Can a shift in power balance help the FMCG sector?

Years ago, the power balance between manufacturers (suppliers) and retailers was skewed towards the former, but with consolidation in retail and the formation of large players like Tesco & Walmart, the power balance favours retail currently.

Imbalance driven by low fragmentation in the sector

In the UK, the large grocers/supermarket chains (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Asda) had ~67% market share in 2021 according to a survey by Kantar Worldpanel. This collective share is a key driver of the imbalance.

The largest UK grocer

The power dynamic has been shifting since the 2007-08 financial crisis, which saw the rise of discounters and launch of private label brands by the grocers. In 2020/21, the landscape changed yet again, driven by the acceleration in online sales and in sales through on-demand grocery delivery companies. However the change has not been significant enough to balance the two sides.

Zero sum game: Retailer margins or FMCG company margins?

The large grocers and FMCG companies have effectively locked themselves into a zero sum game.

Grocers have been charging their suppliers (FMCG companies) listing fees and slotting fees to ensure they deliver margin growth, while at the same time promoting and selling own label brands (significantly cheaper) alongside their suppliers’ branded products.

This has led to large FMCG companies boycotting certain grocers, which in turn has lost the companies large swathes of their market.

Not surprisingly, the result is a win-lose situation with any moves by either side impacting the other negatively.

While this strategy has previously enabled the grocers to source brands at low costs and provide consumers with a wide range of SKUs at competitive prices, the reliance of FMCG brands on overseas suppliers and of the grocers on just in time ordering to keep costs low, has given rise to unprecedented levels of stock outs in stores, with everyone, including consumers ‘losing’ in this game.

Data as the new battleground

More recently, data has emerged as a key battleground for both players. Retailers these days have a wealth of data around sales, which they currently do not share on a realtime basis with their suppliers. This is usually because sharing data is not part of the retailer’s company culture and they fear a rebalancing of power.

As communication between retailers and suppliers is usually very transactional, even point of sale data for each of the SKUs that the supplier sells the retailer is not shared.

However, the Walmart/P & G collaboration that was launched in 1988 is evidence that data transforms this relationship from a perceived zero sum game into a win-win situation. The collaboration was instrumental in growing the retail sales of P & G brands at Walmart from what was $350 million in value in 1986 to $10 billion in 2017 (interview with Tom Muccio, the ‘father’ of this collaboration, on valuecreator.com). This has also resulted in a better and closer relationship between the two giants.

All Good Diapers launched exclusively at Walmart by P & G

Why is this important now?

Sharing the latest retail data on sales and inventory levels helps suppliers/FMCG companies plan for sales much better, which in turn drives their plan for raw materials and production runs, leading to accurate stocking at warehouses.

This then ensures that any purchase orders placed by retailers are fulfilled in their entirety, eliminating stock outs at retailer warehouses. This collaborative approach can lead to the slow demise of the current supply chain crisis that has gripped the world since 2020.

Collaborations between retailers and suppliers can ensure that the retailer is always in stock, ensuring a win-win situation for all – FMCG companies, supermarkets, their employees and consumers.

Procter & Gamble or Coca Cola?

Did you know that Procter & Gamble pioneered soap operas? While ‘Painted Dreams’ is considered to be the oldest soap opera program (on radio), it wasn’t until P & G launched ‘Ma Perkins’ on radio in 1933 that the term was coined. 

In case you are curious, the story revolves around a widow forced to juggle financial and family problems, while at the same time promoting Oxydol, P & G’s laundry detergent. 

This was just before WWII. By the start of the war, P & G was producing more than 21 different radio soap operas EVERY WEEK. Another significant event in 1939 was the launch of the TV. Within 5 months of launch, P & G aired its first TV commercial. They also continued producing soap operas for TV. By the end of the war, P & G’s revenues had reached nearly $350m. 

(Interesting fact: Neil McElroy, one of the marketeers behind these innovations, later became the US Secretary of defence. He also pioneered brand P & Ls in the CPG industry.)

Getting back to ad spend, very similar to P & G, Coca Cola launched one of its most effective campaigns around the same time, during the Great Depression – The pause that refreshes. During the first year of this campaign, sales is said to have doubled. And then WWII happened. Coca Cola continued its ad spend during this time, and the then company president, Robert W. Woodruff even declared that any American soldier could get a coke for 5 US cents, regardless of its actual price.

Coca Cola’s ads during this time focussed on the softer sides of conflict; on Coke’s ability to bring people and nations together. The ads showed American soldiers drinking Coke and laughing with British, Soviet, Polish, Brazilian & Chinese soldiers, with a caption around ‘ Have a coke’, with messaging around solidarity.

Fast forward nearly 80 years, we have another crisis and the two companies have diametrically opposite strategies for ad spend. 

The Coca Cola company has decided to suspend all its marketing activity in several of its markets during Covid. 

Here’s a direct quote from The Drum on what drove this decision, “We’re being … mindful about the right level of brand marketing and new product launches given the consumer mindset across market,” Quincey told investors yesterday (21 April). “We’ve developed and determined that in this initial phase there is limited effectiveness to broad-based brand marketing.”
“With this in mind, we’ve reduced our direct consumer communication we’ll pause sizable marketing campaigns through the early stages of the crisis and reengage when the timing is right. These plans will vary from market to market with our earliest reengagement focusing on the recovery in China.

At the same time, Procter & Gamble is investing in marketing during this period. 

Again, a direct quote from The Drum, “We need to work hard to ensure that we maintain mental and physical availability to the greatest extent possible, so that those consumers return to their beloved and trusted brands – which are ours – as they’re more fully available.”
“There’s a big upside here in terms of reminding consumers of the benefits that they’ve experienced with our brands and how they’ve [met] their family’s needs, which is why this is not a time to go off air.”

We, at Salesbeat, think P & G’s approach is more likely to succeed in the medium to long term. Once lockdowns ease and Covid passes, consumers will remember who have been with them through this crisis. As the saying goes, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. 

What we are going through currently is a war after all, only this time with an invisible enemy.