Café Coffee Day – steaming or sputtering?

Devangshu Dutta

April 24, 2016

(Published in the Financial Express, 10 May 2016)

In about 20 years, Café Coffee Day (CCD) has grown from one ‘cyber café’ in Bengaluru to the leading chain of cafés in the country by far.

In its early years, it was a conservative, almost sleepy, business. The launch of Barista in the late 1990s and its rapid growth was the wake-up call for CCD — and wake up it did!

CCD then expanded aggressively. It focussed on the young and more affluent customers. Affordability was a keystone in its strategy and it largely remains the most competitively priced among the national chains.

Its outlets ranged widely in size — and while this caused inconsistency in the brand’s image — it left competitors far behind in terms of market coverage. However, the market hasn’t stayed the same over the years and CCD now has tough competition.

CCD competes today with not only domestic cafés such as Barista or imports such as Costa and Starbucks, but also quick-service restaurants (QSRs) such as McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. In the last couple of years, in large cities, even the positioning of being a ‘hang-out place’ is threatened by a competitor as unlikely as the alcoholic beverage-focussed chain Beer Café.

CCD is certainly way ahead of other cafés in outlet numbers and visibility in over 200 cities. It has an advantage over QSRs with the focus on beverage and meetings, rather than meals. Food in CCD is mostly pre-prepared rather than in-store (unlike McD’s and Dunkin’) resulting in lower capex and training costs, as well as greater control since it’s not depending on store staff to prepare everything. However, rapid expansion stretches product and service delivery and high attrition of front-end staff is a major operational stress point. Upmarket initiatives Lounge and Square, which could improve its average billing, are still a small part of its business.

Delivery (begun in December 2015) and app-orders seem logical to capture busy consumers, and to sweat the assets invested in outlets. However, for now, I’m questioning the incremental value both for the consumer and the company’s ROI once all costs (including management time and effort) are accounted for. The delivery partner is another variable (and risk) in the customer’s experience of the brand. Increasing the density through kiosks and improving the quality of beverage dispensed could possibly do more for the brand across the board.

The biggest advantage for CCD is that India is a nascent market for cafés. The café culture has not even scratched the surface in the smaller markets and in travel-related locations. The challenge for CCD is to act as an aggressive leader in newer locations, while becoming more sophisticated in its positioning in large cities. It certainly needs to allocate capex on both fronts but larger cities need more frequent refreshment of the menu and retraining of staff.

An anonymous Turkish poet wrote: “Not the coffee, nor the coffeehouse is the longing of the soul. A friend is what the soul longs for, coffee is just the excuse.” There are still many millions of friends in India for whom the coffee-house remains unexplored territory, whom CCD could bring together.

Smelling the Coffee

Devangshu Dutta

March 30, 2010

Last week, Starbucks unveiled its strategy for profitable global growth, having taken approximately US$ 600 million out of costs in since January 2008.

About 3 years ago in a leaked memo, chairman Howard Schultz had raised concern about how, in the race to scale and to become consistent, Starbucks was losing sight of all critical things that had made it successful in the first place. (“The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience – Soul Searching by Howard Schultz“).

In January 2008, Schultz took on an active role as CEO in a bid to stem the rot (“Leadership Change at Starbucks – The Barista Returns“).

These two years have been eventful. Shortly after Schultz stepped in, Starbucks announced that it would close 600 under-performing stores in the US. That was well before the “financial tsunami”. In 2009, another 200 in the US and 100 globally were identified for closure, and the company also scaled back on its 2009 expansion plan for 200 new stores.

At its shareholders’ meeting last week, Starbucks presented a more confident face, and outlined a return to growth with plans to expand its presence and “accelerate profitable growth in both the U.S. retail business and in key international markets”. (This profitable growth mantra was also recited in last year’s shareholder meeting.)

However, while the business is looking better, it is far from fixed.

The environment is different. Globally, consumer wallets are leaner, competitors are meaner, and Starbucks may yet need to shrink further; the fat ain’t all in the latte.

Yet, there must be much good in the business if, for all its faults, it still gets imitated around the world.

According to Starbucks, it currently has less than 4 percent of the U.S. coffee market with its 6,800 own and 4,400 licensed stores, and less than 1 percent of the global coffee market even with 2,000+ company stores and 3,500 licensed stores. The company sees that as enough headroom to grow.

Schultz has promised to put the tough lessons learned in the last two years to good use. The company currently has approximately 200 fewer stores than it did at the beginning of 2009 even after new store openings during the year. (To put the current number of 16,700+ stores in perspective, the company had a total of “only” 2,600 stores in Q1-2000.)

But there’s something to think about. If the entrepreneur needs to step back in to fix things gone horribly corporate (bland) and wrong, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that there’s a logical limit to the size and scaling-up capability of personalized experience businesses.

