a solution. The chain has made changes including debuting tablets to track digital orders at the 1,000 busiest stores, tweaking pick-up layout, and testing new tech, including a notification to alert customers when orders are ready.

When I visited Starbucks every day for a week in March, I was disappointed by how much time I had wasted at the coffee chain. Every day, the chain promised my order would be ready in two to five minutes — and every day but one, Starbucks failed me. Instead, most orders took around 10 minutes. 

To see if Starbucks had fixed its problem, I recently decided to return to the chain for another week of mobile orders. 

Hits and misses

Starbucks pickup
Starbucks’ mobile order pick up counter could either be efficient and empty or extremely crowded, depending on the day. Kate Taylor

Starbucks’ “strong digital and loyalty programs are a significant advantage,” Morgan Stanley analyst John Glass wrote in a recent note to investors. “Traction is building on redeployed, spend-based loyalty and mobile ordering and delivery continue to gain order share.”

However, from a bearish perspective, Glass says that the chain’s digital sales could be “limited by competition and execution issues.”

In March, evidence of “execution issues” was everywhere. Starbucks’ social media accounts were flooded with complaints about slow mobile service.

However, recent social media response to Starbucks’ mobile has been more mixed. 

Some people seem enthused about their speedy service:

 But others still have complaints: 

In an effort to see if social media complaints had any foundation, I visited a popular, high-traffic in Manhattan every morning at roughly 8 a.m.  — prime time for commuters heading to work.

Four out of the six times I visited, my order was ready in under five minutes — within the apps promised two to five minute preparation window. My speediest order was ready just two and a half minutes after I paid on the app. 

However, the two times that it took more than five minutes for me to receive my order, it wasn’t even close. One day, I waited for 8 minutes and 31 seconds. Another day I waited more than nine minutes. 

Unlike March, when there was no discernible relationship between the crowd and the wait time, I knew how long I would be waiting for my mobile order as soon as I walked into Starbucks. If there was a huge group of people waiting for in-store and mobile orders congregated in the back of the store, I knew I wouldn’t make it out in under five minutes. 

Have fixes fixed anything? 

Starbucks pick up

Even though things can still be hit-or-miss, Starbucks has gotten a lot speedier over the last five months. 

One thing I immediately noticed was that Starbucks has doubled the size of its pick up area.

In March, the chain had just started rolling out pick-up shelves. Now, instead of forcing baristas to call out names again and again and crowding drinks on the edge of the counter, baristas call out mobile orderers’ names once, then place the drinks down. 

Order ready starbucks

Another change: getting a notification when my order is ready. Since I was already waiting in Starbucks when I got this notification, it wasn’t that useful for me. But, it’s a nice add for customers who don’t want to show up at Starbucks until their drink is actually ready for pickup. Plus, I’m betting it encourages customers to pick up their orders more quickly and saves baristas from dealing with confused customers wondering if their order is ready yet. 

Behind the scenes, Starbucks now has some baristas focused solely on mobile orders. The tablet and new tech seem to be helping make food and beverage preparation more seamless. And, the chain has begun to address employees’ concerns regarding understaffing, adding workers to a significant portion of stores over the last nine months.

In my experience, Starbucks’ biggest mobile struggle is still bottlenecks when orders pile up at busy times. Walking into a crowded store, I could pretty accurately predict the obvious: I’d be waiting for a while. And, I can understand why some customers would see that crowd, turn around, and leave the store. 

What’s next

Starbucks workers during early tests of the digital notification feature. Starbucks Melody

While Starbucks has improved its mobile ordering process, it is still hit or miss. With the coffee giant betting big on mobile, a patchy record isn’t good enough.  

Customers using their phones to purchase food and drinks ahead of time now represents 9% of Starbucks US orders. Nearly one in three transactions are paid for using mobile devices. So, ensuring that mobile ordering boosts sales instead of driving customers away is crucial to Starbucks’ success.

In July, Starbucks announced that it would roll out a “new generation of digital innovation” in waves starting this fall, beginning with adding new features in its “modernised” rewards program. There’s also an upcoming rollout of “new foundational technology” to make mobile ordering more convenient and better integrate digital with in-store operations. 

Girl starbucks coffee walking park

“We’re not complacent and recognise that digital relationships will increasingly be the key drivers of demand generation, even in physical stores,” Starbucks’ global chief strategy officer Matt Ryan said in July, arguing that adjusting to the growth of digital is essential to any retailers’ survival. 

“By leading in the combination of physical and digital, we not only drive superior business results in the short term … but we also make it very challenging for digital companies to outmaneuver us in the physical world,” he continued. “While digital companies may win in other sectors, we will be the digital company that wins in ours.”

 Starbucks has already made significant improvements to its mobile ordering program. New tech could help address the bottlenecks that — while less frequent — are still happening during busy hours. 

As Starbucks tries to convince more people to order via mobile, it needs to make sure that it has the manpower and tech support necessary. If not, one of the chain’s biggest strengths could yet again become a major weakness.