Starbucks innovation continues — one cup at a time

CEO Kevin Johnson on the role of shared experiences and connection in the modern-day retail environment

In the process of roasting coffee, there’s a device called a “tryer.” It allows the roaster to check on the progress of the beans — and, perhaps, to adapt accordingly.

The word — the process — is rich with possibility, as is the recent innovation lab at Starbucks that shares its name. The Tryer Center is a hub for creativity and experimentation. It’s also a physical representation of a culture shift that brings “idea to action in 100 days.”

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson sat down with Stephanie Mehta, editor in chief of Fast Company, for a conversation Monday morning at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show. Naturally, there was a French press on the table nearby, complete with Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee.

As human beings, we were meant to interact with one another. It’s how we get energy.

Kevin Johnson, Starbucks

No matter that Starbucks is a behemoth organization with more than 31,000 stores worldwide and 400,000 Starbucks partners serving more than 100 million customers a week. Starbucks, with tech veteran Johnson at the helm, continues to try new things. Work is accomplished in small, cross-functional teams. Everything touches back to impact on partners and customers. There’s an emphasis on learning rather than success or failure. And at the center of it all is a focus on human connection — even with the increasing use of AI through its Deep Brew initiative.

“As human beings, we were meant to interact with one another,” Johnson said. “It’s how we get energy. It’s how we get support when we’re dealing with adversity. It’s how we share joy and successes in our lives. I think one of the common themes going forward is finding ways to create human connection. Human interaction. The world needs that.”

Johnson, who spent three decades with companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Juniper Networks, spoke of the use of technology to free up more time for partners to be able to spend with customers. That might mean, for example, maintaining inventory or simplifying scheduling of staff. It might mean customers can order a coffee ahead and efficiently pick it up when pressed for time. But it also might mean the barista wears a mic that uses natural language processing, allowing eye-to-eye contact during conversations with customers rather than having to look down to type in orders.

So far, so good; customer connections are at an “all-time high,” Johnson said, with increases in customer occasions and tickets.

Starbucks has been able to attract the best and brightest, he said, and that comes with vision from the top down. Deep Brew, for example, has allowed Starbucks to draw world-class talent to its “human-first digital strategy,” he said, those inspired not only by the possibility of innovation and the chance to impact humanity, but also by the possibility of reach. Consider, for example, the company’s announcement that it would eliminate the use of plastic straws by 2020.

“There was a massive response on social media,” he said. “It was billions of people on the planet cheering us on to take that one step. That tells me there’s an opportunity to do much more and that’s what we intend to do.”

There’s much more to be done on a personal scale, too. Starbucks positions itself as a warm and welcoming “third place,” a space other than work and home that provides chances to share a cup and connect. From the very start, the company has aimed to “inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time,” Johnson said, quoting the company mission statement.

And as the 49-year-old company looks to its impending 50th anniversary, he said, “We really are looking at and dreaming about the centennial anniversary.” In building a company that endures, there are two things Starbucks attempts to do: “Number one is to have the wisdom to know what to honor and preserve from the past: the mission, the values and the importance of human connection … . And we have to boldly dream about the future.”

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