Through the looking glass: Starbucks’ first in-store augmented reality experience

SHANGHAI, China – Stand in front of the roasting cask at the first Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Asia and you’ll see a staggeringly beautiful, two-story copper vessel adorned with nearly 3,000 hand carved traditional Chinese chops, or stamps. 

But hold your phone up to it, and new worlds reveal themselves. Suddenly, it’s as if you’ve gone through the looking glass. Via your phone, you’ll be able to peer inside the cask. You’ll be able to watch an animated version of newly roasted beans dropping into the cask. You can virtually see them resting before they are whisked through copper pipes to the coffee bars. You can read about the process a bean goes through on the way to becoming a cup of coffee. What’s more, you can have that experience all over the Roastery.

“It’s like Alice in Wonderland meets Willy Wonka,” said Emily Chang, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Starbucks, China. “It’s one thing to imagine a fully integrated in-store and digital experience, which brings together the impressive scale of the Shanghai Roastery with the highest quality small-lot coffee beans. It’s quite another to watch the AR experience get built, and come to life.”

The Shanghai Roastery is the first Starbucks in the world to offer an augmented reality (AR) experience to customers. Customers are invited to download the Roastery’s app when they enter the building – the gateway to a deeper experience. When they point their phones at key features around the Roastery, such as the cask, new information comes to life, serving as a digital tour guide. Along the way, customers collect virtual badges, and once they’ve earned all of them, they’ll receive a custom Roastery social media filter to share.

“We wanted to create a completely new brand experience for our customers,” said Chang. “Because you know, coffee is already such a deeply sensorial experience, even before the first sip: from hearing the unmistakable sound of beans being freshly ground, to inhaling that rich aroma and sipping your perfect blend, brewed just right. We wanted to take that customer experience even further.”

Visitors who don’t download the Roastery app, but who have a QR code reader on their phone, can still have a virtual experience by scanning QR codes embedded around the Roastery that unlock insider information, invisible to the naked eye. Starbucks’ scene-recognition software and AR experience is powered through a partnership with Alibaba Holding Group Ltd.

All of it is designed to help customers further understand the story of coffee, from bean to cup, said Jiang.

“It’s coffee as theater,” said Echo Jiang, director of customer experience at the Roastery.

Enhanced ordering

The new Roastery fills all the senses. You feel wrapped in warmth by the rich wood and copper décor. You can watch baristas handcraft beverages through brewing devices you’ve never seen, discover an animated hummingbird flying across a wall made of multipaneled doors, each embedded with thousands of LED lights. You can see Princi bakers (the exclusive artisanal food pairing partner at Starbucks Roasteries) bake bread and other delights. And all around you, the rich smell of coffee can carry you away. It’s easy to become transfixed.

That’s why the digital designers didn’t want Roastery visitors to have to be pulled out of the spell to go stand in line to order. Instead, they can order from anywhere in the 30,000-square-foot building.

“We didn’t want people to have to queue,” said Jiang. “We wanted to enable them to order wherever they want.”

Customers can look at the menu on the app, or point their phones at one of the icons hanging from the ceiling at various bars at the Roastery to see the menu unfold. Then, once they’ve explored, they can talk with one of the roaming baristas on the floor who will help them create and place an order exactly to their liking. The customer can pay on the spot and be digitally notified when their order is ready, along with the location where they can pick it up.  

And, if visitors want to understand more about the particular way their coffee is being brewed by a barista, all they have to do is point their phone at one of the icons that hang from the ceiling, such as the symbol of a Chemex brewing method, to enter a virtual world and see the method demonstrated right on their screen.

“With AR, we are able to go beyond educating, enabling and engaging, to empowering our customers to experience the space on their own terms,” said Chang.

Taking the magic home

For those who want to take a deeper dive into experiencing the Roastery and coffee, visitors can purchase curated tours of the building, book a coffee tasting journey and more at the online Starbucks Roastery store, available on Alibaba’s Tmall platform. There, customers can purchase a special tasting menu online, then bring it into the store to indulge in that unique experience. Or while in the store, they can buy the selected Roastery merchandise or whole beans they fell in love with, to be delivered directly to their homes.

“Customers can extend the experience even after leaving the store,” said Jiang, standing near a display of newly roasted coffee beans. “They can bring the Starbucks Roastery home with them, to continue enjoying and even share the experience with others.”

Chang said she loves to watch Roastery visitors’ jaws drop as they explore the AR experience.

“It’s that unfiltered wonder, which overcomes even the most jaded, that really defines ‘customer delight,’” she said. “That’s how we define our job – to bring wonder to our visitors, by delighting and engaging them.”

Marianne Duong contributed to this report.