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Smelling the Coffee

March 30th, 2010 by Devangshu Dutta

Last week, Starbucks unveiled its strategy for profitable global growth, having taken approximately US$ 600 million out of costs in since January 2008.

About 3 years ago in a leaked memo, chairman Howard Schultz had raised concern about how, in the race to scale and to become consistent, Starbucks was losing sight of all critical things that had made it successful in the first place. (“The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience – Soul Searching by Howard Schultz“).

In January 2008, Schultz took on an active role as CEO in a bid to stem the rot (“Leadership Change at Starbucks – The Barista Returns“).

These two years have been eventful. Shortly after Schultz stepped in, Starbucks announced that it would close 600 under-performing stores in the US. That was well before the “financial tsunami”. In 2009, another 200 in the US and 100 globally were identified for closure, and the company also scaled back on its 2009 expansion plan for 200 new stores.

At its shareholders’ meeting last week, Starbucks presented a more confident face, and outlined a return to growth with plans to expand its presence and “accelerate profitable growth in both the U.S. retail business and in key international markets”. (This profitable growth mantra was also recited in last year’s shareholder meeting.)

However, while the business is looking better, it is far from fixed.

The environment is different. Globally, consumer wallets are leaner, competitors are meaner, and Starbucks may yet need to shrink further; the fat ain’t all in the latte.

Yet, there must be much good in the business if, for all its faults, it still gets imitated around the world.

According to Starbucks, it currently has less than 4 percent of the U.S. coffee market with its 6,800 own and 4,400 licensed stores, and less than 1 percent of the global coffee market even with 2,000+ company stores and 3,500 licensed stores. The company sees that as enough headroom to grow.

Schultz has promised to put the tough lessons learned in the last two years to good use. The company currently has approximately 200 fewer stores than it did at the beginning of 2009 even after new store openings during the year. (To put the current number of 16,700+ stores in perspective, the company had a total of “only” 2,600 stores in Q1-2000.)

But there’s something to think about. If the entrepreneur needs to step back in to fix things gone horribly corporate (bland) and wrong, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that there’s a logical limit to the size and scaling-up capability of personalized experience businesses.

Or, as a friend says, scale can be a logical outcome of excellence but excellence is never the logical outcome of scale.

It remains to be seen whether this round of growth will come from the company’s natural strengths or whether Starbucks will return to growth-by-steroids as Schultz eases on the controls.

Posted in Branding, Entrepreneurship, Food & Grocery, Leadership, Marketing, Retail, Strategy | No Comments »

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