Whether or not Green Mountain Coffee cooked/cooks their books is up for debate. What is not up for debate is the fact that their flagship product – the Keurig single-serving coffee cup, or just “K-Cup” – accounts for a majority of their revenue, and is no longer protected by patent. And while they’ve survived one year with nascent competitors, as competitors spring up that fact could very well eventually cause the demise of the company.
Make no mistake, Green Mountain Coffee knows they are in trouble. K-Cup knockoffs are usually cheaper, often better quality, and in some cases have the backing of a powerhouse distributor, notably Panera Bread and Nestle. To address this issue, Green Mountain first tried re-inventing the K-Cup, with a recyclable version that was patented till 2021.
But it failed to catch on with consumers. So Green Mountain has had to take a more drastic approach to maintain their overhwleming market share.
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Exclude ‘Em From Competing
Green Mountain's new coffee brewer, the Keurig 2.0, includes a DRM chip that prevents the brewer from working with cups not manufactured by Green Mountain. In explaining why they installed an anti-competitive device in a coffeemaker, the makers of the Keurig 2.0 brewer said it was to “ensure the system delivers on the promise of excellent quality.”
The “quality” argument is an interesting one. K-cup equivalents manufactured by Nestle and smaller, boutique coffee roasters are usually of a higher quality than the mass-produced, coffee-snob scorned K-cups.
Green Mountain’s competitors are not inferior, but they do threaten Green Mountain Coffee’s bottom line. The refillable K-cups account for a major portion of Green Mountain’s revenue. And it is revenue collected in a largely unchallenged market.
The global single-serving coffee business clocks in at around $8 billion and it’s growing fast. According to Longbow Research analyst Philip Terpolilli, Green Mountain controls 92 percent of the single-serving coffee market. While Green Mountain does not divulge the exact number of K-cups they sell, the most charitable assessment still puts their stake firmly at monopolistic levels.
Green Mountain’s perch atop the single-serving coffee market is a monopoly not only they’d like to continue, but one a major player in the beverage industry has a vested interest in maintaining. Three weeks prior to the DRM chip revelation, Coca Cola (KO) bought a 10 percent stake in Green Mountain, which sent shares of Green Mountain soaring, and put additional pressure on the company to maintain stratospheric growth in the face of a slew of competitors.
Tick-Tock Goes the K-Clock
Green Mountain has tried to diverge, but their attempted diversifications – recyclable K-cups; espresso and cappuccino machines — have failed to take hold and competitors making not just K-cup approximations but entirely new singe cup coffee servers continue to roll out. Noted single-kitchen-gadget compatriot SodaStream (SODA) is also reportedly moving in on their territory with their own single-serving brewer and cups.
Green Mountain Coffee can’t survive on eliminating competition alone. They’ll have to develop a viable new product. The alternative is a world where consumers are forced to “jailbreak” their coffee makers to use the coffee of their choice, further alienating customers who will go to SodaStream or Nestle or wherever to get their fix.
Like every company facing pressure from investors and major stakeholders, Green Mountain coffee needs growth. They need a diverse set of revenue streams to feed that growth. The one thing Green Mountain can’t do is keep trying to force a single-serving coffee cup to serve their every single need.
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