David Rolfe Comments on Starbucks

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Sydnee Gatewood
Apr 15, 2021
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As we have observed Starbucks (

SBUX, Financial) through the unpredictable events of the past year, we believe all the things we liked about the Company's competitive position before the pandemic have been turbocharged by the pandemic. We always have maintained the Company had no serious competition, anyway, and that in both large growth markets (U.S. and China), there was enormous fragmentation of share that would allow the Company to continue to expand through market expansion (especially in China) and through share gain versus small competitors. In fact, when we last discussed Starbucks, there was a lot of noise about competition in China from a newly established domestic competitor, Luckin Coffee, and that situation quickly dissolved into farce. In any case, had Luckin been a legitimate business, we had maintained that China was a massive market and one in which coffee consumption was massively underpenetrated in comparison to other markets. We believed too that there was plenty of room for multiple large competitors to exploit.

The pandemic disaster over the past year truly highlights the Company's financial strength in comparison to its small competitors, most of which struggled to survive, and many of which didn't make it. While there is no perfect data, we have seen estimates from industry groups and restaurant distributors that as many as 15-20% of small, independent restaurants across the broad food and beverage industry may have closed permanently as a result of the pandemic, sadly. Starbucks not only survived due to its superior financial position; they also used its financial resources to invest in a variety of expanded or new capabilities, including the addition of drive-through capacity, new "walk-through" pick-up locations in urban areas, increased investment in technology to drive speed within the stores and drive-through lanes, and expansion of its loyalty program. These could have been viewed, prior to the pandemic, as a fairly big advantage in terms of convenience alone versus the Company's small primary competitors. In the age of the pandemic, though, one might consider something like a drive-through an absolute necessity, as customers choose not to expose themselves to the interior of restaurants or to other people.

Another sign of the Company's superior financial strength has been the continued expansion of the store base, even in the face of the pandemic. As of the end of the Company's last fiscal year, September 2020, Starbucks had opened +4% more stores, including +13% growth in China. Additionally, Starbucks not only opened stores as competing stores folded; the Company is seeing more attractive lease terms on new stores (and on existing stores, for that matter), meaning that a store opening program that already had generated attractive financial returns will now generate even more attractive returns.

Short-term results, of course, have been quite poor all over the world, with some portion of the Company's locations closed or operating on reduced hours for the last several quarters. Customers are simply reticent to show up even when stores have been open. We expect shorter-term results to remain unpredictable, as they will be tied to the ebb and flow of various COVID-related lockdowns around the world. However, Starbucks said it expected sales at established locations in both the U.S. and China to rebound to pre-pandemic levels in the March quarter that just ended. In addition, despite reduced operating hours still, and despite customers' work and school routines being completely disrupted, a surprisingly early development in comparison to what we, at least, expected only a few quarters ago, is proof of the Company's entrenched position in its customers' lives. In contrast, the National Restaurant Association in the U.S. recently predicted that 2021 industry sales would recover significantly versus 2020, but would still come in nearly (-15%) below 2019 levels.

On the Company's most recent Analyst Day in December 2020, management took its longer-term expectations a bit higher, primarily driven by a modest expected improvement in sales versus its prior expectations. Considering smaller competitors went belly-up and the Company's investments in enhanced capabilities further improved its competitive position, we believe this improvement in longer-term sales trends is a layup. We also believe the technological investments and the improved terms from landlords create obvious benefits for to an already attractive margin and return profile. Our bullishness on the Company has not wavered and, in fact, we feel better than we did about the Company's business model over the next several years than we did when we bought the stock originally.


David Rolfe (Trades, Portfolio)'s Wedgewood Funds first-quarter 2021 shareholder letter.

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I am the editorial director at GuruFocus. I have a BA in journalism and a MA in mass communications from Texas Tech University. I have lived in Texas most of my life, but also have roots in New Mexico and Colorado. Follow me on Twitter! @gurusydneerg