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    Starbucks Tries a Bitcoin Strategy

  • Will it start accepting payments? It's not that simple.

    Starbucks
    Cryptocurrency at Starbucks?

    Bitcoin enthusiasts have long dreamed of mass adoption. Getting Starbucks on board would be a pretty significant place to start.

    The Block published an article Monday revealing the java giant received significant equity in Bakkt, a newly formed digital asset ecosystem. Announcement of a partnership between the companies surfaced last August. But now Starbucks, which is not a cash investor in the company, secured a sizable equity cut. The immediate question: what does this mean? For starters, Starbucks will be “heavily involved in developing the card and app that will allow it to serve as Bakkt’s first merchant-on-platform,” The Block wrote. It’s only a U.S. deal out of the gate, too.

    READ MORE: Starbucks’ rewards empire keeps growing.

    There’s an important note to mention upfront. No, Starbucks is not about to start accepting Bitcoin payments for coffee. Instead, it’s a deal that allows customers to pay in-store using special software from Bakkt. Cryptocurrency adopters, in other words, would use a third-party intermediary system to buy products using Bitcoin. This is notable because it clears Starbucks of the top-of-mind concern often associated with the process—being prepared to risk holding digital assets directly. Starbucks won’t deal with the digital assets and it won’t reflect in financial reporting. There are regulatory and financial risks related to dealing with cryptocurrencies, and this solution keeps Starbucks in the clear. It’s a safer route.

    Rather Starbucks will swap any cryptocurrency it receives for “fiat,” defined as “paper money or coins of little or no intrinsic value in themselves and not convertible into gold or silver, but made legal tender by fiat [order] of the government,” according to Financial Times. Put simply, currency that a government has declared to be legal tender, but not backed by a physical commodity.

    Starbucks will allow payments via a third-party application that serves as an instant cryptocurrency converter, and credit the company’s account with the equivalent amount in fiat money.

    That might not be what cryptocurrency fanatics want to hear, but it’s definitely a bold step into new territory for a restaurant chain of this size.

    Starbucks provided a statement to Hard Fork on the deal: “Our role as the flagship retailer for Bakkt is to consult and develop applications for customers to convert their digital assets into U.S. dollars, which can then be used in our stores. We anticipate that a range of cryptocurrencies will gain traction with customers and, through our work with Bakkt, we will be uniquely positioned to constantly consider and offer customers new and unique ways to pay seamlessly, at Starbucks. As we continue to move forward with this work, we anticipate we’ll have more to share in the coming months.”

    As The Next Web notes, an argument could be made that Bitcoin could not manage even a small percentage of Starbucks’ business with real-time, on-chain transaction. So perhaps Starbucks’ comment on being “uniquely positioned,” is the key. The chain wants to front a trend when (and if) it comes into the marketplace in full force. But, in the meantime, it’s not going to try anything revolutionary that might disrupt its system.

    According to The Block, the percentage of Bakkt shares granted to Starbucks remains confidential, “but sources suggest it is disproportionally high given they did not actually make a cash investment.”

    Additionally, there could be marketing perks since “a large portion of Starbucks’ upfront investment in Bakkt has come from their marketing budget,” per sources.

    “Although Starbucks’ final books will remain clear of digital assets, it’s a serious testament to their faith in Bakkt; marking Starbucks’ first foray into the crypto world,” it continued.

    MarketWatch took a look into that risk factor. The No. 1 issue being tax reporting. (Also, here's a deeper dive into the possible tax filing issues).

    “Current rules require that every crypto transaction be logged, for online, big-ticket splurges all the way down to any tap-and-go at a Bitcoin-embracing bodega,” the story said.

    While Starbucks could, with scale, possibly move the regulatory needle with cryptocurrency, customers would not be so lucky.

    “If you were to use bitcoin to buy coffee, it is technically feasible, but it would be extremely burdensome for tax purposes,” James Foust, senior research fellow at Coin Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy center focused on cryptocurrency and decentralized technology,” told MarketWatch. “It, too, is helping to take a look at the regulatory burden around everyday purchases with digital assets. “You’d need to work out the fair-market value [of a bitcoin] at the time [of a coffee purchase] versus the fair-market value [at tax-filing time], and you’d need to itemize the gains or losses,” he added. “If you realized 40 cents on the gain, you’d need to pay a few pennies.”

    Here’s how the IRS outlined the issue in 2014 guidance: “For federal tax purposes, virtual currency is treated as property. General tax principles applicable to property transactions apply to transactions using virtual currency.” 

    If you look back to August, when Starbucks first called itself the “flagship retailer” of Bakkt, the company’s VP of partnerships and payments, Maria Smith, spoke again about the innovation. “… Starbucks will play a pivotal role in developing practical, trusted and regulated applications for consumers to convert their digital assets into U.S. dollars for use at Starbucks,” Smith said in a statement. “As a leader in Mobile Pay to our more than 15 million Starbucks Rewards members, Starbucks is committed to innovation for expanding payment options for our customers.”

    Bakkt said it intended to leverage Microsoft cloud solutions to create an open and regulated, global ecosystem for digital assets and would work with organizations like BCG, Microsoft, Starbucks, and others, “to create an integrated platform that enables consumers and institutions to buy, sell, store and spend digital assets on a seamless global network.”

    Kirk Phillips, of the BitcoinCP, told MarketWatch that tax law shouldn’t discourage innovation. However, cryptocurrency users could face some complications in regards to taxes.

    Some experts, MarketWatch added, believe small filing changes could fix the system, including designating cryptocurrency as foreign currency. “This, too, has its own set of considerations, including the loss of capital-gains treatment for transactions over $200,” MarketWatch said.

    Jerry Brito, executive director at Coin Center, wrote in a 2017 proposal that “a better option might be to simply create a de minimis exemption for cryptocurrency the way it exists for foreign currency,” which could remove friction and courage the development of “this innovative technology and its use in payments—something any member of Congress should be able to get behind.”

    Starbucks, in Q1, reported global same-store sales of 4 percent, driven by a 3 percent increase in average ticket. Its quarterly net revenue climbed 9.2 percent to $6.63 billion. Starbucks’ U.S. market also saw a 4 percent lift in same-store sales with flat traffic, which was an improvement from a fall in visits during the final quarter of fiscal 2018.

    Starbucks active Rewards members also upped 14 percent in Q1 to 16.3 million people—an increase of a million new Starbucks Rewards members in a single quarter, it’s most in close to four years.

    Starbucks opened 541 net new restaurants, bringing the total to 29,865—a 7 percent lift over the prior year. More than two-thirds of that net growth took place outside of the U.S. and roughly 50 percent were licensed.

    In the Americas, Starbucks ended the quarter with 17,644 locations, which represents a 5 percent year-over-year increase from the 16,837 stores at the end of December 2017.

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