Starbucks announced big changes to its rewards program earlier this week, and some of the coffee giant's loyal customers are pissed.
Under the current program, members earn a star on each purchase regardless of how much is spent, and only twelve stars are needed to get a free drink. For fans of the more inexpensive drinks like simple brewed coffee, that means they can get a free drink for only spending around $25.
But beginning in April, customers will earn two stars per dollar spent, with 125 stars needed for a free drink, which translates to a minimum spend of $62.50 for a freebie. Starbucks insists that its new rewards program should only negatively impact a small percentage of customers, and it's true that folks who have a habit of drinking $5-plus venti lattes and other pricier drinks likely won't even notice the change. Nonetheless, many customers are pissed, as evidenced by the scores of angry tweets directed at @Starbucks:
@Starbucks rewards, thanks for the coffee memories! My future as a Starbucks customer lies elsewhere.— Martha Orellana (@Orellana13914) February 24, 2016
Comments from upset customers are flooding Starbucks' Facebook wall too, and there have also been more than 600 comments left on the official Starbucks blog post that announced the changes. "RlyNotaFan" put it succinctly: "So, let's see. Since I just stop for a cup of drip in the morning it will now take me 30-odd visits to earn a reward, not 12. Thanks a lot."
Reached for comment by Eater, a Starbucks spokesperson says, "We carefully considered every aspect of how to evolve our loyalty program so we could bring the most value to customers for how often they visit and what they purchase. By moving to this model of 2 Stars for every dollar spent, the vast majority of customers will earn rewards just as fast, if not faster. In addition, this change allows us to create many new ways for you to earn stars both inside and outside of Starbucks – including monthly Double-Star days and partnerships with other companies like Lyft and Spotify."
Starbucks isn't the only big chain that's facing a social media backlash from value-seeking customers this week: McDonald's fans are also raising a fuss on Twitter after the Big Mac slinger ditched its limited-time "McPick 2 for $2" combo in favor of a 2-for-$5 deal.
Of course, McDonald's and Starbucks are hawking two very different products: The former provides cheap sustenance for budget-conscious diners, while the latter sells $5 lattes that have become a symbol of wealth and status (see: the never-ending stream of papparazzi snaps featuring celebrities clutching those telltale white-and-green cups).
While McDonald's shift away from dollar menu bargain-basement pricing could alienate some customers, it seems unlikely that Starbucks' changes to its reward programs will have any significant effect on traffic to its stores. According to Tushar Parashar, a consultant for brand strategy firm Vivaldi Partners Group, "The new program will not have significant impact on the brand. ... Some people may find the new change in program a little annoying in the short-term. But overall, the effect of this change on brand should be positive, albeit slightly."
Then again, value-conscious coffee drinkers have plenty of other options, including Starbucks' arch-nemesis Dunkin Donuts.
UPDATE 2/24 4:12 p.m.: This story has been updated with statements from both Starbucks and an industry expert.