Many of the major industries in Australia are oligopolies/oligopsonies. Examples include banking, telecoms, supermarkets, insurance and iron ore. The dominant firms in these markets have been accused of exploiting their market power, both in charging high prices to consumers and driving down the prices paid to suppliers. The result, it is claimed, is that they have been making excessive profits.
But things may be changing. With the rise of online trading, barriers to entry in these markets have been falling. Many of the new entrants are established firms in other countries and hence already have economies of scale.
The first article below examines the challenge to established oligopolists in Australia.
Articles and blogs
The death of the oligopoly: Australia’s incumbents face new rivals Financial Review (Australia), Michael Smith (21/4/15)
Australian Oligopolies The Grapevine, Adam Dimech (27/12/14)
Breaking up Australia’s oligopolies Ashurst Australia (14/8/13)
- Find out which are the major firms in Australia in the five industries identified above. What is their market share and how has this been changing?
- What barriers to entry exist in each of these industries in Australia? To what extent have they been declining?
- What can new entrants do to overcome the barriers to entry?
- What technological developments allow other companies to challenge Foxtel’s pay television monopoly?
- To what extent are developments in the supermarket industry in Australia similar to those in the UK?
- To what extent does Australia benefit from increased globalisation?
The retail food industry is an oligopoly – a market dominated by a few big firms, with interdependence between them. This means that each firm considers the reaction of all its competitors when making any decision. Pricing is one of those key decisions and this is one of the reasons why price wars tend to break out in this industry.
For consumers, price wars are usually seen as a good thing, as it means prices in the supermarkets get forced downwards, thus reducing the cost of living. Low prices in this case are one of the key benefits of competition. However, there are costs of such fierce competition for suppliers. As final prices to customers are pushed down, small competitors are likely to feel the squeeze and may be forced out of the market. The other losers are suppliers. The big supermarkets are likely to pay lower prices to their suppliers, thus adversely affecting their livelihood. Research suggests that throughout 2014, 146 food producers entered insolvency, which is significantly higher than last year.
Accountancy firm, Moore Stephens, has blamed the supermarket price war for this rise in insolvencies in the food production sector. Duncan Swift from this firm said:
“The supermarkets are going through the bloodiest price war in nearly two decades and are using food producers as the cannon fodder…Supermarkets have engaged in questionable buying practices for years, but it’s getting worse and clearly wreaking havoc on the UK food production sector.”
The British Retail Consortium has said that placing the blame in this way was too simplistic. A commentator suggested that many suppliers have long-standing relationships with the supermarkets they deal with, suggesting that relations were good and sustainable. Furthermore, it was suggested that the demise of these producers may be due to many other factors and the data on insolvencies did not show that those firms affected were suppliers to the supermarkets. There is a Groceries Code Adjudicator in place to ensure that the supermarkets do not abuse their power when it comes to dealing with their suppliers, but the power of this person is limited, leaving suggestions remaining that suppliers are vulnerable. The following articles consider both the good and bad of price wars.
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly? Why do price wars tend to break out in oligopolies, such as the supermarket industry?
- Apart from the supply-chain pressure from supermarkets, what other factors could have caused so many small food producers to become insolvent?
- How does the supermarket supply chain work and why have the price wars led to suppliers being squeezed?
- Use a diagram to illustrate the impact of the price war on (a) the supermarkets and (b) the suppliers.
- How important is the Groceries Code Adjudicator and should she be doing more to protect suppliers?
- If supermarkets are cutting prices, is this an indicator of unfair competition or good competition?
A big expenditure for many households is petrol. The price of petrol is affected by various factors, but the key determinant is what happens in the oil market. When oil prices rise, this pushes up the price of petrol at the pumps. But, when they fall, do petrol prices also fall? That is the question the government is asking.
The price of oil is a key cost of production for companies providing petrol and so when oil prices rise, it shifts the supply curve up to the left and hence prices begin to increase. We also see supply issues developing with political turmoil, fears of war and disruption and they have a similar effect. As such, it is unsurprising that petrol prices rise with concern of supply and rising costs. But, what happens when the opposite occurs? Oil prices have fallen significantly: by a quarter. Yet, prices at the pump have fallen by around 6%. This has caused anger amongst customers and the government is now urging petrol retailers to pass their cost savings from a lower price of oil onto customers. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
“I believe it’s called the rocket-and-feather effect. The public have a suspicion that when the price of oil rises, pump prices go up like a rocket. But when the price of oil falls, pump prices drift down like a feather … This has been investigated before and no conclusive evidence was found. But even if there were a suspicion it could be true this time it would be an outrage.”
