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?
An earlier post on this site described a recent row between Tesco and Unilever that erupted when Unilever attempted to raise the prices it charges Tesco for its products. Unilever justified this because its costs have increased as a result of the UK currency depreciation following the Brexit decision.
It also appears that more general concerns that the fall in the value of sterling would lead to higher retail prices were prevalent around the time that the Tesco Unilever dispute came to light. Former Sainsbury’s boss, Justin King, made clear that British shoppers should be prepared for higher prices. He also said that:
Retailers’ margins are already squeezed. So there is no room to absorb input price pressures and costs will need to be passed on. But no one wants to be the first to break cover. No business wants to be the first to blame Brexit for a rise in prices. But once someone does, there will be a flood of companies because they will all be suffering.
It is interesting to consider further why the Tesco and Unilever case was the first to make the headlines and why their dispute was resolved so quickly. In addition, what are the more general implications for the retail prices consumers will have to pay?
Arguably, Unilever saw itself as having a strong hand in negotiations with Tesco because its product portfolio includes a wide variety of must-stock brands, including Pot Noodles, Marmite and Persil, that are found in 98% of UK households..
Unilever has been criticised for using the currency devaluation as an excuse to justify charging Tesco more, since most of its products are made in the UK. However, Unilever was quick to point outthat commodities it uses in the manufacture of products are priced in US dollars, so the currency devaluation can still affect the cost of products that it manufactures in the UK. In addition, Unilever’s chief financial officer, Graeme Pitkethly, insisted that price increases due to rising costs were a normal part of doing business:
We are taking price increases in the UK. That is a normal devaluation-led cycle.
On the other hand, even if the cost increases faced by Unilever are genuine, it is interesting to speculate whether it would have been so quick to adjust its prices downwards in response to a currency appreciation. After all, a commonly observed phenomenon across a range of markets is ‘rockets and feathers’ pricing behaviour i.e. prices going up from a cost increase more quickly than they go down following an equivalent cost decrease.
Compared to Unilever, some other suppliers are likely to have less bargaining power – in particular, those competing in highly fragmented markets and those producing less branded products. In such markets the suppliers may be forced to accept cost increases. For example, almost 50% of butter and cheese consumed in the UK comes from milk sourced from EU markets. Protecting such suppliers is one of the key roles of the Grocery code of conduct that the UK competition agency has put in place.
From Tesco’s point of view it will have benefited from good publicity by doing its best to protect consumers from price hikes. Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said:
Retailers are firmly on the side of consumers in negotiating with suppliers and improving efficiencies in the supply chain to control the inflationary pressure that is building through the devaluation of the pound.
However, it is also clear that Tesco had its own motives for resisting increased costs for Unilever’s products. In such situations both supplier and retailer should be keen to avoid a situation where they both impose their own substantial mark-ups at each stage of the supply chain. It is well established that this creates a double mark-up and not only harms consumers, but also the supplier and retailer themselves. Instead, the firms have an incentive to use more complex contractual arrangements to solve the problem. For example, suppliers may pay slotting allowances to get a place on the retailers’ shelves in exchange for lower retail mark-ups.
It has also been claimed that cutthroat competition in the supermarket industry, especially from discounter retailers Aldi and Lidl, made Tesco particularly keen to prevent price rises. Some arguments suggest that these discounters will be best placed to benefit from the currency devaluation as they sell more own brands, have a limited range, the leanest supply chains and benefit from substantial economies of scale. On the other hand, they source more of their products from abroad and it has been suggested that:
A fall in sterling will push prices up for everyone who sources products from Europe, but Aldi and Lidl will be affected more than most.
One prediction suggests that the overall impact of the currency depreciation on food prices will be an increase of around 3%. This may be particularly worrisome given concerns that the impact will fall most heavily on benefit claimants and other low-income households.
Outside of the food industry, Mike Rake, the chairman of BT, has highlighted the fact that:
Imported mobile phones and broadband home hubs were already 10% more expensive and the cost would have to be passed on to consumers in the near future.
It is therefore clear that the currency devaluation has the potential to create substantial tensions in the supply-chain agreements across a range of markets. The impact on the firms involved and on consumers will depend upon a wide range of factors, including the competitiveness of the markets, the nature of the firms involved and their bargaining power. Furthermore, evidence from an earlier currency depreciation in Latin America makes clear that the price elasticity of demand will be another factor that determines the impact price rises have.
Finally, it is also worth noting that a potential flip side of the currency depreciation is a boost for UK exports. However, it has been suggested that the manufacturing potential to take advantage of this in the UK is limited. In addition, even the manufacturing that does take place, for example in the car industry, often relies on components imported from abroad.
