The Sneaky, Secret Strategies Starbucks Uses to Get You in the Store

Starbucks sign
They want you in their stores. | Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Like most other businesses, Starbucks devotes a lot of resources toward getting you in their stores. Walmart does it, for example, and so does Costco. It’s strictly businesses — even if it means playing customers like pawns and getting deep into their psyches to herd them in. As consumers, though, we play along. Hell, we all need to go to Walmart or Costco from time to time, and at some point, everyone feels the urge to go get a coffee.

But why would you choose Starbucks over any other coffee place out there? If you live in a big city, odds are you have dozens and dozens of coffee shops to choose from, and that may just be in your neighborhood. So, why would you choose Starbucks over your smaller, local place? The company takes its fair share of heat for its offerings (burnt coffee, etc.), and you might actually get a better product from another place.

But Starbucks won’t have it. They’re everywhere. On every corner. In every city. And they simply won’t let you go without at least considering purchasing their products. How do they do it? The company has a variety of means and enough resources to pull them off. While not all are “sneaky” or “secret”, some of them are — they’re Trojan horse PR moves disguised as something else.

And they might just work at getting you into the store. Here are some of the methods, strategies, and stunts that Starbucks uses to get you in their stores.

1. Surprise giveaways and parties

One way to get you in the store? Free drinks, of course. And that’s exactly the idea behind the Pop Up Cheer Parties that the company threw in 100 stores last year. While these “parties” are sure to be revived (possibly under another name) going forward, the concept was simple: Throw a party with free drinks, and you’ll get people in the store. Oh, and hand out coupons, of course, to ensure that they come back and spend money.

Onward: The Napoleonic genius that is the pumpkin spice latte.

2. Limited or seasonal offerings

Starbucks Holiday Cup Causes Online Controversy
Holiday specials are the stuff of legends now. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images
  • You know who to blame for Pumpkin Spice Oreos.

You know exactly what we’re talking about here. If you’re a fan of the pumpkin spice latte and look forward to its annual release every year, you’ve fallen for this little ploy. Starbucks is the master of seasonal and limited menu offerings, and the pumpkin spice latte is the king of them all. There are others, like gingerbread and peppermint-flavored beverages, but the pumpkin drinks are what started the avalanche. And they keep you coming back.

Next: Starbucks embraces 21st-century shopping preferences.

3. Mobile payments and ordering

Starbucs App
The company is ahead of its time. | Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
  • Starbucks has fully embraced 21st-century technology — to its benefit.

You’ve probably contemplated going to get a coffee or scone, and decided against it because you don’t want to stand in line, especially if you live in a busy area. Cue online ordering and the Starbucks app. Suddenly, it’s a whole lot easier to convince yourself that you need that drink. It’s also easier to spend your money — if you’re not swiping your card or handing over cash, it doesn’t really feel like you’re making a purchase, right?

Interestingly, online ordering may have proven to be too successful. The practice has led to overcrowding that could be turning off other customers.

Next: Have you visited the specialty stores?

4. Roasteries and Reserve Stores

  • They’re few and far between, but specialty stores are growing in number.

There’s a Starbucks in just about every town. So, why would you go out of your way to see another one? That’s where the special stores come in, including the Reserves and Roasteries. Reserve stores, tasting rooms, and Roasteries aren’t very widespread, but they’re pretty impressive. And if you’re nearby, you can be sure you’ll want to check one out. The Roastery in Seattle, Starbucks’ hometown, is worth visiting — even with the inflated prices.

Next: That Unicorn Frappuccino has a specific purpose.

5. Gimmicky drinks

Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino
Starbucks makes you need to try its new drinks. | Starbucks
  • Unicorn Frappuccino, anyone?

When you heard about the Unicorn Frappuccino, your interest was piqued. Admit it. But when you saw a picture of a Unicorn Frappuccino? You probably had to have one — to try. For science. These gimmicky drinks are yet another arrow in Starbucks’ quiver, which is used to draw in customers and make buckets of cash. The Unicorn Frap was one in a series of special Frappuccinos, but it’s the one that we’ll all remember well into the future.

Next: How about that food menu?

6. Revolving and evolving food choices

selectin of pastries with calorie counts at Starbucks
It offers more than just pastries these days. | Chris Hondros/Getty Images
  • In an effort to “catch the lunch crowd”, Starbucks is expanding its food menu and letting it evolve.

If you think back several years ago, you’ll remember that the food choices at most Starbucks stores were lacking. In some locations, that’s still the case. But they’re getting better, and constantly evolving these days. They’ll have the staples, like slices of bread and scones, but they’re also bringing new things into the fold, like sandwiches and bistro boxes. Suddenly, Starbucks isn’t merely a breakfast stop; you can go for lunch and maybe dinner, too.

Next: Where Starbucks specializes: Innovating in a saturated market.

7. Innovating in a crowded market

The chain is always looking to innovate. | Gianluigi Guercia/ Stringer/Getty Images
  • Reinventing the coffee wheel: Nitro Cold Brew, Flat Whites, and Cold Brew Cocoa and Honey with Cream.

