The supermarket industry is a classic example of an oligopoly. A market dominated by a few large companies, which is highly competitive and requires the companies to think about the reactions of the other competitors whenever a decision is made. Throughout the credit crunch, price cutting was the order of the day, as the big four tried to maintain market share and not lose customers to the low cost Aldi and Lidl. Morrisons, however, has found itself in exactly that position and is now looking to restructure to return to profitability.
Morrisons is well known for its fresh food, but it seems that with incomes still being squeezed, even this is insufficient to keep its customers from looking for cheaper alternatives. Morrisons’ market share has been in decline and its profits or the last financial year have been non-existent. It’s been losing ground to its big competitor, Tesco and part of this is due to the fact that Morrisons was late to enter the ‘Tesco metro’ market. It remained dependent on its large supermarkets, whereas Tesco saw the opportunity to expand onto the highstreets, with smaller stores. It was also late arriving to the online shopping business and while it has now developed more sophisticated IT systems, it did lose significant ground to Tesco and its other key competitors.
Another problem is that Morrisons has found itself unable to compete with the low cost supermarkets. The prices on offer at Morrisons are certainly not low enough to compete with prices at Aldi and Lidl and Morrisons has seen many of its customers switch to these cheaper alternatives. But Morrisons is fighting back and has announced plans to cut prices on a huge range of products across its stores. The fresh food aspect of the business will still remain and the hope is that the fresh food combined with cheaper price tags will allow Morrisons to re-gain lost ground to Tesco and take back some of its lost customers from the low-cost alternatives. However, it’s not just Morrisons that has been losing customers to the budget retailers. Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Asda have all lost market share to Aldi and Lidl, but it is Morrisons that has fared the worst.
The latest news on Morrisons’ profits and overall performance, together with its promise of restructuring and price cuts worth £1 billion has caused uncertainty for shareholders and this has reduced the value of shares. However, Morrisons’ Directors have tried to restore confidence by purchasing shares themselves. With expectations of price wars breaking out, the other supermarkets have also seen significant declines in their share values, with a total of £2 billion being wiped off the value of their shares collectively. The consequences of Morrisons’ performance will certainly continue: customers are likely to benefit from lower prices in all of the big four supermarkets, but investors may lose out – at least in the short run. The impact on jobs is uncertain and will certainly depend on how investors and customers react in the coming weeks. The following articles consider this sector.
UK grocer Morrison warns on profit, threatens price war Reuters, James Davey (13/3/14)
Morrisons and the threat to mainstream supermarkets BBC News, Robert Peston (13/3/14)
Morrisons expected to sell property in response to profit drop The Guardian (9/3/14)
Morrisons restructuring sparks fears of new price war BBC News (13/3/14)
Morrisons’ dividend up while profit falls? It’s hard to believe The Guardian, Nils Pratley (13/3/14)
Morrisons boss talks tough as group slides into red The Scotsman, Scott Reid (13/3/14)
Morrisons plots price cuts after annual loss Sky News (13/3/14)
Morrisons’ declaration of £1bn price war with budget stores hammers Sainsbury and Tesco shares This is Money, Rupert Steiner (14/3/14)
Ocado on track for first profit in wake of Morrisons deal Independent, Simon Neville (14/4/14)
- What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
- To what extent do you think the supermarket sector is a good example of an oligopoly?
- Why is the characteristic of interdependence a key cause of the potential price war between the supermarkets?
- Why has Morrisons been affected so badly with the emergence of the budget retailers?
- By using the income an substitution effect, explain how the big four supermarkets have been affected by retailers, such as Aldi and Lidl.
- Using a demand and supply diagram, explain how the share prices of companies like Morrisons are determined. Which factors affect (a) the demand for and (b) the supply of shares?
- What do you think will happen to the number of jobs in Morrisons given the performance of the company and its future plans?
In oligopoly markets, because there are a small number of firms, each firm is affected by its rivals’ decisions. This interdependence results in a tension between cooperation and competition. On the one hand, firms collectively benefit from cooperating and keeping prices high.
On the other hand, an individual firm then has an incentive to undercut its rivals to steal a larger share of the market. This incentive to undercut can potentially result in price wars between firms. This is exactly what has recently occurred between pizza sellers on the Avenue of Americas in Midtown New York. Here, until recently the 6th Ave. Pizza company was selling pizza for $1.50 per slice. However, the entry of two competitors nearby sparked an intense and bitter price war.
First, an outlet called Joey Pepperoni’s Pizza opened nearby and charged $1 per slice. This price was then matched by the 6th Avenue Pizza company. Then, the 2 Bros. pizza chain opened an outlet almost next door to the 6th Avenue Pizza company. Initially, they also charged $1 per slice.
