Starbucks mobile app is reportedly getting more use than Apple Pay, but the comparison is largely meaningless in a market that is increasingly prone to supporting multiple mobile wallets instead of a single victor.

For one, Starbucks and Apple aren't fighting for the same goal. Starbucks wants to use mobile technology to move orders more quickly and feed its incentive marketing; while Apple, Google and Samsung want people to replace their purses or wallets with smartphones—a much heavier lift since it requires a greater change in consumer behavior.

Apple and Starbucks logos
Bloomberg News

Based on new research from eMarketer that came out this week, 23.4 million people ages 14 and older will use the Starbucks app to make a point of sale purchase at least once every six months in the U.S. this year, compared to 22 million for Apple Pay, 11.1 million for Google Pay and 9.9 million for Samsung Pay. These standings are likely to remain unchanged for the next four years, according to eMarketer, which did not return a request for comment.

This research led to myriad articles touting Starbucks' leadership over Apple. And the numbers also feed a narrative of Apple Pay's underperformance that traces to its launch four years ago. But the reality is far more complex, and it's unclear the mobile wallet usage numbers demonstrate that Starbucks is beating the "Pays" at anything.

"What's being missed by everyone here is Apple Pay and Chase Pay and PayPal are also embedded in the Starbucks mobile wallet," said Richard Crone, a payments consultant. "You can use Apple Pay or Chase Pay to preload your Starbucks prepaid account…in a way, Apple has helped Starbucks achieve these numbers."

The usage numbers aren't meaningless, since they describe an overall trend toward embedding the payment in a broader user experience, according to Crone, adding Starbucks is starting to support open loop payments.

But even if Apple weren't playing a role in the Starbucks app's success, the companies wouldn't have a compelling reason to position themselves as direct rivals. No matter how popular the Starbucks app becomes, it will never be an option for payments at Dunkin Donuts, Best Buy, the Disney Store or the many other brands that have implemented Apple Pay. Likewise, a Starbucks patron who uses Apple Pay is still helping to achieve the coffee chain's goal of serving customers faster.

"Merchant-specific wallets, such as Starbucks and Walmart Pay, have different objectives and scope from the all-purpose open-loop wallets, such as Apple Pay or Samsung Pay," said Zil Bareisis, a senior analyst at Celent. "Merchant wallets are all about giving the best shopping experience to their customers, while the open-loop wallets target the breadth of acceptance, which in turn means it’s harder to deliver customised and valuable experiences for any given merchant."

The attention to the adoption numbers is partly due to Starbucks and Apple Pay's role as bellwethers of two different routes to mobile payment adoption.

Starbucks' quick success with mobile payments drew raves, particularly considering very few other merchants were able to duplicate the success. Starbucks hit milestone after milestone in getting people to use its mobile app to order and pay, shortening lines and giving the chain a tech-savvy reputation.

But this success was built on Starbucks' already wildly popular gift card program, and its momentum has already hit a wall. Adoption has stagnated and Starbucks has embarked on new technology projects such as voice ordering to bring a new group of consumers into mobile.

A more direct comparison to Starbucks would be using Apple Pay only in Apple Stores, where Apple already has a vastly different checkout experience relying on handheld card readers used by its floor staff. The company's strategy for Apple Pay has always been to get it into as many different retailer locations as possible with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Apple Pay has partnered with Ripple and negotiated with banks all over the world to add markets and users. While Apple Pay's growth usually falls short of buzz, Apple has built a huge following in the mobile contactless payment market.

"It’s not really a fair comparison," said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group. "Starbucks is a payment app, not a mobile wallet, and is a single-purpose offering specifically designed to accelerate throughput at the Starbucks point of sale and provide a rewards platform for their users."

Starbucks transactions are high frequency, daily or weekly, and the transaction value is low, Peterson said.

"The Pays are designed to enable transactions at any retailer that accepts NFC payments, so they behave much more like a wallet than an app," he said. "As NFC penetration increases, wallet usage will increase as well. Lastly, the mobile wallet space is divided into three entrants that are generally used exclusively by [consumers], and if their transactions were combined they would exceed Starbucks."

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