DC Advisory
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The stock charts, shown below, of the largest capitalization restaurant stocks raise serious questions about Starbucks fundamental prospects. Charts and fundamentals don’t always go hand in hand, especially over the short term, but longer term the stock price and the company’s performance converge.  Starbucks has been one of the great stock market winners of all times since going public in 1992, up well over 100x over 25 years. However, all good things come to an end at some point, at least level out in this case, and over the last two years Starbucks’ stock has substanially lagged the general market and its large cap restaurant industry peers.


It’s a “bum rap”. The media, and the skeptics like to point to the folly of customers paying $5.00 for a cup of coffee. However, we priced (before tax) Starbucks, Dunkin’, and Horton’s in Detroit (to avoid NYC prices) this morning. Starbucks’ 12 oz.“tall” coffee is $2.20, Dunkin Donuts 10 oz. “small” is $1.75, and Horton’s 10 oz. “small” is $1.58. Per oz., Starbucks costs $.183, Dunkin’ is $.175 and Horton’s is $.158. If you want a latte’, the gap is wider ($.312 per oz. at Starbucks, $.253 at Dunkin’, and a materially cheaper $.222 at Horton’s). A latte’ costs more at Starbucks, but Dunkin’ and Horton’s don’t even offer the Soy Latte’ that I order. I can’t vouch for the “quality” of latte’ at Dunkin’ or Horton’s. You can judge for yourself whether the service component, or the type of coffee, is worth the price premium at SBUX but, in any event, it is not a “$5.00 cup of coffee”, and Starbucks’ prices are not grossly higher than the competition.


In my opinion, what has distinguished Starbucks over the years has been the corporate “culture”, which they have incredibly duplicated in 27,000 stores worldwide. Their employees, selected, trained, and motivated to an unmatched degree in food service, look you in the eye, remember your name and drink if you are anything close to a regular customer, and become part of your daily social life. A couple of years ago, about the time that Chipotle ran into trouble, I asked a SBUX employee if he knew anything about Chipotle. This young man, perhaps 18 or 19 years old, told me he used to work at Chipotle, then gestured kind of frenetically with his hands saying: “at Chipotle it was all about speed. Starbucks makes me a better person”. That’s what Starbucks has been all about, creating a uniquely welcoming retail environment that produces “better persons” of their employees.


BARRON’S MAGAZINE this morning has a front cover entitled THE FUTURE OF COFFEE (AND RETAIL). The subtitle reads “Starbucks has succeeded where Silicon Valley hasn’t: changing the way consumers pay. The behavioral shift holds big promise for the coffee giant and its stock”.

Not exactly, in my opinion. It is not just about “the law of large numbers”, and the difficulty of satisfying investors by building on profit margins that are well above peers. The business model has changed, and the question becomes whether the new model will match the original. It’s well known that a new loyalty program bothered some customers and also that an increasing number of customers are ordering and paying online, often in advance of entering the store. In the most recent quarter, 30% of US transactions were paid using the smartphone app, up from 25% a year earlier and 20% two years ago. More important, to my view, is that 9% of US orders were ordered and paid for in advance. The company has been discussing the store level congestion for several quarters now, as mobile orders slow down service for customers going through the line. Perhaps it’s just me, but I am put off somewhat when the line at the register (where I like the human contact) is short, but I have to wait while eight or ten orders are pumped out ahead of my own.


It’s not so long ago that pundits dismissed the internet as a retail venue. The public was not expected to give out their credit card information, and certainly was not going to buy “touchy, feely” products like apparel or shoes through online channels. The public is not only ordering “everything” through Amazon and others, but relationships are maintained through Facebook and other social channels. As a corollary, customers are increasingly seeking “experiential” retail situations, rather than visit the malls, with their undifferentiated stores and restaurants, most often staffed with poorly trained employees.


Relative to Starbucks, their leadership with mobile order and pay, increasingly in advance of the store visit, may well be appropriate and necessary, but the business model has changed. It’s become a production challenge, not a relationship driven enterprise. The employed “people person” who was the star of the previous model, is not going to be as easily satisfied, because most of the employees, for most of their time, are busy pumping out product. It’s going to be harder to find someone as described above who says that Starbucks “is making me a better person”. From the customer side, there are 27,000 stores already existing that are already tightly configured and can’t be reconfigured too much to handle a lot more production. From a customer standpoint, some, like myself (perhaps in the minority these days), who value the human contact, may decide that the local independent shop, or even the home or office kitchen, can provide an adequate cup of coffee at a competitive price without the “tumult”.


I remember when Howard Schultz said that food will never be a material part of Starbucks’ sales. Today, it represents 30% of revenues. Schultz originally envisioned his coffee shops as a “third place”, to hang out other than home or office. That’s a little hard today, in a small busy shop, but we can call this an “unintended consequence” of building one of the still growing premier worldwide brands. Comps and traffic have slowed in recent years, due to the “law of large numbers”, the natural limitations of small stores that were not originally built to handle today’s volumes, and the evolving environment that every successful retailer must adjust to. Starbucks is one of the most successful retailers ever created, and we don’t doubt that they will continue to succeed in a major way. We caution however, that the rate of progress demonstrated in the past, already slowing, will be increasingly difficult to replicate. The business model has evolved. Starbucks was a retail “disrupter” but their previous approach may not be quite as successful. Accordingly, valuation parameters that have applied to SBUX equity in the past may not apply in the future. The stock chart that has languished over the last couple of years may well be reflecting the most likely future business model; still good, just not quite as great.