Starbucks is no stranger to innovation: Their advancements include the twin-tailed pornographic mermaid, the 19,000-calorie pumpkin scone and the 31-ounce cup of coffee (the exact size of the human stomach). And this week, CEO Howard D. Schultz announced a partnership with mobile payment start-up Square.
For the uninitiated, Square is a small plastic device that plugs into the earphone jack of a cellphone and reads credit and debit cards. It is also an app that lets consumers pay with their smartphones, eliminating the need to carry around pesky cash dollars. As of this fall, customers in the United States will be able to use the system to effortlessly buy passable Americanos and the aforementioned lard products at 7,000 Starbucks locations.
The news – and Mr. Schultz's $25-million investment in the company – caused some prolific declarations of the beginning of the end of wallets and money. Louis Vuitton leather craftsmen reached for their cyanide pills. Exotic dancers began sewing special pockets inside their thongs to accommodate new modes of payment. And, perhaps most tragically, somewhere in the world Cuba Gooding Jr. began to sob with the understanding that his catchphrase "Show me the money" would have no actual meaning come September.
While the potential collateral damage caused by the Square is worrisome, however, I think it's important to focus on how it will change our Starbucks experience.
Consider, for example, the GPS element of the Square, which is capable of sending a signal to the Starbucks outlet you've entered, announcing that you (Joe) have arrived and are expecting your morning order of coffee and weird oatmeal.
Your name (Joe) and photo (face of Joe) will pop up on the cashier's screen. You (Joe) will then verify your name (it's Joe, remember?) and Starbucks will complete your transaction. But here's what will fall by the wayside: The delightful misinterpretation of your name, scrawled on your cup.
In the past, Starbucks allowed you to take on the identity of "Jorm" or "Jag" or "Jop," imbuing your morning with a kind of magic that can only exist thanks to human error. Soon, you will simply be boring old Joe. Forever.
Or what if you're one of those people who order decaf because you become a homicidal lunatic when given a dose of real caffeine? Now, you will only get decaf when you order decaf. The Square knows you, and your insane tendencies. Should you proceed to override that knowledge and order an espresso, your actions will be clearly pre-meditated and your ensuing prison sentence will be more severe. Everyone loses.
Also, what we gain in convenience we lose in control. No one actually pays attention to a transaction as nominal as a cup of coffee. Surely, Starbucks will use that utter lack of reasonable oversight to notch up their prices. By 2015 a short vanilla latte will inevitably cost $900. (The truest hell will be to find yourself in prison after "accidentally" ordering a $900 full-caffeine short vanilla latte.)
And let us not forget the flesh and bloods on the front lines of this bohemian mega-conglomerate. Don't think for a second that Square's technology will not eventually render your neighbourhood barista obsolete. Where will those friendly teenagers with ill-advised facial hair and 16-gauge plates in their ears be given stable employment and good benefits? I think the answer is nowhere, or Mountain Equipment Coop.
Worst, perhaps, is that with their combined power there's no telling what Starbucks and the Square will convenience you into doing next. Buy CDs. Or tacky mugs. Or "blonde" roast for your home machine.
So watch out: The future is not friendly.