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How Starbucks is using your crummy smartphone battery to boost its business

Starbucks is bringing wireless charging stations to all of the national coffee chain's 7,000-plus stores.

The plan, announced Thursday in conjunction with Duracell Powermat, which makes the wireless charging stations, is to install some 100,000 charging stations — roughly 13 per store — in the coming few years, Scott Eisenstein, global vice president of communications for Powermat, said in an interview. Starbucks has been testing the new technology in both Boston and San Jose since late 2012. San Francisco will be the first new city to have the devices — Starbucks is committed to installing them in every one of that city's stores by the end of the year — followed by other major markets next year and finally the rest of its national branches, which will have them by the end of 2016.

The charging stations, which look like coasters and will be found on tables and bars, will work by magnetic induction. Customers will be given small reusable rings that they can attach to their mobile devices to enable their use. The rings look like this:

Starbucks customers can expect the stations to replenish their battery just as quickly as their own standard chargers. "The Powermat charges phones as fast as any traditional cable," Eisenstein assured. Powermat's wireless charging technology isn't the only one on the market, but it's vying to become the only relevant one. The company has been working to develop a charging standard across multiple phone providers—part of that effort includes the formation of a not-for-profit called Power Matters Alliance, which companies like AT&T and Sony have joined. Powermat's wireless charging technology is still far from mainstream, but many feel that the entry of a player as powerful as Starbucks, which will help flaunt the new devices in front of millions, is exactly the kind of exposure needed to push it into the limelight.

But the unleashing of wireless mobile chargers is, of course, great for Starbucks, too.

On the one hand, the swanky new charging stations simply mark an improvement in the customer experience offered by the coffee chain. The coffee giant used free WiFi, which it began offering back in 2010, as a means of differentiating itself from its competition. While other coffee houses may follow suit, much as they did with WiFi, and install wireless charging stations, Starbucks will already have earned itself the upper hand by association. Now a caffeinated beverage, food item or frappucino, will come with free WiFi and a free wireless phone charge.

"Rather than hunting around for an available power outlet, they [Starbucks' customers] can seamlessly charge their device," Adam Brotman, chief digital officer at Starbucks, said in a statement.

Brotman, of course, isn't merely speaking about those already waiting in line or sitting in one of the chain's cavernous chairs with coffee in hand; he's referring to people wandering about the street with waning battery life, too. The new technology offers a clever new way for Starbucks to lure customers into its stores and seduce them into prolonged visits and pricier purchases. Whether customers come for the charge or the coffee likely won't matter to Starbucks so long as they leave with both. The bet is, at least in part, that if customers don't come for the coffee, they'll come for a quick wireless phone charge, and then impulse buy a brew.

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.
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