With several unofficial Starbucks-finder apps already populating the App Store, the coffee giant itself has finally hit the iPhone with a pair of apps -- one of which will eventually let customers use the Apple device to pay for purchases.
The new Starbucks Card Mobile App allows iPhone users to check their Starbucks Card balance and reload it with a major credit card. But the company is also testing a mobile payment option that lets people use the app to buy products by swiping an on-screen barcode that is scanned just like their plastic Starbucks Card. The e-commerce feature is currently in trials in 16 West Coast stores.
A second app -- more similar to the unofficial Starbucks iPhone apps -- allows users to find nearby store locations, look up menu and nutrition information and browse its whole bean coffee selection.
It also offers a Drink Builder feature so that people can create and share their own coffee concoctions with friends via SMS and email, or directly to their iPhone or iPod touch.
Starbucks said the new apps reflect input from consumers via MyStarbucksIdea.com, the online suggestion box the company started last year. "We took a pile of great ideas, helpful suggestions, and a bit of wishful thinking and turned out an iPhone/iPod touch app that we think you'll really like," wrote K.C. MacLaren, manager, retail consumer technology, at Starbucks, in an online post.
MacLaren acknowledges that the company is already competing with a bunch of third-party store finders in the App Store. "Yeah, but can they tell you if a store is open? Has a drive-thru? We didn't think so," he added.
So far, customers seem to concur. The myStarbucks app has earned four and a half out of five stars based on 14 user reviews, and the Starbucks Card Mobile app has earned five stars based on 21 reviews in the App Store. "I've been waiting for someone to finally make the most of the iPhone and the potential for mobile payments -- leave it to Starbucks to crack the bean," read one customer review.
Ideas for additional app features continue to be posted on MyStarbucksIdea, however. A number of people proposed combining both apps into one for greater convenience -- a logical step. Other suggestions included offering apps for other types of smartphones like the BlackBerry and Android devices and push notifications when someone is near a Starbucks store.
Starbucks said the new apps are only version 1.0, and welcomes more user feedback to make improvements and add useful features. With regard to promoting the iPhone apps, the company does not appear to have launched any major campaign to build awareness. Starbucks has posted a YouTube video touting the new apps, and had a Twitter post about them Tuesday.
Eric Litman, chairman and CEO of mobile ad company Medialets, said even a well-known brand like Starbucks must get the word out on new apps. "No matter how significant the brand, the sheer volume of apps in the App Store demands real promotion of an app," said Litman, who appeared on a panel at the Apps for Brands conference in New York Wednesday. "The best channel for that is in-app advertising with targeted mobile Web ads as a close second."
Sitting on the same panel, Ed Kaczmarek, director of innovation, new services at Kraft Foods, also endorsed in-app advertising in helping to promote its company's popular iFood Assistant app for the iPhone. But he also emphasized the importance of word of mouth, which he described as among the least expensive marketing vehicles, but probably the one "that takes the greatest amount of work."
Starbucks did not respond to a media inquiry before deadline Wednesday about its plans to promote the apps.