Could Lower Prices Cost More?

Devangshu Dutta

April 4, 2008

April has opened eventfully around the world, when it comes to food prices.

A leading Indian business daily opened the first week of April 2008 with a story saying that chain-stores may be as much as 15-40% cheaper than street vendors for staple vegetables and fruits. When we put this against the backdrop of concerns at skyrocketing global prices of rice and fuel, as consumers we may have a reason to thank the chains for helping to balance our monthly budgets.

But is this really a victory for proponents of organized retail, or a blow against retail chains?

The same article went on to state that chain stores were offsetting the hit they were taking on food by selling other products that offered them more margin, “an option not available to hawkers”, and also quoted leading Indian retailers.

The very same day, media in Hong Kong were covering a survey that stated that supermarket prices in the city were on average 12% higher than independent grocers, with some branded products being sold for as much as 20% higher. The Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which carried out the survey, cautioned consumers that they should not be misled by supermarket ads for big discounts and advised them to compare prices frequently between chains and independent retailers.

(The study did not compare price differences now to what they might have been 20-25 years ago, when the market was not so consolidated. Such a study may provide some other interesting insights.)

During the same week, the government of Ivory Coast in Africa also responded to protests by women and youth in Abidjan against rising living costs with an emergency meeting and lower import duties on key food items.

Obviously inflation, especially in food prices, is a global concern right now, so this simultaneous appearance of news across countries is hardly a coincidence.

They, however, do raise concerns about how the chain of food supply and retail is structured, and also some important questions about competitive strategy.

Let’s deal with competitive strategy first. Obviously, the terms “loss leader” or “key value item” have been coined in the last few decades, but the strategy itself has been well-known and widely used since the time humans started trading thousands of years ago. 

The foundation of the strategy is built on items that are a staple, usually widely compared by consumers or used as a benchmark when comparing different merchants.  A merchant may place a very low margin on such a product, or sell it at cost (or even at a loss).

The concept is simple: attract a customer into the store with an irresistible offer, but make sure that consumer also buys other products that provide enough profit to the retailer. 

As a consumer you may feel outraged that someone is “cheating” you, but in our “sensible” and rationally-aware moments we as customers know that this happens frequently, and know how to avoid it. However, we are not always rational – if shopping were purely a rational exercise then automated comparative software would be fulfilling all our shopping needs by now.

Stepping beyond the retailer-consumer relationship, there is also question whether this can be classified as free or fair competition when cash-rich organizations with a wide basket of goods, take the strategy to the doorstep of the small individual trader whose product offering is much narrower and usually concentrated on the staple goods that are being discounted.

There is no really easy or quick answer to this question. 

On the one hand, large retailers such as Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Tesco, Metro and others, have been widely credited for achieving cost-efficiencies from scale, and then passing on these efficiencies to the consumer in the form of lower prices (and, apparently, higher standards of living).  That is a good thing and definitely of benefit to the population at large, especially in inflationary times such as these. Rather than keeping prices high due to inefficient sourcing, wasteful and expensive handling, and non-value-adding costs in the supply chain, it is surely a good to push for lower costs.

On the other hand, there is no simple way to draw a line when competitive benefit to the consumer becomes predatory pricing within the trade. 

If a retailer took price reduction as a “strategic investment” to grow a market (as happens in markets and product categories around the world), when do you start calling it “unfair”? And should you even attempt to label it unfair? What is the cost to the market, when it could eventually concentrate and consolidate market share in few hands? Is the cost to society more in supporting small inefficient retailers, or more if these retailers lose their independence and become employees? (If you’re looking to me for the answers…sorry, I don’t have them yet!)

Value judgements are almost always subjective rather than objective. ‘Large versus small’ conflicts are frequently emotive rather than rational. And even though there are no easy answers, I believe we should think about these questions, as businesspeople, as consumers and as social individuals.

There are some rather interesting (and by no means conclusive) studies, opinion papers and books that have looked at the structure and economics of the food supply chain, but constraints of space force me to postpone that aspect to another column. The questions and competitive strategy will not be disappearing quickly, so I’m sure these will still be relevant then. 

Meanwhile, I’m sure we have enough food for thought!