Starbucks ‘experiential’ virtual cafe is brilliant – and bang on trend

By Kitty Knowles 5 December 2017

The cafe of the future is here.

What’s your morning coffee ritual?

It used to involve waiting patiently during the pre-work rush, while trying not to let your caffeine deficit get the better of your manners.

Then Starbucks killed the queue with in-app ordering and collection and we realised it could be a simple drop-in, drop-out, affair.

Still, more change is on the cards.

This week the coffee giant is playing up to a new retail trend: the idea that we want experiences even more than we want ‘things’.

That means pioneering a coffee shop that offers much more than coffee.

The Starbucks experience

This week Starbucks partnered with ‘the Amazon of Asia’ Alibaba to open its first experiential store in China – and it’s a freshly brewed taste of the future.

Roughly the size of a football field, the two-story Starbucks’ Shanghai Roastery puts atmosphere and experience over miserly practicality.

As soon as you walk in, Alibaba’s Taobao app will pull up a digital menu to order from and you can pay directly with your phone (with Alipay or WeChat).

But you’ll also get a gloriously interactive map of the store in your palm, making it impossible not to want to explore.

A partner makes a siphon brew in the new Starbucks Roastery in Shanghai, China. Photographed on Friday, December 1, 2017. (Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)


Starbucks new tech isn’t about simply solving customer problems but about adding to your enjoyment.

Using your smartphone, augmented reality lets you see inside the coffee brewing processes in ways that are engaging and educational.

There’s a 3D-printed tea bar pouring out nitrogen-infused drinks alongside artisan pastries by Italy’s Rocco Princi.

And when you eventually get sick of watching baristas showing off their techniques you’ll want to take a seat at the 88 foot long wooden coffee bar (so much for dashing in and out).

There’s even a special Shanghai Roastery photo filter so you can show everyone on social media what fun you’re having.

“We’ve created a space that both recognizes and celebrates our 46-year history of coffee leadership and retail innovation with China’s rich, diverse culture,” said Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks Coffee Company.

Click through our photo gallery of the Shanghai Roastery…


The big business dream

It would be all too easy to dismiss China’s new Starbucks Roastery as a novel publicity stunt. But that would be foolish.

China is Starbucks’ fastest-growing market (it has 3,000 stores with a new shop opening every 15 hours) and the new space is an investment in the future of retail.

As trend forecaster Katie Baron said yesterday, shops need to meet an increasing demand for experience – especially as we live more digital lives.

Smart retailers are already blurring the lines between ‘store and event’ across the world. It keeps us inside for longer (which might mean an extra sale), but also forges a deep and positive association with a brand – something that is increasingly important in a world where we’re otherwise likely to opt for the first listing on Google.

The Starbucks Roastery follows Smith & Sinclair’s ‘experiential’ chocolate shop in Britain’s John Lewis, and the sensor-decked NikeLab in London and New York stores last year.

You used to go to Starbucks to buy the beans in your Frappuccino or flat white, but with experience, it’s your brand loyalty that’s really being bought.