The Brexiteers’ Marmite conspiracy theories exposed their utter ignorance of how markets really work Independent, Ben Chu (16/10/16)
Tesco price dispute sends Unilever brand perceptions tumbling Marketing Week, Leonie Roderick (17/10/16)
Unilever and Tesco both benefit from their price row, but Brexit will bring more pain Marketing Week, Mark Ritson (19/10/16)
Why the Tesco v Unilever feud was good for British business campaign, Helen Edwards (20/10/16)
- What are some of the factors that affect a supplier’s bargaining power?
- How might the discount retailers respond to the currency devaluation?
- Use the figures from Latin America in the article cited above to calculate the price elasticity of demand.
- Explain why the price elasticity of demand is an important determinant of the effect of a price rise.
- Can you think of other examples of markets that may be particularly prone to price rises following a currency depreciation?
A row erupted in mid-October between Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, and Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch company. Unilever is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer with many well-known brands, including home care products, personal care products and food and drink. Unilever, which manufactures many of its products abroad and uses many ingredients from abroad in those manufactured in the UK, wanted to charge supermarkets 10% more for its products. It blamed the 16% fall in the value of sterling since the referendum in June (see the blog Sterling’s slide).
Tesco refused to pay the increase and so Unilever halted deliveries of over 200 items. As a result, several major brands became unavailable on the Tesco website. The dispute was dubbed ‘Marmitegate’, after one of Unilever’s products.
This is a classic case of power on both sides of the market: a powerful oligopolist, Unilever, facing a powerful oligopsonist, Tesco. With rising costs for Unilever resulting from the falling pound, either Unilever had to absorb the costs, or Tesco had to be prepared to pay the higher prices demanded by Unilever, passing some or all of them onto customers, or there had to be a compromise, with the prices Tesco pays to Unilever rising, but by less than 10%. A compromise was indeed reached on 13 October, with different price increases for each of Unilever’s products depending on how much of the costs are in foreign currencies. Precise details of the deal remained secret.
An interesting dynamic in the dispute was that Tesco and Unilever were acting as ‘champions’ for retailers and suppliers respectively. Other supermarkets were also facing price rises by Unilever. Their reactions were likely to depend on what Tesco did. Similarly, other suppliers were facing rising costs because of the falling pound. Their reactions might depend on how successful Unilever was in passing on its cost increases to retailers.
This example of ‘countervailing power’, or ‘bilateral oligopoly’, helps to illustrate just how much the consumer can gain when a powerful seller is confronted by a powerful buyer. The battle was been likened to that between two ‘gorillas’ of the industry. Its ramifications throughout industry will be interesting.
Podcasts and Webcasts
Tesco-Unilever row: Can unique shop explain ‘Marmitegate’? BBC News, Dougal Shaw (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever in Brexit price clash Reuters, David Pollard (13/10/16)
Brexit price-rise warning to shoppers BBC News, Simon Jack (10/10/16)
Tesco in Brexit Pricing Spat With Unilever Wall Street Journal (13/10/16)
Tesco battles Unilever over prices Financial Times on YouTube (14/10/16)
Tesco vs Unilever: Who won? ITV News, Joel Hills (14/10/16)
Tesco removes Marmite and other Unilever brands in price row BBC News (13/10/16)
Marmite Brexit Shortage ‘Just The Beginning’ Of ‘Gorilla’ Grocery Battle As Pound Slumps Huffington Post, Louise Ridley (13/10/16)
Unilever sales increase despite dozens of its brands being removed from Tesco shelves Independent, Ben Chapman (13/10/16)
Tesco-Unilever price row: Why pound value slump has caused Marmite to disappear from shelves Independent, Zlata Rodionova (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls Marmite from online store amid Brexit price row with Unilever The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak, Steven Swinford and Ashley Armstrong (13/10/16)
Tesco runs short on Marmite and household brands in price row with Unilever The Guardian, Sarah Butler (13/10/16)
Tesco pulls products over plunging pound Financial Times, Mark Vandevelde, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Paul McClean (13/10/16)
Brexit means…higher prices The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (13/10/16)
Tesco, Unilever settle prices row after pound’s Brexit dive Reuters, James Davey and Martinne Geller (14/10/16)
- To what extent can Tesco and Unilever be seen a price leaders of their respective market segments?
- What would you advise other supermarkets to do over their pricing decisions when faced with increased prices from suppliers, and why?
- What would you advise manufacturers of other consumer goods sold in supermarkets to do in the light of the Tesco/Unilever dispute, and why?
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for branded products, such as Marmite, Persil, Dove soap, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, PG Tips tea and Wall’s ice cream?
- What factors will determine in the end just how much extra the consumer pays when supermarkets are faced with demands for higher prices from major suppliers?
- Give some other examples of firms in industries where there is a high degree of countervailing power.
