Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Starbucks and Licensing

We have recently learned that activist investor Nelson Peltz has taken a stake in Starbucks. Peltz, of course, has taken stakes in companies such as Heinz, Wendy's, Kraft, and Cadbury Schweppes in recent years, and he's pushed for strategic changes to bolster shareholder value. In a Wall Street Journal story about Peltz's investment, we see some conjecture about the types of changes that he might propose:

"John Glass, an analyst at Morgan Stanley, said Mr. Peltz could urge Starbucks to cut spending and use more licensing or franchising in opening locations. The money saved from that could go to buying back shares or a larger dividend for shareholders."

I can see why Mr. Glass has come to this conclusion. There is no question that licensing or franchising would reduce the capital investment required to continue to expand the Starbucks footprint around the globe, and it would free up cash to be returned to shareholders. However, Starbucks has relied on owning a majority of its locations for good reason (it does use some licensing in locations such as airports, as well as in other countries).

There's an important lesson about vertical integration here. Many firms rightfully employ franchising, because it gives local entrepreneurs great incentive as they run their own businesses. Moreover, it conserves capital. However, a company tends to own its own retail locations when they have concerns about controlling the experience, atmosphere, and customer interaction that takes place. Starbucks sells much more than coffee.

Some firms with premium differentiated strategies face challenges when they try to write into contracts the specific behaviors and atmosphere that they want to create and stimulate in their stores. Thus, one can see why these firms tilt toward owning their retail locations. Take Apple, for example, which operates its own retail stores; the retail location is about the entire Apple experience, not just selling computers and iPods. Apple doesn't want to leave that responsibility for guarding the brand, the relationship, and the experience to a licensee. Similarly, a Starbucks location is supposed to be about much more than selling coffee. It entrusts that relationship and experience to others at some peril.

If you examine what Schultz has done since returning as CEO, he's focused extensively on the Starbucks experience within their stores. He has always talked about the importance of Starbucks as a "third place" - outside of home and office. Shifting dramatically in the direction of franchising and licensing would seem to be at odds with his strategic direction. Starbucks would not have full control over the quality and the experience if they don't own these retail locations.

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