Downtime

Thirsty

How the Starbucks app created so many rewards-hungry obsessives.

Woman on her phone, Starbucks app screenshots
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Khosrork/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The first Friday in November was an important day for Starbucks. It was the first of the company’s annual holiday season, anticipated by the Starbucks loyal each year and marked by the launch of Peppermint Mochas and seasonal red cups, among other festive offerings. But this year, on that fateful day, something went wrong. The Starbucks app wasn’t working.

Apps go down all the time; such is life with smartphones. But this outage, and the furious tweets that went with it, was enough of a news event to rate coverage from CNBC, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, and more. Starbucks heads, it seems, do not like to be without their app. And that’s by design.

In May, an eMarketer report revealed that the Starbucks app is the top mobile-payment app in the U.S., more popular than Apple Pay or Google Pay. This sounds like it can’t be right: How can Starbucks money be more popular than regular money? But mobile payments haven’t been universally adopted yet, and Starbucks was early to the market: It launched the first version of its app in the now–relatively ancient year 2009. It also helps that the brand is ubiquitous, with about 28,000 stores worldwide. In October, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson told Bloomberg that roughly 40 percent of the store’s sales in North America are part of the company’s loyalty program, the vast majority of which are paid for via the app. The app’s mobile-order tool alone accounts for 13 percent of transactions.

What is it about this Starbucks app? Users I talked to called it “life-changing” and “addictive.” If you don’t spend much time at Starbucks, you may be wondering why the coffee chain needs an app at all. But if you have been in a Starbucks lately, maybe you’ve noticed other people using the app, skipping the lines and walking off with their drinks a little smugly—or maybe you’ve discovered its apparently seductive pull yourself. The app is now a sizable part of Starbucks’ strategy, and because of its early-adoption advantage, eMarketer projects that it will remain the top mobile-payment app through 2022. And one thing is clear: The people who love the Starbucks app really love the Starbucks app—and sometimes, before they know it, they find themselves reorienting their lives around it.

“I find myself constantly checking the app,” said Melody Overton, who has maintained a Starbucks fan blog since 2009. “I’ve literally reloaded my card while standing in line waiting to pay for things.”

The app allows users to scan and pay with it at checkout (or order in advance and skip checkout), but it also integrates the Starbucks’ Rewards program, a loyalty system through which users earn stars for every dollar spent. Hitting a certain number of stars earns them a free item. (When the star system was overhauled in 2016, it caused quite a bit of consternation among Starbucks fans: It switched its reward trigger from number of purchases to dollars spent. “The previous system was the Senate; the new system is the House,” is how one co-worker and app user put it to me, explaining that, as a casual user, she was previously “overrepresented” because she could get more stars with fewer and less-expensive purchases.)

“I’ve definitely noticed more people paying with the app than I used to, and more people using mobile order and pay than I used to,” a Starbucks aficionado named Winter—that’s his full name—told me, and he should know. In 1997, he set out to visit every Starbucks in the world. He’s made it to 14,706 of them so far, and he’s still at it, when he’s not working as a consultant in upstate New York.

Skipping the line is what reeled in Jessie Spielvogel, a 29-year-old who works in communications in D.C. “If I’m on my way into the office, I’m usually either walking or taking a bus, so as soon as I’m 10 minutes out, I place my mobile order, and then all I do is swing by a Starbucks, pick up my order, and then walk into my office,” she said.

Collin Evans, a 20-year-old in Mountain Home, Idaho, likened his use of the Starbucks app to using another app that helps him find the cheapest gas in the area. Since moving to Idaho, he isn’t able to go to Starbucks as much as he used to—the closest one is an hour away, he said—but he still makes it there about once a week, and he tracks his stars on the app obsessively: “I have currently 73 of 125 stars and 62 [until] my next reward.”

