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Starbucks brews wireless charging

Folks have walked into Starbucks for years to re-charge their batteries — figuratively. Now, they'll be able to do it literally.

In a strategic move that gives consumers yet another reason to waltz into the store, Starbucks and Duracell Powermat on Thursday will announce they've begun a national rollout of wireless phone chargers in Starbucks and Teavana locations.

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Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Starting at stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, consumers will be able to set their cellphones down on designated spots on their tabletop, and their batteries will charge as they eat, drink, read or chat. No plugs. No cables. No cost. No joke.

Over the next three years, more than 100,000 table chargers — built-in Powermat charge pads — will be installed in Starbucks' 7,500 company-owned stores in the U.S. That's about a dozen per store.

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"Starbucks believes this is another step in staying ahead of the curve when it comes to in-store technology," says Adam Brotman, chief digital officer at Starbucks.

For Starbucks, it's all about figuring out new ways to appeal to its techie, often young-ish clientele. Battery depletion ranks among the top stress-inducing frustrations for cellphone owners. Not only is Starbucks eliminating the stress, it's giving customers a cool reason to linger and buy another $4 cup of its designer coffee.

With this move, Starbucks is evolving into a "tech-enabled gathering place," says Jamie King, CEO of the ad agency Camp + King. "They are adding 'smart' to their original vision of the third place — now it's a 'smart third place.' "

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To use the system, you've got to either have a wireless charging-capable cellphone — few are right now — or a phone accessory with the capability. Those accessories, an external battery or phone cases with a built-in supplemental battery, are available for most popular phones. In a test over the past year in about two dozen stores in the Boston and San Jose markets, Starbucks has been providing interested consumers devices that let them charge. Ultimately, the chain may sell them, until the wireless charging becomes more common in phones.

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Starbucks, which is becoming as much a trend-setting tech company as a coffee seller, is aware that phones are on the cusp of a revolution in charging: out with wall plugs, in with wireless charging. The coffee giant may even help foster that change, much as it helped to popularize Wi-Fi hot spots when it was among the first national chains to install Wi-Fi in its stores in 2001. Its stores already accept reloadable mobile payment, and this year will test a pilot program to let customers order ahead via mobile apps.

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"This move by Starbucks cuts the final cord of our lives — the power cord," says Daniel Schreiber, president of Powermat Technologies. "It's changing the way humanity interacts with power."

The typical customer will probably use the wireless re-charger for about 15 minutes, says Brotman. But others will use them for up to an hour or two, he says.

Officials from Starbucks and Duracell Powermat declined to discuss the financials of the deal.

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Wireless charging is now a multimillion-dollar industry but quickly will become a multibillion-dollar industry, says Schreiber.

"Every business, whether it's a coffee house, or an advertising agency, is in the technology business," says Gerald Lewis, group creative director at the digital marketing specialty firm John McNeil Studio. "Starbucks, as a forward-looking brand, recognizes this."

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