Is Starbucks A Buy?

Several subscribers wrote recently to ask about Starbucks. Is it undervalued at current prices, and worth buying?

I think so.

From its split-adjusted price of $4.50 ten years ago, SBUX rose 789% to $40 last November. It then declined steadily to $29 in early March, rose to $32 over the following two weeks, then declined to $25.50 on June 22. It closed yesterday at $26.50, a 3.9% gain from its low a little less than a month ago, but still 34% lower than its November high.

So, what’s the problem at Starbucks now?

Its chairman wrote in a memo that the company’s expansion from 1,000 locations to more than 13,000 has watered down its brand. That doesn’t bode well for plans to add another 1,700 U.S. locations this year. Some analysts project that the company will eventually top more than 30,000 locations worldwide.

Also, insider sales of stock by the chairman and other officers last year made some question the stock’s valuation. In retrospect, the officers were right to sell last year. Some are waiting to see them start buying again as the “all-clear” signal to begin investing.

The reason I think the stock offers more upside than down from here is that, despite its massive market footprint, Starbucks is in a business that has room to grow. Its many stores are not a negative, they’re a positive in the sense that the number two coffee chain in the U.S., Caribou Coffee, has fewer than 500 locations. Starbucks has 9,400 and will top 10,000 by year-end. Having twenty times the presence of its nearest competitor is quite an advantage.

As for concerns that the coffee business is saturated, I don’t share them. Neither does the Specialty Coffee Association of America, which pointed out that only 15% of adults in the U.S. drank a cup of specialty coffee each day in 2005. Too, Starbucks does a lot more than just coffee. It was brilliant at creating a menu with something for any kind of weather, and that brilliance has continued in all of its endeavors.

It faces challenges. Its ambitious expansion plans could go awry, especially in new markets like Brazil, India, and China. In the latter market, it already got into some trouble when it opened a store in the Forbidden City in 2000, only to close it under intense pressure last Friday when accused of trampling over Chinese culture.

Growing pains are inevitable, though, and it’s better to have them than not. They mean the company’s trying to grow, after all.

Another challenge facing Starbucks is increasing competition. Its biggest threat might be not from another coffee chain, but from McDonald’s, which is offering its own premium roast coffee. Other encroachers include Tim Horton’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Panera.

Of these threats, only Panera looks legitimate to me. Nobody thinks of hanging out and doing work or homework at McDonald’s. Tim Horton’s is just another coffee shop, and Starbucks has proven quite adept at crushing all comers in that category.

Panera, though, offers an experience that is comparable to Starbucks’s experience, if not better. I’ve worked on Panera’s free wi-fi network in the states, and it was excellent. The food is fantastic and the coffee is great. It’s a real restaurant and bakery that offers coffee, as opposed to a coffee shop that offers some baked goods.

That said, Panera is far, far behind Starbucks. It’s not as quick to get in and out, it’s not nearly as available with just over 1,000 locations, and its brand is nowhere close to being as recognizable as Starbucks’s. Plus, Starbucks has a lot more partnerships in place, with its brand appearing on grocery store shelves, airport kiosks, and on hair barrettes worn by high school girls in Japan.

All in all, I’d say the recent discount on SBUX presents an opportunity. I would hold out for $25 or less, a 6% drop from yesterday’s close.

Tomorrow: A long read ahead of the weekend covering the iPhone, U.S. health care, and Power Investor software. Don’t miss it!

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