Starbucks is reportedly shaking up its rewards program — again

By Matt Collins Article may include affiliate links

Update: Starbucks has confirmed it will be updating its rewards program as of April 16, 2019.

Starbucks is reportedly switching up its rewards program again.

  • The new program will reportedly discontinue the “any single item” reward for 125 stars approach the current system uses.
  • Instead, customers will be able to redeem stars for upgrades, full menu items and merchandise on a scaled basis.
  • Customers will reportedly still earn two stars for every dollar spent.
  • For example, 25 stars will reportedly be worth modifications to a drink up to $1 in value. This could include shots, flavors or dairy substitutes.
  • 50 stars will get you a free hot coffee, tea or bakery item.
  • 150 stars, meanwhile, will can be cashed in for a “handcrafted beverage” or breakfast sandwich (it’s worth noting this reward previously only “cost” 125 stars).
  • For more on the difference between “brewed” coffee or tea and the “handcrafted beverages,” see below.
  • Next up is a 200 tier that will get a free lunch sandwich, salad or protein box.
  • Finally, 400 starts can be exchanged for packaged coffee or a single merchandise item with a value up to $20.
  • True Starbucks fans, meanwhile, can also earn cashback on purchases from the coffee chain — find out how here.

Here’s how the Starbucks program has changed over the years:

  • Originally, Starbucks Rewards was tied to the number of visits — you got one star per reward (though this was really one star per transaction as smart members quickly figured out).
  • After 12 visits (or transactions), you got a free single serve menu item — merchandise, multi-serve items and packaged coffee beans were excluded.
  • On April 1, 2016, the company switched to a more value-based model for its loyalty program.
  • This was when customers started earning two stars for every $1 spent.
  • When they reached 125 stars (or $62.50 in spending), they could redeem it for a single menu item.
  • In case of multi-item transactions, Starbucks’ computers automatically make the most expensive item free.

The changes to Starbucks Rewards will even closer to tie rewards earned to dollars spent — and will have both its detractors and fans.

  • The original program was often criticized — or praised, depending on your habits — for favoring people who bought, say 12 tall coffees, and then used a reward for a more pricey item.
  • The program could also be gamed by breaking up multiple items across more than one transaction, which each transaction registering as a “visit.”
  • Gold rewards members, who are eligible for free refills on coffee and tea beverages in the same visit, also found that free refills counted as “visits” at some locations, making it easier to reach that 12 visit milestone faster.
  • When Starbucks switched to the 125 star for a reward model in 2016, the system tied rewards more closely the amount spent.
  • However, the new approach was still a bit unbalanced, because smart members would still wait to redeem rewards on more pricey items.
  • In addition, under both rewards programs, many customers would attempt to get baristas to “load up” their drinks with shots, flavors and other add-ons — often getting a drink valued at $20, $30 or even higher for free.

The new approach, assuming it is enacted, will more evenly level the field by tying both earning and redeeming rewards to specific benchmarks.

  • While this new approach is, at least on the surface, fairer to everyone, Starbucks could risk upsetting current members accustomed to getting maximum rewards for minimal investment.
  • It’s also a bit more complicated — which could lead to consumer confusion and frustration and require Starbucks to ensure its employees are trained in the intricate new rules.
  • The new approach will, however, for the first time, allow customers to purchase nearly anything in the store, including take-home bags of coffee, travelers, mugs and other items, though it will essentially cost $200 to get something that’s worth, at most $20.
  • The new system would still allow for some “gaming” within the tiers of rewards, too since, for example, some sandwiches, lunch items, bakery goods and merchandise items are more expensive than others.

So, if this rewards program update does go live, how can you maximize your benefits?

  • First, look for “double star” days. These are typically offered to Gold level members most frequently. This makes it easier to earn stars faster without spending any more money.
  • Find out how to get cashback from outside sources to make your Starbucks runs a bit less expensive in the long run.
  • When redeeming a reward at any level, make sure you redeem it for the most expensive item you can in the category.
  • For what it’s worth, though, don’t use your points to get something you don’t like just because it’s free — that’s like using a coupon to save money on something you’ll never use.
  • If you only drink brewed coffee or teas (as opposed to lattes or fancier beverages), it will get easier to earn a free drink. Under the new system it would “cost” you $25 to get a plain tea or coffee — as opposed to $62.50 under the old model.
  • It’s worth noting that most Starbucks stores draw the line between “brewed” coffee or tea and a “handcrafted” beverage once an ingredient, such as lemonade, flavoring or milk, is added behind the counter (this typically excludes sweeteners and creamers you can add yourself at the condiment bar). So, if you order just a Citrus Defender tea it’s “brewed” but adding lemonade means it becomes “handcrafted.” Likewise, a tea or coffee is “brewed” until you order something that requires baristas to add dairy or latte mix behind the counter.
  • “Handcrafted beverage” fans, however, would now have to spend the $75 to get a free drink in the same category — which might seem a like a big difference given that it doesn’t cost Starbucks that much more to create a “handcrafted” beverage compared to a “brewed” drink — so it might be worth considering banking your stars for food or merchandise.
  • Likewise, the “upgrade” option doesn’t seem to be a great value — you’re spending $12.50 to get something that costs you, at most $1, and likely costs Starbucks pennies on the dollar to provide. If you do use this option, at least make sure your upgrade costs more toward the $1 end.
  • Assuming your store keeps milk and creamer out for the taking, you can still cheat and create a “latte” ordering a plain brewed coffee or tea, dumping some of it out and adding milk from the condiment bar (though you might get some nasty looks).
  • Finally, if you’re Gold member who prefers brewed coffee or tea and are planning to stay in a store for a long time, buy a smaller size and just go back for free refills. You’ll earn slightly less stars, but then, if you want, change in 50 stars for a Venti or Trenta size (if available) for when you can’t hang around to nurse refills for hours.