Commentary: Understanding My Starbucks Rewards – The 4 most common pitfalls

We live in a time of confusing Starbucks rewards. It won’t always be this way, but for right now, it is.  Today (3-13) as I stood in line at Starbucks in Lynnwood, Washington, I saw the following exchange:

Customer: “Quad venti iced white mocha latte.”

Barista:  “$6.11” (Caveat: Melody doesn’t remember the exact price).

Customer: Hands barista a gold Starbucks card, the kind with her name on it.

Barista: Swipes card. It still says your balance is $6.11.

Customer: The customer, a short asian woman buying a drink twice her size, says something that I could not hear.

Barista: “Let me swipe your card again. Maybe it is supposed to discount it. Nope, your total is still $6.11.  There is no money on the card.”

Customer: Again I couldn’t hear the customer because her voice was too quiet.   Customer appears perplexed and hands some cash to barista.

I watch as the customer hands the barista some cash AND the gold card.  At least eventually her drink gets paid for.

Even right in Seattle I routinely run into baristas who have no idea what the My Starbucks Rewards are, and even have had one barista tell me that she doesn’t care.  This blog post is just the common areas of confusion at the store-level associated with these loyalty rewards programs.  I am going to outline here the common sticking points that I personally hear about and watch as the points of confusion for the rewards programs:

Common problem points of the loyalty rewards programs:

1.  The Black Starbucks Gold Card

If I am using my black Starbucks card, it causes confusion.  The problem:  Currently there is NO way for a barista to look at the card and know which of two Starbucks programs the customer is enrolled in.  As a consequence, if a customer hands a barista a black card there is no way that the barista can even begin to talk about the customer’s rewards before asking the question, “I see you have a black card. There are still some black cards under the old ten-percent off program, and there are some black cards registered and under the new My Starbucks Rewards program.  Do you know which yours is?

Let me repeat this, because I watch this mistake happen all the time: If a barista is handed a black card, there should NOT be any assumptions that the customer is getting ten percent off the purchase.  Rather, the barista can only make educated statements about the customer’s perks by asking which program he or she is enrolled in.  However, baristas routinely assume that a person using a black card is NOT part of My Starbucks Rewards.

Why is this true? Well this is true because a customer can use ANY Starbucks card to be a part of the new My Starbucks Rewards.  Actually, this is one of the improvements that did happen with My Starbucks Idea.  It is far more flexible to be able to use ANY card for My Starbucks Rewards, so some customers may have their favorite customized card, a (Red) card, a First and Battery Card, an old Shareholder Card, a new green Conservation International Card, or ANY card of their liking.  I think there was even an Ichiro baseball Starbucks Card once upon a time, and I regret not collecting cards back when I saw it in the stores!  I didn’t care about the card until Howard announced card benefits at the 2008 Shareholders’ meeting!  (As to the Ichiro card, I’m not into any sports, but I love Seattle and the Ichiro card tugs at my hometown love).

The bright side to this:  One thing about this sticking point is that it WILL get better.  By the time we get to the year 2011, this common problem and assumption as described above will be gone.  Starbucks has said that there will be no more black cards left with a 10% discount when we get to 2011, and this is because there were only a limited number of them sold, and the ability to buy and register one ended in late 2009.

Let’s just hope though that baristas don’t try to take and throw away the black card from customers.  If the customer wants to keep using the card, he or she can.

2. If you’re buying a pound of whole bean coffee, you can get ANY beverage in a tall size free.

This reward perk causes enormous confusion. I’ve experienced myself, read about it on MSI, and see others go through this in the stores.  It is a perk of ANY beverage in the tall size, and not just a free drip brewed coffee.  If the customer wants a 4 shot, espresso Frappuccino, then that’s what the barista gives the customer.  The drink is simply entered into the register and then when the card is swiped, — and  assuming that there’s money on the card, it’s registered, and at the green level or higher, — the drink will magically be “no charge” on the receipt.

If the Starbucks card is (1) Registered online (2) A part of MyStarbucksRewards (automatically true if registered unless by chance the customer has an old black card and still under the 10% discount) (3) pays with the registered card and (4) is at the “green” level of rewards or higher then the tall beverage will automatically be free.

There is no code to make this work. The register will do all the work. There is no special code on the bag of beans.  I have seen it happen many times where I ask the barista for a tall beverage and the barista picks up the bag, confused look on his or her face, and says, “isn’t there a code on the bag?”

I’ve also seen many a barista simply NOT input the tall drink into the register at all, and simply ‘give’ the drink away.  This is not correct either (as far as I know).