How can you make coffee new and exciting? Especially in a very crowded, saturated market? It’s only coffee, after all, and there’s only so much you can do with it. That’s not stopping Starbucks, though. The company keeps finding new ways to innovate in and around coffee, which, in turn, keeps the customers pouring in. Products like the Cascara Latte and coffee ice cubes are among the newest and could be at stores soon.

Next: Strategic alliances

8. Tag-teaming customers with new partnerships

Starbucks is always looking to partner with other big name brands. | Jewel Samad/Getty Images
  • Partnerships with companies like Spotify and Lyft keep the brand fresh in consumers’ minds.

The company is simply everywhere these days, and that includes double-teaming you with other big-name brands. Starbucks has partnerships (or has had partnerships) with numerous companies, including Spotify, Lyft, and scores of others. By being everywhere and anywhere, they’re staying in your head — and herding you back into the store (or onto the app) for another drink.

Next: Starbucks takes a page from the McDonald’s playbook.

9. Pricing strategies

Jimmy Carr Launches New Stronger British Latte at Starbucks
There’s not much of a price difference. | Stuart Wilson/Getty Images
  • The price difference between a tall and venti, in most locations, is small enough that you’ll opt for the larger size.

This isn’t much of a surprise. Starbucks has taken a page out of the McDonald’s playbook for its sizing and pricing strategies, which harkens back to the old “Super Size” days. Essentially, you can pay a little more money for a lot more of the company’s product. The price difference between a “Venti” and a “Grande” coffee is negligible, for example, and you’ll want to opt for the larger option. Coffee doesn’t cost all that much to make, and the company makes a ton off of upselling.

Next: Getting classy

10. Classy signage, photos, and artwork

sign outside of a Starbucks coffee shop on a rainy day
Everything is designed to make you think its nicer than it is. | Karen Bleier/Getty Images
  • Those classy, subtle photos and artwork? They get you to spend more time in the store and spend more money.

Have you noticed that there are no dollar signs on Starbucks menus? That’s a clever design feature. And the same goes for the rest of the signage and decor in the stores. They’re meant to have a “classy” feel, and when you’re surrounded by it, you’re going to want to spend more money. There are some deep psychological ploys at work here, and it’s all by design.

Next: It’s all about the atmosphere.

11. Atmosphere

Starbucks seating
Starbucks wants you to feel like you’re at your home away from home. | Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

We’re cascading right into the next point here. It’s not just the signage, photographs, and artwork that adorn Starbucks stores; You have to throw in the lighting, the music, and furniture. It’s all a part of the “atmosphere”, and it’s one that’s inviting and comfortable. When you want to come in and stay, you’re going to spend more money. It’s the “Third Place” philosophy which Starbucks has worked to curate, and they pull it off quite well.

Next: There’s a reason you can’t find a seat.

12. Seating (in certain areas)

Patrons at Starbucks
There are stools so you won’t stay long. | Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
  • Yes, there is some logic behind the placement of those comfy chairs and awful stools.

Even the seating choices in Starbucks stores have some sort of psychology behind it. In busy, fast locations, you won’t find much comfort. You’ll find stools or chairs with no backrests, and few desks or tables. In slower locations, you’ll find the opposite — couches, comfy chairs, and space to work. It’s all about getting you in and out quickly (if it’s a high-volume store) or getting you inside and keeping you there. Either way, it’s a part of the experience.

Next: The strategy of appealing to smaller, niche crowds

13. Appealing to niche crowds

barista at Starbucks uses a market to label a drink
The chain is offering different vegan milk options. | Dan R. Krauss/Getty Images
  • Vegan and vegetarian items are becoming more commonplace in many Starbucks stores.

We’ve mentioned the evolving menu and the company’s innovations in the coffee market. And with its size and market share, Starbucks has the resources and ability to cater further to niche crowds. In some places, you’ll find vegetarian or vegan options on the food and drink menu. They’re even experimenting with very expensive drinks to see how it wins over the coffee snob crowd. Because if you can, why wouldn’t you?

Next: Loyal customers get rewarded.

14. The loyalty program

Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte
The Starbucks loyalty program is pretty great. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Customers spent $5.1 billion on Starbucks cards in 2015 alone.

If you’re somebody who visits “the Bux” daily, you’re probably taking advantage fo the company’s loyalty program. And if you aren’t, you’re making a mistake. You can earn yourself free drinks, and again, if you’re going to go to Starbucks anyway, you don’t want to miss out. There’s a whole slew of psychological tomfoolery behind these types of programs, too, that keep you coming back. And, of course, you get a free drink on your birthday, too.

Finally: Starbucks’ plan to become your local bar.

15. Alcohol

Starbucks Reports Quarterly Earnings
No longer just for coffee or tea. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • In some locations, you can order beer or wine instead of a latte.

Aside from giving away free products, the easiest way to get people in the door is to offer up alcohol. And Starbucks had a plan to do just that in select places. Those stores had limited beer and wine selections, in an effort to continue innovating and evolving. The company ended the program in early 2017, but it lives on in a few spots. Don’t be surprised to see the company give it another shot, though, as everybody loves a cold one — and we don’t mean an iced latte.

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