Other users said the app also cuts down on another nuisance: mistakes in orders. “I have a Southern accent,” said Sharon Williams Lovoy, a 65-year-old consultant and frequent Starbucks customer based in Birmingham, Alabama, who travels frequently for her work. “When you’re trying to get a drink [from] a harried barista who’s got coffee grinding in the back and all that sort of thing, you’re sometimes hard for them to understand.” With mobile ordering, though, Lovoy never has a problem getting her decaf venti skinny mocha latte (with nine pumps of skinny).

Spielvogel noted there’s another coffee place closer to her office—and that one, too, has a mobile app—but she’s firmly on team Starbucks. The app has some tricks to ensure that remains true. “What they do with it in terms of gamifying how you spend your money on coffee, I think it’s really a neat way that they’ve decided to bring in more people,” she said. “Every time I get a notification like, ‘Hurry, bingo’s starting at 3 p.m.’ or whatever, I’m like, ‘Yes, I want to go buy a latte right now.’ ”

These notifications are known as “Star Dashes”—challenges the Starbucks app sets up to allow users to earn extra stars. A typical Star Dash might ask users to try several different breakfast items over a certain span of days or to make purchases at a store during a designated less-crowded hour of day several times within a week. Spielvogel acknowledged the tactic works on her: “There are so many times I wouldn’t go get a coffee, I’m like, ‘I don’t need a coffee, but I’m gonna get double points for this, so I’m gonna go spend the extra money,’ ” she said.

Lovoy, the Alabama consultant, is also a slave to Star Dashes. She so loves them that she carries an iPad where she can access her husband’s account (which he has on his smartphone) so that she can do his Star Dashes for him as well as her own. “He’s not gonna do all that. But I will,” she said.

Lovoy’s biggest coup in the stars-earning department may have come during Christmas, when she banded together with other Starbucks lovers she knew through Starbucks fan Facebook groups—definitely a thing, I learned—to organize a massive buying-and-trading ring for holiday ornaments. Each year, the company makes a Christmas ornament for each state, and some Starbucks superfans collect them. The ornaments used to be available for sale online, but now they can only be purchased at stores in their respective states—and you can buy them and get credit for it through the app. Lovoy bought dozens and dozens for her fellow fanatics. “It was a lot of work shipping those stupid things,” she said. She ultimately bought and mailed out 86 ornaments, she said. “The best part about that was I got all the stars from that.”

This is, obviously, the point of the app: to get people to go to Starbucks more and spend more money than they normally would at Starbucks. But Lovoy insisted that she avoids this trap for the most part: “I’m really careful to only buy things that I normally consume anyway,” she said. That does not seem to be the case for many fans: A friend told me she was using the app for a while but forced herself to quit because she thought she was getting too into it.

Spending to save isn’t the only downside of using the app. In September, Mashable pointed to a more insidious potential effect: It encourages users to only buy from one source, which could stifle competition and give them fewer options down the line.

Starbucks-app users, for the most part, would rather focus on something more fun: like how to spend their rewards. “I always save the rewards for the most expensive beverage I could ever want,” Spielvogel said. But rewards can also be used more strategically: “I like to save up my rewards and then have them for special occasions, to treat friends or treat somebody if you’re going out to Starbucks,” Overton said. “I’ve seen people say that they stockpile a bunch of rewards so that later on they can have a whole month free of Starbucks, or they have them when they feel like they don’t have a lot of money.” Another option Overton mentioned is trying to save up rewards to use at Starbucks in airports, which tend to be pricier than other stores. Lovoy, for her part, is hoarding 31 rewards at the moment, but she is careful to never let them lapse.

Are the occasional free lattes worth the effort? Who can say? One thing they’ve accomplished for certain is to help transform Spielvogel, for one, into a brand evangelist: “I’m that embarrassing person where if someone’s in line in front of me and I see them paying with a debit card or a credit card, I’m like, ‘No, you need to get the app. You could be getting free Starbucks every time you spend so much money.’ I should get a commission.”