Starbucks has a big problem and it's hard not to notice

You'd think that every technological advancement would breed positive reactions. Yet sometimes, the potential consequences aren't always thought through.

screen-shot-2021-06-29-at-4-49-18-pm.png

I bet she ordered it on the app.

Screenshot by ZDNet

I was recently on the East coast in an unfamiliar town and didn't know where to get a coffee.

Because my brain is indolent first thing in the morning, I picked up my phone and Googled "nearest Starbucks to me." (Please berate me.)

It was a few minutes away, but easy to find.

Stepping out of the car, I thought I'd stumbled upon America's most popular Starbucks. The relatively small space was teeming with humans.

There was agitation in the air. Moreover, the line for ordering was entirely empty. All these people were crowded around the baristas who were making the coffee. Had they all stood in line together and ordered at an unseemly pace?

I went to order a coffee at the counter and wondered what the commotion was about.

"Oh, they all ordered on the app and came in at the same time," she said. "It happens a lot. And some of the orders are ridiculous."

The baristas making the coffee were apologetic, but I had to wait fully fifteen minutes before getting mine.

Perhaps, I thought, this was an isolated technological snafu. But then I learned it may not be. Business Insider reported that baristas in some parts of the country are having similar issues, some of which were exacerbated by COVID-19.

Some current and former baristas believe the Starbucks app -- developed before some rival fast-food chains even knew what an app was -- is now so popular that some Starbucks stores are overrun with app orders.

Customers expect their order to be ready whenever they demand it, without regard to how busy the particular store might be.

An app can do that to you. It can turn you into an even more demanding nuisance than you already are. Apps create monsters, never forget that.

And then, say baristas, there are the TikTok drinks -- those that will impress your three friends on social media. You might believe that Starbucks's marketers want the company's drinks featured on social media. You might also believe that giving customers a plethora of options on the app only tempts them to be ludicrous in search of momentary fame.

For its part, the company insists such barista complaints aren't representative of Starbucks as a whole. So I thought I'd contact some departed baristas for their views.

Sadly, I heard similar stories not only of app customers who are unreasonably demanding, but also unreasonably rude.

"They walk in. They don't even bother to say hi. They just want to grab their drinks and go," said one former barista.

ZDNet Recommends

Safe shopping: Your best options for NFC and contactless payments

These are the leading electronic payment systems you can use to avoid paying by cash or credit card.

Read More

This may make one wonder how much technology is turning fast-food restaurants into vast, glorified vending machines.

I had a similar thought after watching McDonald's experimentation with robot ordering at the drive-thru. There's no real human interaction. There's more the acceptance of demand and an expectation it be fulfilled with instant haste.

Perhaps some technologies inevitably change the customer relationship in that direction. When your benefits are speed and convenience, the human factor becomes optional.

But does the brand relationship become optional too? And, indeed, is it any sort of coincidence that Starbucks last week launched a blistering new campaign -- featuring Chance the Rapper -- selling its Ready To Drink products?

I spent many years going to Starbucks every day, and it was the presence and humor of baristas that made me loyal, rather than, say, the coffee.

When COVID-19 hit and they left, so did I.

And if more and more Starbucks become mere app pick-up joints, why would I ever want to go back?