With a French press full of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee sitting between them, Starbucks president and CEO Kevin Johnson spoke with the editor-in-chief of Fast Company Stephanie Mehta about how the company is using technology to get its baristas to interact more with customers.

In front of a packed audience at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show 2020, Johnson spoke about Starbucks’ artificial intelligence platform Deep Brew as well as its innovation lab the Tryer Center, both of which he said were helping the company get back to what it does best: being a hub for connection.

SEE: NRF’s Big Show highlights: Cutting-edge tech, robots, and more (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

“In many ways, Deep Brew and the focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence is all about finding ways to help humans have more time to be human. It’s not about robots replacing humans. It’s about technology that frees up our baristas to better connect with one another and connect with customers,” he told Mehta.

“Neuroscience will tell you that that eye contact and conversation is a much better connection with another human being than sitting there typing on a point-of-sale. So we’re trying to invest in things we know can enable our Starbucks partners to spend more time connecting with one another and connecting with customers.”

“It is about optimizing so that we can put our partners in the best possible position to support one another as they serve our customers.”

SEE: Deep learning: An insider’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Johnson is no stranger to tech, having served in positions at IBM, Microsoft and Juniper Networks over his 30-year career. Since taking over at Starbucks in 2017, he has used Deep Brew and other innovations to build up the company’s digital capacity and evolve with its customers.

For other retailers looking to better incorporate technology, Johnson said they had to make sure that it wasn’t just lip service.

A focus on technology had to be embedded from the very top to the bottom to attract the kind of tech talent capable of enacting the tools needed to evolve as a business, he said.

Deep Brew now handles the calculations about what inventory moves through Starbucks’ more than 31,000 stores, freeing up dozens of hours for Starbucks workers who had to sit and count everything by hand.

The AI platform also predicts how many baristas are needed for the store to run effectively every 30 minutes, making it easier for stores worldwide to manage scheduling and other rote tasks.

The company, the world’s largest coffee retailer, is now working on a voice activated system that can take a customer’s order. Instead of having a barista with their head down, typing into a point-of-sale system, they can now look people in the eye and have meaningful, albeit brief, interactions, according to Johnson.

While these may seem small, Johnson reiterated that any increase in human interaction is beneficial given that so many of its customers spend time buried in their phones.

“As human beings, we were meant to interact with one another. It’s how we get energy. It’s how we get support when we’re dealing with adversity. It’s how we share joy and successes in our lives,” Johnson said.

“I think one of the common themes going forward is finding ways to create human connection. Human interaction. The world needs that.”

All of these initiatives are designed to promote Starbucks as a “third place,” providing people with an area outside of their home and work to connect and share with other people.

This concept aligned with what many retailers at NRF 2020 were realizing: that brick-and-mortar stores were still useful even as digital experiences continue to dominate how customers interact with brands.

Retailers, he told the audience, now have to focus on creating a customer experience that makes brick-and-mortar stores a destination that people want to get up and come to.

This in-store experience had to work seamlessly with the relationships built through digital channels, both of which are necessary for future success, he added.

“A decade from now, those that win and succeed in retail are going to have both a brick-and-mortar presence and digital relationships,” he said

“And it’s going to be the ones that do that in a unique way through the brand and bring value to your customers as well as those that do it in a way that goes beyond the state of convenience,” he added.

“If it’s just a place to pick something up or just another node in the supply chain, it is not going to be the kind of destination that customers seek out.”

Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, speaks at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show.
Image: National Retail Federation