Starbucks is known as much for its frappuccinos as it is for its liberal restroom policy, and free Wi-Fi. Today, Starbucks is refreshing that menu by ending its longtime partnership with AT&T to team instead with Google and make its in-store Wi-Fi more caffeinated.
Over the next 18 months, the companies will upgrade Starbucks's existing network at more than 7,000 U.S. stores to boost speeds by as much as 10 times their current speeds. It's a smart if not inevitable move by Starbucks, which is likely to attract more customers with the stronger network. But it's also a boon for Google, which gains good will and a branding opportunity with the tens of millions of consumers who log on to the Starbucks Digital Network every month.
Free, one-click Wi-Fi access has been a staple of Starbucks since 2010. It's been a huge advertising opportunity for the company, which has been able to push a variety of content—news, sports, music, games—through the Wi-Fi landing page, while using the content, which is often premium but offered for free in exchange for the awareness it generates, as a selling point to attract foot traffic. "That's been the playbook," says Starbucks chief digital officer Adam Brotman.
With a significantly faster network, Brotman says the type of content Starbucks can advertise to customers will be enhanced, though he declined to go into detail "because [the companies] are in the process of developing and strategizing on that."
Faster, better Internet speeds could also mean more competition for bandwidth amongst customers who are already eagerly tapping into the Wi-Fi network. It's not uncommon to see customers hanging out at the company's stores all day, feeding off the unlimited Wi-Fi access while charging their phones and laptops. Only yesterday, Starbucks announced that it would introduce more mobile charging stations to its stores, which is likely to bring in more customers. "That's one [thing] we always want to keep our eye on," Brotman says, referring to a potential issue of "crowding" in the stores.
However, he adds, "it's the same question we had when we offered free Wi-Fi in the first place." And with "millions, plural," logging on to the network every week—not to mention net revenue shooting up 13% last quarter—it doesn't look like the luxury has hurt by any stretch.
[Image: Flickr user internets_dairy]