Over the two years that My Starbucks Idea has been around, there have tons of threads on this topic, but here are just a few examples:

Another Gold Card comment … What’s the free drink with bean purchase?

Train the store staff

Free Tall Drink with 1lb Whole Bean purchase

Customer Service

Make it crystal clear on free tall drink with lb/Coffee

And once in a blue moon the issue pops up in tweets too:

A second point of confusion around this, though far less common than the above scenario, is what happens when the customer is buying one pound of small-batch Clover coffee offerings.  I used to complain that the register would not give a free beverage automatically above because it was unaware that a person was buying one pound of coffee.  All of the small batch coffees are only sold in half pound sizes, meaning that the register has to know to add up two half pound bags to make one pound.  I know there used to be some kind of bug with this, but amazingly, it’s been fixed. It works now! The register can add up two half pounds of small batch Clover offering coffees and then give the tall beverage as free! Wow! So this too should be seamless. But again, the customer has to be buying a full pound of coffee to get the perk.  Despite that the small batch coffees are expensive, there is NO perk of a free tall beverage if the customer is buying just a half pound of coffee.  100% Kona is $19 per half pound, and Yirgacheffe is about $12 per half pound.

3. I just got a Gold Card with my name on it? What do I do with it? What’s it for? Do I have to use it?

For some reasons both partners and customer get confused that there is some magic to the Gold Card that doesn’t exist in any other registered card. That’s not true (at this point).  When a customer receives a Gold Card in the mail, with the customer’s name on it, there is NO requirement to switch to the Gold Card.  And funds are not automatically transferred back and forth.  If the customer decides that he or she wants to use the Gold Card, he or she must take the affirmative step to put funds on it. This inherently confuses the customer who hasn’t read the fine print about what he or she actually can or should do with this card.

4.  What’s a sauce? What’s a syrup?

In March 2008, when Starbucks announced card benefits, they told customers that syrups would be free with a registered card.  It’s been two years and I still see confusion around this.  Just to be clear, this perk is now part of the “green” level of My Starbucks Rewards.

The average ordinary Joe customer really doesn’t know what is a sauce and what is a syrup.  From the perspective of the customer, if they’re even paying attention in their peripheral vision, they see some bottles, and a barista pumping something into their cup, and that’s about it.

Of course when Starbucks opened up the door to this perk in 2008, it wasn’t their intent that from that point forward every drink is simply charged as just a “latte” because everything else is just a modifier on one basic drink.  However, the average customer isn’t operating at a level of Starbucks sophistication to immediately understand that there is a distinction to be made between Mocha Sauce and Vanilla Syrup.

As a consequence, the barista at the register has the space of ten seconds to try and explain, “You get free syrups of our regular selection of syrups, but not free premium seasonal syrups and not sauces, because a sauce is not a syrup. A sauce is thicker than a syrup, and Mocha is a sauce.

Just as an example of the confusion this causes, here’s a thread on MSI where the customer doesn’t really understand that Mocha is sauce, and so a barista has to step in and gently explain the customer the mocha is a sauce.

Better Rewards for People Who Like Mochas

Despite that trying to explain this benefit in ten seconds at the register is a challenge, most baristas really do quite well at explaining it from what I can see.  The confusion consistently arises on the side of the customer, not on the partner side. (Contrast the whole bean purchase and ANY tall beverage which has the reverse problem:  Lots of customers are acutely aware that they can receive any tall beverage free with a whole bean purchase, but baristas often appear unaware and confused how best to effectuate this reward).

Key questions at the register when dealing with card rewards:

1. For customers with a black Gold Card, the first question out of the barista’s mouth should be “Is this card under the old 10% of Gold Card program or under the new My Starbucks Rewards?“.  There is NO WAY a barista can really give accurate advice without getting the answer to that question from the customer. Since ANY card may be enrolled under the new My Starbucks Rewards, it may even be a black card.

2. Is there money on this card? That might be a particularly useful question for people carrying the Gold Cards because not everyone seamlessly figured out that you only get a perk if you put money on it.  Although ultimately, the barista is going to see pretty quickly if there is money on it once the card is swiped.

3. Is this card registered? This question is best suited for customers carrying any of a myriad of cards whether it is a Shareholder Card, mini card or (Red) Card.  The Gold Cards with the customer’s name on it are automatically registered.  Of course, if the the customer says “no” it opens up the door to talk about the benefits with registering the card.  Hopefully the customer will be enticed by the idea of earning free drinks every 15 swipes.  Of course, one thing the barista could do is simply look at the back-side of the card and see if the pin number has been scratched off, so that it is now readable.  That’s going to be a very good sign that the card is registered.  And the Gold Cards with the customer’s name on it are automatically registered.

