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Hot coffee or cold service? The verdict on Starbucks' mobile ordering test run in Portland

Many years ago, in my radio days, I was driving up I-5 to Seattle from Portland, where I have lived the past 23 years. One of my friends was on the air in Seattle, talking to Vanessa Carlton about her new album and tour – and she mentioned that she was going to be in Portland next. I’m paraphrasing a bit here, but my pal said something to the extent of: “Portland, the city we like to pat on the head and say ‘awwwww, how cute.’”

Compared with Seattle, we are sometimes thrust into the shadows of the Pacific Northwest. Don’t get me wrong, Seattle is, in my eyes, a true world-class city and from a business and brand perspective, you only have to look as far as some of the companies that call or have called The Emerald City home: Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing.

Oh, and one that we’re all likely very familiar with: Starbucks.

That’s why I was a little surprised when, in December 2014, it was announced that Starbucks was running a mobile ordering test program (via its app) in the Portland metro area. So much for not getting cool stuff. As I was told from Starbucks' comms: “We believe Portland is an ideal market for this test based on number of store locations, the market’s willingness to embrace technology and customer loyalty.”

One might think that getting coffee in the morning is mundane enough to not have to worry about queuing up. Unless, of course, that queue is several miles long and you have a meeting to make in short order. For all its 'slickness', the mobile ordering function is incredibly useful and, in some ways, a must-have utility for the morning if Starbucks is part of the routine.

As of today, I have used Starbucks' mobile ordering seven times. I was expecting a few bugs and bumps along the way – but there really were none. The only issues were staff getting used to the new system. Here are a few of my experiences.

Maiden voyage: double espresso macchiato

I placed this mobile order close to home, on the way to the gym. At 5am. I walked in and my drink was nowhere to be found. It was still early in the pilot and the barista said “oops, we’re still getting used to this”. No harm done.

Whoa, look at all these cars: multiple drinks and food

The family wanted a little treat and I had this feeling that the store we were about to visit was going be like rush hour on the M4. I encouraged my wife to use the app and place the order, about six minutes out. Sure enough, cars everywhere. Not only that, there were nine people in the queue inside. I walked in, was handed my stuff and walked out. Assuming about 30 seconds per transaction, that would have been a wait of about five minutes.

Smart managers: adding a sign is most helpful

The first time I visited a store in the west Portland suburbs, there was no sign for pick up, though there were 'order' and 'take away' windows. I saw my usual sitting there, but I didn’t want to be 'that' guy and just reach for it. So, I waited politely until the barista saw me. the second time, there was a sign for pick up and it was much smoother. Each visit, there were eight people waiting to order – so I was in and out again.

The angry lady: who clearly doesn’t have the app

16 people waiting. I walk in, get my drink and start walking out. A lady, who clearly needed coffee, gave me the same stare one expects when boarding a plane in the first zone. I smile, point to the below sign and say, simply, “this is great. Worth a try.”

It’s fairly obvious that I like the app and find it a useful time-saver. Feedback from Starbucks HQ in Seattle has been positive as well. So far, the test has exceeded its expectations and it is looking to roll out the program throughout the United States sometime in 2015. There will be another test market, but there has yet to be an announcement from the company on that front.

In the meantime, I suppose Portland can bask in the glow of having something truly nifty – and if you come visit, order away.

Doug Zanger, social/creative, Stillwell Partners. He tweets @zanger.