The downside of scale in FMCG

Woolies and Coles have around 75 per cent of FMCG sales in this country, depending on whose numbers you believe, and which categories are included.

They have huge scale, from the farm gate through the supply chain to the consumers wallets. As a result, their cost of capital is low, as lenders, both cash and equity see the risks as being low. When you add in their ‘trading terms’ as a component of their cost of capital, as it should be, the numbers would look even better. Pay your suppliers in 90 days, having used your scale to reduce the price to subsistence levels or lower, minus the deductions for whatever you can dream up, during which time, the stock has turned over several times.


By contrast, the small suppliers, those few that are left, are seen as poor risks, which in fact they are being an endangered species. Their costs of capital are high, as are their operating and working capital costs, which leaves little to nothing to be invested in the future of their businesses.

That is why they have mostly disappeared. Their management has been unable to balance the competing demands of low price and increasing operating costs, such that even large seemingly successful businesses became smaller unsuccessful ones to be sold off to whoever had the cash. Consider Goodman Fielder, SPC, Dairy Farmers, National Foods, CSR, …… need I go on?

The long-term problem that this trend delivers is that innovation, the creation of new value for customers, and the lifeblood of retailers comes from the edges, from outside the status quo. It is usually those smaller, entrepreneurial businesses that get in there and have a go, take a risk, and survive on their vision, wits and determination, that deliver the category makers.

Pity they are almost all gone, and what we have left is a number of ‘traditional’ retailers seeking to optimise their existing operations, while having nothing to fight the well-funded disruptors coming to eat their lunch.

Woolworths emasculating and closing Thomas Dux is the classic case of corporate strategic blindness. Now they have backtracked with the very well thought out new Marrickville Metro store, which is not Woolworths, but the ghost of Thomas Dux back to haunt them.

The downside of scale is the conservatism and lack of real innovative and strategic vision that comes with a business intent on optimising the current model. If that worked, Olivetti would still be a significant player in the document creation business, Kodak would still be creating memories, and Microsoft would still be a near monopoly.


Allen Roberts is a guest contributor to Australian Food News and writes another of his regular articles hereHe is the Director of Strategy Audit and has worked in the food sector for more than 35 years. To read his full biography click HERE.


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