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Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Albert Heijn starts a price war “for its clients”… but its suppliers and AH itself might ultimately pay the bill for it!

Albert Heijn (AH), the internationally-oriented, but very Dutch supermarket chain has put its “secret weapon“ in The Netherlands in action again:

The clumsy, imaginary branch manager from the AH commercials – played by Holland’s unfunniest comedian Harry Piekema, who became famous through a multi-year commercial series and has got an exclusive, no-public-performance-allowed contract with the supermarket chain – has announced in a new commercial that ‘he’ would lower the prices of more than 1000 A-label products.

Branch manager Piekema’s noble aspiration was supposedly ‘to help the Dutch customer through these times of economic hardship’. And of course this was also the reason for Albert Heijn to start this new price war! Really!

Everybody who generally believes in the kindness of large store chains in the retail industry and especially in the nobility of Albert Heijn should now stop reading! Inquiring minds, however, will wonder why Albert Heijn – after ten years – will use the nuclear option again in The Netherlands. Because that is what a price war is all about!

By starting a price war, you hurt:
  • · Your own company, by throwing your necessary margin and profits down the drain: not only through your own price-action, but also through the price-actions of your competitors, who cannot stay behind in such a war;
  • Your suppliers, as they are ‘ kindly asked’ (i.e. aggressively forced) to foot a (large) share of the bill of your price war and that of your competitors;
    • Large and strong suppliers, who deliver famous A-labels, either keep enough margin to still cover their expenses or they have sufficient reserves to stand a price-war for a certain period. Most of them are (reluctantly) cooperative when such a price war is started by one of the biggest supermarket chains, as both parties know very well that they really need each other;
    • However, small agricultural suppliers and (small) suppliers of tiny A- and B-labels and generic brands have often very little margin on their products and they are very vulnerable for price wars. For them a price-war is nothing less than a catastrophy;
  • Perhaps even your own customers. As your action will trigger a counter-action from other super-markets, this adds to the confusion of the clients: they don’t know where to go and what to pay for their favorite products. As a response, your most frugal customers start to dig in flyers and leaflets, just looking for the best price. Especially in times of austerity, customers do their best to save a penny. Consequently, there is a considerable chance that you might lose loyal customers, when they get acquainted with your competition during a price war.
The only rational reason to start a price war is: when you are the strongest party in a country or territory and want to really hurt or even annihilate growing and theoretically dangerous competitors. I have a sneaky suspicion that this might indeed be the case in this price war.

With 35% market share, Albert Heijn is by far the largest supermarket chain in The Netherlands. It has shops in virtually every town and village and in almost every mid-range neigbourhood of the large Dutch cities. In some neighbourhoods and villages Albert Heijn even has a virtual monopoly, as their competitors don’t have shops there at all.

During the last 15 years, the retail landscape for supermarkets changed dramatically. Large, Dutch supermarket chains like Laurus (labels were a.o. Super De Boer, Edah and Konmar) and C1000, with both hundreds of shops, nearly defaulted and had to be liquidated.

The near default of C1000 and Laurus happened as a consequence of their much too aggressive expansion strategy, their unclear corporate branding strategy and their indefinite ‘look and feel’, which didn’t stand out for anyone, for any reason whatsoever: these shops were neither cheap, nor classy, extremely large or exclusive.

Due to the excess expenses of these chains and the disappointing earnings, remaining way too low for a number of years, the money ran out like water in the desert. Eventually the liquidation took place through ‘fire-sales’ of the shops and transfers of their franchiseholders to other labels. Albert Heijn and another large and growing supermarket label – Jumbo – took over the stores and that was it. In spite of the fact that other smaller chains like Plus, Lidl, Aldi, Jumbo and Dirk van den Broek showed substantial growth, the absolute number of dangerous competitors for Albert Heijn diminished.

At this moment, there are only two supermarket chains of which Albert Heijn is particularly frightened in these times of austerity: Jumbo and the Lidl group.

Jumbo is a strong competitor, because of its sheer size: it has a market share of 22%, making it the largest competitor of Albert Heijn.

However, the most dangerous competitor for Albert Heijn could be Lidl, in spite of its relatively small market share of 9%. This group of internationally operating, German discount markets-with-a-twist is akin to the (also German) Aldi group, but is even more successful.

Lidl’s shops are deceptively simple and consistent, but without having the uncosy and sterile charisma of Aldi. Further, the chain almost only sells private label articles at near-suicide prices, but these articles are nevertheless of A-label quality and even look like the original A-labels. On top of that, vegetables and meat of the highest quality are sold at very competitive prices.

The biggest trump of the supermarket chain is, however, that Lidl offers clothing, shoes, sportswear, electrical and mechanical tools and even televisions and computers, in limited supplies at absolute bottom prices. These specialty offers are one of the reasons for the massive and growing popularity of Lidl.

When the price war was announced by Albert Heijn, last weekend, the ‘word on the street’ was that this was to hurt Lidl. I considered this total nonsense from the beginning.