- What are the macroeconomic implications of a depreciating exchange rate?
- If, over the long term, the pound remained 16% below its level in June 2016, would you expect the consumer prices index in the long term to be approximately 16% higher than it would have been if the pound had not depreciated? Explain why or why not.
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?
UK Supermarkets: a prime example of an oligopoly. This industry is highly competitive and over the past decade, but particularly since the onset of the credit crunch, price wars have been a constant feature of this market. You could barely watch a full programme on commercial TV without seeing one of the big supermarkets advertising that their prices were lower than everyone else’s! So, despite oligopoly being towards the ‘least competitive’ end of the market structure spectrum, this is an example of just how competitive the market can actually be.
With household incomes being squeezed, in particular by another oligopolistic industry (energy) and with the ‘middle market’ being pinched by higher-end retailers and budget retailers, the supermarket sector is facing uncertain times. Asda’s sales growth has continued to slow and in response, the giant supermarket chain will be launching a £1 billion price-cutting campaign. Tesco is the market leader, but Sainsbury’s and Asda have been battling over the second spot. One of Asda’s selling points is its low prices. Perhaps not as low as Aldi and Lidl, but this new pricing strategy will aim to bring its prices further below Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons and close the gap with the two big discount supermarkets. As Andy Clarke, Asda’s Chief Executive, said:
We regard ourselves as the UK’s leading value retailer and it is against this backdrop that I have today set out our strategic priorities which will improve, extend and expand the business over the next five years.
So, what will be the impact of lower prices? It appears as though Asda is marketing itself towards the budget end of the pricing spectrum, perhaps aiming to become fiercer competitors with Aldi and Lidl and let Tesco and Sainsbury’s do battle with the higher-end retailers, such as Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. Lower prices should cause a substitution effects towards Asda’s products, as many of them will have relatively price elastic demand. If the other supermarkets don’t respond, this should lead to sales growth. However, the key to an oligopoly is interdependence: the actions of one firm will affect all other firms in the market. The implications then, are that Tesco may react to this pricing strategy by engaging in its own price cuts, especially as the Christmas period approaches. The characteristic of interdependence was evident in the aftermath of Asda’s announcement when shares in Tesco and Morrisons both fell, showing how the markets were responding.
Of course, there are many other factors that affect a consumer’s decision as to whether to shop at Asda, Tesco or any other big supermarket. In the area where I live, we have a Tesco and a Morrisons (a few years ago, we had neither!). I don’t shop at Asda, as the nearest branch is over 30 miles away – even if prices were significantly lower, it would be more expensive to get there and back and a lot less convenient. For others, it may be loyalty and not just of the ‘I’ve shopped there all my life’ kind! For some, clubcard vouchers from Tesco may be preferred to Asda’s offerings and thus tiny price differences between the supermarkets may have little effect on a consumer’s decision as to where to shop. Many products at supermarkets are relatively cheap and thus as the proportion of our income that we spend on these goods is pretty low, any change in price doesn’t cause much of an effect on our demand.
It’s not just a pricing strategy where money is being invested by Asda. More investment will be going into their online services and more stores will be created, kin particular in London and the South East where their presence is low, but demand appears to be high. Improving ‘product quality, style and design’ will also be on the agenda, all with the aim of boosting sales growth and securing its position as the second largest retailer in the sector, perhaps with a long term aim of one day overtaking Tesco. The following articles consider the supermarket battleground.
Supermarket battle heats up as Asda announces £1bn price-cutting plan The Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (14/11/13)
Sainsbury’s profits make it second biggest supermarket BBC News (13/11/13)
Asda to launch £1bn price-cut plan AOL, Press Association (15/11/13)
Asda takes fight to rivals with £1bn investment plan The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (14/11/13)
UK’s Asda promises £1 billion investment in price cuts Reuters (14/11/13)
Asda makes bid to woo shoppers with vow of five-year £1billion price war after it was overtaken in market share by Sainsbury’s Mail Online, Sean Poulter (15/11/13)
Sainsbury’s overtakes Asda on demand for its premium lines Independent, Simon Neville (14/11/13)
Asda to put £1bn into lowering prices over five years The Grocer, Thomas Hobbs (14/11/13)
Wal-Mart posts $3.7bn quarterly income BBC News (14/11/13)
- What are the key characteristics of an oligopoly?
- What is meant by a price war? Who benefits?
- How important is the concept of price elasticity of demand when deciding whether or not to cut the price of a range of products?
- Why is the proportion of income spent on a good a key determinant of the elasticity of demand of a product?
- How can market share be calculated?
- Many suggest that the ‘middle market’ of the supermarket sector is slowly disappearing. Why is this?
- How effective will Asda’s price cutting strategy be? Which factors will determine its effectiveness?