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?
The news in many European countries has been dominated in February by the ‘horse meat scandal’. Small traces of horse meat may be the result of faulty quality control. But the significant amount of horse found in several processed meat products suggest fraud at one or more points in the supply chain from farm to supermarket or other outlet. Indeed several specific suppliers, from abattoirs to processors are facing criminal investigation.
The scandal has put the supply chain under intense scrutiny. Part of the problem is that the supply chain is often very long and complex. As the Guardian article states:
The food and retail industries have become highly concentrated and globalised in recent decades. A handful of key players dominate the beef processing and supermarket sectors across Europe. They have developed very long supply chains, particularly for their economy lines, which enable them to buy the ingredients for processed foods from wherever they are cheapest at any point, depending on exchange rates and prices on the global commodity markets. Networks of brokers, cold stores operators and subcontracted meat cutting plants have emerged to supply rapidly fluctuating orders “just in time”. Management consultants KPMG estimate there are around 450 points at which the integrity of the chain can break down.
Then there is the huge pressure on all parts of the supply chain to reduce costs.
Supermarkets use their market power to drive down the prices of the products they buy from their suppliers and this has a knock-on effect backwards down the supply chain. This pressure has intensified as real wages have fallen and consumers have found their budgets squeezed.
At the same time, beef and other meat prices have been rising as the costs of animal feed have soared. This all puts tremendous pressure on suppliers to add cheaper ingredients. Again to quote the Guardian article:
Manufacturers add other cheap ingredients including water and fat, and use concentrated proteins to bind the water and fat in. They may appear on labels as ‘seasoning’. One of the cheapest sources of these protein additives is pork rind. It is possible that horse hide is now also being used. The widespread adulteration of cheap chicken breast with pig and beef proteins and water has been uncovered in previous scandals. The beef proteins were derived from hydrolysed cattle hides. It is not illegal to use these protein concentrates so long as they are identified correctly to the manufacturer.
It is not surprising that if cheap horse meat becomes available to suppliers, such as from old horses towards the end of their working lives, some processing companies may be tempted to add it fraudulently, stating that it is beef.
The articles look at the issues of long and complex supply chains in the processed food industry and assess why they have evolved into their current form and the difficulties in regulating them.
Horsegate: heed economics of the cold chain The Grocer, Andrew Godley (16/2/13)
Horsemeat scandal: the essential guide The Guardian, Felicity Lawrence (15/2/13)
After the horse has been bolted The Economist (16/2/13)
Slavery, not horse meat, is the real scandal on our doorstep The Telegraph, Fraser Nelson (14/2/13)
Industry must take the reins on food safety Globe and Mail (Canada)Sylvain Charlebois (15/2/13)
Supply chains changed the growth model The Economist, Richard Baldwin (15/8/12)
Supply-chain management The Economist (6/4/09)
Tesco pledges to open up supply chain after horse meat scandal The Telegraph (16/2/13)
Horse meat scandal: Shoppers who buy ‘cheapest food’ at risk The Telegraph, James Quinn, Jason Lewis and Patrick Sawer (16/2/13)
Let Them Eat Horse Bloomberg, Marc Champion (15/2/13)
Scandal shows meat supply chain must be policed heraldscotland (14/2/13)
MPs push for new powers for FSA as officials seize yet more suspect meat Independent, Martin Hickman (13/2/13)
- Why do supermarkets and their suppliers use long supply chains?
- Explain the concepts of ‘countervailing power’ and ‘monopsony or oligopsony power’? How do they apply in the processed meat supply chain?
- Identify the types of transactions costs in the processed meat industry.
- In what ways do consumers (a) gain and (b) lose from such supply chains?
- Why is the problem of fraud in processed food supply chains likely to have intensified in recent years?
- How have supermarkets reacted to the horse meat scandal? Why has it taken the scandal to make them react in this way?
- To what extent is the problem simply one of inaccurate labelling?
- To what extent is there a principal–agent problem in the processed meat supply chain?
We’ve had numerous examples in recent years of the economic turmoil that natural disasters can have and unfortunately, we have another to add to the list: the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. As Japan tries to take stock of the damage and loss of life, the economic consequences of this disaster will also need considering. The previous Kobe earthquake cost the economy an estimated 2% of GDP, but this did hit a key industrial area. The economic consequences of the 2011 earthquake were originally not thought to be as bad, but the economy will undoubtedly suffer.