On the plus side, all of the above should get easier over time as people get used to the My Starbucks Rewards program.  By 2011 this might be a breeze, but it still leaves a few months of growing pains now.  After all, many Gold Card holders were automatically enrolled in the new My Starbucks Rewards program on January 5th this year, so we’re really about 3 months into the new rewards.  I guess a few hiccups now and then are to be expected. Please note that all of the above information in this posts applies to the United States only! Other Starbucks markets have some card benefit but often isn’t quite the same as the U.S. version.  That’s it for the quick review of common rewards sticking points!  Your comments are welcome!

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  • purple1

    Melody something you said hit home for me today- real conversations with customers and partners. Perhaps I am being a bit too sensitive but here goes. Today is my birthday and I used my free birthday drink card and the partners today all know me and not one of them when redeeming the reward said happy birthday to me! Not a big deal I suppose, but part of me feels that giving this reward out a partner should acknowledge you in some way. A small gesture for sure but it would be a nice one especially when the partners know you.

  • Steve

    Happy birthday Purple! No you are not sensitive and acts of kindness, like saying “happy birthday” does not take any extra time and I think it is sort of rude not to. I am not a partner or employee just an ordinary run of the mill guy but every year when I go into a Starbucks to get my birthday drink the barista always smiles and says “happy birthday” to me when handing me my drink. It is just a little thing but really gives me a good feeling so again HAPPY BIRTHDAY PURPLE and I would have added a couple of those cutsie thingies but I don’t know how. If I were you I’d try a different store for your birthday drink if it’s possible.

  • denise r

    @purple: Happy Birthday! (same as my dad’s…he would’ve been 95 today……)
    I think you are not being sensitive. I have writtien recently that, for whatever reason…really, I don’t know..I’m finding Sbux not nearly as “comfortable” as I have for 1000yrs. Requires more thought for me (on that issue), but, Happy Birthday to you!
    re: the free drink cards…..I think mostly the partners don’t even look at them very closely, except the code or whatever they need. I assume they assume it’s just another sweet15 card. (even with the ‘cake’ on it)

  • purple1

    Denise and Steve thanks for the birthday wishes. I am not writing about this to get wishes, but your comment Denise about the code is interesting because the partner could not read the code on the card and asked another partner what the code was. You might think and maybe not that the partners would know what codes stand for what. The funny thing is that when I got home I found emails in my box wishing me happy birthday from companies I deal with that I think I do not have as much contact with as Starbucks. Say something about customer interaction and service????

  • Melody

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY Purple1! The Starbucks Experience is totally built in the conversations between people, not with what the register does. I am sorry no one wished you a big happy birthday! Hope your day is wonderful!

  • Cd

    Happy Birthday Purple! You should have been given a warm “Happy Birthday” and I’m sorry you didn’t. There is nothing wrong with thinking it should have happened – it was way to easy and obvious of a “connect discover respond” moment for the partner.

    You have given me an idea though – a costly but personal idea…

    Starbucks should have paper “it’s my birthday!” cups that they use for occasions like this (and when someone announces it is their birthday). That way the birthday greeting can work it’s way down the line all day (register barista to bar/handoff to customer next to you at condiment bar to person in the elevator…)

  • Becky E

    Great idea, Cd!! Hope your birthday was great, Purple1!!

  • Claudine

    Hi all,

    I’m based in Beijing and we also have the Starbucks Rewards Card. I really think that this membership card program wasn’t thought out well. After reaching the gold level, what’s next? We don’t get 10% off on merchandise, coffee refills, customize drink, nor free tall beverage for every coffee bean purchase. The only thing you’ll get at gold level is the free anniversary beverage drink, free birthday beverage and free tall drink for every 10 purchases. Moreover, once you reach your anniversary, your stars will go back to zero and you have to accumulate 25 stars again to maintain gold status for another year.

