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It's not always easy being a legend. Just ask Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) . Transforming a once-cheap commodity into a luxury beverage helped the company join the ranks of Nike (NYSE: NKE ) , Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) , and General Electric (NYSE: GE ) as a world-renowned brand. Two decades of heady expansion made for a fairy-tale growth story on Wall Street, as Starbucks locations began popping up on every corner and the company cultivated a cultlike customer base.
Then, it seemed, the company suddenly switched to decaf. Starbucks' performance began to lose its jolt in 2006, and it's now fallen more than 60% from its peak. Some claim its faddish days are numbered; others claim that overexpansion led the company to cannibalize its own sales. Still others simply blame the economy. As two shareholders of the company, we'd like to offer our own sides of the story.
Kristin: I'm feeling jittery about Starbucks, and it's not from the grande Pike Place Roast I drank this morning. While the coffee may taste smooth and bold, the company's operations are anything but. Don't get me wrong -- I'm a fanatical customer. I probably lose more capital in one month from my daily coffee fix than I've lost in total as a Starbucks shareholder. But as an investor, my craving for caffeinated growth hasn't been satisfied.
Earlier this year, Howard Schultz returned to take the reins of his coffee empire, determined to return Starbucks to its "core." He introduced a fresh new basic coffee, and purchased the almighty Clover machine to dominate the luxury coffee market. Schultz was all about the coffee and the experience. Nothing more.
Alyce: I still believe Starbucks can be saved. I don't think it's the kind of downtrodden retailer that faces an incredibly hard turnaround, like Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) . Still, the recent roller-coaster moves connected to the company's whole "back to coffee romance" schtick indicate there may be a fair amount of seemingly counterintuitive strategizing to come.
For one thing, I found the fruit-flavored Vivanno jarring. How does it refocus the company on coffee, exactly? And hey, Starbucks is supposed to be the higher-end alternative to McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) and Dunkin' Donuts. So why did the company kick off a monthlong promotion with "treat receipts" for $2 grande frozen drinks for daily two-timers? And why did it test $1 coffees and free refills in its Seattle stores? Is it trying to become McStarbucks?
Schultz also announced the end of breakfast sandwiches, due to their coffee-scent-obliterating aroma, only to subsequently change his mind. "Schultz's apparent indecision regarding the lowly breakfast sandwich makes me hope business decisions are being made with more prudence than romance," I wrote at the time. That was my polite way of expressing my hope that Schultz isn't a little too passionate -- as in, prone to apoplectic fits of passion -- about decisions regarding his corporate baby.
Kristin: I won't lie -- I thoroughly enjoy the additional offerings. I'm still chowing down on my favorite turkey-bacon-and-egg breakfast sandwich, and I've exchanged my mid-afternoon java break for a Vivanno. I even filled up one morning on a hearty bowl of oatmeal.
Kudos to Starbucks for convincing consumers like me to shell out more for one small cup of oatmeal than they'd spend on an entire canister of Quaker Oats. But my enthusiasm stops right there. How exactly does displaying a bakery case full of new hearty-grained snacks, and blending iced fruit smoothies, add up to getting back to the coffee core?
It doesn't. That's what's so worrisome about Starbucks. The company established a goal to get back on track and ended up wandering in the opposite direction. That doesn't bode well for Schultz's reputation, and it certainly doesn't make me optimistic about the company's ability to revive itself.
Alyce: In the July issue of Portfolio, David Margolick's cover story on Howard Schultz talked about how Schultz may need a strong No. 2 executive around to check his impulsive nature. Even visionary company leaders have run afoul in the past because they couldn't keep their emotions in check -- or check their egos at the door.
I'm not selling my Starbucks shares, and I still believe its turnaround is far from impossible. Still, the company could face a rocky road to recovery.
Kristin: I'm still a shareholder, because the business is fundamentally sound and possesses the financial strength to muscle through its problems. I'm simply wondering whether Starbucks can find itself.
Just what is Starbucks, and what does it stand for? Schultz may have asked that question, but he clearly hasn't answered it yet. Even a healthy balance sheet won't save a company that flounders around trying to figure out what it is. As a consumer, I like the extra twists Starbucks has thrown into its menu. But as shareholder, I'm not content seeing the CEO say one thing, only to turn around and do another.
Figure out who you are, Starbucks, and stay true to yourself. Only then can you save yourself.
Starbucks' questionable future always stirs up a good conversation. So what do you think? Can Starbucks be saved? Sound off your voice in the comments box below.
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