Sunday, April 14, 2013

Starbucks, Price Decreases, & Game Theory

Business Week has an interesting article about the recent decision by Starbucks to cut prices on its coffee sold in grocery stores by $1 per bag.  According to the article, "Last quarter the company collected about $380 million from sales outside its caf├ęs at an operating margin of 25.5 percent. At that level, the coffee empire is making a profit of about $2.55 per bag. Take away $1 per, and Starbucks would have to sell 65 percent more bags to book the same amount of profit." 

Wow... could Starbucks really generate that many more sales to make up for the lost margin?  Unlikely.   The article tries to offer another explanation, citing Columbia Professor Rita McGrath.   Here's an excerpt:

It’s not clear Starbucks will sway that many customers quickly. But the company could be betting on widening income inequality—what academics call “the hourglass economy.” The theory is: Major retail growth has been—and will continue to be—at the low and the high ends of the socioeconomic scale. Starbucks already has plenty of $6 barista-brewed drinks to capture the top of that market, but a bag of $10 coffee is very much in the middle, according to Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School.

I respect McGrath's work a great deal.  She's a terrific strategy scholar.   However, I don't understand this point.  How is cutting the price of a bag from $10 to $9 enabling Starbucks to tackle the "low end of the market"?   That's some view of the low end!  The article continues by citing the fact that lower-end rivals such as Maxwell House, Folgers, and Dunkin' Donuts have cut prices this year as costs of coffee beans have fallen significantly.  Here's another excerpt:

And here’s where a little game theory comes into play...By committing to lower prices (and not using coupons or sales), Starbucks is sending a signal, McGrath says. It’s serious about the low end of the market; Dunkin’ Donuts, Folgers, and other competitors can either trim their margins further or give up volume. Either way, they lose. So does Starbucks, at least in the near term. But with savvy hedging and customers lining up for expensive lattes—including increasing crowds in China—it can stand the pain for a while. And it is betting it is more efficient than its competitors. As McGrath says: “If you can run economically enough to make money at the lower price, you’re simply taking money out of your competitors’ pockets.”

Again, I'm not sure that I understand or agree completely.    If Starbucks was clearly the low-cost competitor, I might understand this explanation.  It would be using its scale economies and cost efficiencies to attack its higher cost rivals.  However, do we really believe Starbucks is the low-cost player in this market?  That seems unlikely.   Perhaps another explanation is that, after Dunkin' and others cut prices this year, the gap between Starbucks and its lower-priced rivals became too large.  Starbucks' differentiated, high quality product could justify higher prices, but not that much higher.  The gap in price had simply exceeded the difference in perceived value (or willingness-to-pay) between Starbucks and other coffee rivals in the grocery aisle.  If it didn't address that issue, it would have ceded a great deal of volume to competitors.  Differentiated players always have to be careful that their price premium doesn't grow too high, exceeding the excess value that customers perceive in their product vs. rivals' products. 

If Starbucks, on the other hand, is truly just going for share at the low-end of the market, then I don't understand the logic of the strategy.  Why would a differentiated player cut its margins and try to compete directly with low-cost players?   Why compromise its premium positioning?  I don't think Starbucks is doing that... I don't see them getting into a price war in the grocery aisle just to inflict pain on their rivals.  The coffee industry is an attractive one, particularly at the higher end of the market.  Why would a market leader spoil that market by triggering an unnecessary price war?  That would be bad strategy. 

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