The ‘Big 4’ supermarkets in the UK – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons – have a 69.5% share of the Great Britain grocery market (see data link below). The next four – Aldi, Co-op, Lidl and Waitrose – have a 23.8% share. If two of the Big 4 were to merge, would there be a significant decline in competition? This is a question the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been considering in the light of Sainsbury’s planned £7.3 billion takeover of Asda (owned by the US retailing giant, Walmart).
In a recently published provisional report, the CMA argues that “the merger could lead to a substantial lessening of competition at both a national and local level.” The CMA has concerns that the merger:
…could lead to a worse experience for in-store and online shoppers across the UK through higher prices, a poorer shopping experience, and reductions in the range and quality of products offered. It also has concerns that prices could rise at a large number of Sainsbury’s and Asda petrol stations. …The combined impact means that people could lose out right across the UK and that the deal could also cost shoppers through reduced competition in particular areas where Sainsbury’s and Asda stores overlap.
Sainsbury’s and Asda currently have a combined market share of 31.2%. This is slightly larger than Tesco’s 27.7%. But would this give the merged companies too much market power? Would there not still be intense competition between the new Big 3? And, with the growth in the German discounters, Aldi and Lidl, as well as competition from Waitrose, the Co-op, Marks & Spencer and Iceland, would there be any significant decline in competition and choice and a rise in prices?
To answer this, it is crucial to define the grocery market. The CMA argues that the major competitors to any Big 4 company are the other Big 4 companies, rather than the German discounters or other supermarkets. Unlike Aldi and Lidl, the Big 4 have a range of facilities, such as fish and meat counters, delivery and a large range of branded products.
At a national level the CMA finds that the merger would reduce competitive pressure, so that a Big 3 would be less competitive than the Big 4, with higher prices and with reduced quality, range of products and in-store services.
At the local level the effects are likely to be serious. Often the consumer has very limited choice of supermarkets at a local level. If a particular area has just two supermarkets, Sainsbury’s and Asda, then the merger of the two could result in a substantial loss of competition. The only alternative for consumers in such areas would be to use small shops, which tend to be more highly priced anyway and do not compete head-to-head with the supermarkets, or to drive to another area or to shop online, depending on how far rival supermarkets are prepared to deliver. Similar arguments apply to supermarket petrol stations, where the only competition to supermarkets is from roadside petrol stations, often selling more highly priced petrol.
In response to the CMA’s findings, Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe, claims that they focus too much on competition between the Big 4 and do not take into account competition from Lidl and Aldi, both of which are expending rapidly and now have a combined market share of 12.8% (compared with 10.7% two years ago).
Sainsbury’s and Asda also claim that there would be considerable scope for economies of scale, with lower costs being achieved through purchasing and logistics. In a joint statement they state that:
Combining Sainsbury’s and Asda would create significant cost savings, which would allow us to lower prices. Despite the savings being independently reviewed by two separate industry specialists, the CMA has chosen to discount them as benefits.
The two companies and other interested parties have until 13 March to respond to the provisional findings. The CMA will then issue its final report by 30 April 2019. If it sticks to its provisional findings, then either the merger will be blocked or the merging companies would have to ‘sell off a significant number of stores and other assets – potentially including one of the Sainsbury’s or Asda brands – to recreate the competitive rivalry lost through the merger.’ This might be very difficult to achieve as the new buyer would have to be big enough to provide effective competition to the remaining Big 3. Perhaps this could be an opportunity for Amazon to move into in-store grocery retailing. Or there may be some private equity company that would like to do the same.
It is likely that if the CMA sticks to its ruling, the two supermarkets will apply for a judicial review of the CMA’s decision.
Competition and Markets Authority Report
- In what market segments do the Big 4 supermarkets compete?
- Research earlier investigations of the supermarket sector by the UK competition authorities. What were their findings?
- In what ways might the proposed takeover of Asda by Sainsbury’s affect consumers’ interests (a) at a national level; (b) at the local level?
- What is the ‘GUPPI index’? How is it calculated and how is it used in assessing the effects of the proposed takeover? (See pages 88–91 and 109–11 of the CMA’s Provisional Report and pages I5–I15 of the Appendices and Glossary.)
- Distinguish between horizontal and vertical mergers. How is the distinction relevant in drawing lessons from the Tesco takeover of Booker for the Sainsbury’s takeover of Asda?
- Rather than blocking the takeover, one alternative would be for the CMA to permit it, subject to the sale of specific stores where there are problems of the merger limiting competition in a particular locality. Do you think that this would be a better alternative than blocking the takeover? Explain.
