You’ve probably heard of Groupon. If you join its emailing list, the company will send you daily details of deals in your area that it has negotiated with local retailers. If you want to take advantage of any particular deal, you sign up for it online and if enough people do so to reach a minimum number agreed with the retailer, Groupon will bill your credit card. You then download the voucher and use it to purchase you discounted item or service. Discounts are often substantial – 50% or more.
But are these deals as good as they seem? On 2 December, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority took the decision to refer Groupon UK to the Office of Fair Trading, following 48 breaches of the advertising code of practice in eleven months. It referred complaints about Groupon’s:
• Failure to conduct promotions fairly, such as not making clear significant terms and conditions
• Failure to provide evidence that offers are available
• Exaggeration of savings claims
And it was not just consumers who had complained. Many retailers found that so many people signed up for certain deals and the discounts were so great, with Groupon often charging the retailer half the discounted price, that retailers made substantial losses on the deals. One example was a cupcake maker, Rachel Brown, who runs the Need a Cake bakery in Reading, Berkshire. She had to bake so many extra cupcakes below cost that profits for the year were wiped out.
So what is the nature of this market failure and how appropriate are the competition authorities for dealing with it? The following webcasts and articles look at the issues. They also consider the growing problems Groupon faces in the market from new competitors.
It has not been good news recently for Groupon and it’s hardly surprising that, following Groupon’s flotation on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the USA last month, and an initial surge in the share price, its shares have since fallen by over 40%.
Groupon investigated by OFT Channel 4 News on YouTube, Benjamin Cohen (2/12/11)
Time to Jump Off Groupon Bandwagon? Newsy (24/11/11)
Groupon to be investigated by Office of Fair Trading Guardian, Mark Sweney (2/12/11)
OFT launches investigation into Groupon advertisements BBC News (2/12/11)
UK regulator launches Groupon probe Financial Times, Michael Stothard (2/12/11)
Groupon investigated by UK advertising authorities ZDNet, Eileen Brown (5/12/11)
Deal with it: Groupon ponders its future Independent, Stephen Foley (6/12/11)
Groupon’s Business Model Doomed To Fail Seeking Alpha, Mazen Abdallah (5/12/11)
Small Businesses Hate Groupon LiveOutLoud, Loral Langemeier
Competition authorities sites
ASA refers complaints about Groupon to OFT Advertising Standards Authority (2/12/11)
Investigation into the trading practices of MyCityDeal Limited (trading as Groupon UK) Office for Fair Trading (2/12/11)
- What market failings are there in the discount voucher market?
- What to retailers gain from dealing with companies such as Groupon?
- Do small businesses have anyone other than themselves to blame if they make a loss from doing a deal with Groupon?
- What should be the role of the competition authorities in the discount voucher market?
- Is Groupon’s business model ‘doomed to failure’ and if so why?
- Does Groupon have a ‘first-mover advantage’?
- Are there any barriers to entry of new firms into the discount voucher market? If so, what are they? What are the implications of your answer for the future of Groupon?
Families in the UK seemed to have been squeezed in all areas. With incomes flat, inflation rising, petrol and bills high, there seems to be a never ending cycle of price rises without the corresponding increase in incomes. This has been confirmed by the latest figures released from the big six energy companies, whose profit margins have risen from £15 per customer in June to £125 per customer per year. This is assuming that prices remain the same for the coming year.
The regulator, Ofgem has said that profit margins will fall by next year and that they are ensuring that price comparisons between the big energy companies become much easier to allow consumers to shop around. It is a competitive market and yet due to tariffs being so complicated to understand, many consumers are simply unable to determine which company is offering them the best deal. There is certainly not perfect knowledge in this market. Tim Yeo, the Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee said the profit margins were:
‘Evidence of absolutely crass behaviour by the energy companies, with a jump in prices announced in the last few months ahead of what will be a winter in which most families face their highest ever electricity and gas bills’
Ofgem will publish proposals later this year with suggestions of how to make the market more competitive. We have already seen in the blog “An energetic escape?” how Ofgem is hoping to reduce the power of the big six by forcing them to auction off some of the electricity they generate. The aim is to free up the market and allow more firms to enter. With the winter fast approaching and based on the past 2 years of snow and cold weather, it is no wonder that households are concerned with finding the best deals in a bid to reduce just one of their bills. The following articles consider this issue.
