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?