We all know that our spending changes during the Christmas period: namely we spend a lot more than during the rest of the year. This applies across the board – we buy more clothes, food and drink, even though each day, we can generally only wear, eat and drink the same amount as usual! This has some interesting points from a behavioural economics stance, but here I’m going to think about the impact of this on some key retailers.
Marks & Spencer have previously made headlines for the wrong reasons: poor sales on clothes and the need for serious restructuring of its stores, target audience and marketing in order for this long-standing retailer to remain current and competitive. Although sales were expected to rise in the Christmas period, they did significantly better than expected, with sales growth of 2.3%, above the expected 0.5%. More encouragingly, this growth was not just in food, but in clothing and homeware as well.
One of the key reasons given for this above-expected improvement in sales was the conveniently timed Christmas, falling on a Sunday and hence giving extra shopping days. M&S have said that this certainly helped with their Christmas trading. Although this was good for Q4 trading, the timing will not play ball for Easter and they are expecting a negative effective during that trading period. Some analysts have said that despite the growth being boosted by the timing of Christmas, there were still signs of a change in fortunes. Bryan Roberts from TCC Global said:
“It might be the sign of some green shoots in that part of the business.”
This is consistent with the Chief Executive, Steve Rowe’s comments that despite the timing of Christmas adding around 1.5% to clothing and home sales growth, the recovery was also due to “better ranges, better availability and better prices”.
It appears as though many other retailers have experienced positive growth in Christmas sales, with the John Lewis Partnership seeing like-for-like sales growth of 2.7%, with Waitrose at a 2.8% rise.
The other interesting area is supermarkets. Waitrose and M&S are certainly competitors in the food industry, but at the higher end. If we consider the mid-range supermarkets (Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco), they have also performed, as a whole, fairly well. The low-cost Aldi and Lidl have been causing havoc for these supermarket chains, but the Christmas period seemed to prove fruitful for them.
Tesco saw UK like-for-like sales up by 1.8%, which showed significant progress in light of previously difficult trading periods with the emergence of the low-cost chains. Q$ was its better quarter of sales growth for over five years. One of the key drivers of this growth is fresh food sales and its Chief Executive, Dave Lewis said “we are very encouraged by the sustained strong progress that we are making across the group.” However, despite these positive numbers, Tesco only really met market expectation, rather than surpassing them as Morrison, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer did.
Perhaps the stand-out performance came from Morrisons, with its best Christmas performance for seven years. Another casualty of the low-cost competitors, it has been making a recovery and Q4 of 2016 demonstrated this beyond doubt. Like-for-like sales for the nine weeks to the start of 2017 were up by 2.9%, with growth in both food and drink and clothing.
Morrisons has been on a long and painful journey, with significant reorganisation of its stores and management. While this has created problems, it does appear to be working.
We also saw a general move up to the more premium own-brands and this again benefited all supermarkets. Morrisons Chief Executive, David Potts said:
“We are delighted to have found our mojo … Every year does bring its challenges, but so far we haven’t seen any change in consumer sentiment. Customers splashed out over Christmas and wanted to trade up … We are becoming more relevant to more people as we turn the company around.”
So it seems to be success all round for traders over the Christmas period and that, in many cases, this has been a reversal of fortunes. The question now is whether or not this will continue with the uncertainty over Brexit and the economy.
M&S beats Christmas sales forecast in clothing and homeware BBC News (12/1/17)
Marks & Spencer reports long-awaited rise in clothing sales The Telegraph, Ashley Armstrong (12/1/17)
Marks and Spencer reveals signs of growth in clothing business Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde (12/1/17)
Tesco’s festive sales lifted by fresh food The Telegraph, Ashley Armstrong (12/01/17)
Tesco caps year of recovery with solid Christmas Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (12/1/17)
Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams, John Lewis and co cheer strong Christmas trading Independent, Josie Cox and Zlata Rodionova (12/1/17)
Morrisons sees best Christmas performance for seven years BBC News (10/12/17)
Morrisons enjoys some ‘remarkable’ Christmas cheer’ The Guardian, Sarah butler and Angela Monaghan (10/1/17)
Record Christmas as Sainsbury’s ‘shows logic of Argos takeover’ The Guardian, Sarah Butler and Angela Monaghan (11/1/17)
- Why have the big four in the supermarket industry been under pressure over the past 2 years in terms of their sales, profits and market share?
- How have the changes that have been made by M&S’ Chief Executive helped to boost sales once more?
- Share prices for supermarkets have risen. Illustrate why this is on a demand and supply diagram. Why has Tesco, despite its performance, seen a fall in its share price?
- What are the key factors behind Morrison’s success?
- What type of market structure is the supermarket industry? Does this help to explain why the big four have faced so many challenges in recent times?
