Coffee chain Starbucks (SBUX -0.17%) announced a partnership with automaker Volvo and electric charging station company ChargePoint last month. It might not mean much today, but it gives a potentially crucial clue about where automotive recharging networks could go in the future.
What it means today
The announcement includes a deal to install Volvo-branded electric vehicle (EV) charging stations made by ChargePoint along a 1,350-mile route from the Colorado Rockies to Starbucks' headquarters in Seattle. The chargers will be installed at Starbucks locations along the way, with up to 60 chargers spread across up to 15 stores by year-end. While Volvo is branding the chargers, anyone can use them if their charging connections are compatible.
Starbucks has nearly 18,000 stores, so this is just a drop in the ocean for the company. But long-term investing often involves reading the tea leaves to try to glean perspective into where things are moving, not where they've already been.
Gas stations and convenience stores have been the focal point of how travelers refuel for many decades; you can fill a gas tank in five minutes, enough time to go inside the station and pick up a quick snack or beverage. In other words, the accommodations match the technology.
A glimpse into the future?
But the quick in-and-out model doesn't work well for EV charging. For example, a DC charging station, like those at Starbucks, can take between 20 minutes and an hour to charge a battery EV. Are consumers looking to sit for an hour in the parking lot of a convenience store or gas station? Probably not.
Convenience was once the priority, but charging EVs could become more about the destination than convenience. Starbucks already has this approach, making its stores comfortable and offering amenities like free internet. They are happy to have customers spend prolonged periods of time in the stores, drinking coffee or getting a bite to eat.
EV charging could enhance that appeal; drivers could park at a Starbucks to catch a charge and go inside in a comfortable setting to wait for their vehicle. Some would find that preferable to the typical gas station environment.
Starbucks needs more traffic
Charging stations are potentially a terrific outside-the-box method of attracting customers, which Starbucks needs. The company's revenue keeps growing, but it has relied more on price increases in recent years.
For example, global store sales rose 3% year over year in the company's fiscal 2022 third quarter; but the number of transactions declined 3%, and a 6% bump in transaction size (price increases) drove growth.
That's not a short-term fluke, either. In 2019, the year before the pandemic, the company's transaction volume grew 1% over 2018 versus a 3% jump in transaction value. Starbucks has a powerful brand and is successfully passing down price increases, but that only works until it doesn't. The company's customer traffic is stagnant at best, which could hurt growth if consumers begin trimming their spending.
Ultimately, this is a long-term question for Starbucks, which is still managing solid growth despite traffic stalling out. Long-term investors should embrace the company's willingness to experiment, and the EV charging project makes a lot of sense on the surface.
Shareholders will want to follow this over the coming years to see if other vehicle manufacturers jump on board or if the Volvo deal expands; both would be bullish signs about Starbucks' place in the long-term picture of electric transportation.