When it comes to technological innovation, Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX ) has often been an industry leader, from being one of the first companies to offer customers free Wi-Fi in its stores to developing an order-and-payment app whose design has been hailed as a model of simplicity and ease. Now it's taking another advance by partnering with Duracell to begin rolling out nationally the battery maker's Powermat wireless charging stations.
Today, finding Wi-Fi hotspots is pretty simple. Along with apps that will help you find one, mobile devices themselves are always looking for a signal to keep you connected. But that wasn't always the case: When Starbucks rolled out the technology at all of its restaurants in 2001, most devices at the time didn't even have such connectivity options available. Today, it's almost expected for stores of all kinds to have free Wi-Fi, so much so that when troubled department store retailer J.C. Penney actually ended its service last year, analysts thought that alone might doom the chain.
Yet not all of Starbucks' tech innovations have been a smashing success. Back in 1999, it announced plans to set up an Internet division (with its very own literary magazine, Joe) that was quickly withdrawn. It partnered with Hewlett-Packard to let customers burn custom audio CDs, but that never went anywhere, and it had its own music label for a hot minute -- and offered CDs, DVDs, and books -- that it shuttered in 2008. A mobile payment system with Square, in which it invested $25 million, also failed.
Still, perhaps because the java slinger's clientele is young, well-off, and Internet savvy, Starbucks' persistence in going back to the technological well time and again has paid off. Not having to go searching for an outlet or extension cord would appeal to them.
The Duracell Powermat is a joint venture formed in 2011 between Powermat and Duracell owner Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) to "advance and globalize wireless charging." At the time, the two cited market research from IHS iSuppli expecting wireless charging to be a multibillion-dollar market by 2015. It previously partnered with Madison Square Garden to allow sports fans to charge devices while attending sporting events; with General Motors, which agreed to have it installed in certain models (Toyota partnered with Denso to have its Qi system installed on its Avalon Limited); and even with the European Poker Tour to give card players wireless charging capabilities near the tables.
Like Starbucks' agreement with Square Wallet for a mobile payment system, the partnership with Duracell Powermat has similarly high expectations for adoption by customers. Yet where the payment system went bust, there doesn't seem to be the same concern here that the Powermat Spots experiment will fail, even if it does require device compatibility.
Unlike the payment app, though, which offered little more than what Starbucks' own app already did, being able to wirelessly charge a mobile device seems like a benefit that will keep coffee drinkers coming back for a refill.
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