If you want to battle Lidl by lowering the prices of 1000 A-label products, you really don’t understand the Lidl customers. Frankly, these customers don’t give a rat’s *ss about A-labels; that is the main reason why they shop at the Lidl.

Lidl customers want to do their shopping with (in average) 15% - 20% discount on their weekly bills, when compared to market leader Albert Heijn. This discount includes the high(er) quality meat and vegetables of Lidl.

They want to buy Lidl’s private lable diapers, which are always sold at the lowest price in the market, except for the scarce moments when the A-labels have REALLY good offers on sale. The latter happens only once in a while.

And Lidl customers don’t want to pay more than €0,52 for two liter fake-cola, which tastes just as good as real Coke (really(!); I am not sponsored by Lidl for this conclusion), but sells at a fraction of the price for ‘the real thing’. They take for granted that their name is not printed on the bottle.

Especially in these times of forced austerity, many young Dutch families with young (!) children, who are not spoilt by commercials yet, save their household money by buying cheap groceries at the Lidl. The idea that Albert Heijn could turn this around with only 1000 lower priced A-label products is just ridiculous.

Tonight, I was informed of what might be the real reason for Albert Heijn’s price war, through the blog of Gerard Rutte, aka the supermarket specialist (you could read more about Gerard through this earlier article of mine).

On his very good and interesting blogsite, Gerard had printed an anonymous letter which he received from an obvious insider in the supermarket industry. I will print here the edited, pertinent snips of this absolute must-read article, but I regret I could not translate and print it integrally:

CFO Ton van Veen of Jumbo stated at the presentation of the annual data for 2012 that the financial basis of Jumbo is sturdy. In my opinion however, the headline should have been “Jumbo at the edge of defaulting”.

In 2009, Jumbo took over Super De Boer for €550 million, but the rebranding operation faltered very quickly. Warnings about disappointing revenues emerged. When the rebranding operation was finally at full speed, in November 2011, there was the surprising news that Jumbo took over the C1000 formula for €900 million. The whole project had been financed by ING, ABN Amro and Rabobank. That was the moment when hell really broke loose. 

Messages from the market soared about Jumbo’s heavily disappointing revenues and gross margin.

Jumbo’s suppliers have been strangled. The payment term for invoices has been extended from 30 to 60 days. Indirectly, suppliers pay for the rebranding operation. However, this extra financial leeway is not mentioned in Van Veen’s presentation. Where did the money go?! Jumbo’s debt at the end of 2011 was €1.2 billion. According to the annual data of 2012 this has been brought back to €600 million.

However, according to my calculations, the debt is still €1.2 billion. And against what collateral?! This collateral must be the book value of all stores and distribution centers, as these have been used as pledge for the banking syndicate.

When I put the presumed value of this collateral against the presumed real debt, I end with a negative equity of €360 million. To make things worse: at the same time, Jumbo’s strategic focus seems to be aimed at short-term financial gains only.

Currently, Jumbo might perhaps stand its ground, but it will definitely lose the war in the coming years. On top of that, as a consequence of AH’s current price war actions, Jumbo is forced to adjust its prices to the market leader, which will further deteriorate the gros margin. The consumers are yet supporting Jumbo, but when will the suppliers and banks hit the emergency brake?!

I cannot check the assumptions that this anonymous insider made, so I print those ‘as is’. I also didn’t ask Jumbo for its comments at these allegations, as I’m not a professional newspaper. Therefore I can’t judge the amount of truth in it.

Nevertheless, to me these allegations would explain why Albert Heijn is launching its price war at this very moment. I guess that the supermarket chain smells blood and aims at annihilating or seriously hurting Jumbo. When the financial situation of Jumbo is indeed so awkward as the insider states, than this attempt by AH might be successful eventually.

Still, it is my conclusion that this action might backfire heavily at Albert Heijn, which – according to Gerard Rutte – puts too much trust in its online strategy and seems to suffer from a lackluster strategy for the brick-and-mortar stores.

Where in the past Albert Heijn could afford itself to be the most expensive supermarket chain, because it was undoubtedly the best of the breed, nowadays the former seems to be more certain than the latter.

Today I saw that every serious supermarket chain – including Jumbo – has been lowering its prices.

While this action is definitely bad for Jumbo and for the suppliers of AH and the other chains, it could also go awry for AH itself: AH’s loyal, but increasingly frugal customers could decide to stop being loyal. They might start to visit other supermarkets, like the Lidl and might stay there as customers, never to return to Albert Heijn anymore.

And there is more: if AH could indeed drag Jumbo down and score a few extra stores in the process, it would attract the attention of the NMA (the Dutch competition authority) for having a near-monopoly position. In this case AH could be forced to sell a few dozen stores or more.

In this scenario, Albert Heijn would indeed pay the bill for their action, eventually. An unrealistic scenario?! Don’t put your money on it!

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