Digital Flywheel program is a sophisticated effort to feed your caffeine addiction

By Tim Nelson
Updated February 13, 2018
EC: Starbucks to Stalk Customers Through Sophisticated AI
Credit: Photo via Getty Images

From our bank account info to our suggestive photos, the amount of sensitive personal information we trust our phones with is astounding. If you weren’t already concerned about how intimately acquainted your iPhone is with your innermost desires, a new artificial intelligence initiative from Starbucks is here to stoke your paranoia through personalized push notifications and extra caffeine.

In an effort to further modernize its marketing efforts, the global coffee chain will greatly expand its Digital Flywheel initiative this fall. What’s that? Not an app-based spin class, but a sort of AI-driven tech that connects to your My Starbucks Rewards account to predict what (and when) you’ll want to order. In addition to standard information like transaction history, Digital Flywheel will employ sophisticated algorithms that factor in contextual triggers like weather, time of the week, and location to intuit when you’ll want a venti red eye and a croissant from the location near your office as opposed to a decadent Mango Pineapple frappuccino when you’re out and about on a weekend afternoon.

The true purpose of Digital Flywheel isn’t just to make predictive order suggestions, but to streamline the order process in the hopes of bolstering Starbucks’ mobile sales. Matthew Ryan, global chief strategy officer at Starbucks mentioned that the program will offer "real-time triggers and push notifications to engage customers more deeply, building on the momentum that is generating the higher spend per members." In essence, Rewards members will be able to order what Digital Flywheel thinks they want by responding to a text message or push notification whenever a Starbucks is nearby. There’s also the possibility of bespoke benefits for repeat users as well. By reducing the effort it takes to order, Starbucks hopes to create an army of perpetually wired, loyal customers.

This long-term investment in e-commerce is a sign that the coffee purveyor is banking on this kind of algorithmic ordering becoming the norm in the years ahead. It remains to be seen if Digital Flywheel will inspire spontaneous macchiato purchases or fears of a machine uprising. Either way, it’s a sugary, soy-milked sign of the times.