Economics

Starbucks' Secret Short Cappuccino

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starbucks drip coffee

Starbucks has long offered a secret short cappuccino–the same amount of espresso in a smaller cup. The price is lower, and most coffee snobs agree that the shorter cappuccino is better and more authentic since it has the proper ratio of foam to brown sludge. But the short cappuccino (and its latte counterpart) appears nowhere on in-store menu boards or on the Starbucks website.

Why? Read this tidy economic analysis from the always excellent Tim Harford:

This is the Starbucks way of sidestepping a painful dilemma over how high to set prices. Price too low and the margins disappear; too high and the customers do. Any business that is able to charge one price to price-sensitive customers and a higher price to the rest will avoid some of that awkward trade-off….

The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible. The British supermarket Tesco has a "value" line of products with infamously ugly packaging, not because good designers are unavailable but because the supermarket wants to scare away customers who would willingly spend more. "The bottom end of any market tends to get distorted," says McManus. "The more market power firms have, the less attractive they make the cheaper products."…

The practice is hundreds of years old. The French economist Emile Dupuit wrote about the early days of the railways, when third-class carriages were built without roofs, even though roofs were cheap: "What the company is trying to do is prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from traveling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich."

For more on discrimination against and by Starbucks, go here, here, and here.