Starbucks' wholly-owned growth vs. Subway's franchises ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

subways versus Starbucks.jpgA few months ago, I wrote about Starbucks' vertically integrated strategy. This morning, i wanted to link to it, so I did a Google Blog-search. Usually a search for Starbucks and "vertical integration" would yield my blogpost first, but now it's the no. 2 result.

Somehow, the net has started discussing why Starbucks had a corporate strategy that involved owning all of its subsidiaries and Subway's strategy went a different way.

There seem to be a number of theories on the market. Namely that Starbucks

  • … cares less about cross-store cannibalization
  • … has a higher need for monitoring
  • … relies more on “impulse sales”
  • … has higher profit-margins

Some good posts about this are written here and here (both by Josh Wright), here (Stephen Bainbridge), here (Keith Sharfman), and here (Paul Jaminet)

All excellent theories in their own right, and all very rational. However, in my experience, people, and we are talking about people here, often don't behave rationally (at least not as rationally as economic theory dictates). Instead they behave in ways that they are able—either through innate capability or through their environment.

Starbucks did not start as retailer, it did not even start as a store owned by Howard Schultz. It was a coffee-bean roaster and vendor. Its aim was to educate the US-population, which was—according to Schultz—a wide open market in terms of high-quality coffee. Schultz, who first worked there as an employee, started an independant coffee-chain, and only a few years later took over the Starbucks-business (incl. the roasting factory) and the brand-name. But the core-idea remained that it had to deliver quality-products and quality-education to its customers. Along with this, Schultz was highly educated, had plenty of work-experience, and venture capital behind him.

Subway started as a retailer. According to the history, published on their site, Fred DeLuca started Subway's as a 17 year-old and $1,000 starting-capital. Subway had, as far as I know, no world-changing mission. It was a sandwich-store, one of many, and one of it's key assets was to be more efficient and qualitatively better than its competition.

I still think that the stories of these two men, their business-idea, and the environment they started it in, is the key-deciding factor of why one decided to expand wholly-owned and the other through franchising. I haven't studied Subway, but I have McDonald's, and the same dynamic can be witnessed there.

Now, you can go all "economic theory" on this, and focus on points like that coffee is a product that requires much more monitoring than sandwich-ingredients. And I think that's completely correct. Not to mention that Starbucks has a very different employee-based strategy than Subway—they like theirs to be smart and pay them well. And I also think that due to Starbucks's high real-estate presence, franchising for them has become an unfeasible solution. But I think the first two factors are the cause and the latter is the consequence of Starbucks's wholly-owned strategy.

When you start out, whether to franchise or not is a completely personal decision. It comes down to how comfortable you feel about whether you can offer your customers the highest quality possible, while maintaining healthy economic growth.

And your initial decisions will clearly have some kind of lock-in effect later on, which is something I only realised after reading the linked-to blogposts and writing my own.


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