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I'm beginning to wonder whether Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX ) is trying to make me feel stupid for nominating it as the Best Stock for 2009. Every new move I hear Starbucks is making brings to mind desperation. Its plans to delve -- or is the word devolve? -- into the world of instant coffee is no different.
Instant gourmet? That's difficult to swallow
The instant version of Starbucks' brewed coffee, Starbucks Via, will be available in packets. "Via" does sound better than "Starbucks Instant," but it won't exactly quell any of the fun poked at Starbucks' pretentious ways. The company will start offering Starbucks Via in its cafes next month in packs of three or 12 (at $2.95 and $9.95, respectively).
But wait -- offering it in its cafes? Instant coffee makes me think of J.M. Smucker's (NYSE: SJM ) Folgers or Kraft's (NYSE: KFT ) Maxwell House, and I assumed that Starbucks Via would also be in grocery stores. I don't quite get picking up some packets of instant coffee at Starbucks. I mean, if I'm there, I'm going to buy an actual cup of coffee. Maybe people will pick up some packets just in case they suddenly crave instant later, but I suspect most people aren't really that desperate.
Apparently, instant Starbucks has been in development for 20 years, but I'm not sure that means it should ever have seen the light of day. Howard Schultz said that instant coffee is popular in foreign markets, and that Starbucks Via will be a boon to consumers who just want a single cup of coffee at home. I'd still consider Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (Nasdaq: GMCR ) and its single-cup Keurig brewing systems closer to the spirit of gourmet coffee, though.
After all, instant coffee doesn't have the best reputation. If it did, I doubt Starbucks would ever have taken off in the first place. And why would Starbucks want to give consumers an excuse to visit its stores less frequently, and indulge in a Starbucks experience that may very well be less satisfying than a professionally brewed cup?
In all honesty, I'm beginning to wonder whether I should sell my shares of Starbucks. Our Foolish disclosure rules forbid me from doing so anytime soon, and I'm a long-term investor who tries to be patient, but the more desperate Starbucks sounds in the short term, the more I worry about its long-term prognosis. Maybe Starbucks should just do its painful cost cutting, take a few deep breaths, and not rush into anything. I have no problem with trying to come up with good ideas that may be contrary to conventional wisdom, but the appearance of rushing into bad ones is starting to seriously worry me.
Howard, are you feeling all right?
Our economy is admittedly in terrible shape. Is Howard Schultz panicking, getting desperate to show that management's doing something, anything? (If so, he wouldn't exactly be alone -- the government, and many companies, seem to be doing likewise.) Schultz talked about getting back to Starbucks' roots and soul, but so far, none of those grand ambitions have come to pass. I fear that Starbucks will ultimately tarnish its brand with odd moves like Via. However long it takes before the economy gets better, I suspect a lot of companies will regret dragging their brands through the metaphorical mud for relatively short-term improvements.
Starbucks' strange decaf plan floored me recently, and earlier this week, we learned about Starbucks' plans for value meals like McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) offers. Many of our Foolish readers thought that value meals were a good strategy, according to poll results, but I'm still skeptical. I think many high-end companies now resorting to desperate measures risk destroying many of their key differentiators -- damage that will be hard to undo once the economy recovers.
Once again, I'll open up the topic to our Foolish readers. If you have an opinion, please take the poll below, or feel free to leave some comments in the box below. Maybe Starbucks instant coffee isn't as bad an idea as I think it is. If you're eager to take a sip of Via, let me know.