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AR Takes Customer Experience to the Next Level at Starbucks Shanghai Reserve Roastery

Starbucks said it launched the "first fully immersive coffee experience” in what the company is calling its "most ambitious project ever."   The  Reserve Roastery in Shanghai opened on December 6 and the 30,000-square-foot space is one of the most advanced digital locations for Starbucks in the world, offering customers the chance to immerse themselves in an augmented reality experience.

Immersive Experience

Those visiting the Shanghai Roastery will be able to learn about Starbuck's bean-to-cup story by downloading the custom-designed Roastery digital web-app platform or Alibaba's Taobao app and pointing their mobile devices at key features around the Roastery. Upon doing so, certain aspects of the building will "come to life" and provide customers with incredible amounts of detail, while serving as a digital tour guide. For example, when pointing the phone at the Roastery's roasting cask, coffee connoisseurs will be able to "peer inside" and watch an animated version of newly roasted beans dropping into the cask. They will also be able to "see" the beans at rest before they are whisked through copper pipes to the individual coffee bars located within the Roastery.

“It’s coffee as theater,” said Echo Jiang, director of customer experience at the Roastery.

Each step of the way, customers unlock a virtual badge and once all badges are earned, they receive a custom Roastery filter to commemorate the moment and share on social media. The Shanghai Roastery digital experience is designed by Starbucks and powered by Alibaba Group’s scene-recognition technology. 

“We wanted to create a completely new brand experience for our customers,” said Emily Chang, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Starbucks, China. “Coffee is already such a deeply sensorial experience, even before the first sip: from hearing the unmistakable sound of beans being freshly ground, to inhaling that rich aroma and sipping your perfect blend, brewed just right. We wanted to take that customer experience even further.”

Visitors who don’t download the Roastery app, but who have a QR code reader on their phone, can still have a virtual experience by scanning QR codes embedded around the Roastery that unlock insider information, invisible to the naked eye.

Mobile Ordering

Famed for its mobile ordering platform, Starbucks took this capability to the next level at its Shanghai Roastery. Digital designers didn’t want visitors to have to go stand in line to order. Instead, customers can look at the menu on the app, or point their phones at one of the icons hanging from the ceiling at various bars at the Roastery to see the menu unfold. Then, once they’ve explored, they can talk with one of the roaming baristas on the floor who will help them create and place an order exactly to their liking. The customer can pay on the spot and be digitally notified when their order is ready, along with the location where they can pick it up. 

If visitors want to understand more about the particular way their coffee is being brewed by a barista, all they have to do is point their phone at one of the icons that hang from the ceiling  to enter a virtual world and see the method demonstrated right on their screen.

“With AR, we are able to go beyond educating, enabling and engaging, to empowering our customers to experience the space on their own terms,” Chang said.

Industry Implications

Starbucks, often hailed as an innovative technology leader, is expertly experimenting with how to continuously draw consumers back to their physical stores, according to Ajay Paul, Director Travel, Transportation and Hospitality Lead at Information Services Group (ISG).

"Starbucks is a traditional brick-and-mortar operation," he says. "It continues to open stores worldwide even though retailers have experienced tremendous disruption due to the prevalence of e-commerce tools that have changed the way we all shop. But AR creates an experience, a content-rich environment so that customers want to come to the restaurant."

Using AR to incentivize customers to visit the Roastery is very logical, agrees Robert Haslehurst, Managing Director, at L.E.K. Consulting. It helps give customers a wow factor and reason to recommend a visit; it helps Starbucks tell the stories behind their Reserve coffees; and it drives app downloads and press buzz.

"What’s more, this experience minimizes the pain point around transaction (waiting in line), and enables personalization (each person can have their own tour/experience)," Haslehurst adds. "And it does all of that without a big investment in in-store physical technology that will soon be tired and obsolete."

Restaurants could similarly offer customers an AR experience at their locations, Paul notes. For instance, they could create virtual badges to enhance loyalty, offer discounts tied to the AR program, or even provide diners with a video showing a menu item being prepared by the chef.

Haslehurst believes that restaurants could also use AR menu experiences to showcase dishes in context (e.g., portion size), so consumers can understand dishes or be tempted to pay more for a different dish. However, he believes restaurants have to be realistic about adoption and see AR as just one communication channel to the customer to supplement great customer service and existing menus.

"At the end of the day, it's all about connecting with your customer," Paul notes.

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