"Big Coffee" Fails at the POS: Complaints and Solutions

PointofSale.com owner and publisher Craig Aberle has some complaints about the point of sale procedures at some of the most popular chains in the country: Starbucks and Panera.  In the following essay, Craig addresses some of the most common complaints at the point of sale as well as some particular issues at his local stores.  An expert in the POS industry, Craig offers some solutions for these companies that are still very popular despite their less-than-desirable POS procedures and famously long wait times.  Here are some complaints and solutions from Craig.  Let us know what you think by sharing your comments below!



I've been a coffee-drinker longer than I've been in the POS industry.   While the proliferation of large-scale chain coffee shops like Starbucks and Panera over the last ten years is convenient, there are certain aspects of their operations and point of sale strategies that are not.

Getting my coffee at Starbucks is a decent experience—when the store is not busy.  But I recently spent over 10 minutes in line behind a measly four other customers.

Why should it take ten minutes to process four customers' orders at Starbucks? It wasn’t always that bad.

Here are my thoughts on where the Starbucks POS system breaks down:

  1. Nothing moves when the cashier is otherwise engaged. There are too many menu options that require cooking or special handling by the cashier but cannot be offloaded to the barista. These options include cooking oatmeal and heating up bagels and various other items like breakfast sandwiches. These items force the cashier to leave the register. Of course there are two registers, but usually only one attendant. Rarely can the cashier leave something to cook by itself for two minutes and take the next customer; the ability to multi-task, it seems, is not a job requirement at The Bucks. And given the massive turnover at my local Starbucks, it is doubtful that a cashier will be there long enough to acquire this skill if they don’t already possess the talent.

  2. Cashiers are unable to ring a transaction while yapping. Half the cashiers at my local Starbucks are great. They focus on ringing the sale, getting me my plain old Pike coffee (with room), and taking my money. The other half are still busy talking to their buddies behind the counter about something that happened over the weekend. This is both a training and hiring issue.

  3. Tie-ups at the condiments counter. While it’s a beautiful thing to look at, the tiny, roughly four foot wide counter is woefully inefficient. For example – creamer is on just one side. So you either have to rudely reach across in front of the person there, or just wait patiently while they empty in their sugar, stir, etc. Too slow.

  4. starbucksThe half and half container itself – which is pitifully small – is another problem. First of all, the container runs out of creamer regularly. There is no gauge so you can’t tell how full or empty it is. The container itself is impractical. It has a screw top. You can unscrew it one turn, but still nothing comes out. Somewhere between it being screwed shut and having the top fall off in your coffee is a sweet spot, where creamer will come out at an unknown speed. Panera emulated Starbucks and bought this same stupid device. When the container is empty, you have to take it to the Starbucks barista and wait for them to have a moment to fill it up or replace it with a cold one from the fridge. This could be 30 seconds or five minutes. Ditto at Panera. Except that Panera usually has a couple of these at the fixing table. Some Paneras have a creamer container that has a button to hold down while you pour to make the creamer come out. This is a vast improvement. Unfortunately the size of the container is still modest, so it runs out frequently.


  1. paneraStarbucks does not allow customers to pump their own drip coffee in the self-serve style.  Panera also allows you to tap your own coffee. Starbucks doesn’t think we are smart enough to handle that, or maybe they have some fantasy about their unique and dynamic coffee production system (if so, it’s lost on me). Panera recognizes that the average individual can figure out how work a coffee pot and offloads the job on the customer.  This is a very smart - and efficient - move.

More problems with the Starbucks condiments table:

  1. The Sugar in the Raw packets get stuck in the little hopper, so you have to open up the top of the holder, reach down, and shove them through. This has been impractical for about 10 years now.

  2. Now Panera, a company that has done remarkably well, often has two urns of regular coffee available at the same time.   My cup runneth over!

  3. The only local company that seems to get the need for speed in the process is the local bagel shop where they serve Douwe Egberts coffee.  They both allow me to tap my own java, AND have a large (maybe half gallon?) size creamer with a little press pump dispenser on top.  I have never seen it run out.   Plus, it is easy to control, and I never accidentally put too much cream in my coffee. The container also seems to be well insulated. Alas, they don’t have Sugar in the Raw so I must remember bring in a few packets out of the box I keep in the trunk of my car.

barnenobleNow, Barnes and Noble has a nice sized condiment table. Unfortunately, the point of sale procedure there is equally as abysmal as Starbucks, if not worse. Very light staffing means there is usually only one person working behind the counter. The other is doing something, although no one quite knows what (taking inventory maybe?). A wide variety of foods requiring preparation means that you get freshly heated, semi-mass prepared meals, but only one client is served at a time. It’s a good thing I usually have a book with me to read while I wait in line.

How Can We Fix It?

The cost effective restaurant model of the future involves using the labor of the client. Certainly Starbucks could allow users to draw their own coffee, thus reducing the overhead on the cashiers. Another future business model I’d like to see involves robots (vending machines really) that will dispense an empty cup for $2.  What about the swipe of a credit card or a tap of my super-enabled smartphone?  I don’t have to talk to a cashier, stand in line, or anything else. (Starbucks, Panera – are you listening?) You can’t serve me fast enough! Panera, to its credit, used to have an honesty system where customers could take a cup and put $2 in a can. Unfortunately, when the economy went south a couple years ago, the can and the money kept getting stolen (according to my local Panera manager), so they did away with it. Now visiting Panera can mean a ten minute wait anywhere near lunch time, probably due to the fact that they prepare delicious and healthy food that is increasingly in demand in our society.

I think they could bring the can back. Or, if they are still worried about cash control, go out and build a kiosk to dispense empty cups. Let the customer do all the work and prevent them having to wait in line. Maybe Panera is worried I won’t buy more items?Trust me, if I am hungry, I will wait in line for my bagel.  I might even want to get my coffee first, and then sip it in line.  That could be an added benefit: I’d be less grouchy by the time I got to the register. 

The point of sale procedures at all these companies have room for improvement. Speed, efficiency, and less hassle are selling points to customers. Reducing staff labor and stress should be an incentive to Starbucks – give up the fixation on an aesthetically pleasing but poorly performing system. Give us a little more functionality.  We’ve earned it!  Furthermore, as much as Starbucks might disagree, the barriers to entry in this market are not so high as to completely stifle competition.  Lastly, kudos to Panera for allowing the customer to have access to a microwave – it’s a small thing, but very useful. Sometimes I even re-heat my coffee after its been sitting long enough to get cold. Memo to all chain stores above: Access to a toaster would be a real treat. Am I asking too much? Fast service, less aggravation, less waiting in line, things cooked the way I want?  Sounds like a good deal to me!


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