    It’s quite frustrating especially if you have more than 50 stars already. I do hope they change the rewards card system to make it more enticing. The novelty of having a gold card is wearing off. I prefer purchasing the RMB 88, 10% discount card which they launched a year ago.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to use the Starbucks Rewards Card globally especially if you like to travel a lot? :)

  • Melody

    Hi Claudine! I’m not familiar with the China version of the rewards program. It’s interesting that the My Starbucks Rewards programs are different internationally in many places. I have heard that in the UK there are free add shots to a beverage but there are NOT any free drink coupons?? There no longer is any US program where you get 10% off your purchases at Starbucks – And I don’t think that any international program has that. Do you get a free drink every ten transactions, or is it per drink? A free tall drink every ten purchases sounds pretty good, except that so many people in the US would want to upgrade to a Grande and Venti. That perk would drive many people here crazy – And yet it is a very generous perk!

  • cmadler

    How is the free syrups reward supposed to work. I figured it would be automatic when they swipe a registered card, but at one store (in a Kroger, so maybe they have different rules?) they told me I would need to ask for the reward each time.

  • Karen BN

    Is Starbucks really giving away a free gift card if you say you like Starbucks? It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t ask for either an email or home address.

  • Melody

    Karen, welcome! Im on my phne, srry so sloppy & rushed. Ive heard of a number of scams related to Starbucks where ppl try to entice w/ Starbucks cards. I would be very suspicious of that. I doubt there are gift crds for just saying you like them.

  • purple1

    Karen BN where did you see this offer? Have not seen anything by me re this nor have I received any emails about this.

  • Steve

    Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. There are bad people out in cyber space and then there are really bad people in cyber space and cyber space is a dangerous place and remember IF SOMETHING SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE CHANCES ARE IT ISN’T.

  • Karen BN

    I wish I could add a pic of the official looking ad here but there doesn’t seem to be a way to do it. The link on Facebook for the free coffee gift card was I think that someone has shut it down now.

  • Karl Dahlquist

    Starbucks posted an official warning today on their Facebook page not to click that offer, as it is hijacking software.

  • Steve

    I read that warning on twitter. Don’t be fooled by these “official looking logos”. The scammers are very good at copying logos. The “.me” after the web site would make me suspisious.

  • Karl Dahlquist

    They are also advising users who clicked the link on Facebook or sent it to friends to change their passwords. Apparently it also spread in Canada under a “Tim Hortons” tagline…


    I love my Gold Starbucks card..that I have had for a few years. I have told many fans of coffee about the card and just how easy it is to use. First you get a regular gift card, load the card then register it on line. Continue to load money on the card and transfer all cards you receive as gifts to your card and before you know it Starbucks will be sending you a Gold Card. Free soy, flavors and after 15 drinks you get a free beverage certificate in the mail..Happy Birthday also from Starbucks as you enjoy a free beverage. This is just too easy to do.

  • Sally

    I got my Starbucks card.. 7 weeks ago and I’ve been trying to get my stars for the Gold Card. Three days ago I was at 25 stars but I checked my rewards and I’m back to zero stars. Do you know why this happened?

  • Melody

    Hi Sally – This blog post is over two years old, and is a little dated. I need to write something more updated soon.
    I’ve seen tweets that there is a glitch in showing stars in the Starbucks card system, but I assume they’ll be back online soon. You can follow @StarbucksCard on twitter for official news there.

    Just so you know, it’s easier to get to gold than you might think: You are earning a star each time your card is swiped at the register (with a tiny number of exceptions like the free refills). So if you are buying a drink plus a sandwich, you can ask the register barista to ring the two items separately and thus earn two stars, not one.

    And also, when you get your gold card, you don’t have to use it. It is AMAZING to me that many baristas and customers erroneously believe that you’re not earning stars unless that specific gold card is swiped. The perks are earned by your card profile, and so you can keep using the card you’re using right now (or any other card, such as your fave mini card) that is registered to your Starbucks card profile.

    Good luck! You must be very close to gold at this point!

  • Matt

    I had 18 stars in my rewards cup on my iPhone app then when I checked one day they all disappeared out of the bottom of the cup and now it shows I have zero. What’s up with that and why did I loose all of my stars?

  • Christy


    I came here looks for an answer to the SAME question. I have a registered card and was closing in on gold (had 26 stars last check two weeks ago, and had at least four transactions since). Logged in last night expecting to see gold and do a happy dance. Instead, although logging in pulls up my registered card, it shows no stars. Went to the menu under my username and selected ‘my Starbucks rewards’ and got a message that states, ‘user not eligible for rewards’ ?????

    I sent a message to CS, but have yet to hear back. Sorry that it happened to you, but seeing that the same thing has happened to someone else actually gives me hope that this is a glitch/system error that will be fixed.

  • Sally

    Hi guys.. I just checked mine and two days later the stars are back. I think it’s a glitch, so I’m back at 27 stars with my transaction from yesterday even though my stars weren’t showing up. So just keep checking and don’t worry they are there. :)

    Thank you once again for your reply Melody! Have a good day everyone.

