Starbucks Shares Lessons of Going Mobile

An Android app and the ability to order a drink from a mobile phone are coming soon, an executive from Starbucks said as he shared lessons and tips from his company's experience offering mobile applications.

An Android app and the ability to order a drink from a mobile phone are coming soon, an executive from Starbucks said as he shared lessons and tips from his company's experience offering mobile applications.

Starbucks claims to have developed the very first iPhone app, which was an alert that people using the first iPhone received showing the name of the song playing in a Starbucks store when they walked in, said K.C. MacLaren, director of mobile and emerging platforms at Starbucks. He spoke at the Mobile Northwest conference on Monday in Seattle.

Since then, Starbucks has offered mobile apps to iPhone and BlackBerry users that let people manage their Starbucks cards and pay for drinks in the stores. The in-store payment service has handled millions of transactions, MacLaren said.

Apps for Android phones are "in process," he said. The platform presents challenges because it supports multiple screen resolutions and sizes, and users have various versions of the operating system, he said.

One of the most common questions he gets is: When will Starbucks let people order drinks from their phones? MacLaren said that the capability is coming in some form. "We know how to do it, the question is: Does it create the behavior in the customer we really want?" he said.

There's been a "lively debate" over offering the capability, he said. It could encourage some people to buy a drink when they'd otherwise walk away because of a long line, but it could also annoy people who are waiting in line when they see people head to the front of the line to pick up a pre-ordered drink, he said. People might order a drink from their phone but arrive to the store late and complain that their drink is cold. "We'll try something with it. Stay tuned," he said.

MacLaren shared some tips from his company's experience building mobile apps. He suggests offering information that's particularly useful to mobile users. "There's nothing wrong with telling your story but you can't just take your website and stick it on the phone. There's a different use case than on your laptop," he said.

For instance, mobile users don't simply want to see a list of stores. They want to see stores that have drive-through windows or those that are open, he said.

IPads are an entirely separate category. "IPads are not mobile. You can't scan it and pay," he said. He thinks iPads are an important segment but they should be served differently from a mobile phone, he said.

He advised companies that are building mobile apps to think carefully about measuring usage. Starbucks has discovered that it cannot predict how people will use apps and that being able to collect data about usage is key in order to learn about what people want. It will often launch one new feature and find 10 ways to measure its usage.

Starbucks also recommends considering different ways to test applications. Starbucks has faced challenges testing features like mobile payment. "Once you put an app in the store, a zillion people have access to it. You can't just say I want to try this segment," he said. To test out the mobile payment feature, Starbucks decided to release an app with many functions that would appeal broadly and say that the payment feature would be available only to visitors to 16 specific stores.

In addition to Android and mobile ordering, Starbucks thinks that the next step for mobile apps are features that help consumers interact with each other. "There's us to you and you to us and the third generation will be how do consumers interact with each other around our brand. That's where the power will be," he said.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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