(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If it wasn’t clear before that the subscription retailing craze had become almost bizarrely ubiquitous, let this be your confirmation: You can now buy a monthly subscription to Burger King – Burger King coffee, that is.
The fast-food chain announced Friday that is offering what it calls the BK Cafe subscription, in which you can pay $5 a month to get one small cup of coffee per day at its restaurants.
The idea isn’t totally crazy. For people who go to Burger King frequently for a caffeine fix, it pays for itself pretty quickly. And as Bloomberg Intelligence’s Jennifer Bartashus has pointed out to me before, value-conscious diners are among the the least loyal; they go where the deals are. So maybe something like this could pull in some new bargain hunters, and keep existing BK shoppers from playing the field. After all, given the dismal traffic trends in the restaurant industry overall, these chains must scrap hard for every visit.
But I can’t help but see this as a symbol of how overly eager the retail world has been to embrace the subscription model – even though we don’t see a ton of compelling reasons to do so.
Buzzy startups like Bark, Harry’s and Native made their names in part by selling to customers via subscription models. But all three are also selling a la carte at Target Corp. these days, presumably because they’ve made the calculation that this dramatically increases their potential to grow their customer base. That’s not just because millions of people walk through Target stores each day – it’s because subscriptions only work for a narrow band of shoppers.
And how many subscriptions can we realistically expect any given consumer to wantto pay for and keep track of? My colleague Tara Lachapelle has noted this is an emerging issue in the media world, where an explosion of choice in streaming apps is eventually going to bump up against the limits of viewers’ wallets.
If you read between the lines in Burger King’s press release about its coffee subscription, you can see what is likely the true end game here: You can only get the coffee subscription by downloading the Burger King app.
It’s a safe bet the chain is hoping this gives customers an incentive to download their app. They can then theoretically learn more information about loyal visitors and potentially offer them personalized deals and discounts to keep them happy.
Every consumer business needs to figure out how to engage with their customers in both the digital and physical worlds, and this may help Burger King do that with a small group of devotees. But subscriptions for consumer products are a niche at best, and a distraction at worst. Retailers and restaurants should be cautious about pouring too many resources into them.
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Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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