Energy price hikes see profits soar The Press Association (14/10/11)
Energy suppliers’ profit margins eight times higher, says regulator Ofgem Telegraph (14/10/11)
Energy firms’ profit margins soar, Ofgem says BBC News (14/10/11)
Energy firms’ profits per customer rise 733%, says Ofgem Guardian, Dan Milmo and Lisa Bachelor (14/10/11)
Regulator proposes radical change to energy market Associated Press (14/10/11)
Energy bills face overhaul in first wave of reform Reuters, Paul Hoskins (14/10/11)
Ofgem tells energy companies to simplify tariffs Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (14/10/11)
You can’t shop around in an oligopoly Financial Times, William Murray (13/10/11)
- What type of market structure best describes the energy market?
- Of the actions being taken by Ofgem, which do you think will have the largest effect on competition in the market?
- Are there any other reforms you think would be beneficial for competition?
- Why is transparency so important in a market?
- What barriers to entry are there for potential competitors in the energy market?
- Why do you think profit margins are so high in this sector?
With news of the economy contracting in the previous quarter, it was perhaps a surprise to some that BSkyB has seen growth in its customer numbers to above 10 million: much of this increase due to growth in broadband numbers. In the second half of 2010, BSkyB reported that revenues increased by 15% to £3.2bn and their pre-tax profits were also on the way up to £467m. These latest figures are likely to put increasing pressure on News Corp’s takeover bid for the shares they do not own in BSkyB (61%), as share prices increase by 2%. Last summer, a bid of 700p per share was rejected and while both companies did agree to work together to determine if a future merger was viable, these higher share prices put BSkyB in a much stronger position.
However, before anything else happens, Rupert Murdoch’s company is waiting for regulatory approval from Ofcom for this takeover. BBC reports sugges that Ofcom has made an:
“unambiguous recommendation that News Corp’s plan to acquire all of BSkyB should be referred to the Competition Commission for further investigation.”
The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has spoken of his intention to refer this potential merger to the Competition Commission, following Ofcom’s recommendation. There are concerns about the impact on competition and Rupert Murdochs’ increased influence over public opinion, if this merger were to go ahead. Any delays in finalizing a deal could benefit BSkyB, if their financial performance continues. Analysts suggest that the delay could be 6 months, while any investigation takes place. If profits continue to rise, share prices may also go up, requiring higher and higher bids by News Corp. Watch this space!
BSkyB profits soar 26% to £520m putting pressure on NewsCorp to increase takeover bid Daily Mail (27/1/11)
BSkyB reports big jump in profits BBC News (27/1/11)
BSkyB spends £7m on News Corp bid Guardian, Mark Sweney (27/1/11)
BSkyB result to highlight pressure on News Corp Reuters, Kate Holton (26/1/11)
HD TV, broad demand boosts BSkyB Telegraph (27/1/11)
News Corp bud for Sky should go to Competition Commission, recommends Ofcom Telegraph (27/1/11)
Call off the hunt Financial Times (20/1/11)
Numis raises BSkyB on expected News Corp deal delay Reuters (21/1/11)
- Explain what type of merger it would be between News Corp and BSkyB.
- What are the arguments (a) for the merger and (b) against the merger? Consider the impact on the public, the competitors, the workers etc.
- What is the role of Ofcom and the Competition Commission? How do their responsibilities differ?
- As demand for Sky’s products increases, what could we expect to see in terms of price? Now explain why your answer may not happen!
- Why have BSkyB’s share prices been affected? Is it the demand of supply of shares that has changed? Illustrate your answer on a diagram.
Two of America’s airlines have agreed to merge to form the world’s largest carrier. The deal between United and Continental Airlines is worth £2.1 billion and the management of the two companies hope that the new airline, to be called United Airlines, will bring cost savings of some £800 million per year. Last year, the two companies lost a total of £900 million. It is also hoped to increase revenues by providing more routes and more effective competition against rivals, such as Delta Air Lines.
