Starbucks Says AI is Key to Personal Customer Connections

By using AI to streamline operational tasks, Starbucks is focusing on building personal relationships with customers.

Need to Know

  • At the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson broke down how the coffee chain giant is able to help its employees form more meaningful connections with customers and save time on operational tasks through the use of AI. 
  • The AI and machine learning backed platform, called Deep Brew allows Starbucks to adapt to customer preferences and context over time, providing insight on inventory and staffing needs. 
  • An example is using AI to enable employees to not look down at screens, instead remaining focused on the customer at all times.
  • Starbucks currently has over 31,000 stores spread across 80 countries. 


With society’s focus on technology and mobile adaptabilities, it’s easy to argue that advancements come at a cost: a lack of human connection. Starbucks would like to change that and believes they can use the power of AI to do so. It may sound counterintuitive, but Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson sees it as the way of the future for the coffee chain. 

“We have to boldly reinvent the future,” Johnson said at a recent NRF show. “If mobile internet has created these new scenarios, we embrace that, but we don’t do it at the expense of human connection.”  

At the center of Starbucks human-center initiatives is Deep Brew, an artificial intelligence-powered program that assists Starbucks partners with inventory management and scheduling, freeing up time for customer interaction. “Deep Brew is a key differentiator for the future, as we continue our quest to build world-class AI capabilities, to better support partners,” Johnson said in a conference after a 2019 Q4 earnings release. 

Currently, Deep Brew runs calculations on inventory levels and predicts necessary allotments, placing orders based on its findings. It also predicts how many baristas are needed on staff every 30 minutes of the day, ensuring each location is adequately staffed. The removal of these labor-intensive tasks means employees have more time to spend on helping and interacting with customers. 

“It’s about finding ways to help humans find more time to be human,” Johnson said at NRF. “It’s not about robots that replace baristas. It’s about tech that frees up baristas to be better and connect with customers.” 

Looking forward, Johnson hopes to continue to roll out the use of Deep Brew. Starbucks is currently testing out natural language AI, a feature that would prevent staff from having to take their eyes off the customer to key in orders. Deep Brew would recognize the order verbally and send it directly to the barista for production.

“That eye contact and that conversation is a much better connection with a human being than typing in the order,” Johnson said. “We are trying to invest in those things that we know will enable our partners to spend more time connecting with customers.”