How Starbucks ordered, loaded and delivered 23,000 iPads for training

For a week, Mary Stumpf had been compulsively watching an app on her phone that tracked the number of packages being delivered to Starbucks stores around the United States. Stumpf leads collaboration products and devices for Starbucks, but this spring her job narrowed to one single goal: Get 22,709 new iPads to 8,500 Starbucks stores spread across the United States by May 29.

That was the day Starbucks had announced it would close all U.S. company stores for four hours while 175,000 partners come together for a conversation and learning session on racial bias. It was the first step in the company’s response to April 12, the day Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, both black men, were arrested after a store manager called the police on them as they waited for a business meeting to begin without ordering anything

Starbucks chief executive officer Kevin Johnson responded calling it “reprehensible” and vowed, “We will learn from this and be better.”

Within days, the company announced the May 29 training. While a large team of Starbucks partners, experts and consultants started working on what the session would be, Stumpf and her team began to grapple with how to implement it on a practical level.

It wasn’t feasible, they knew, to have facilitators in each of the 8,000-plus stores. And, if the session was hosted online, how would the teams in the stores see it? Someone suggested renting thousands of TV screens to bring in to each store, but that seemed logistically onerous. Others wondered whether it could be played on the manager’s PC in the back office of each store – but there wasn’t enough space for all the partners.

When Stumpf heard someone mention tablets, “I thought I should dig in.”

Mary Stumpf holds one of the special provisioned iPads used in May 29 training and those that will follow.
Photo by Josh Trujillo / Starbucks Newsroom

The first step was to see if it was even possible to get that many tablets on short notice. Later that day, she was in a meeting when she pulled aside a sales representative. “I have a very confidential question,” she began. “Is it feasible, or even possible, that we could get some iPads? I mean a lot. A LOT – in a very short period of time.”

The answer, she was told, was yes. It was possible. They had three working days to get approvals and place the order.

But acquiring 23,000 tablets, then getting them set up with the training and shipped out to stores had never been done on this kind of time frame or on this kind of scale. Until now.

Stay flexible, be open to the possible

One day in May, Stumpf opened a Dove chocolate. The wrapper said, “When things in life aren’t going right, turn left.” She’s kept it on her desk since then as a reminder to remain open to all solutions – something that has been critical during this process.

Ordering the iPads was only the first step, she knew.  “Getting them was one thing, getting the training on them was another,” said Stumpf. “And another thing was getting them delivered, all in a matter of three weeks.”

A time lapse video by Zones shows the iPads being configured at a Chicago warehouse by teams working around the clock.

Early on, Stumpf and her team had realized that while the four-hour session would be guided by videos on the tablets, if they were streamed all at the same time, it could create a bottleneck.

What they needed was a way for the materials to be loaded on to the devices ahead of time – and a way that future trainings could be easily delivered. She needed an app for that. She reached out to PlayerLync, a company based in Colorado that creates custom native apps that compresses, then automatically distributes videos, documents and eLearning to mobile devices across any network. On a Monday, they had their first conversations. Three days later, a team from PlayerLync was at Starbucks Support Center, the company’s headquarters in Seattle, already working on creating an app.

While it’s not common for PlayerLync to work at this accelerated speed, “knowing that there was a need here and that this was an important cause not just for Starbucks and our whole country and culture –  that was a big motivation for us to be involved,” said Brat Stutzman, who leads sales.

Stumpf's team coordinated the tablet setup with Starbucks partner Zones, a third-party distribution center for the company’s global supply chain. They set up teams at a Chicago warehouse where, as the tablets were delivered, teams worked around the clock at stations around long tables to unpackage them, plug them in and get them configured – a process that took about 10 minutes per tablet.

Power blocks charged multiple tablets at a time as they were set up. At one point there were so many the power blocks began to overheat, and workers fanned them to cool them down.

“We literally had everyone from our COO on down working on it,” said Brandt Stimpson, senior account manager for Zones.  Normally a project of this magnitude would be three to six months, he said. “We had three to six days.”

There were many points where something could have gone wrong to derail the process, everyone knew. Stumpf’s’ biggest fear was that there’d be technical issues that kept stores being able to play the training. Sometimes in the dark of night, she’d play that scenario in her head and picture how reporters would be waiting outside stores asking how the training went and partners would have to say they couldn’t go through it because the tablets didn’t work. “That’s what kept me up at night,” she said.

About 10 days before the training, the configuring process slowed to a crawl. To stay on schedule, 7,000 tablets should have been set up and shipped out by that point, but only 1,800 were ready, Stimpson said. 

To make up for it, Zones decided to ship half the tablets to another warehouse in New York so they could do double the work. As each iPad was ready, FedEx trucks, filled entirely with the tablets, picked them up to deliver them to Starbucks stores around the country.

On her iPad, Stumpf was monitoring the progress an app on her phone created for her by PlayerLync that tracked each iPad. To arrive in the stores on time, all of them needed to be shipped out by May 21, eight days before the training, to create a buffer in case any were lost or damaged and needed to be reshipped.

Looking to the future

A few days before the May 29 training, Stumpf stopped for coffee at her local Starbucks. She asked if they had gotten their iPads yet. When she learned they hadn’t, she opened the app, pulled up the store’s address and told them they would get their delivery later that day.

As the iPads were being sent around the country, she was watching it all remotely as the number of tablets delivered ticked up, and the number that still needed to be turned on, the simple act that would start the app and download the curriculum, ticked down.

Monday evening, the night before the 175,000 partners would go through the training, Stumpf was on the phone. The app had been designed to hide the curriculum until 12:01 a.m. Tuesday E.T. / 9:01 p.m. Monday P.T. Anxious to make sure it was working, Stumpf tracked down a Starbucks that was still open in Seattle, where she lives, and called to find out if the content had downloaded. It had. It had worked. Everything was ready -- almost.

Out of the more than 8,000 stores, there was one that hadn’t received iPads. It was too late to reship them, so a Zones employee drove to the store and hand-delivered them at 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, hours before the training.

Back in Seattle, Stumpf and a team of technologists supporting the digital experience, were holed up together in a room, ready to field any issues if they came up as trainings in each time zones were completed. By 2 p.m., they could see on the app that the content had been downloaded on all 23,000 tablets. By 7 p.m., more than 12 hours after Stumpf had arrived at and after all the trainings had been completed without any issues, Stumpf called it a “career highlight.”

“We couldn’t have asked for better results,” she said. “It’s a testament of how an amazing team of Starbucks technologists came together to move mountains in a short period of time, to design and deliver a seamless digital experience. Every single partner that was tapped to help, jumped in head first with laser focus to get us seamlessly across the finish line.” 

Going forward, the tablets will be used for trainings each month and more as the company leans further into transformation. The May 29 anti-bias sessions were just the first step.

“Bias comes in a lot of different forms,” Stumpf said. “My hope is that for some partners, it’s an affirmation of what they experience every day, that they feel validated and know that someone is listening. And for others, it becomes the beginning of an awareness. If one person can be positively impacted, and I was fortunate to be part of the team that created the digital experience, that means a lot to me.”

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