Posts Tagged ‘Woolworths’

Does everyone hate Woollies?

May 16, 2012

I had a brief email exchange with a journalism student last week, and I thought I would share my views with you (my verrrrry patient readers).

The background is that market research had been recently released indicating 72% of Australians don’t trust Coles or Woolworths and these levels of distrust have gone up since last year.

Q. How do you think Woolworths are faring in the Retail sector/Stock market?

Me:  Woolworths had been a darling of the stockmarket until quite recently.  Their main rival, Coles Myer performed poorly for many years, and Woolworths was much quicker in adopting and adapting ‘best practice’ from offshore (most notably through a close alliance with Wal-Mart).  Much of these practices are on the warehousing/stock management side of things.  Woolworths grew faster than Coles Myer and had better margins.  It made some strong moves in the non-supermarket space – with alcohol sales being particularly strong.

The split up of Coles Myer and the acquisition of the non-Department business by Wesfarmers has negatively affected Woolworths. The revamp of both the Coles supermarket business and K-Mart variety stores have put pressure on Woolworths’ (and Big W’s) margins and curbed their growth.  At the same time, Woolworths has been burnt by the poor performance of the Dick Smith business, and the large investments in a rival to Wesfarmers’ Bunnings are a long way from paying off.

Q. What implications might these figures of the survey have for the company and it’s competitors?

Me: As for the distrust aspect, this is far from surprising.  The supermarket sector in Australia is one of the most concentrated in the world.  The attempts by both Coles and Woolworths to further squeeze suppliers (as part of the drive to improve margins) have coincided with a period of perceived price inflation (although I’m not convinced the latter is actually occurring).

Consumers have apparently resigned themselves to the idea that these two duopolists are not really competing too hard. Stories of struggling suppliers seem to have fuelled this animosity.

But like the big banks, I’m not sure customer dissatisfaction will genuinely translate into consumer action.  There is a strong tendency to ‘stick around’ while grumbling.  Any incursion by Aldi (or to a much lesser extent Costco) is unlikely to have a big impact given the sheer weight of numbers (in terms of stores and ease of accessibility).

What do you lot think?

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See Dick jump, see Dick rant

February 1, 2012

Perennial soundbite provider Dick Smith has been very vocal in the past couple of days about the prospect of his namesake retail business falling into ‘foreign hands’. Despite him selling the electronics chain to Woolworth’s two decades ago, he is threatening to ‘trash the brand‘ if some foreign mob tries to buy it.

The logic he throws around on this (and other ‘buy Australian’ campaigns) is spurious at best.  It is very unclear why so much importance is placed on the specific ownership structure of such businesses.  Perhaps it reflects Dick’s own background as a business owner (and therefore someone who derived their income from the ‘surplus’ or profits of the firm). But for almost all stakeholders in the firm, and the overall health of the economy, the question of the location of the major shareholders (and principal decision-makers) should be of little importance.

Dick Smith Electronics sale Woolworths blog Consider the Dick Smith Electronics case.

The firm operate 433 stores across Australia and NZ (we’ll get back to this Trans-Tasman dimension in a second), and made $1.8b in sales last year.  The economic and societal impact on Australia of these operations is most heavily felt in terms of the 5300+ employees and the wages they earn (and then spend/invest), the flow of moneys to landlords, supply chain participants and other ancillary service providers.  The ‘earnings’ of the firm (i.e. the ‘surplus’ or ‘profit extracted by Woolworth’s) last year was a paltry $20m or so.

If Dick Smith Electronics were sold to a non-Australian entity, they would be buying the right to extract such profit, but also taking on the role of paying a wages bill that presumably exceeds $250m, and feeding through a lot of income to the other parts of the Dick Smith sphere of activity.  The firm would still pay taxes, rents, and provide consumers with access to products. The firm might remit profits offshore, but it’s just as likely said profits would be reinvested in Australian in an attempt to improve the business and its performance. This is hardly a case of ‘selling the farm’.

There is also one clearly irreconcilable contradiction in the jingoistic rants of Smith and other mercantilists: outward foreign direct investment.

If the logic says Aussie interests are hurt by any sort of inward investment (e.g. by acquisitions of local firms by big bad foreign folks), then surely any instance when an Australian firm expands offshore is similarly deleterious to the host nation. Where was Dick when his namesake firm made their imperialistic entre into NZ?  And when they signed agreements to ally with Tata in India?