However, critics suggest that tax policy is partly to blame as 63% of the cost of petrol is in the form taxation through fuel duty and VAT. Therefore even if oil prices do fall, the bulk of the price we pay at the pumps is made up of tax revenue for the government. Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation said:
“It’s a simple story. Before tax we have just about the cheapest petrol and diesel in Europe. After tax we have just about the most expensive … It’s right to keep the pressure on fuel retailers but if drivers want to know what’s behind the high pump prices of recent years all they have to do is follow the trail back to the Treasury … if ministers are serious about reducing fuel prices further then they should cut duty further.”
(Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
However, even taking out the fuel duty and VAT, Arthur Renshaw, an analyst at Experian has said that the actual price of petrol has fallen by 21% since last year. Still, a much bigger decrease than we have seen at the pumps. One further reason for this may be the fact that dollars is the currency in which oil is traded. The pound has been relatively weak, falling by almost 7% over the past few months and hence even though the price of oil has fallen, the effect on UK consumers has been less pronounced.
The big supermarkets have responded to government calls to cut petrol prices, but how much of this cut was influenced by the government and how much was influenced by the actions of the other supermarkets is another story. A typical oligopoly, where interdependence is key, price wars are a constant feature, so even if one supermarket cut petrol prices, this would force others to respond in kind. If such price wars continue, further price cuts may emerge. Furthermore, with oil production still at such high levels, this market may continue to put downward pressure on petrol prices. Certainly good news for consumers – we now just have to wait to see how long it lasts, with key oil producing countries, such as Russia taking a big hit. The following articles consider this story.
Supermarkets cut fuel prices again The Telegraph, Nick Collins (6/11/14)
Petrol retailers urged to cut prices in line with falling oil costs The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/11/14)
Supermarkets cut petrol prices after chancellor’s criticism Financial Times, Michael Kavanagh (6/11/14)
Governent ‘watching petrol firms’ Mail Online (6/11/14)
Our horrendous tax rates are the real reason why petrol is still so expensive The Telegraph, Allister Heath (6/11/14)
Osborne ‘expects’ fuel price drop after fall in oil price BBC News (6/11/14)
Danny Alexander tells fuel suppliers to pass on oil price cuts to drivers The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (5/11/14)
Further UK fuel cuts expected as pound strengthens The Scotsman, Alastair Dalton (6/11/14)
Spot oil prices Energy Information Administration
Weekly European Brent Spot Price Energy Information Administration (Note: you can also select daily, monthly or annual.)
Annual Statistical Bulletin OPEC
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate the impact that a fall in the price of oil should have on the price of petrol.
- What is the impact of a tax on petrol?
- Why is petrol a market that is so heavily taxed? You should think about the incidence of taxation in your answer.
- Why does the strength of the pound have an impact on petrol prices in the UK and how much of the oil price is passed onto customers at the pumps?
- Does the structure of the supermarket industry help customers when it comes to the price of petrol? Explain your answer.
- Militant action in some key oil producing countries has caused fears of oil disruption. Why is that oil prices don’t reflect these very big concerns?
In an earlier post, Elizabeth looked at oligopolistic competition between supermarkets. Although supermarkets have been accused of tacit price collusion on many occasions in the past, price competition has been growing. And recent developments show that it is likely to get a lot fiercer as the ‘big four’ try to take on the ‘deep discounters’, Aldi and Lidl.
Part of the reason for the growth in price competition has been a change in shopping behaviour. Rather than doing one big shop per week in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda or Morrisons, many consumers are doing smaller shops as they seek to get more for their money. A pattern is emerging for many consumers who are getting their essentials in Aldi or Lidl, their ‘special’ items in more upmarket shops, such as Waitrose, Marks & Spencer or small high street shops (such as bakers and ethnic food shops) and getting much fewer products from the big four. Other consumers, on limited incomes, who have seen their real incomes fall as prices have risen faster than wages, are doing virtually all their shopping in the deep discounters. As the Guardian article below states:
A steely focus on price and simplicity, against a backdrop of falling living standards that has sharpened customers’ eye for a bargain, has seen the discounter grab market share from competitors and transform what we expect from our weekly shop.
