In Lewis Carroll‘s ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ Alice takes part in a race with the Red Queen only to discover that despite running constantly she remains in the same place. The Red Queen is not sympathetic: ‘A slow sort of country!’ says the Queen. ‘Here you see it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast!”
Do you run to stay in one place or do you sprint to expand your business?
And that is the dilemma facing all Market businesses. Do you run to stay in one place or do you sprint to expand your business? You certainly can’t afford to be complacent and stand still or you’ll be going backwards. That same challenge is faced on a grander scale by the ‘Big four’ Supermarkets. Between them they sell some 70% of UK groceries – Tesco has 28% of market share, Sainsburys has 16%, Asda 15% and Morrison 10%. If you factor in the ‘LADS’ (Limited Assortment Discounters i.e. Aldi 7% and Lidl 5% ) then less than 20% of the UK groceries market is up for grabs and where do you run TO? They have to keep running to stay in one place and keep their shareholders happy. ‘Where next?’they constantly ask themselves
If you are a truly international player like Walmart then you can play on an even bigger, global scale
Well, you can keep one step ahead by buying-up your competitors (Morrisons and Safeway) or buying better distribution (Sainsburys and Asda) or simply building more stores (Tesco in Eastern Europe). If you are a truly international player like Walmart then you can play on an even bigger, global scale. That seems to be one reason for the massive £12 billion Sainsbury/Asda merger announced at the end of April.
UK retail is arguably over-provided with supermarkets
Walmart bought Asda back in 1999 as a way to expand into the UK. But Asda has stubbornly lingered in third place because UK retail is arguably over-provided with supermarkets. The shift online has left many towns and shopping centres with ‘bricks ‘n mortar’ stores chasing Shoppers who have shifted online. This led to the downfall of Woolworths and BHS and has left House of Fraser and Debenhams struggling. As early as 2006 Walmart discovered their American retail formula did not work in Germany and sold-off 85 stores and took a billion-dollar hit.It clung on to its investment in Asda for another 10 years whilst privately conceding it was going nowhere so when Mike Coupe, the CEO of Sainsburys suggested a merger they must have jumped at it.
The merger of Asda and Sainsburys will with one leap knock Tesco into second place
The merger of Asda and Sainsburys will with one leap knock Tesco into second place. It will also enable Walmart to pocket £3 billion in cash whilst still retaining 42% of shares in the new business. That £3 billion can then beshovelled into the unconsolidated and rapidly-growing economies of India and China that ARE crying out for supermarkets. That’s globalisation for you.
And there’s another big reason behind the merger: Amazon.
Go online and search for Amazon Fresh Grocery. Amazon is only now establishing itself in the UK groceries market but in the USA it has bitten big chunks out of Walmart. Amazon works on wafer-thin margins and is building seriously big distribution centres around the UK for next day deliveries – bicycles, baked beans or bread. Take your pick. It challenges the Big Four because it is all online without the bricks ‘n mortar overheads. There are rumours it could simply buy its way into the UK groceries market by purchasing Ocado.
You could almost feel sorry for the Big four
This has prompted wry comments from retailers such as Sebastian James, Chief Exec. of Dixons PC World and Carphone Warehouse. He has been widely praised for his mergers and relocation out of town to fight-off Amazon’s online dominance of the electrical goods market. He knows better than most what motivates Amazon and made the pointed comment that:“Why is Amazon getting into the food market? Does it really think it can make money by selling food online? Definitely not. It’s all about getting customers addicted to Amazon Prime and the rest of the Amazon online offer. Amazon doesn’t want to make money out of food and that could make it a big threat for supermarkets.” You could almost feel sorry for the Big four. Their sales are likely to be hit in the same way they have made traditional Market Halls suffer over the last 10 years.
There are a lot of very worried Supermarket suppliers
According to a Sainsburys’ statement both Asda and Sainsbury will continue to trade as separate brands with Argos concessions being put into Asda stores. Not surprisingly, Sainsburys’ shares leapt 20% at the announcement whilst Tesco and Morrisons fell by 3%. Sainsburys announced the new, combined network of 2,800 stores will enjoy operating cost savings of £500m p.a. so employee trades unions are understandably nervous – the merger affects 330,000 jobs. And there are a lot of very worried Supermarket suppliers. The Federation of Small Businesses is pressing for assurances the £500m savings won’t simply be achieved by pressurising suppliers into lower prices ‘a la Tesco’.
The CMA will be looking at whether replacing the Big four with the Big three will be good or bad for Shoppers and Suppliers
The merger is expected to be completed in about 18 months after first obtaining approval from HMG regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority. The CMA will be looking at whether replacing the Big four with the Big three will be good or bad for Shoppers and Suppliers. Sainsburys/Asda are likely to suggest the rise of the ‘LADS’ plus online competition like Amazon still guarantees variety of choice and low prices for shoppers. The CMA will also have to assess whether the 2,800 stores need to be reduced in number. It can impose takeover conditions to ensure Shoppers get a choice of retail outlets in their area. The ‘proximity test’ could bar the merger from operating two or more stores within a mile or a five-minute drive of each other. Some estimates suggest at least 80 Asda stores are located within a mile of a Sainsbury outlet so may have to be closed. This would be bad news for institutional Landlords as well as employees.
‘We’re in the money…’
Mike Coupe has good reason to look pleased. The merger could be a brilliant move, knocking Tesco sideways at a single stroke (and increasing the value of his share options by about £600k). Unfortunately Mike then dropped a clanger. Whilst waiting to be interviewed by ITV someone switched on the microphone and he was broadcast happily singing to himself ‘We’re in the money…’ – the hit song from the musical ‘42nd Street’.