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Countervailing power: irresistible force meets immovable object as Tesco and Unilever battle it out

A row erupted in mid-October between Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, and Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer with many well-known brands, including home care products, personal care products and food and drink. Unilever, which manufactures many of its products abroad and uses many ingredients from abroad in those manufactured in the UK, wanted to charge supermarkets 10% more for its products. It blamed the 16% fall in the value of sterling since the referendum in June (see the blog Sterling’s slide).

Tesco refused to pay the increase and so Unilever halted deliveries of over 200 items. As a result, several major brands became unavailable on the Tesco website. The dispute was dubbed ‘Marmitegate’, after one of Unilever’s products.

This is a classic case of power on both sides of the market: a powerful oligopolist, Unilever, facing a powerful oligopsonist, Tesco. With rising costs for Unilever resulting from the falling pound, either Unilever had to absorb the costs, or Tesco had to be prepared to pay the higher prices demanded by Unilever, passing some or all of them onto customers, or there had to be a compromise, with the prices Tesco pays to Unilever rising, but by less than 10%. A compromise was indeed reached on 13 October, with different price increases for each of Unilever’s products depending on how much of the costs are in foreign currencies. Precise details of the deal remained secret.

An interesting dynamic in the dispute was that Tesco and Unilever were acting as ‘champions’ for retailers and suppliers respectively. Other supermarkets were also facing price rises by Unilever. Their reactions were likely to depend on what Tesco did. Similarly, other suppliers were facing rising costs because of the falling pound. Their reactions might depend on how successful Unilever was in passing on its cost increases to retailers.

This example of ‘countervailing power’, or ‘bilateral oligopoly’, helps to illustrate just how much the consumer can gain when a powerful seller is confronted by a powerful buyer. The battle was been likened to that between two ‘gorillas’ of the industry. Its ramifications throughout industry will be interesting.

Podcasts and Webcasts
Tesco-Unilever row: Can unique shop explain ‘Marmitegate’? BBC News, Dougal Shaw (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever in Brexit price clash Reuters, David Pollard (13/10/16)
Brexit price-rise warning to shoppers BBC News, Simon Jack (10/10/16)
Tesco in Brexit Pricing Spat With Unilever Wall Street Journal (13/10/16)
Tesco battles Unilever over prices Financial Times on YouTube (14/10/16)
Tesco vs Unilever: Who won? ITV News, Joel Hills (14/10/16)

Articles
Tesco removes Marmite and other Unilever brands in price row BBC News (13/10/16)
Marmite Brexit Shortage ‘Just The Beginning’ Of ‘Gorilla’ Grocery Battle As Pound Slumps Huffington Post, Louise Ridley (13/10/16)
Unilever sales increase despite dozens of its brands being removed from Tesco shelves Independent, Ben Chapman (13/10/16)
Tesco-Unilever price row: Why pound value slump has caused Marmite to disappear from shelves Independent, Zlata Rodionova (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls Marmite from online store amid Brexit price row with Unilever The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak, Steven Swinford and Ashley Armstrong (13/10/16)
Tesco runs short on Marmite and household brands in price row with Unilever The Guardian, Sarah Butler (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls products over plunging pound Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Paul McClean (13/10/16)
Brexit means…higher prices The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever settle prices row after pound’s Brexit dive Reuters, James Davey and Martinne Geller (14/10/16)

Questions

  1. To what extent can Tesco and Unilever be seen a price leaders of their respective market segments?
  2. What would you advise other supermarkets to do over their pricing decisions when faced with increased prices from suppliers, and why?
  3. What would you advise manufacturers of other consumer goods sold in supermarkets to do in the light of the Tesco/Unilever dispute, and why?
  4. What determines the price elasticity of demand for branded products, such as Marmite, Persil, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, PG Tips tea and Wall’s ice cream?
  5. What factors will determine in the end just how much extra the consumer pays when supermarkets are faced with demands for higher prices from major suppliers?
  6. Give some other examples of firms in industries where there is a high degree of countervailing power.
  7. What are the macroeconomic implications of a depreciating exchange rate?
  8. If, over the long term, the pound remained 16% below its level in June 2016, would you expect the consumer prices index in the long term to be approximately 16% higher than it would have been if the pound had not depreciated? Explain why or why not.
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