Dueling Duopolists, or, who should we cheer for when bullies battle?

March 24, 2011

The Aussie news headlines have been buzzing in recent days with the competing cries of our embattled brewers and the ‘on the side of the consumer’ supermarket giants, over an alleged effort by the latter to sell the majors’ beers as ‘loss leaders’.  See here and here for a reasonable summary.

This is the latest staple product to get this sort of a run (after milk and petrol) as Woolworths and the revitalised Coles (as part of Wesfarmers) engage in some much-missed competition.  Of course, it isn’t competition via ‘across the board’ price cuts, but, rather, through trying to switch buying preferences from one chain to the other (utilising the grocer’s associated liquor chains).

And poor old Foster’s (and presumably the much quieter Lion Nathan) are worried that this (alleged) predatory pricing will hurt their margins, and those of independent liquor retailers.

The reality of all this is that we’re talking about two pairs of behemoths locking horns, and competition here is a very different beast to that envisaged in perfect markets.  Look at the numbers:

– Foster’s (48% market share) and Lion Nathan (44%) amount to 92 percent of the Aussie beer market

– Woolworths and Coles/Wesfarmers amount to roughly 50% of the Aussie liquor retailing market (with most other sales through small, independent retailers)

– Woolworths (around 40%) and Coles/Wesfarmers  (around 35%) amount to roughly 75% of the Aussie grocery market

Those are the sort of market shares we called oligopolistic, or indeed duopolistic, with competition often reaching a calm equilibrium through effective price signalling and/or maintenance of market share.

Foster’s are kicking and screaming, however, due to concerns about the buying power of the two retail giants. Now, if Foster’s had a significant retail arm it might be able to curb such a threat (and earn more of those nice rents from the duopoly power).

But back in 2003 the brewer sold off Australian Liquor and Hospitality Group (ALH), which operated 131 hotels and 109 bottle shops. ALH now runs 285 licensed venues and over 450 retail liquor outlets.  And guess who now owns 75% ALH… Woolworths.  It seems Foster’s handed Woolworths the stick it is now being beaten with.

There’s talk that this behaviour will all come under the scrutiny of some eagle-eyed politicians in Canberra in the coming weeks.  Now, we’d hope they know a lot about duopolies (i.e. systems with two powerful parties)…

Another one bites the dust

July 2, 2010

The highly oligopolistic Australian supermarket industry just lost another multinational player.

South African grocer Pick’n’Pay (#143 on Deloitte’s list of global retailers by size) has sold off its Aussie holdings (the Franklins branded supermarkets) to our biggest grocery wholesaler Metcash.

Metcash (which was once South African-owned) supplies the very large network of 1000+ independently owned IGA stores. The 77 company-owned Franklin stores will soon be sold off to what are effectively franchisees locked into a supply arrangement with Metcash (now there’s a nice strategic play with respect to reduced bargaining power of buyers).

Franklins has proven a very tough company to run. It was sold off by Hong Kong’s Dairy Farm (#128) back in 2001 after they couldn’t turn a decent profit against the Woolworths and Coles behemoths.

Irrespective of the slow rise of Aldi and prospect of a Costco challenge, the rivalry in this market is mighty nasty for anyone without the big two’s economies of scale and reach.

Competition isn’t always black (and decker) and white (goods)

May 6, 2010

As more rumours spread about what exactly Woolworths’ new hardware business will look like, we can see that perhaps it isn’t just Bunnings (and therefore Coles’ parent Wesfarmers) who should be worried about a shift in their competitive environment.

According to this story, the new entrant (which might be called Masters) –  a joint venture between Woolies and US giant Lowes – may not just be selling the usual hardware merchandise.  Also on the cards are whitegoods (i.e. fridges, washing machines, dishwashers etc).  That would certainly be a challenge to some of the big players in that retail segment, such as Harvey Norman and The Good Guys.

This isn’t just a random diversification choice either, as Lowes has extensive experience with this market, and presumably can suitably integrate the offerings into the retail mix.  It will be intriguing to see whether this upsets the likely co-located store mix for the firm, as some homemaker-type centres may find this new challenger upsets their tenant mix.

Another interesting titbit in the story is the possibility that WooliesWareHouse (I’ve decided to grant them that brandname) will go down an explicit ‘Do It For You’ path, which would be a neat differentiation position in the hardware space.

This case in progress serves to demonstrate the blurry lines between markets and the scope for competitors to slip across from adjacent markets (among many other strategic lessons).