Can Starbucks regain mobile payments mojo with new partnership?

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A decade ago, Starbucks dazzled not just the quick-serve restaurant industry, but the entire payments industry with a breakthrough mobile wallet that saw rapid adoption among its customer base. But as the coffee giant’s tech has cooled, competitors have caught up.

Now Starbucks is looking to reclaim its role as the global leader in streamlined, intuitive order-and-pay systems through machine learning technology it’s developing in-house and through a deal with restaurant-tech startup Brightloom, its new equity investment partner.

Brightloom—formerly known as eatsa, launched in 2015—will license aspects of Starbucks’ mobile ordering and loyalty software to develop new cloud-based restaurant technology for Starbucks to use, Starbucks announced this week.

Starbucks will take an equity stake in Brightloom and a seat on the company’s board, echoing Starbucks' $25 million investment in Square 2012 when then-CEO Howard Schultz briefly joined Square's board.

The Square partnership, which Schultz envisioned as key to driving down payment processing fees, soured fairly quickly as the two companies had little strategic overlap, and Starbucks never deployed Square’s payments hardware in its stores.

But Brightloom, with offices in San Francisco and Starbucks’ Seattle base, is more closely aligned with the coffee chain's strategy. Brightloom recently appointed Adam Brotman — previously Starbucks’ chief digital officer — as CEO.

Starbucks presumably gets first crack at its innovations, working in concert with the new Tryer lab Starbucks established late last year in Seattle to test new concepts.

The move could help Starbucks breathe new life into its digital ordering and payments systems in developed markets by focusing on delivery, an area that’s seen relatively slower growth. Starbucks Delivers expanded in the U.S. this year with Uber Eats, after its introduction in China in partnership with Alibaba.

The biggest advantage for adding Brightloom’s muscle could be in Asia, where Starbucks is seeing strong adoption of its rewards program, which it introduced late last year in China. It’s also racing to add mobile ordering and payments capability in a majority of markets in the Asia Pacific region.

Brightloom received $30 million in new funding on Monday from Starbucks, along with Alshaya Group and Alsea, which already work with Starbucks as licensees operating its restaurants in various global markets.

“At Starbucks, we have experienced first-hand the power that comes through digital customer connections that are relevant to the customer,” said Kevin Johnson, Starbucks’ CEO, in the press release announcing the partnership with Brightloom.

Starbucks on Thursday plans to announce results from its third fiscal quarter.

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