However, this did not last for too long. First 6th Avenue cut its price to 79 cents and then 2 Bros. responded by cutting its price to 75 cents, which 6th Avenue quickly matched.
Which company started this price war has been subject to some debate. The owners of the 6th Avenue Pizza company were angry, alleging that 2 Bros. was trying to force them out of business. However, the owners of 2 Bros. claimed that they were simply responding to the 6th Avenue Pizza company’s decision to start charging 79 cents per slice and they even have evidence from their security cameras confirming this! When asked why they cut their price the owners of the 6th Avenue company said that:
He was taking away our customers. How were we going to pay our rent?
So what will happen next in this market? One of the owners of the 2 Bros. company has said that they will go back to $1 per slice if the 6th Avenue Pizza company does the same, as they can’t make any profit at the current price. However, the tension between cooperation and competition suggests this may be difficult to sustain.
In the meantime, both are quoted suggesting that they may be tempted to reduce prices even further. 6th Avenue Pizza company stated:
We may go to 50 cents. I want to hit him. I want to beat him.
2 Bros. said:
We might go to free pizza soon.
Of course, while the price war continues, the clear winners are the consumers. In the article one is quoted as saying:
I think it’s beautiful. We need 75-cent hamburgers next.
- Why is it difficult for firms to maintain high prices in oligopolistic markets?
- What are the key features of competition in the pizza market?
- Is this the type of market where you would expect price wars to be likely?
- How might firms in this market try to differentiate their product?
- Do you think prices will ever return to $1.50 per slice in this market? Explain.
In an earlier blog Energy profits margins up by over 700% we analysed the increasing pressure on many households as they saw their energy bills increase in price year on year. This helped the big six energy companies achieve a 700% rise in their profits.
However, it also sparked interest by the regulator Ofgem, which was looking to ensure that consumers found it easier to make price comparisons and create a more competitive market. One issue that Ofgem were looking into was how to make the energy sector more open to competition, given that the big six companies own the power stations and hence this acts as a barrier to the entry of new firms.
The latest announcements from some of the big energy companies will therefore come as a pleasant turn of events for Ofgem. On Wednesday January 11th 2012, EDF announced that it would be cutting its energy prices by 5% from 7th February in response to a fall in wholesale costs. Only a day later, Npower announced its plans to cut its tariffs by 5% from 1st February. British Gas cut its prices by 5% with immediate effect and SSE will reduce its gas prices by 4.5% from March 26th.
Is this a sign that the market is becoming more competitive thanks to Ofgem or is there another explanation? For the past 2 winters, temperatures have been consistently below freezing and hence demand for gas/electricity was at an all time high, speaking concerns of gas shortages. However, with the mild winter we are currently experiencing (I hope I haven’t jinxed it!) demand for heating etc has been significantly lower, which has reduced wholesale costs and the big six companies have begun to pass these savings on to their customers. Yet, despite this seemingly good news, are they being as ‘kind’ as we think? Most of the companies are cutting their prices by about 5%, yet wholesale prices fell by significantly more than that. Furthermore, over the past few years, customers have seen their tariffs increase significantly – by a lot more than 5%. To some extent, this confirms the criticism levelled at the energy sector – when costs rise, they are quick to pass on the full costs to their customers. But, when costs fall, they are slow to pass on only a fraction of their cost savings. The following articles consider this issue.
Npower will cut gas prices by 5% BBC News (13/1/12)
EDF cuts gas price by 5% Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Henning Gloystein (11/1/12)
British Gas readies push to promote price cut MarketingWeek, Lara O’Reilly (13/1/12)
British Gas cuts prices by 5% Independent (13/1/12)
Energy suppliers do battle in the war of modest price cuts The Telegraph, Emily Godsen (13/1/12)
British Gas and SSE follow EDF Energy price cut Financial Times, Guy Chazan and Sylvia Pfeifer (11/1/12)
British Gas cuts electricity prices, but keeps gas on hold Guardian, Hillary Osborne (12/1/12)
British gas and SSE announce price cuts (including video) BBC News (12/1/12)
More power firms cut energy tariffs The Press Association (12/1/12)
- In which market structure would you place the energy sector? Explain your answer.
- What is the role of Ofgem? What powers does it (and the other regulators have)?
- Using a demand and supply diagram to help you, explain why wholesale costs have fallen.
- Why have the energy companies only passed on about 5% of cost savings to their customers, despite falls in wholesale costs of significantly more than that?
- Do you think price wars are likely to break out in this sector? Are they in the interests of consumers?
- Why did energy prices increase so quickly last year and the year before? Use a diagram to help you.