Sometimes the airport feels like my second home, which makes trips to airport coffeeshops a frequent part of life. But so often, those trips involve at least 20 minutes of shuffling through a long line, carry-on bag in tow, worries about missing the flight in the back of my head.
Starbucks’ latest moves at the airport seem aimed to eradicate exactly that situation, not just for me but for the millions of people who fly in and out of airports each day. As announced earlier this week, the coffee retailer will expand its presence in airports and introduce new store formats (including pop-ups) in airports thanks to new partnerships with airport retailer/restauranteur Paradies Lagardère and airport hospitality group OTG Management.
The new partnerships come less than one week after airport foodservice company HMSHost ended its longstanding exclusivity contract with Starbucks. With the OTG and Paradies Lagardère deals, Starbucks will introduce things like mobile ordering and payment options as well as pop-up stores that can move throughout the terminal and deliver coffee orders straight to customers’ gates. Storefronts will be able to move around based on the time of day, according to a press release from OTG, and the mobile ordering integration will make it easier to purchase a coffee and have it waiting for you at the gate before you board the plane or even when you arrive at your destination city.
What the actual stores will look like is not yet clear, though I suspect it will be some sort of kiosk-like structure that’s easy(ish) to move around, breakdown, and reassemble.
While the prospect of not waiting in a ridiculously long line for a latte is good news in and of itself, I’m more intrigued by what the new partnerships could mean for the future. Starbucks is one of those QSRs that’s made technology — and what that technology could enable in terms of guest experiences — a central part of its strategy for years now. The company has arguably the best mobile app of any restaurant business out there when it comes to quickly and seamlessly ordering, customizing, and paying for a drink. It has been vocal about making AI a key part of its operations moving forward.
Right now, QSRs use AI technologies to gather information like weather, traffic, a customer’s location, and their order history to suggest more relevant upsell items, improve order accuracy, and speed up lines. That last point is especially relevant to the airport where waiting in a long line could mean missing your flight.
If Starbucks were to integrate more AI and predictive technology into its airport operations (that feels more like a “when” than an “if,” honestly), it could utilize more data to make these new pop-up locations more available to a wider potential audience. If Starbucks knows that come Monday morning, the terminal will be jammed with business travelers, it could plan accordingly in terms of staffing and the number of mobile locations it makes available. If data could tell Starbucks that the flight over at gate C7 is delayed for an hour, workers could set up a storefront nearby.
This is a little speculative on my part, as Starbucks hasn’t actually mentioned any of the above scenarios, nor has it officially dropped the phrase “artificial intelligence” in reference to airports. I imagine data collection at airports comes with its own special set of security issues and regulations as well, so it’s doubtful this granularity in data will happen immediately at the airport.
The new pop-up store format will, however. Starbucks plans to open these stores around airports in 2020, along with more traditional storefronts as well. So at the very least, you’ll soon be able to skip the 20-minute line when it comes to getting a coffee before the flight.