The result is that the big four are seeing their market share falling, as the chart shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In the past year, Tesco’s market share has fallen from 29.9% to 28.1%, Asda’s from 17.8% to 16.3%, Sainsbury’s from 16.9% to 16.2% and Morrisons’ from 11.7% to 11.0%. By contrast, Aldi’s has risen from 3.9% to 5.4% and Lidl’s from 3.1% to 4.0%, while Waitrose’s has also risen, from 4.7% to 4.9%. And it’s not just market share that has been falling for the big four. Profits have also fallen, as have share prices. Sales revenues in the four weeks to 13 September are down 1.6% on the same period a year ago; sales volumes are down 1.9%.
But can the big four take on the discounters at their own game? Morrison’s has just announced a form of price match scheme called ‘Match & More’. If a shopper finds that a comparable grocery shop is cheaper in not only Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda, but also in Aldi or Lidl, then ‘Match & More users will automatically get the difference back in points on their card. Shoppers also will be able to collect extra points on hundreds of featured products and fuel’. When the difference has risen to a total £5 (5000 points), the shopper will get a £5 voucher at the till. The idea is to encourage customers to stay loyal to Morrisons.
But what if Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s do the same? What will be the impact on their prices and profits. Will there be a race to the bottom in prices, or will they be able to keep prices higher than the deep discounters, hoping that many customers will not cash in their vouchers?
But if effectively the big four felt forced to cut their prices to match Aldi and Lidl, could they afford to do so? This depends on their comparative average costs. At first sight, it might be thought that the big four could succeed in profitably matching the discounters, thereby clawing back market share. After all, they are much bigger and it might be thought that they would benefit from greater economies of scale and hence lower costs.
But it is not as simple as this. The discounters have lower costs than the big four. Their shops are typically in areas where rents or land prices are lower; their shops are smaller; they carry many fewer lines and thus gain economies of scale on each line; they have a much higher proportion of own-brand products; products are displayed in the boxes they come in, thus saving on the staff costs of unpacking them and placing them on shelves; they buy what is cheapest and thus do not always display the same brands.
So is Morrison’s a wise strategy? Will other supermarkets be forced to follow? Is there a prisoners’ dilemma here and, if so, is there any form of collusion in which the big four can engage which is not illegal? Can the big four differentiate themselves from the discounters and the up-market supermarkets in ways that will attract back customers?
It is worrying times for the big four.
- Heavy Discounters Up Pressure On The UK’s Big Four Supermarkets
Alliance News, Rowena Harris-Doughty (3/6/14)
- Tesco loses more market share as supermarket sector slows to record low
CITY A.M., Catherine Neilan (23/9/14)
- Record low for grocery market growth as inflation disappears
Kantar World Panel, Fraser McKevitt (23/9/14)
- How Aldi’s price plan shook up Tesco, Morrison’s, Asda and Sainsbury’s
The Guardian, Sarah Butler (29/9/14)
- Sainsbury’s shares drop 7% on falling sales report
BBC News (1/10/14)
- Sainsbury results: the reaction
Food Manufacture, Mike Stones (3/10/14)
- Morrisons Becomes First Of Big Four Grocers To Price Match Aldi, Lidl
Alliance News, Rowena Harris-Doughty (2/10/14)
- UK: Morrisons Takes On Discounters With Price Match Card
- Morrisons to match the prices of Aldi and Lidl
The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (2/10/14)
- Three reasons why Morrisons price-matching Aldi and Lidl is not a ‘gamechanger’
The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (2/10/14)
- Would it be possible for the big four to price match the deep discounters?
- What is meant by the prisoners’ dilemma? In what ways are the big four in a prisoners’ dilemma situation?
- Assume that you had to advise Tesco on it strategy? What advise would you give it and why?
- Assume that two firms, M and A, are playing the following ‘game’: firm M pledges to match firm A’s prices; and firm A pledges to sell at 2% below M’s price. What will be the outcome of this game?
- Is Morrisons wise to adopt its ‘Match & More’ strategy?
- Why is it difficult for Morrisons to make a like-for-like comparison with Aldi and Lidl in its ‘Match & More’ strategy?
- Why may Aldi and Lidl benefit from Morrisons’ strategy?
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?