Value menu at Starbucks: A boon for consumers?

Words you may be about to hear at your neighborhood Starbucks: "do you want a mini vanilla scone with that?"

"How about the Perfect Oatmeal meal deal?"

"If you upgrade to a Grande Latte, and get the Pianini basket, you'll save 20 cents!"

It may not be original, but it's a great way to convince customers to spend more (or spend all of their money in one place: yours). Variously known as the "meal deal," a "basket," or a "value meal," restaurants usually add on an item whose price is vastly higher than its cost. Consumers can't resist a bargain, even if they weren't planning on buying all of the items to begin with (and aren't really saving much). And as Starbucks well knows, McDonald's has these pairings (and gourmet McCafe coffees priced at 65 cents in 7000 locations, with free flavor shots). Dunkin' Donuts has been angling new $1.99 breakfast deals for a coffee and flatbread sandwich combo.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz told investors last week that he was about to unveil "several breakfast pairings" at "attractive" prices, which everyone picked up on right away was simply fancy-schmancy-coffeeshop speak for "value menu." He'll be giving more details sometime in the next week, leaving us to wonder if it will be existing menu items, or new ones, that qualify for the, umm, "attractive pairings."

Will your budget make out well from this news?

Probably not. Now is a good time to remind you that corporations aren't giving away the store when they set pricing for meal deals. They're usually adding on undersold menu items to combinations that customers enjoy, but don't buy together often enough; in other words, they're just trying to get you to get comfortable with an order of several items, so you'll spend more of your food & beverage dollar at their establishment.

If Starbucks should happen to combine two or three items you already were buying together for a bargain price: great, go for it. (Though we should talk about how often you're going to Starbucks. Chat later?) Otherwise, avoid the "bargain," as your wallet won't be feeling very attractive, after all.

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