Problem is, it's not really a myth. Some of Starbucks' coffee drinks do cost $4 and even more. But even when they cost less, they are still an extravagance. And in a recession, extravagances are the first thing to go.
These are tough times for Starbucks. It's been closing stores by the hundreds and laying off workers by the thousands. People started skipping Starbucks even before the recession got really bad. Traffic has been falling, likely at a rate faster than 2008's Q1 3 percent drop, for a year.
Before that, of course, Starbucks drove its business through expansion. It went way too far, "watering down the Starbucks experience," as Schultz himself once put it, and turning off customers. Now, the recession has thrust Starbucks into an existential crisis-one that is largely of its own making.
But the company can't afford to stay angsty. It has to work hard to stop customers from fleeing, it has to cut costs, and, to placate shareholders, it has to find new areas of growth.
A major problem for Starbucks is that, these days, you can get a good cup of coffee at a Chevron station. Starbucks' astounding growth-it was opening eight new stores a day just a couple of years ago-was possible because of the dearth of good coffee elsewhere.
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That's no longer true, and the "Starbucks experience" that Schultz constantly refers to is really all he has to offer.
But "experience" (store ambience, personalized service, etc.) is a tough sell during a deep recession, so Schultz is now trying to make the Starbucks experience a "value" proposition. Those two concepts might seem at odds, but so far, anyway, Schultz seems to be pulling it off.
The chain, Schultz promised, will now work to convince people that its coffee drinks aren't so expensive after all. He noted, for example, that half of Starbucks' coffee drinks cost less than $3, and one-third of them cost less than $2.
He's right, but that's still a pricey cup of coffee. Still, the mission here is to retain existing customers-and stop them from fleeing to McDonald's McCafe bars-so reminding them that they aren't really spending all that much at Starbucks could be effective.
The recent introduction of a $3.95 breakfast combo-also part of the chain's effort to retain existing customers-doesn't, as some critics have said, put Starbucks at the level of McDonald's. It's the same stuff Starbucks was already selling but for about a buck less. It does nothing to harm the brand.
Similarly, Via, the chain's "breakthrough" instant coffee product, isn't an example of Starbucks going downscale but of making instant coffee seem upscale. The product is just two weeks old, but the consensus seems to be that while it's not as good as the real thing, it's a lot better than most instant coffees. Via is also clearly a major part of Starbucks' international strategy. People around the world don't look down on instant coffee like Americans do. Globally, instant coffee makes up about 40 percent of the coffee market. Starbucks says it intends to take a big chunk of the $17 billion spent on instant coffee every year.