The real retail equation

This evening I watched the Channel 5 documentary Aldi vs Lidl: Supermarket Wars. The program makers correctly identified the standard set of superficial differences that are plain for all to see. However, while setting out to explain the yawning gap between UK and Continental business models, the detail was a bit sparse. For instance, consumer journalist Harry Wallop does his bit to keep alive the 1966 World Cup mindset, evoking a long departed anachronism rather than twenty first century marketing.

The programme’s narrative starts in the 1990s and portrays the discounters as eccentric oddballs with a business model that worked in Germany but needed tweaking for more lavish UK mindsets. British food retailers had established a stranglehold on the postwar consumer economy and raked off substantial sums of cash from suppliers, known as shelf money, hello money, listing fees, the list was endless. Large retail businesses expected to be paid GBP 5,000 a year per Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) to be listed at 200-300 stores. Example: food manufacturer presents a family of six snack products in the early 1990s and would be asked to stump up thirty thousand quid for listings in up to 300 stores. Any subsequent special offers were funded by suppliers, in the form of free product (physical stock); or credit notes or deductions from existing/current invoices.

Given that even a modest hypermarket would stock 25,000 to 30,000 SKUs in those days, the retailers were making lorryloads of money while pretending to be church mice earning a miserable 4% profit on return. The arrival of the German discounters threatened to blow their cover and the major multiples were not keen on this. The reason Aldi and Lidl could run rings round the big four within a few years of arriving was that the discounters only ever discussed prices with suppliers and never asked for shelf money. Carving out a substantial market presence without constantly squeezing suppliers, the discounters have demonstrated that it can be done and done honestly. That spooked the multiples even more.

Footnote: At the time of writing, continental retailer Carrefour is playing the commercial equivalent of Russian roulette with snacks and soda giant Pepsico. Initially limited to France, Carrefour stores across Germany, Italy and Spain are now all locked in to a life and death fight over trading terms (shelf money). Even if Carrefour dumps Pepsico (unlikely) there is no way that the tonnages of product could be secured from other manufacturers. Also in France, the eponymous independents’ chain E Leclerc is reading the riot act to its suppliers. Running a tighter ship than BlueBeard, second generation chief executive Michel-Edouard is threatening hellfire and brimstone for all those who challenge his figures. For years now, the group has only ever paid for one tonne of potatoes out of every 1.2 tonnes delivered, insisting that there is a lot of slack (waste) with this crop. This is simply not true: any fresh produce department anywhere in Europe that is experiencing more than 2.5% slack across a week would be hauled over the coals.

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