Starbucks Refill Tumbler: Habit Maker, or Habit Breaker?

Scott Robinson

In a follow-up to his November blog applauding Starbucks' Black Friday deal and how it used loyalty mechanics to encourage acquisition and habitual behaviors, Scott Robinson takes a second look and examines the real-world implications for existing customers.

I’m a Starbucks Gold Member who routinely places a mobile order for a Venti brewed coffee and breakfast sandwich. Each weekday morning, I drop my son off at school, then pre-order Starbucks on my device, before my commute to the office.

Earlier I expressed my genuine compliments about Starbucks’ Black Friday Offer as a great example of loyalty mechanics cleverly applied outside of a formal loyalty program: buy a tumbler and get unlimited refills every day in January.


But today, my first impression in using the refillable tumbler (and I’m speaking as a tenured Starbucks Rewards Gold Member with habitual behaviors) is that it’s going to be problematic among top segments, and has the potential to disrupt profitable habitual behaviors.

Personally speaking, there are a few things I’ve identified that will potentially disrupt my own daily coffee routine (or, best case for Starbucks, simply abandon my tumbler), as follows:

  • Two Orders—with this refillable tumbler, though I can still pre-order my breakfast sandwich via mobile, I must now also physically line up in the in-store queue to fill my tumbler. This is inconvenient and extends the duration of my visit (and given that I park my car curbside in a no-parking zone to run into my Starbucks each morning, I count on the mobile order experience to get me in and out quickly, so as to minimize the chance of getting a parking ticket!) From Starbucks’ perspective, I can see that there is no easy way to operationalize tumbler refills for mobile-order-and-pay customers, but it will be a frustrating nuance for many.

(Ok, so I acknowledge these next two complaints are perhaps a little trivial—but the little things add up!!)

  • Too Small—my first cup of coffee each day is a Venti size, and therefore the Grande-sized tumbler leaves me craving more. From Starbucks’ perspective, this is easily solved by adding a Venti-sized tumbler option to the merchandise assortment. Next year, Starbucks?
  • Too Hot—perhaps not a complaint for some customers, and definitely not among the environmentally conscious cohorts, but a tumbler that keeps a drink too hot for too long is problematic—especially for a Member who wants to consume an entire cup of coffee during a short 30-minute commute. The usual paper cup, despite the important environmental implications, allows a piping hot drink to cool sufficiently so that it may be enjoyed immediately. Perhaps a paid all-you-can-drink-in-January-coffee promotion that is operationalized without a metal tumbler could be introduced. Next Year, Starbucks?

I also put my loyalty marketer’s hat on and saw some additional gaps in the experience:

  • Broad Targeting is Problematic—it’s clear that the tumbler is best suited for acquiring new customers and for fostering habit among infrequent existing customers, and not for habitual mobile order Members. But the tumbler doesn’t easily enable progression from anonymous new customer to known, registered program Member—something that can be achieved by registering a Starbucks gift card. As such, I’d like to see Starbucks enable a “Register Tumbler” mechanic to forward the progression of the tumbler from refillable anonymous coffee vessel to a behavior-tracking, personalizable Member experience.
  • Transactions Tallied, but not Associated—there is no purchase activity tracking for tumbler refills among existing Members. Meaning, though Starbucks can count the number of times each tumbler code is used in January, the behavior is not associated with a Member’s account, even if it is refilled by a Member. I’d also like to see Starbucks enable an “Add Tumbler” mechanic to their mobile app, similar to adding a Starbucks gift card. This would enable the refill transaction by a registered Member to be associated with a Member’s account. Without this mechanic, my orphaned refill transaction would lead Starbucks to interpret that my loyalty has devolved from a daily coffee and sandwich Member to a sandwich-only customer, even though in actuality it has not.
  • Experience is Less Than Seamless—Lastly, and from a Member-experience perspective, an “Add Tumbler” mechanic would enable Members to simply flash their digital Member barcode to receive the complimentary fill-up; and from Starbucks’ perspective, this would operationally preclude the store associate from needing to manually entire the four-digit promotion code that is etched on the side of the January tumbler. This would obviously not solve the earlier inconvenience of having to stand in line, but it would certainly improve the experience for all involved.

Loyalty mechanics hold tremendous potential to create new habits and foster loyalty; but they also have the potential to be habit breakers, not habit makers, when not carefully contemplated and when their focus spills over (pun intended) to non-target customer segments.