- If there has been a general increase in sales across all stores over the Christmas trading period, that goes beyond expectations, can we infer anything about customer tastes and their expectations about the future?
There has been a link between Sainsbury’s and Argos, with Sainsbury’s offering Argos concessions in some stores. But now, we’re looking at a much more significant link, with Sainsbury’s offering £1.3 billion for control of Home Retail Group’s Argos.
Many have questioned the sense of this offer, wondering what Sainsbury’s will gain from purchasing Argos, but Sainsbury’s has indicated it will boost sales, give itself access to a more advanced delivery network and Argos customers. Argos has worked hard to update its image, moving towards a more technology based catalogue and promising same day delivery in a bid to compete with companies, such as Amazon.
Online delivery is a costly business, with suggestions that retailers make losses on each delivery and hence pay customers to shop online. This move by Sainsbury’s may therefore be an investment in expanding its online delivery services and using the infrastructure that Argos already has. This will therefore help Sainsbury’s to invest in this sought after customer service, without having to invest millions into providing the infrastructure in the first place. This move may give Sainsbury’s a first mover advantage in the grocery sector, which may force other competitors to follow suit.
We could write for hours on the ins and outs of this potential deal and undoubtedly commentators will argue both for and against it. The following articles consider the good and bad sides and the future of grocery retailers in the UK.
Why does Sainsbury’s want to buy Argos? BBC News, Katie Hope (01/02/16)
Sainsbury’s agrees terms to buy Home Retail Group in £1.3bn deal The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Sarah Butler (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s bets on Argos takeover for digital age Reuters, James Davey and Kate Holton (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s returns with £1.3bn offer for Argos The Telegraph, Jon Yeomans and Ashley Armstrong (02/02/16)
Sainsbury’s could shut up to 200 Argos stores Sky News (12/01/16)
Sainsbury’s strikes deal to buy Home Retail Group Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Arash Massoudi and Josh Noble (02/02/16)
- What are the benefits to Sainsbury’s of taking over Argos?
- Why have many critics been surprised by this take-over?
- What is meant by a first mover advantage?
- Do you think that grocery retailers should diversify further or focus on their core business?
- Commentators suggest that delivery costs more to retailers than the price charged to consumers. Can you illustrate this using cost and revenue curves?
- Online delivery infrastructure is a big fixed cost for a firm. How will this change the shape of a firm’s cost curves and what impact will this have on profits following changes in market output?
- Do you think this take over will cause any concerns by competition authorities?
Oligopoly is the most complex market structure, characterised by a few large firms which dominate the industry. Typically there are high barriers to entry and prices can be very sticky. However, perhaps the most important characteristic is interdependence. With this feature of the market, oligopolies, despite being dominated by a few big firms, can be the most competitive market structure.
There are many examples of oligopolies and one of the best is the supermarket industry. Dominated by the likes of Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, competition in terms of branding, product development and quality is constant, but so is price competition. During the recession, you could hardly watch a TV programme that included advert breaks without seeing one of the big four advertising their low prices.
However, in the past few years, the supermarket industry has seen competition grow even further and the big four are now facing competition from low-cost retailers, including Aldi and Lidl. This has led to falling sales and profits for the likes of Tesco and Morrisons.
Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Asda have all felt the emergence of discount retailers and have seen their customer numbers fall. All have reacted with rounds of price cuts and new deals, and this price war looks set to continue. Morrisons have just announced a 14% average price cut on 135 products to match earlier changes in pricing strategies by the other main competitors. As I’m writing this during the Algeria v. South Korea match, I have just seen an advert from Sainsbury’s, promoting their milk chocolate digestive biscuits, priced at £1. The advert explicitly states that they are ‘less than Morrisons’, where the price is £1.50. This was soon followed by another from Sainsbury’s saying that the Cif bathroom spray is £1.50, which is ‘less than Tesco’, priced at £2.75. I need say no more.
So, what is it about this industry which means it is so susceptible to price wars? Are all oligopolies like this? The following articles consider the supermarket industry and the price wars that have emerged. Think about this sector in terms of oligopoly power and consider the questions that follow.