  • Matt Holm

    Yes this morning they all reappeared when i went to use my app at the local Starbucks, but when I came home they again all disappeared. Must be a glitch in the system. Hope we all get them back! What a bummer that it stated on yours Sally that you were not eligible for rewards!! :(

  • Melissa

    I’m having a terrible time with the rewards program. Having finally reach gold card level I was excited to reload my balance and watch stars accumulate toward the free drink. Well, each purchase takes days (and emails and/or calls to customer service) to appear. The most recent purchase made a week ago tomorrow still hasn’t registered. Replies from customer service range from a standard form letter to a “we’re working on it” or “it might be a few more days” approach. Pretty frustrating and I hesitate to load more money onto the account or use it until they figure it out. However, while googline “rewards cards problems” I stumbled across your blog so I am happy for that! :)

  • Stephanie

    Does anyone know if, instead of ordering a grande vanilla latte, it would be cheaper to order a plain latte with 4 pumps of vanilla syrup? Or would I still get charged for a vanilla latte since that’s what it is? I don’t know if there’s much of a price difference between plain and vanilla but I want to get some benefit out of my card, other than a free drink occasionally.

    Does anyone else feel strangely pompous when paying with a gold card? Or maybe it’s the real me coming out-yikes!

  • Melody

    Stephanie – It should be the exact same price either way it is ordered. The register should know the vanilla comes off as a card perk.
    If you feel anything odd about paying with your shiny gold card with your name on it, stop using it. It is actually my PET PEEVE to hear partners over and over and over again say, “you get free syrups with your gold card.”

    Actually, ANY card registered to your profile will earn you stars (assuming your profile is gold) and you will receive all of the free syrups, free milk changes, free tall beverage with whole been purchase … all of those you got at the green level.

    You can add numerous cards to your profile. This is card that I’m using right now to receive all my stars and rewards:

    Shall I send you an Evolution Fresh card? You’ll really have baristas doing a double take! LOL

    Thanks for commenting, and hope to see you back in the other threads. Thanks again!

  • Rollan Ibanez

    So can someone please tell me what you have to do to get your free syrups with you gold card. I assume that the gold card would automatically deduct the price of the syrup. I always order Iced vanilla lattes…and when the barista rings it up I listen for the price and when she swipes my gold card with money on it, I look at the receipt and it is the same price. What gives? Must I tell the barista before I order that I am using my gold card?

  • Melody

    Hi Rollan –
    Somehow, Google really likes to send LOTS of people to this blog post everyday. The more recent series of articles I did on the rewards are here:

    Without looking at your receipt, it’s very hard to guess what’s going on. First off, please know that you can use ANY Starbucks card registered to your profile at

    You must have money on the card – and use it to pay for your purchase.

    If you are at a licensed location, there is a possibility that your store then does not offer any of these perks. There are indeed licensed stores where you can pay with a Starbucks card (any Starbucks card) yet you receive no Starbucks card rewards. It’s only then a form of payment.

    Can you upload an image of your receipt to my facebook page? (Like the facebook page, then upload it).

    At the bottom of the receipt, your receipt should say something like, “Your savings today … 60 cents” – And that would show you that the fee for the vanilla syrup was deducted.

    If by chance you were getting a vanilla latte with vanilla bean powder, it would not be waived.

    Please check back in!



  • cmadler

    If you are at a licensed location, there is a possibility that your store then does not offer any of these perks. There are indeed licensed stores where you can pay with a Starbucks card (any Starbucks card) yet you receive no Starbucks card rewards. It’s only then a form of payment.

    I don’t know what the status is re licensing, but when I’ve used my card at a Starbucks within a grocery store, they’ve told me to tell them that I’ve got a Green/Gold card and they’ll manually take off the charge for syrups. Maybe that’s just a local policy, though.

  • Defygravity

    Do you have money on the rewards card to use it to get rewards? Meaning, if I don’t have money on it, can I just get it swiped and pay in cash so that I can still earn points?

  • denise r

    @Defygarv….yes, as I have seen it, you still must pay with your registered Sbux card in order to receive the *star*.

  • Brittany

    Question….my mom has the Starbucks card app for iPhone and she gave me her account info to use, but I live in Peru South America. I know mulitpule users can use the same account info. There are starbucks here but they’re not what I say technically “up-to-date”. And then the whole currency exchange thing…don’t know if that will be a problem… Gracias :)

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