Or, as a friend says, scale can be a logical outcome of excellence but excellence is never the logical outcome of scale.

It remains to be seen whether this round of growth will come from the company’s natural strengths or whether Starbucks will return to growth-by-steroids as Schultz eases on the controls.

Wi-Fi in Coffee Shops – win-win or win-lose?

Devangshu Dutta

August 9, 2009

At the end of 2006, in an article about market segmentation, I’d proposed a customer segment called “Cafe Workers” who look at coffee-shops as inexpensive real-estate to work out of.  These include professionals, start-up entrepreneurs, small businesspeople and travellers into a city. (Click here to open the PDF file of the article “Slicing the Market“.)

But now, amidst the recession, apparently it is one positioning that some coffee shops don’t want to buy into. The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a backlash from many coffee shops towards customers who enjoy the use of free wi-fi and spend hours occupying tables that should be turning over more. (No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull the Plug on Laptop Users). Many of the comments on the article are sympathetic towards the cafe owners, calling such customers “moochers”.

While the dismay of cafe owners over customers who abuse the facilities is understandable, could they be doing themselves harm by actively discouraging laptop use? Wi-fi is just one of the sticky aspects of a ‘hanging-around’ culture that the cafes have encouraged in the first place as part of their business model.

By and large, wi-fi enabled cafes around the world are more expensive than the ones which are not. Wi-fi goes along with the more premium positioning, and they should be able to balance the space premium lost on long-term wi-fi users with the grab-and-go customers who are paying higher prices without using the facilities.

That said, in specific cafes or at specific times of day or days of the week when there is a bottleneck, they should be able to limit the length of the IP-lease.

All it takes is a bit of thought and a tiny application of technology, not total disruption of the business model.

Would you like some ads with that coffee?

Devangshu Dutta

April 13, 2009

We’re all for new business ideas and guerilla marketing tactics. However, it is a fact that some work, and many don’t.

Here’s one idea that  raises some question marks.

It’s a business called freepapercups.com that provides free paper cups to offices carrying the ads of other companies who pay for the cups. The company’s proposition is that everyone wins – the recepient office saves on paper cup expenditure, coffee service providers get a new tool to save their customers money (and for themselves to possibly gain some share or the revenues?), and the advertiser gets to penetrate a previously untouched white-space. Who knows – this may work, just like the ads and logos painted on the roofs of white delivery vans.

However, the thing is this: paper cups – with ads or without – will get thrown away like yesterday’s newspaper and last month’s magazine. So, this would be another form of broadcast advertising whose effectiveness needs to be measured and proven, and it’s guilty (of waste) unless proven innocent. 

Also, it is invasive to a great degree in a space that should be uncluttered with any messages other than what are relevant to the organization’s own business. 

So, will it really contribute anything significant to the offices who won’t be spending on the paper cups, or to the brands that do spend to advertise on them? Or will it just detract from both?

What might be next – co-branded letterheads perhaps?

Lest I sound too much of a cynic, let me offer up a thought: maybe governments should put a new line item in their  budgets – “Grant on expenditure on ceramic coffee cups for offices to carry environmental and fiscal-consciousness messages”. 

A caffeine-laced economic stimulus – now that should get the economy going again!

Leadership Change at Starbucks – The Barista Returns?

Devangshu Dutta

January 28, 2008

Last year in an impassioned memo, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz identified several strategic and operational decisions that, according to him, were responsible for a deteriorating customer experience at Starbucks.

Starbucks faced the classic problem of any company scaling up (especially a retail brand) – how to be large without being bureaucratic, how to be efficient without losing the soul of the brand, how to be consistent without losing the differentiation edge.

The problem created by Starbucks taking the certain decisions was compounded by the fact that competitors have not stood still either. Competition has improved its core products (coffee), as well as the augmented product (store ambience, service, wait time etc.), and in comparison Starbucks has possibly stood still or slipped back.

Now, almost a year after that memo, Starbucks begins 2008 with Schultz stepping back into the CEO role. It’ll be interesting to see how his passion for the brand is infused back into the stores and the operations in the coming months.

On a separate note, the classic “founder vs. professional” conundrum also comes to mind, along with the notable examples of Apple (Steve Jobs), The Body Shop (Anita Roddick) and others. (Though Howard Schultz was not strictly the founder of Starbucks – the company was founded in 1971, and Schultz bought the company in 1987 when there were less than 20 stores in the chain – he is pretty close to being one.)

The question is: for iconic brands that are more than just the physical product or service being sold, can a ‘professional CEO’ ever take the place of the founder(s), replicate their passion & vision and maintain the integrity of the brand? I believe there are examples to support both answers: ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

What do YOU think?