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Monday, July 5, 2010

Rivals Fizz over Wal-Mart Soda Prices

Chicago Tribune
Beverage pricing points to retailer's influence on rivals, suppliers

Walk into the lone Chicago Wal-Mart to stock up on pop in the summer heat and there, rising like a palm tree in an oasis, is a stack of Coke cases at a special price: 24 cans for $5.

A brand-name beverage like Coca-Cola for about 20 cents a can is more than a great deal. It's a sign of Wal-Mart's purchasing might, a warning shot to competitors and less than good news for the beverage industry.

Experts call that kind of intimidating power "disruption," and it will come to the Chicago area in a bigger way now that Wal-Mart plans to open a second store in the city, on its way to what it hopes will be dozens more urban locations.Squeezed by higher bottling costs and a decade of stagnant pricing, beverage companies had only recently managed to persuade consumers to pay more for soda, according to industry analysts. Now, in one swoop, Wal-Mart has gotten attention for itself while taking a bite out of soda sales at other chains.

The promotion, which began shortly before Memorial Day, is pushing other retailers to roll back prices to pre-1990s levels to compete. And it has stirred new fears about Wal-Mart's ability to wield its massive buying power to work against the interests of the industries that supply their stores.

"They just have so many stores that they can really push back, they can really squeeze, not just soft drink companies but other food firms, to force them to take the hit and take their margins down," said Philip Gorham, an equity analyst with Chicago-based Morningstar who covers the beverage sector.

Wal-Mart's power is indisputable. It is the largest retailer in the world, which gives it the ability to negotiate with manufacturers to get lower prices that other stores, particularly smaller independent ones, may struggle to match.

Price cuts on such products as soda are part of an aggressive initiative Wal-Mart announced in October 2008 and began to roll out in spring 2009. In May of this year, deep discounts on products like pop, ketchup and other items raised Wal-Mart's pricing lead versus other competitors fivefold compared with the previous month. Analysts say the promotions are expected to appear around every holiday through the second half of this year.

"Wal-Mart is so huge that any action they take tends to have a big consequence. So if they do a rollback on a core product, they drive huge volume, so much that they disrupt the supply chain of producers," said David Garfield, who is based in Chicago and leads the Consumer Products practice of AlixPartners.

Soda is the single-most consumed beverage in the U.S., and a $70 billion-plus market. For many retailers, it is also considered an important driver for pushing traffic into their stores. But for the megachains like Costco and Wal-Mart, soda is less important, which gives them more negotiating clout.

"There's been a power shift over the past 10 years where the power has shifted from packaged-goods firms to these huge grocery store chains," said Gorham at Morningstar.

A dispute over pricing in 2009 led Costco to stop selling a number of Coca-Cola brands in its stores. And while the two sides eventually made up, it represented the first time a retailer was bold enough to go up against a powerful brand like Coca-Cola.

Wal-Mart can afford to be bold, and its impact is readily seen. Median sales decrease 40 percent at similar high-volume stores when a Wal-Mart enters the market, 17 percent at supermarkets and about 6 percent at drugstores, according to a study published in June 2009 by researchers at multiple universities and led by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Stores that fail to prepare by adopting a new strategy to survive tend to feel the greatest impact. Similar high-volume stores, like Target, fare the worst when a Wal-Mart moves into an area because they are forced to compete by reducing regular prices, the study found.

"We're fiercely competitive on price and routinely shop our competitors, including Wal-Mart, to ensure we're providing our guests with the best possible value," said Jennifer Mooney, a spokeswoman for Target.

Mooney also said the chain has a promise to match any print-advertised price on an identical product featured by a local competitor, including Wal-Mart.

Drugstores like Deerfield-based Walgreens are the least impacted, according to the study, and are generally able to stay afloat by increasing their assortment size.

"Overall we compete very well with Wal-Mart," said Jim Cohn, a spokesman for Walgreens. "We cater to a wide customer base, and often the need or occasion for a Walgreens shopping trip is different from many of our competitors."

Supermarkets, the study found, can survive by doing their best to differentiate themselves from Wal-Mart, rather than attempting to compete.

Karen May, a spokeswoman for Jewel-Osco, said the company has responded to Wal-Mart's deep discounts by offering a variety of promotions "every day" and by promoting low-cost private-label brands. She said Jewel-Osco has not seen a change in pop sales since Wal-Mart's promotions began.

A Dominick's spokeswoman said "customers have other fluids they continue to look for," including water, sports beverages and energy drinks.

But a recent analysis by J.P. Morgan found that Wal-Mart's rollbacks on pop have already upset grocery stores and have the potential to disrupt the beverage industry.
Following Wal-Mart's soda promotions in anticipation of Memorial Day weekend, national soda sales shifted dramatically to Wal-Mart and away from other grocers, the equity research firm found. Memorial Day weekend is traditionally seen as a lift for beverage sales, but sales volume dropped 9 percent during the four weeks ended June 12, according to data from the Nielsen Co.

More of that disruption may come to Chicago.

Today, just one Wal-Mart stands within Chicago's city limits. But following a six-year battle to open more stores in Chicago, the behemoth saw progress last week when the City Council voted unanimously to let Wal-Mart build a second store on the South Side.

The chain says it hopes to open dozens of stores in the city through a community partnership agreement that would mean millions of dollars for Chicago charities and a guaranteed higher-than-minimum wage for Wal-Mart employees in Chicago.

Wal-Mart's impact goes beyond retailers, but the exact impact on manufacturers isn't clear because few will discuss private negotiations. Some brands have said that Wal-Mart pays for big promotions itself, essentially taking a loss on some sales to bring in more traffic. There are indications that manufacturers also are making concessions to keep Wal-Mart from bullying them off the shelves.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company does not comment on pricing strategy, industry speculation or sales on a particular product. She said lower soda prices are part of the company's commitment to "helping families save money so they can live better."

Representatives for Dr Pepper Snapple Group and PepsiCo Group did not reply to requests for comment. Coca-Cola said the company does not comment on customer relationships.

Analysts say when customers see cheap pop in bulk quantities, the tendency is to stock up, which means a lull in sales following a promotion.

"The risk of such rollbacks are several," J.P. Morgan wrote in its analysis. "For one, a rollback creates a powerful lift and thus demand for a product, necessitating a production spike and disruption to the supply chain. Inventories can be thrown off kilter. And ultralow pricing poses a threat to brand equity."

Pradeep Chintagunta, a marketing professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said retailers are less likely to react to low pricing when a single Wal-Mart moves to an area. But the threat of dozens of Wal-Marts could mean significant changes for Chicago, particularly among chains that rarely localize their promotions on a store-by-store basis.

Kusum Ailawadi, professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business, said chain retailers usually promote according to "zones," although they could benefit from a more nuanced strategy.

"Let's say you now define this as a Wal-Mart zone. Retailers I've spoken with have said, 'We essentially cut our prices down almost across-the-board but especially in the departments where we have more overlap with Wal-Mart,'" she said.