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Starbucks IT head on serving up the best digital experiences

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Robert Teagle, head of IT in EMEA at coffee shop chain Starbucks, takes a pretty straightforward view of the role of technology at one of the world’s most recognisable retail brands.

“It’s all about innovation - managing innovation and how it relates to us in the retail world,” he says. “Really thinking about how we at Starbucks think about innovation, how we think about it internally, how we think about it in terms of our customers, bringing innovation to everything we do.”

If his approach is clear, however, the role he performs brings its own complexities: he’s responsible for technology in over 2,000 Starbucks stores in the EMEA region (with some exceptions due to the franchising model), plus all the back-end infrastructure and applications used by the business. And while Starbucks relies heavily on its bricks-and-mortar presence as its main channel, there are a number of digital challenges for him to tackle.

Ahead of his


at IP EXPO Europe’s Digital Transformation Summit, Teagle took time to discuss some of the key issues he faces.

For example, how does he balance the demands of managing IT infrastructure with the innovation imperative that he feels so keenly?

Starbucks EMEA currently has approximately 60 percent of its technology managed in-house, with 40 percent handed over to external suppliers, he explains: he and the rest of his technology team don't want to spend their time and efforts managing technology that doesn't prove to be a differentiator in the eyes of the customer.

“The general rule that we have is that, if it is a commodity-type service, then we at Starbucks don't need to become experts. Good examples of things that are outsourced include our help desk, our data centre and our managed network across the region. The stuff that doesn't give us a leading edge in our world,” he says.

Instead, they prefer to take charge of things that “add to the Starbucks experience”, he says: “Adding innovation, making sure we can do things around digital – that's much more valuable to me than having a team of people that are running a help desk or a data centre.”

At the same time, Teagle and his team can never forget the importance of the company’s bricks-and-mortar outlets, so in-store technologies that drive a better customer experience must be a top priority.

Starbucks was one of the first retailers, for example, to offer its customers free Wi-Fi, way back in 2010. It’s something that continues to draw customers to its stores today, he says, and thus exactly the kind of investment he’s interested in. Another recent example has seen Starbucks stores introduce charging mats for customers to charge their mobile phones.

“Anything that we can use to enhance the experience for our customers – you most likely have to go to the store to experience it. You can't do much with our business at home. It's more about going to the store, so it's more about in-the-store technology and, when you walk in the door, what you can do there,” Teagle says.

“We are not like other retailers, where they can have a digital first, incredible omni-channel experience – we don't really have that because you have to go to the store, it's not something we can send to the house.”

However, he and his team are also investing in mobile and social developments that the customers can then take into the digital world, “so they can take their experience with them once they have left the store.”

That’s important in a world where a mobile app can disrupt an entire industry in a few months. Teagle says his biggest challenge is keeping up with the evolving digital needs - and demands - of customers.

“If people are starting to do less bricks-and-mortar type shopping, what does that then mean for our business? Do we need to change the way we operate our stores? Do we need to change the offerings in stores? What can we do in the digital space when you are not in the store that makes it easier for you?”

“That's the unique challenge. We could just take a broad brush and say we will open as many stores as we can, everywhere we can, and just flood the market. But I think we have found that that just isn't necessarily the right thing to do either.”

“I think that's where innovation comes in. I think you have to try some things out and you learn what the customers like, what they don't like and you see how things work. Many of those things we are trying, many of those things we don't know yet, but we are figuring out what it makes it interesting for the customers.”

Robert Teagle will present ‘

Managing Innovation and Disruptive Technologies in Retail

’, as part of the Digital Transformation Summit at

IP EXPO Europe