Skip to Content

Starbucks latest jolt is free – and it isn’t coffee

A phone being charged wirelessly at StarbucksA phone being charged wirelessly at Starbucks
A phone being charged wirelessly at StarbucksPicasa

Starbucks is making it easier for customers to charge up their smartphones by installing technology in its stores that lets people avoid having to plug their devices into electrical sockets.

The coffee giant said Thursday that it plans to add 100,000 wireless charging stations to its 7,500 company-operated stores in the U.S., as well as to its Teavana tea bars. The rollout will begin with stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Customers will be able to charge their smartphones for free by laying them flat on the surface of specially equipped tables and counters. Low-level electricity emitted from these so-called “Powermat Spots,” which look like small black discs, invisibly top off low batteries. No cord is necessary. Customers sitting at the charging stations do not risk electrocution while sipping their lattes, of course.

The technology will, in theory, help end the perpetual battle in Starbucks stores for access to electrical sockets. For years, customers have competed for prime seats next to an outlet.

“Instead of competing over one socket, we’ve enabled surfaces with different charging stations so you don’t need to carry a cord or crawl under the table [to charge your device],” said Ran Poliakine, CEO of Powermat Technologies, the company that makes the charging mats. He told Fortune that charging phones wireless is as fast as using a traditional cord.

Not everyone will be able to use the charging stations, however. Few smartphones are compatible, in fact. Only those that are PMA enabled – one of two standards in use today – will be able to juice up using the mats. Otherwise, customers will have to buy a specialty case (they look like protective bumpers and cost around $25) or a plug-in receiver to wirelessly charge their phones.

The decision by Starbucks (SBUX) to install Duracell Powermat in its stores is a big bet on the wireless power standards set by Power Matters Alliance, or PMA. Starbucks is clearly betting that the other major standard, known as Qi, will lose out in the fight. A third association earlier this year agreed to consolidate with PMA. It isn’t clear which of the remaining pair will ultimately win.

The stations by Duracell Powermat, a joint venture between Procter & Gamble (PG) and Powermat Technologies, were first tested in a handful of Starbucks stores in the Boston area in late 2012. About a dozen of the charging stations will be added to each store, though that figure will vary depending on the store’s size.

Linda Mills, a Starbucks spokeswoman, said her company’s decision to add wireless charging to its stores is an extension of a years-long effort to make its coffee shops cutting-edge with technology. That investment began in 2001, Mills said, when Starbucks introduced WiFi in its stores.