Unileverage In The Great Grocery Game

For as long as I can remember, there have been big spats between manufacturers and grocers over prices. At the end of the day, it’s the fundamentals of the game. Never mind customers, grocery is about buying a lower price than the people making the products want to sell it. Every hour of every day, there will be a foul-mouthed shouty row between a buyer and a National Account Manager (NAM) about a 1p disagreement.
Today, we’ve seen one of those rows bubble over into the public domain with Tesco admitting to availability issues on Unilever products, with Marmite being chosen as the media-friendly brand to lead the stories. A spat between Tesco and Unilever is a big deal, but we’ve been here before with Sainsbury’s taking Pepsi off the shelves, Asda removing I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and even Stella Artois briefly fading from sight in Tesco many years ago. Price is always the battleground, but it’s not always the grocer who’s the baddie in the argument.
Whilst our grocers are big businesses, they still arent’t at the top of the food chain (pun intended!). The multinationals behind our favourite brands outstrip entire countries in their turnover and, often, if you upset one business unit, you upset them all. Much of the dust-gathering NPD on our shelves is there because a Unilever, PepsiCo or P&G has hovered their finger over stopping or disrupting supply of their established brands.
The way our shelves are re-stocked also gives the manufacturers a lot of power. Retailers set inventory targets around the ideas of “just in time” replenishment with no stock held out the back. Our data-driven world has brought us ever closer to the dream scenario where stock arrives at a distribution centre, goes straight onto a wagon to the stores where it goes straight into a waiting space on the shelf without the SKU ever going off sale.
The whole concept is impossible of course – as with much data-led analysis, it assumes a large group of individuals will behave in exacatly the same way, at exactly the same time and day every week. The gaps already appearing in Tesco today following Unilever putting them onto “stop” are testament to that.
Inevitably, the decimation of the value of sterling following the Brexit announcements by the government will be cited as a reason for this dispute. It follows on a long line of reasons – everything from increases in commodity prices to the price of oil – but the heart of it is protection of margin. Retailers are profitable, but their margins are thin. Food in particular – the engineroom that powers our grocers’ turnover – is very low margin, hence the need to pump up the share of sales coming from high margin general merchandise and clothing. When you consider that element, the JS purchase of Argos seems like a masterstroke.
But the margins at manufacturers are very high – often NPD won’t be launched without at least 25%-30% margin for the manufacturer. In the modern retailing world, many are feeling the pain and it’s time for manufacturers to step up to the plate. They will argue that they are taking the risks, developing the new products and building the brands so they need the extra margin. But, when you consider the growth of private label, largely through the discounters, the era of branded food goods might be entering its final days. Innovation these days seems to be drying-up – a white chocolate version of a milk chocolate snack is not innovation, neither is a bacon flavoured popcorn snack. And consumers are increasingly happy with the edited choice that an Aldi or Lidl gives them. So, manufacturers need to take a long, hard look at themselves before expecting retailers – or shoppers – to protect their margins.
Of course, this skirmish will sort itself out. Some of the off-balance ways of meeting halfway are now closed following various financial scandals, but you can be sure that Tesco won’t want empty shelves and neither will Unilever want to lose that many distribution points. And some poor Category Manager is going to get a kicking at their next range review!

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