Starbucks, fix the refill policy. I sort of swore to myself I’d never write about it again but it seems to be one of the more confused areas of Starbucks.

If you need a reminder of what the current refill policy looks like, read this blog post here. The refill policy causes confusion on both sides of the counter. I’ve seen confused partners. I’ve seen confused customers.

The fewer things that baristas have to police, the better. This is crucial. Just as police officers make mistakes in writing citations and making arrests, mistakes can made in enforcing the refill policy. And when baristas are completely in the right, sometimes they cause hard feelings in the customers who don’t understand the refill policy. (And why would they understand it? Most customers don’t spend time outside of Starbucks studying Starbucks policies.)

Within one week, I saw two episodes that reminded me that refill policy needs to be fixed. About one week ago, I walked into the Columbia Center Starbucks, ordered a beverage, and hung out for a few minutes awaiting my drink. As I waited, a colleague from my office came in, saw me, and we chatted for a moment before he ordered. I waited, planning to walk back to my office with my colleague. He approached the register. I was nearby. And I heard him say that he wanted a black tea refill. My ears piqued and I heard Maria, a partner who’s been at that store for years, politely tell my colleague, “I’m sorry that’s not a refill. Refills are for same store visits.” My colleague began to push back, “But I always get a refill in the afternoon…” I was nearby and so I spoke up, “Hey” I said, addressing my friend, “Maria is right. A Starbucks refill really is for same store visits.” The colleague knows my interest in Starbucks, and so he quieted and just paid for his black tea.

A few days ago, I was at a Starbucks in the downtown retail core of Seattle and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a customer clearly chewing out the store manager. I wasn’t close enough to hear what was going on, but I saw her pointing at her phone and squawking, “If I’m supposed to have a receipt, why wasn’t one sent to my phone?” Later, I learned from a friend that the conversation had been about the refill policy and the store had recently tried to implement the idea that a customer would have to have a receipt to receive a refill.

I like the current refill policy in terms of its generosity. But I completely support change too. If Starbucks wants to change the rules for the refill policy, I”ll go with the flow.

My proposal: Baristas shouldn’t have to be sheriffs of the refill policy. Often times, the baristas are right when they say, “That’s not a refill” but that confrontation never enhances the Starbucks experience. Your card should know when you qualify for a refill. Put a time limit on it (there isn’t one now) and tie it to the Starbucks card. Starbucks boasts billions loaded on that card and a significant portion of the transactions are via either the Starbucks card or mobile phone app payment. Maybe if the refill policy required the card, even more people would sign up.

All I know is that the refill policy could use some improvement. I’m not married to any one particular way how it should be fixed but I’m game to tie it strictly to the Starbucks card. I just know that the more things have a clean answer with a swipe of a card, and the fewer things policed by partners, the better. Howard just announced that he stepped into a role to work on digital innovation. I’m crossing my fingers that he and others at the headquarters have already rolled up their sleeves and started working on this.

Starbucks, please fix this. I assume that these kinds of scenarios described above, happen every where, not just in downtown Seattle.


A free refill requires that a customer use a registered Starbucks card at the green level (or higher) of MyStarbucksRewards benefit.

A refill where the customer pays 54 cents (or some number close to that, depending on local tax) does not require any card.

This is one more area of confusion. Make it so you have to have the Starbucks card.