Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Starbucks Still Doesn't Get It

You own a business that is suffering declining store traffic for consecutive quarters. Your business is being challenged by competitors that offer a quality product at a fraction of the price you charge for yours. What do you do? If you are Starbucks (SBUX) you raise prices and make the affordability gap between you and your competitors even greater? Please tell me how this make sense.

Starbucks recently announced that meeting estimates for the upcoming quarter "would be a challenge" due to higher milk and coffee prices. Now, if they were serving more people each day, this decrease in margins would be offset by the additional transactions. What this warning tells me is they are still facing stagnant or declining store traffic in addition to decreasing margins. Can anyone explain how making your product less affordable will solve this store traffic issue?

I mean, Mcdonalds (MCD) and Dunkin Donuts both serve milk and coffee so we must assume they are facing the same cost pressures, right. It would be foolish to assume only Starbucks is facing these issues. Today McDonald released results and revenue came in 12% higher at more than $6 billion, while sales at restaurants open for more than a year were up 7.4%. They also met expectations of 71 cents a share profit from operations, 26% higher than last year and Starbucks admits they are struggling . How did McDonald's do it? They sell a quality product at affordable prices, novel. Said CEO Jim Skinner "In the U.S., we are aggressively going after the $60 billion beverage industry with the focus on coffee. We added credibility in this arena now with lots of premium coffee last March. Today, premium coffee sales are up 20%. This credibility gave us brand elasticity to expand further into specialty beverages. Currently, we are testing a wider range of offerings including hot and cold drip coffee beverages an espresso-based coffee and ice beverages. We are encouraged by the preliminary results. Including these specialty offerings, total coffee sales are up more than 30%."

I have been pounding this point since January, Starbucks is at the peak of what they can charge for a cup of coffee. Increasing those prices will lead to further decreases in store traffic and with Starbucks now relying on more ancillary sales to customers for revenues and profits, decreased visits now have a compounding negative effect on the bottom line.

I also fully understand the hard core Starbucks "aficionados" will continue to visit Starbucks no matter what type of home equity loan becomes required to purchase a latte, it is the casual customer who is walking away in hoards and the numbers continue to back up this assertion. Goldman Sachs (GS) analyst Steven Kron said today that higher prices could reduce store traffic given the state of the consumer, media coverage and increasing competition in the coffee space. Not could Steve, will.

The only way for Starbucks to reverse this decline is to get more people into their stores. Once there they will buy more muffins, sandwiches, CD, toaster ovens, and SUV's or whatever else they sell there now. Raising prices will not accomplish this. If the consumer is becoming more cost conscious and recent retail sales report would support this than one must assume discretionary items like a cup of coffee will be one of the first items they will pinch pennies on.

I also recognize that it is only 9 cents on some drinks (ones in cups?), but we live in a appearance is reality world out there and the last thing people want to hear nowadays are the words "price increase". It is a turn off and the extra revenue they may get per cup is more than offset by the negative sentiment they are creating.

I have asked this question repeatedly and have yet received a decent answer. Why should I pay $5 for a cup of coffee when I can get the same thing for $2 other places and not have the DMV like "wait in line" experience?

Answer? I shouldn't and apparently increasingly other folks are not either.

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