Mobile Ordering: Starbucks and the New Era of Efficiency

i-bagMovies and literature about the future are rarely about a happy one, which makes sense, because all drama revolves around conflict. Conflict in imagined futures comes in two varieties. One is the dystopia, where everything is grimy and run-down, though there is some kind of technology that keeps the masses oppressed—think of 1984, where Winston lived in a broken-down flat with an all-seeing telescreen. The other is the bright and shiny future of gleaming technology and hyper-efficiency. It comes with a cost, of course: individuality is robbed, and most people are as similar as the tasteless-but-nutritious meals they eat for each beige meal. Efficiency and comfort comes at the price of freedom.

There could be a third way, one which is almost never discussed in pop culture (again, for good dramatic reasons): that is the future where things are both efficient and good, where our technology helps us enjoy life, and not just homogenize it. This is a future where little inconveniences are smoothed out, enough so that we have more time to focus on what really matters. This future comes to us in a thousand ways that seem like small beer at first, but add up. This movie might start by featuring mobile ordering and mobile pay, and it could start today—as a documentary.

Starbucks and Mobile Ordering

The Bay Area runs on two things: technology and coffee. It was inevitable that the twain would meet. Late last year, in Portland (which also might have a bit of a coffee obsession) Starbucks began to roll out its pre-ordering and mobile pay program. It expanded to the rest of the Pacific Northwest, then to 17 additional states, and now is available in every Starbucks location in the country. Just in case you weren’t totally aware of it, there are quite a few of those—over 7500 in the continental U.S. There are no less than four in a two-mile radius from where I type this.

So they were already pretty convenient. But the mobile pay system is making them even more so. What this consists of is downloading the Starbucks app, which of course works both with iOS and Android. You then sign up for the My Starbucks Rewards loyalty program, which allows you to get a virtual debit card and fill it up with however much money you’d like. You can order coffee (or whatever) straight from the app, pay for it immediately, say when you’ll be there, and stop by, with your drink ready and waiting for you.

Starbucks representatives say that in the cities where the program was piloted, lines were shorter and wait times were dramatically cut down. You didn’t have that clutch of people gaggling awkwardly around the “Pick Up Here” area, everyone moving in with breathless and impatient expectation when the barista announces the next ready drink. It makes the whole experience more pleasant for every customer, which also makes it more pleasant for workers, who don’t have to deal with restless customers.

Beyond The Virtual Wallet

It seems like just this year that the virtual wallet came to the scene, promising to make everything quicker and safer. And it has. This is the next step in that rapid evolution, though it isn’t as universal. However, it points the way to a future that is distinctly more convenient for everyone involved.

It has always been easy to order pick-up, and with the rise of sites like, it is easy to pay for an order in the same virtual place you are ordering it. The difference here is that this is a specific app, with its own currency, essentially, that is dedicated toward one thing. There is no jumping around. It is a self-contained ecosystem for Starbucks, without any third party.

This won’t work for everything. For that great Thai place or the random hot dog joint you visit occasionally, sites like are still super easy (as is just calling them, or walking in). But for places that we go to a lot, that are part of the routine, a dedicated order/pay app makes things considerably more effortless and more efficient.

Think about what this could mean. Imagine you get a 15-minute coffee break. Right now, 14 of those minutes are spent going to the corner coffee place, ordering, waiting in line, waiting for your drink, and coming back. 10 of those minutes—everything but the walk—can be cut out with the pre-ordering and mobile pay system. That’s 10 minutes to read, tweet, relax, talk with your co-workers, or just enjoy being outside. Maybe this also adds 20 extra easy minutes to your lunch break. You’ve already gained a hassle-free half-hour.

Now picture this becoming a way to shop for everything. It is easy to imagine an economy where most shopping is pre-ordered, and then picked up. Think of how much time you will save then. At this point the 10 minutes for coffee has becomes 10 hours a week.

This is where the solution to “first world problems” (waiting for Pumpkin Spice Lattes) becomes a real human and moral good. So much of life is waiting around, and doing things inefficiently. There are a finite number of actions we can take in life, and each action precludes a million others. Not waiting in line opens up life. It takes away some drudgery, and as those hours add up, we begin to have more real life.

That’s why I think both those cacotopias mentioned above will be prove to be inaccurate visions of the future. Efficiency doesn’t mean something grim. It can mean something liberating. There’s more time to read, to explore, to have fun with friends, to delight in family, to stare at the sky. There’s more time to be actually, authentically, human. In the end, that will be technology’s great and paradoxical gift.

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