Monday, January 23, 2012

Coffee, wine or me

Remember the old book series "Coffee Tea or Me" - well readers of this blog are probably too young to remember it. Maybe now its time for Coffee, Wine or me !

Why does a coffee chain want to serve alcohol ? Starbucks wants to try out having wine and beer on its menu in a few outlets in Seattle and Portland. At first sight it seems an odd combination. Why would Starbucks want to do that ??

The problem, as always, is growth. Starbucks hit a rough patch, if you remember, in 2008 which prompted the founder Howard Schultz to retake the reins as CEO. Currently it is doing well. Revenues in 2011 grew 9.3%. But how do you keep on growing the revenues. After all, how much more coffee can you stimulate your patrons to have. You  can push the "eats", but that's a limited range. They are trying to enhance that with an offering of " premium foods" - whatever that means. And now alcohol.

But is Starbucks a bar ? No serious drinker will go to Starbucks for a pint or two. So the only opportunity is to attract a a mixed group of whom some want a cup of coffee and some want a glass of wine. How much is that opportunity ? Can't be really a growth driver. And what would happen to the brand - Starbucks is synonymous with coffee now. You want to dilute that ?

Of course the company is no fool. Its dotted with marketing types spewing Kotlerspeak. The trouble is that marketing types are often wrong. For the moment, Starbucks is only testing. If the test bombs - they'll quietly bury the idea.

An obvious avenue for growth is geography. Expand overseas - Starbucks is pretty much ubiquitous in America. Go abroad. Especially to magnetic China. They have actually started to become quite widespread in Chinese cities. China is a tea drinking country, but there are enough youngsters willing to swill coffee. Especially an American brand which carries a halo in that country. But the problem is that the Starbucks formula in the US is a disaster in China - free wifi, stay as long as you want ..... That's taken literally in China and giggling girls , four of whom sharing a cup, sit there all day. I hated going to a Starbucks outlet in China simply because I could never find a seat as "long term residents" had made themselves comfortable everywhere. Instead when I wanted a coffee I went to McDonald's where the coffee was superb , they served it within 20 seconds, and I could find a place to rest my bum - all at half the price of Starbucks. Screw the ambiance - the taste of great coffee drowned everything else. Global formulas don't always work.

So Coffee Wine or me ? I would stay with the coffee, thank you.