October 7, 2015

Starbuck - skip the line app.

As reported in the Financial Post, Starbucks in Canada is rolling out an app that will allow customers to pre-order and pay for their drink before they even step in the store.  The idea is that customers can "skip the line" or in Canadian speak "skip the lineup" by just putting their order in on their smartphone.

This seems like a great idea to allow customers to perceive that they have more control of their wait, but I wonder if all the operational implications have been considered before this is being rolled out:

  • First, customers may not have to wait in a physical queue, but whenever the order frequency exceeds the processing time there will be a queue.  This may just be shifting the queue from a physical queue to a virtual queue.  Humans tend to think that the reason the queue is going so slow is that there are a lot of people in it - that is not quite true, pushing the people in front of you to go faster rarely speeds things up.   The reason a queue is slow is because the processing time is slower than the arrival rate.   This app does nothing to speed up the processing time, but just shifts the arrival times a bit.  In short, the queue is still there and customers might have to wait just as long.  However, the wait could happen before the show up, so that would improve things.
  • I haven't seen the app myself yet, but to add to the perception of control, the designers could put an expected time the drink will be complete.  This will give an added level of control for the customers if they know that if they order now it will take 10 minutes - they can keep shopping or working or what-ever.
  • What is keeping a person who is actually in the physical line from ordering while in line and essential "line hopping" everyone in front of them?  There will may be a fall-out in perceived fairness if the person behind you in the line suddenly gets called up to pick up their drink.  Will this become an "elitist" app that will lead customers that don't have it it to permanently balk?
  • From my last post, we learned that research says if a person orders something from a non-human they will be less weary of making complex orders.  If this is the case, what are the operational implications of making orders that are more complex?  What does this do to the physical queue wait?  What does this do to the processing time  (it lengthens it, so it makes wait times longer)?  On the flip side, what does it do to the revenue if more complex orders are placed more often?  What are the inventory implications?
  •  What impact might a pre-ordered drink have on quality?  What if a drink is ordered and the virtual queue is short and the drink is made fast, but the customer takes her time to pick it up?  What if the drink is cold (when it supposed to be hot) when the customer arrives?  Will Starbucks make a new drink?
  • What priority does the "production line" place on this new stream of orders compared to the physical queue?  Who comes first?  It reminds me of going to a customer service desk at a big box store, waiting in a long line, walk up to the rep when suddenly her phone rings and she gives you the finger to wait while she takes the more important phone call.    
What other operations questions would an app roll-out like this bring to your mind?

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