Tuesday, February 17, 2009

From Espresso to Instant

Starbucks is changing its business model. Or as CEO Howard Schultz tells the Huffington Post, Staying Real in an Instant. Starbucks will be selling shots of instant coffee, for under a dollar a cup. The UK price is said to be around 60p.

Some people may have thought that "espresso" was the Italian word word for speed. (It isn't - it means "pressed".) So what could be faster than express coffee? Instant coffee!

Of course the word "instant" isn't about getting the coffee more quickly either, it is about doing away with all that fancy machinery, in whose use Starbucks makes such a charade of training its baristas. (A year ago, Schultz ordered all US stores to close for a three-hour training session "as part of an effort to improve coffee quality and revive the chain's flagging fortunes" [Guardian, 26 Feb 2008].)

Shultz now claims to be responding to the increasing mobility of consumers. "Imagine a cup of Starbucks VIA Ready Brew on a mountaintop" he says, as if willing us to imagine millions of Starbucks customers on some remote and implausible trek.

But clearly his real interest is selling mass market coffee. He hopes that the Starbucks instant coffee will be not only better-tasting but also "paradigm-changing" (whatever that means), and hopes "to turn on a whole new set of coffee drinkers to the Starbucks brand". But the obvious risk is that the old set will be turned off. He acknowledges that this move is a gamble (he calls it "a considered bet"), and expects "to learn a lot ... over the coming weeks". You bet.

In what sense does this count as a new business model? Starbucks already sells ground coffee and coffee beans in supermarkets across the USA. Many rival coffee purveyors have already shifted to the Gillette model, in which the coffee machines are sold cheap or practically given away, and you make your money selling overpriced pods of coffee.

The challenge faced by Starbucks is not choosing one business model, but attempting to combine two or three different (and possibly incompatible) business models at the same time. Such composition faces questions of cross-subsidy, brand dilution or erosion. Are there any reliable rules or patterns governing the interoperability (compatibility and composition) of business models?

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