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Posts Tagged ‘double marginalisation’

Ramifications from the recent dispute between Tesco and Unilever

An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.

It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:

Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.

It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?

Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..

Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:

We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.

On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.

Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.

From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:

Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.

However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.

It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:

A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.

One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.

Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:

Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.

It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.

Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.

Articles
The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)

Questions

  1. What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
  2. How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
  3. Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
  4. Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
  5. Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?
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Is ‘wet rent’ for publicans coming to an end?

Pubs are closing down in the UK at the rate of 29 per week. The total number has fallen from 67,000 in 1982 to approximately 52,000 this year. In response to this decline the government has recently announced some changes to the way the relationship between pub owners and their tenants are regulated.

The ownership of pubs in the UK changed dramatically after a report on the beer market was published by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC) in 1989. When this investigation took place over 75% of the beer in the UK was produced by the six largest brewing businesses (Bass, Allied Lyons, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, Scottish and Newcastle, Courage) which owned over half the pubs. The nature of the relationship between these breweries and the landlords of the pubs they owned caused the greatest concerns.

Some pubs are run as managed houses. In this type of business relationship the person who manages and runs the pub (the publican) is a direct employee of the brewery. However, in many instances this is not the case. Instead they are independent entrepreneurs who enter into a tenancy agreement with the owner of the pub. In other words they rent the pub from the brewery and have some freedom over the way it is run including the setting of prices.

These arrangements have proved to be very controversial because of one particular aspect of many of the tenancy agreements – the exclusive supply contract. Known as the ‘tied lease model’, ‘beer tie’ or ‘wet rent’, it significantly reduces the freedom of publicans to run the business, as they have to purchase almost all their beverages from the brewery that owns the pub.

The MMC report in 1989 concluded that a significant reason for the increasing real price of beer was the market power exerted by the brewers through the tied lease model. It recommended that the number of pubs owned and operated by the brewers should be substantially reduced. Known as the ‘Beer Orders’, the brewers responded by gradually selling off 14,000 pubs. They also eventually sold the breweries to international rivals and companies such as Whitbread and Bass moved into the retail, leisure and hotel sectors. Whitbread currently owns Costa, Brewers Fayre and Premier Inn hotels while Bass, renamed Intercontinental Hotels Groups, owns both Crown Plaza and Holiday Inn hotels.

The beer tie between the pubs and the big national breweries might have disappeared but the tied lease arrangement still exists. Instead of being tied to national brewers, many publicans are tied to either smaller regional breweries, such as Everards and Adnams, or another type of business – the pub company known as ‘pubcos’. Some of the larger pubcos include Enterprise Inns, Punch Taverns, Mitchells&Butlers and JD Weatherspoon. They negotiate deals with the breweries and then supply the beer to their pubs.

In 2014, The British Beer and Pub Association estimated that two-fifths of pubs in the UK were owned by pubcos, while another fifth were owned by regional breweries. In 2013, The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimated that 48 per cent of pubs in the UK had landlords who were tied to either a regional brewer or a pub company.

The ownership of pubs may have changed radically over the past 20 years but the tied lease system continues to be extremely controversial. The main argument against the system is that it leads to tied publicans having to pay significantly above free market prices for their beer. The pubcos accept this claim but maintain that, in return for being in a tied lease, the publican pays a lower rent and receives business support services.

Parliament passed the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act in March 2015 (see Part 4). This included provisions for the introduction of:

  a statutory Pubs Code to govern the relationship between the businesses that own the pubs and their tenants;
a new independent Adjudicator to enforce the code;
a Market Rent Only (MRO) option.

In October 2015 the government announced some proposals for how the MRO option could be implemented as part of its consultation process with the industry. These include giving the tied publican the right to ask for a rent assessment every five years or whenever the owner of the pub significantly changes the beer prices it charges the tenant. As part of this rent assessment the publican can take the option to switch to an MRO contract. This gives them the freedom to purchase beer from any supplier rather than being tied to those supplied by the owner of the pub.

Enterprise Inns, the largest pubco, operates nearly all of its pubs on the tied lease model. In response to the changes proposed by the Government, the company has announced plans significantly to increase the number of its directly managed pubs from just 16 to 800.

Could the tied lease system finally be about to end?

Articles
Enterprise Inns to grow pub numbers after death of the ‘beer tie’ The Telegraph, Ben Martin, and Peter Spence (12/05/15)
What is the ‘beer tie’ The Telegraph, Denise Roland (19/11/14)
Q&A: Calling time on the beer tie BBC News, Katie Hope (19/11/14)
Chin chin! Fair deal for pub tenants under a new beer tie crackdown City AM, Suzie Neuwirth (29/10/15)
Industry Reacts to New Statutory Pubs Code Eat Out, Nathan Pearce (29/10/15)
What does new pub code mean for the leased pubs? Burton Mail, Andrew Musgrove (04/11/15)

Questions

  1. What has happened to the big six national brewers which once dominated the beer industry in the UK?
  2. What factors have caused the decline in the number of pubs?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate the impact that the market power of the pubcos might have on the prices paid by publicans in a tied lease.
  4. Discuss some of the potential advantages of the tied lease model.
  5. The global brewers and pubcos might create a situation where market power exists in successive stages of the vertical supply chain. Analyse some of the potential implications of this structure and discuss the concept of double marginalisation.
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