How Will Higher K-Cup Prices Affect Keurig Green Mountain Sales?

Keurig Green Mountain (NASDAQ: GMCR  ) dominates the single-serve coffee market in the United States, and raising the price of K-Cup portion packs is unlikely to change that.

The move could crack open the door for Starbucks  (NASDAQ: SBUX  ) and its Verismo single-serve system. It's also possible it might send a few more people to Nestle's  (NASDAQOTH: NSRGF  ) Nespresso machines, but those numbers will be small. The real threat to Keurig's business is that people will drink less coffee, brew more cost-effective full pots, buy more unlicensed pods, or decide that if the cost of a K-Cup is this high, they might as well go out for coffee.

A price hike also has the potential to be a boon for Keurig's business if customers keep buying K-Cups in the same numbers at the higher price. The increase has its risks, but the coffee-maker appears well-positioned to pass on rising costs to customers. 

What is Keurig doing?
The company announced a price increase of up to 9% on all portion packs sold by Keurig for use in its brewing systems and on all its traditional bagged, fractional packs, and bulk coffee products, effective Nov. 3.

This price increase is in direct response to several factors affecting the cost environment in the coffee and consumer packaged goods industries, Keurig said in a press release. Those include a sustained increase in the price of green coffee and cocoa, along with increases in packaging materials, energy, and transportation costs. Over the past year, green coffee prices alone have increased approximately 55%, according to the company.

"Many of our competitors already have implemented price increases in light of the reality of sustained input cost increases," said Keurig President of U.S. Sales and Marketing John Whoriskey. "After careful review, we determined that it is necessary for us to adopt a small price increase in light of these higher costs. We understand that consumers have many beverage options, and we will continue to innovate and price competitively to win consumers' business."

Is Keurig vulnerable?
A 9% price hike is a steep one, but the underlying costs that impact Keurig are industrywide. That does not mean single-serve rivals Starbucks and Nestle have to raise prices -- and neither has, yet. Starbucks dominates the U.S. out-of-house coffee market, and Nestle's Nespresso is the dominant single-serve player in Europe. Both companies could decide to sacrifice short-term margins in order have their machines look more attractive next to Keurig's K-Cup brewers.

That shouldn't matter much, however, as Keurig has a huge user base of K-Cup machine owners. If price is a driving factor, then those customers are unlikely to spend at least $149 for a Verismo or more than $200 for the entry-level Nespresso.

While full pots are more cost-effective, they are less convenient than cup-at-a-time machines, so that is unlikely to have a material impact on Keurig's business.

Unlicensed K-Cups, however, represent a potentially huge problem. These are pods that work in K-Cup brewers, but for which Keurig does not receive any money. These fake K-Cups already cost less than licensed ones and they could become an even more attractive option for customers. The new Keurig 2.0 brewers, which launch this fall, have technology that prevents these portion packs from working, but it's unlikely a large percentage of Keurig customers will buy the new brewers immediately upon release.

It seems likely that if the supermarket chains that make and sell unlicensed K-Cups keep prices flat, then they will gain some market share. The number is still likely to be small, however, as part of the appeal of licensed K-Cups is the huge variety of brands offered. The people who buy store-brand K-Cups will continue to do so, and those who insist on Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and Keurig's own Green Mountain brand will likely continue to buy the way they always have. 

Customers could, of course, go out for coffee, but that was always an option. Rising K-Cup prices will make it more costly per ounce to brew at home than to buy at some convenience store chains or fast food restaurants. But if Keurig's customers were going to stop buying K-Cups because McDonald's offers $1 coffee, they likely already would have done so.

How dominant is Keurig in the U.S.?
The products Keurig is raising prices on represent nearly all of its business. In 2013 the company did approximately 92% of its sales through the combination of portion packs and Keurig Single Cup brewers and related accessories. The coffee seller had $4.3 billion in total sales, with $3.1 billion of that coming from portion pack sales and $827.6 million coming from Keurig Single Cup Brewer and accessories net sales. Almost all of that revenue came from the United States and Canada.

In the U.S., Nespresso only does $300 million in sales in what the company estimates is a nearly $5 billion market for coffee pods/capsules. Starbucks does not release sales for its Verismo brewers or its Via instant coffee line, but they remain a minor player in the at-home single-serve market.

Despite the many threats to Keurig's market dominance, it seems unlikely that a 9% price increase is going to change people's coffee-drinking habits -- even if competitors keep prices flat. More customers will buy unlicensed portion packs, but only a tiny number of them. The price increase will not harm Keurig's bottom line and could actually improve profitability if the increase more than fully offsets rising prices. 

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  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 7:03 AM, ekdikeo wrote:

    At a cost of less than 50c per cup (assuming you don't do the unthinkable and brew more than one cup from a pack ... i've never *cough* done that lol) when you snag them from Keurig direct, we're looking at less than 55c per cup now. Nobody cares. They're going to increase revenue significantly. People aren't going to mostly drink less coffee. Remember caffeine is addictive. People who use it smartly go through cycles, but the extra 5c per cup isn't going to make anyone drink less, or go out for coffee more, or anything else like that. They're going to continue buying it from Keurig, and they're going to continue drinking it.

    Also, where the hell do you get off brand K-cups? I keep reading about these things, but although I have an off-brand K-cup device, I can't find the offbrand cups themselves -anywhere-. None of the local grocery stores have them. I want to know solely because I love trying out new flavors, not because I want to pull a fast one. I own K stock :-)

  • Report this Comment On August 16, 2014, at 4:55 PM, TMFDankline wrote:

    Supermarkets sell off-brand K-Cups.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2015, at 11:07 AM, gwtx2 wrote:

    Such a waste of money. $100-$200 for a brewer, then you pay fifty to seventy-fiven cents for a cup of coffee. No thanks. I'll drink instant before I sink that kind of money on a cup of coffee brewed through a piece of wasteful plastic.

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Daniel B. Kline

Daniel B. Kline is an accomplished writer and editor who has worked for the Microsoft's Finance app and The Boston Globe, where he wrote for the paper and ran the business desk. His latest book "Worst Ideas Ever" (Skyhorse) can be purchased at bookstores everywhere.

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