The Japanese economy, like the UK, shrank in the final quarter of 2010, but was expected to return to growth. The devastation of the earthquake and tsunami is now likely to delay this economic recovery. Many car companies are based in Japan and are expected to take some of the biggest hits. Nomura analysts suggested that annual operating profits of companies such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda would be dented by between 3% and 8%. You only have to look at some of the footage of the disaster to see why this is expected. Supply chains will undoubtedly be disrupted, many of whom are located in the exclusion zone and financial markets across the world have fallen, as the possibility of a nuclear disaster threatens. As Louise Armistead writes:
‘By lunchtime in Britain £32bn had been knocked off the value of the FTSE-100 dropped, which fell by more than 3pc in early trading but recovered later to close down 1.38pc at 5,695.28. Germany’s DAX plunged 3.19pc, recovering from a 4.8pc fall, and France’s CAC ended the day 3.9pc lower, while on Wall Street, the Dow Jones Industrial Index dropped 2pc shortly after opening.’
A key question will be whether Japanese reconstruction will push the economy out of its deflationary spiral or make it even worse.
GDP measures the value of output produced within the domestic economy, but it is by no means an accurate measure of a country’s standard of living. Whilst it will take into account new construction that will be required to rebuild the economy, it doesn’t take into account the initial destruction of it. As output and growth are expected to fall in the immediate aftermath, we may see a boost to growth, as reconstruction begins.
The problem of scarcity is becoming more and more apparent to many survivors, as they begin to run short of basic necessities, which has led to various rationing mechanisms being introduced. Despite the devastating conditions which survivors now find themselves in, when supplies are delivered, the efficiency of Japan is still very evident. As noted by BBC Radio 4 coverage, as soon as the supplies arrived, a line was in place to unload the van in minutes. Teams have been set up to help everyone get through the tragedy. Even in the most devastating of times, Japanese efficiency still shines through and undoubtedly this will be a massive aid in the huge re-construction projects that we will see over the coming months and even years. Analysts say that there will be short term pain, but that the investment in construction will boost the economy later in the year.
Japanese earthquake: Markets shed £1trillion amid nuclear fears Telegraph, Louise Armistead (16/3/11)
Panic over Japan triggers market turmoil Independent, Nikhil Kumar (16/3/11)
Japan quake: Economy ‘to rebound’ after short term pain BBC News (14/3/11)
Japan disaster: The cost of a crisis Guardian (16/3/11)
Global stock markets tumble in ‘perfect storm’ amid fears of nuclear disaster Mail Online, Hugo Duncan (16/3/11)
Japan’s earthquake will cause a global financial aftershock Guardian, Peter Hadfield (15/3/11)
Economists’ estimate of Japan quake impact Reuters (16/3/11)
Fukishima factor adds pressure to economic fallout from Japan’s crisis Guardian, Larry Elliott (15/3/11)
- What is the likely impact on Japan’s GDP?
- Why is the potential disruption to the supply chain important for a firm?
- How and why will this catastrophe affect global financial markets?
- What are some of the main problems of using GDP as a measurement for growth? Think about the impact on GDP of Japan’s destruction and their future re-construction.
- What types of production methods etc have Japan implemented to allow them to become so efficient in production?
- What are the arguments to suggest that this disaster might help the Japanese economy recover from its deflationary spiral? What are the arguments to suggest that it might make it worse?
- What are some other examples of natural disasters or human errors that have also had economic consequences?
In times of recession, some companies can do well, even in industries where there are supply problems. One such example is Pacific Andes, a Hong Kong based frozen seafood firm. Many fishing companies have found times tough in an era of dwindling fish stocks and fishing quotas imposed by governments anxious to preserve stocks. The following article looks at Pacific Andes and how it has managed to prosper despite supply challenges and the global recession.
Casting a wide net The Standard (Hong Kong) (24/8/09)
Details of overfishing in the UK can be found at: EyeOverFishing
The site provides a “map of the UK fisheries system, the problems with it, and solutions that are possible today”.
- To what extent can the concept of income elasticity of demand be used to help explain why Pacific Andes has managed to prosper during the recession?
- What specific business strategies has Pacific Andes adopted and why?
- Why, if overfishing is to the detriment of the fishing indsutry, do fishing fleets still overfish many parts of the oceans? Explain why this is an example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’.
- What would you understand by an ‘optimum level of fishing’ for a particular type of fish in a particular part of the oceans? Explore whether the concept of a ‘social optimum’ in this context is the same as an ‘environmental optimum’?