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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Hula coffee cards earn star bucks

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

For thousands of Hawai'i coffee consumers, the Starbucks debit/gift card is a convenient way to pay for a caffeine habit.

Robyn Frazier sells the retro-look Starbucks hula cards on eBay, estimating she's done about $3,000 in business so far.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

But some cardholders are earning a little extra coffee money by hawking Hawai'i versions of the rechargeable cards as "rare" collector items for more than their cash value.

"It's my college tuition money," said Robyn Frazier, a Leeward Community College business major who estimated she's sold $3,000 worth of the Hawai'i Starbucks cards on eBay, some for as much as $13 with no cash value.

Most Starbucks cards offered on eBay or other gift-card auction sites on the Internet are sold for less than their cash value as a way to unload unwanted gifts.

But a few cards, including ones decorated with a retro hula dancer scene and issued only by Hawai'i Starbucks stores, are commanding premiums.

The premiums — typically just a few dollars above a card's cash value — have transformed these utilitarian plastic cards to collectible status like baseball cards or pogs, the cardboard milk-bottle caps that became a fad in Hawai'i in 1993 and eventually swept the country.

Greg Meier, president of the local licensee of Starbucks stores, Coffee Partners Hawaii, said he wasn't really surprised at the phenomenon. "Anything shows up on eBay these days," he said.

Perceived value in Hawai'i Starbucks cards gained such a following that stock, or empty, cards were being stolen from store countertop arrangements before they were replaced by display models.

Mainland customers and card dealers also called Hawai'i stores asking if they could order the "hula girl" card. "Unfortunately, we're not in the mail-order business," said Sherri Rigg, marketing director for Coffee Partners.

Starbucks has issued a variety of artistic card designs for several years as a convenient way to make purchases at its more than 5,500 stores in North America. Distinctive cards also have been issued for more than 1,500 stores on other continents.

The Hawai'i card was released last July and almost instantly became a collector's item.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

The cards, typically available with a $5 minimum balance and sometimes sold with a decorative card holder and brochure, can be recharged regularly using an automated credit-card payment system.

But Starbucks in Hawai'i until last year didn't participate in the card program because the stores are 95 percent owned by Coffee Partners. Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Co. owns the other 5 percent.

"They had to treat us as a separate company," Meier said. "The challenge was if somebody buys a card or redeems a card (at a location in Hawai'i or somewhere else), how does that cash get transferred over?"

So a special Hawai'i Starbucks card with a magnetic strip was devised so the cards could be used both in Hawai'i and on the Mainland. The cards were made available last July after computer systems were upgraded at local stores.

The Hawai'i Starbucks card, however, didn't create the collectors' market. Other "hard to find" gift cards, and not just those from Starbucks, have been bought and sold by speculators and collectors.

Only a few other Starbucks cards appear to command greater value than the Hawai'i card, including a 2002 Italian-themed "Bella Vespa" card with no balance that sold for $17 last week on eBay.

"Great investment! Looks great framed in a shadow box!" said the seller of the card that has been marketed as one of the coffee company's most artistic.

The Hawai'i card design was created by an in-house Starbucks graphic design team working off suggestions from Coffee Partners.

As for how "rare" the hula girl cards are, Coffee Partners said local stores issued about 120,000 cards in the six months through December.

Because of the card's popularity and the cost to create a new card, the card likely will be issued for two more years, the company said.

Still, that hasn't inhibited card brokers. "A RARE Starbucks gift card, Hawaiian Hula Girls. These cards can ONLY be bought in the state of Hawaii, but can be used Nationwide!" reads one description from a seller who fetched $6.50 for an empty card on eBay last week.

Kaua'i resident Shauna Castle said she has bigger plans for selling goods on eBay, but the Starbucks cards provide the stay-at-home married mother of seven with "a special little reward" that helps pay for her daily Java Chip Frappuccino habit.

Most of Castle's cards sell for just a few dollars, though she said she once sold a card with a $5 cash balance for $22. "Now that was awesome," Castle said.

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.