Starbucks Wants To Power Up Your Phone (And Maybe Its Payments)

Starbucks has made no secret of its ambitions to make mobile a key part of its growth strategy. As of April, the coffee chain said 10 million customers are actively using its mobile app -- double the number a year ago -- and that mobile payments account for over 14% of spending in its North American stores, up 75% from a year earlier.

“We believe that to be successful today, a pure-play bricks-and-mortar consumer retailer must create a high degree of mobile, social and digital engagement, and develop a seamless relationship with customers,” stated Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz during the company’s most recent quarterly earnings call.

Toward that end, the company this week announced plans to install Powermat wireless charging stations that will allow customers to power up their phones while sipping their Americanos and Frappuccinos. The rollout is slated to begin in San Francisco and expand to other cities through 2015.

The move is of a piece with Starbucks’ unofficial role as the remote office for the American workforce, anchored by its free WiFi service that makes laptops and other devices a ubiquitous feature of its stores. And given Starbucks' interest in driving mobile payments and loyalty card use via mobile, adding charging stations to the mix is a logical step. You can’t use the app if your phone has no juice, right?

But there’s a hitch. According to CNet, the charging stations will run on a standard backed by the Power Matters Alliance and Duracell Powermat, while most smartphones capable of wireless charging run on a different standard called Qi, led by the Wireless Power Consortium. The lack of compatibility could lead to frustration among customers trying to power up their handsets.

The PMA standard, however, holds more appeal for Starbucks because it includes user identification features that would allow it to see where -- and how long -- phones have been at a charging spot. Potentially, someone sitting at a charging station who hasn’t yet made a purchase could be sent a coupon or other offer.

Powermat Technologies, which makes the charging devices, is counting on Starbucks’ support in part, to lead to more smartphones incorporating the PMA standard. But the outcome of this standards battle isn’t clear, with Qi already in the lead, and still another, backed by Qualcomm and Samsung, not yet in the market.

It’s possible that charging stations could remain curiosities to most Starbucks customers for some time. The company has not had a Midas touch when it comes to all things mobile. Anyone who has tried to pay for their coffee using the Square app knows that, despite Starbucks’ high-profile partnership with the mobile payments startup two years ago.

So until charging stations become more standardized and common, how about adding more electric outlets, Starbucks?

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