American retailers have struggled with mobile payments, largely because they try to reinvent the entire buying process instead of evolving what's already there. Starbucks' success is rooted in its willingness to take the easiest route time and again, an approach that is clear in how it chose to implement Apple Pay.
But before Apple came on the scene, Starbucks had the advantage of setting the expectations for what a mobile payment should look like. It may finally be time for Starbucks to take a more aggressive stance.
Starbucks has never had to start from scratch in the mobile field. The heart of Starbucks' mobile payment system is the same bar code it uses on the back of its plastic Starbucks cards, which meant minimal technology change was needed to accept it at the point of sale. When Starbucks expanded this system to its first 1,000 stores, it focused entirely on the shops it had inside Target stores, which already had the proper scanners. And with Apple Pay, Starbucks is focused solely on the in-app spending feature rather than updating its counters to support contactless payments as well.
Other retailers that went for the full Apple experience are starting to report results, and in the example of Staples, there is a stark difference between the habits of app users and tap-and-pay users. In the near-term, it looks like Starbucks' cautious approach has paid off yet again.
Prat Vemana, vice president of mobile commerce for Staples, told a panel in mid-February that Apple Pay has become the "No. 1 payment method for us in our iOS apps," representing about 30% of purchases done within the Staples app. Plus, shortly after adding Apple Pay, Staples found that 65% of Apple Pay in-app payments were from first-time customers, according to a report in FierceMobileIT.
In-store use of Apple Pay at Staples, though, is much less, Vemana said.
Drilling into the Staples deployment, it's clear that its existing customers are using Apple Pay despite the fact that setting up the Apple wallet involves more steps than paying with the card already linked to the Staples app. For new customers, Apple Pay is faster in that it replaces the process of keying in the account number and expiration date from a payment card.
As for Staples' in-store's lackluster numbers, that likely comes down to the lack of a strong incentive to use Apple's new wallet. Without any pricing discount or other benefit, Apple Pay is no more appealing than cards and cash.
However, the most valuable thing Staples gets from its deployment of Apple Pay that Starbucks can't possibly get from its partial rollout is a full spectrum of Apple user data. Starbucks may have assumed that the bigger opportunity in Apple Pay is the in-app funding feature, but Staples can track over time how many Apple Pay purchases it sees, the size of those purchases, the profile of the shoppers making those purchases and whether those Apple Pay-using shoppers are spending more at Staples.
The app-only approach also runs counter to the expectations of Apple Pay users. Just as a Visa card user would expect to be able to use the same card online and in stores, an Apple Pay user knows that the mobile wallet was meant to be used in iPhone apps as well as at the point of sale.
The disconnect will only grow as the U.S. deployments of NFC readers continue. Part of the problem is that the U.S. is attempting to push a gradual process, so as to minimize disrupting shoppers as much as possible. In Japan, for example, mobile payments are much more widespread; the Tokyo subway system accepts mobile payments throughout, but the New York subway system does not. An Apple Pay user coming from Staples to Starbucks will feel like a Tokyo commuter visiting New York.
The lesson for Starbucks and other companies that accept is that a partial Apple Pay strategy won't accomplish much. Starbucks was able to convert a significant number of its sales to mobile because it was adding something to the stored-value cards it already had.
Staples' experience with Apple Pay serves as an example of how Starbucks' easier approach could limit the benefit of tying into Apple Pay at all. If Staples had deployed Apple Pay only in its stores, it would have missed the key trend in how consumers are using Apple's wallet.
More to the point, all this change does is add a different way to load the Starbucks app. There is a segment of Starbucks fans who are not wild about stored-value programswhich is what the Starbucks app isbecause it ties up money that can be used only for Starbucks.
Of course, that may be the point. From a margin perspective, any move that Starbucks makes to give its customers less lock-in could be bad. The question of whether Apple Pay could attract enough new business to offset that is a great questionwhich won't be answered by this effort.