Starbucks Weighs In On "Download Mobile App Vs. Get Customers In-Store" Debate. And The App Won

A classic retail mobile question is whether it's better to get shoppers in the store or to get them to download the retail mobile app. Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), which has one of the most successful mobile payment programs in retail and also happens to not have the typical online-offline internal corporate conflicts, has come down squarely on the "'tis better to get the app downloaded" side.

For years, the coffee chain has pushed a promotion called Pick Of The Week, where it gave free copies of various pieces of digital media (songs, apps, games, etc.) to shoppers who went in-store and grabbed a card with a code on it. As of April 9, Starbucks has changed the program, no longer requiring the card to get the digital goodies. All it requires is downloading the app.

Starbucks' site still touts the old rules. "Just to let you know—you can only download these in our stores, through the Wi-Fi Landing Page, or directly from the iTunes store if you have picked up a Pick Of The Week card from a Starbucks store," the site says. The key point is that all of those methods required customers to get into a Starbucks to get the free content. The program eliminates that requirement, allowing customers to download the app and then get the content from anywhere.

The idea is that once shoppers download the app, that's going to scream the Starbucks logo and various promotional messages constantly. In turn, that will likely get those customers into Starbucks stores a lot more often than if they were forced to go in to download a game or a song. And given that Starbucks is also pushing its products in the grocery aisle, those promotions and extra branding could help in many ways, even when customers choose to never set foot in a traditional Starbucks store.

"The intent is really to build a relationship. You don't need to go into our stores," said Linda Mills, a Starbucks senior manager for global brand public relations. "This is about educating about our product offerings and just engaging with our customers."

Some initial reports suggested the chain was getting rid of the iTunes cards, but Mills stressed that the cards are not going away. "We are absolutely keeping the cards in place in our stores," she said. "The Pick Of The Week cards are remaining."

Unlike other chains where e-commerce sales can—politically—sometimes be seen as a challenge or rival to in-store operations, Starbucks has avoided those turf battles. That's because Starbucks e-commerce sales represent relatively trivial amounts of revenue (there's simply not that much to buy on its site, by design), meaning that site's primary purpose is to drive sales at the stores and in grocery. Hence, there's no reason for stores to resist online's—or mobile's—efforts.The program could have been easily set up to require connecting to a store's Wi-Fi to get the digital freebies, but the chain opted to not go there.

Although Starbucks is getting appropriate kudos for its digital mobile moves—and its figuring out much earlier than most the emotional connection between music and coffee is a good example—it might want to focus a little bit more on SEO.

The first result in a Web search for "Starbucks Pick Of The Week" was the error page for when Pick Of The Week doesn't work. And it came up first in Google, Bing and Yahoo. (At least it's consistent.)

"We're Sorry. There seems to be an issue," says the page. "It looks like you're having trouble downloading our free iTunes Pick of the Week." Not so sure how often that app glitches, but at least three out of three major browsers seems to think it happens often enough.

Shoppers, though, don't seem to having any trouble finding the Starbucks mobile app directly through iTunes and Android. And as long as they keeping finding and downloading the app, getting to a Starbucks doesn't have to be a priority. If they are interested enough to download the app and interact with the content, many of those consumers will eventually get to a store or buy its product at grocery. Letting shoppers choose when that will happen may make all the difference. Given the short time frame offered for each download, it may not at all be convenient for the customer to go in quickly enough. If they are forced to drive to the store to download Angry Birds, the birds may have a lot of company in the anger department.