Morrisons announces another round of price cuts/a> BBC News (22/6/14)
Tesco suffers worst sales for decades The Guardian, Sarah Butler and Sean Farrell (4/6/14)
Britain’s Morrisons to cut prices on 135 products Reuters (22/6/14)
Morrisons slashes more prices by up to 41pct The Telegraph, Scott Campbell (22/6/14)
Sainsbury’s and Netto in discount store tie-up BBC News (20/6/14)
Slow to respond, Tesco now pays the price Wall Street Journal, Peter Evans and Ese Erheriene (19/6/14)
One million fewer customer visits a week at Tesco The Guardian, Sean Farrell (3/6/14)
Asda only one of big four to grow share as Lidl achieves highest ever growth Retail Week, Nicola Harrison (3/6/14)
Will Asda shoot itself in the foot with in-store cost cutting? The Grocer, Alec Mattinson (28/5/14)
Tesco sales slide at record speed as discounters pile on the pressure Independent, Simon Neville (3/6/14)
Quester: Back J Sainsbury to prove doubters wrong The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (11/6/14)
- What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
- How do the above characteristics explain the conduct of firms in an oligopoly? How relevant is this to the supermarket industry?
- In many oligopolies, prices are sticky. Why is it that in the supermarket industry price wars break out?
- Is the kinked demand curve a relevant model to use when talking about the supermarket industry?
- What other industries fit into the category of an oligopoly? Is the kinked demand curve model relevant in these industries?
- Would there be an incentive for the big 4 supermarkets to collude and fix price? Explain your answer.
- Interdependence is the key characteristic in an oligopoly. Can this explain the behaviour of the supermarkets?
- Given that oligopolies are characterised by high barriers to entry, how is that Aldi and Lidl have been able to compete with them?
After weak Christmas trading, Tesco issued a profit warning – its first in 20 years. Following this, their shares fell in value by some £5bn, but this was met with an announcement of the creation of 20,000 jobs in the coming years, as part of a project to train staff, improve existing stores and open new ones. Yet, Tesco has reported another quarter of falling sales.
Trading times have been challenging and the fact that the UK’s biggest supermarket is struggling is only further evidence to support this. In the 13 weeks to the 26th May 2012, Tesco reported a decline in like-for-like sales of 1.5%. Although much of the £1bn investment in Tesco is yet to be spent, the fact that sales have fallen for a full year must be of concern, not only to its Chief Executive, but also to analysts considering the economic future for the UK.
Consumer confidence remains low and together with tight budgets, shoppers are continuing to be very cautious of any unnecessary spending. Part of Tesco’s recent drive to drum up sales has been better customer service and a continuing promotion war with the other supermarkets. This particular sector is highly competitive and money-off coupons and other such promotions plays a huge part in the competitive process. Whilst low prices are obviously crucial, this is one sector where non-price competition can be just as important.
Although Tesco sales in the UK have been nothing to shout about – the Chief Executive said their sales performance was ‘steady’ – its total global sales did increase by 2.2%. The Chief Executive, Mr Clarke said:
‘Internationally, like-for-like sales growth proved resilient, despite slowing economic growth in China…Against the backdrop of continued uncertainty in the eurozone, it is pleasing to see that our businesses have largely sustained their performance.’
A boost for UK sales did come with the Jubilee weekend and with the Olympics just round the corner, Tesco will be hoping for a stronger end to the year than their beginning. The following articles consider Tesco’s sales and the relative performance of the rest of the sector.
Tesco’s quarterly sales hit by ‘challenging’ trading BBC News (11/6/12)
Tesco UK arm notches up one year of falling sales Guardian, Zoe Wood (11/6/12)
Tesco upbeat despite new sales dip Independent, Peter Cripps (11/6/12)
Tesco sales seen lower in first quarter Reuters, James Davey(11/6/12)
The Week Ahead: Tesco set to admit it is losing ground to rivals Independent, Toby Green (11/6/12)
Tesco’s performance in the UK forecast to slip again Telegraph, Harry Wallop (10/6/12)
Tesco: What the analysts say Retail Week, Alex Lawson (11/6/12)
Supermarkets issue trading updates The Press Association (9/6/12)
The Week Ahead: Supermarkets prepare to give City food for thought Scotsman, Martin Flanagan (11/6/12)
Asda’s sales growth accelerates Reuters, James Davey (17/5/12)
Asda sales increase helped by Tesco Telegraph, Harry Wallop (18/5/12)
Tesco v. Sainsbury’s in trading update battle Manchester Evening News (11/6/12)
Sainsbury’s out-trades Tesco on UK food sales Independent, James Thompson (10/6/12)
- Using some examples, explain what is meant by non-price competition.
- Why has Tesco been losing ground to its competitors?
- Given the products that Tesco sells (largely necessities), why have sales been falling, despite household’s tight budgets?
- Into which market structure would you place the supermarket sector? Explain your answer by considering each of the assumptions behind the market structure you choose.
- Why have Tesco’s rivals been gaining ground on Tesco?
- How might this latest sales data affect Tesco’s share prices?
- Based on what the analysts are saying about the food sector, can we deduce anything about the future of the UK economy in the coming months?