But just how significant will any economies of scale be and to what extent will they involve job losses? Certainly the merger has been greeted with caution by the Air Line Pilots Association and unions such as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Also, will the larger company be able to compete more effectively to the benefit of consumers, or will the increased market power see a rise in fares?
And this is not the only airline merger. In April, British Airways and Iberia of Spain signed a deal to merge, thereby creating one of the world’s biggest airlines. Other mergers are expected as airlines battle to cope with rising costs and lower passenger numbers in the wake of the global recession. So will such mergers benefit passengers, or will it simply result in less choice and higher fares? The following articles look at the issues
1st priority for new United-Continental combo: Keep customers, workers happy Chicago Tribune, Julie Johnsson (3/5/10)
Debating future of US Airways Philadelphia Business Today, Linda Loyd (4/5/10)
Arpey points out good, bad of United-Continental deal The Dallas Morning News, Terry Maxon (3/5/10)
US airline merger creates world’s biggest carrier Independent, Nick Clark (4/5/10)
We can’t fix fares, says chief of merging US airlines Telegraph, James Quinn (3/5/10)
United and Continental Airlines to merge BBC News (3/5/10)
British Airways and Iberia sign merger agreement BBC News (8/4/10)
Are mergers good for airlines? BBC News, Edwin Lane (4/5/10)
United boss Glenn Tilton on Continental merger BBC News (3/5/10)
United and Continental bosses’ press conference on merger BBC News (3/5/10)
Aviation Data & Statistics Federal Aviation Administration
TransStats RITA, Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Airline and Airport Statistics European Regions Airline Association
- What type of merger is the one between United and Continental: horizontal, vertical, conglomerate or a mixture?
- What types of economies of scale can be achieved by a merger of airlines?
- For what reasons may a merger of airlines result in higher revenues?
- To what extent will passengers (a) gain and (b) lose from airline mergers? What determines the size of these gains and losses?
- Is the airline industry an oligopoly? To what extent is there collusion between the various airlines?
- What should be the attitude of regulatory authorities across the world to airline mergers?
Taxpayers may actually be in profit by several billion pounds, following reports from Lloyds that their profits are up in the first three months of 2010. At current share prices, the taxpayers are in profit by approximately £2 billion and this figure is expected to rise, as share prices continue to rise. Lloyds is 41% owned by the public, after a £17 billion bail-out rescued the debt-ridden bank. These profits follow two years of losses by Lloyds TSB and HBOS of over £6 billion in 2008 and 2009.
So, what has caused this change in fortunes? First, there has been a fall in the number of loans, which have gone bad. The bank said, “In our wholesale division, the level of impairments has been significantly lower than the last quarter of 2009 and is also at a lower level than our initial expectations for 2010″. Second, there has been a widening gap between the interest charged on a loan and the interest paid to depositors. However, despite this good news, this bank (and others) are still not lending enough to stimulate economic growth. Furthermore, as Lloyds still remains heavily dependent on loans both from British and overseas taxpayers, it could be some time before taxpayers see any return on their ‘investment’.
Lloyds: Black is the colour of spring BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (27/4/10)
Lloyds Banking Group returns to profits Guardian, Jill Treanor (27/4/10)
Lloyds profits revive as bad debts imorive Reuters, Edward Taylor and Clara Ferreira-Marques (27/4/10)
Lloyds Bank returns to profit Telegraph (27/4/10)
Lloyds and RBS shares to rise to give taxpayer potential £9bn profit Guardian, Jill Treanor and Larry Elliott (26/4/10)
- How have fewer bad debts and different lending and saving rates contributed to rising profits for Lloyds?
- If profits are back up, why are British banks still not lending enough?
- What factors will determine when the taxpayers actually see the return on their ‘investment’?
- In the Guardian article, ‘Lloyds Banking Group returns to profit’ what does it mean by “The bank did not change its earlier guidance that it expected to achieve £2bn of synergies and other operating efficiencies from the HBOS takeover by the end of 2011”?
- To what extent is the news about profits at Lloyds Banking Group and RBS a useful tool for the government in the upcoming election?
- Why is it so important that banks begin to increase their lending? What will determine the size of the effect on GDP of any given increase in lending?