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"Illogical" Pricing

How can pricing hit zero? This has just happened with container freight rates or shipments from South Asia to Europe. Other rates are not much better. Container shipment fees from North Asia to Europe have fallen to $200, taking them below the shippers’ operating costs. $200 per container is bad, but how to you get to zero?

Why Overcapacity Often Gets Worse

The global semiconductor industry is in severe overcapacity today. There are two causes for this current overcapacity: competitor expansion and a fall-off in demand. Competitors expanded rapidly over the last few years when demand was relatively high. New semiconductor capacity comes on stream in big chunks, produced in factories costing more than a billion dollars. Now, many of those factories are running at half their rated capacity as demand has fallen off in the last year. The situation is bad enough that, today, no company can make a profit on standard semiconductor memory chips.

Price Competition in a Falling Price Environment

The fight is on in retail pharmacy. It started with Wal-Mart. In 2006, Wal-Mart introduced a $4 generic prescription for a one month supply of hundreds of unbranded drugs. This move attracted a lot of buzz and new customer volume.

The Causes and Symptoms of Overcapacity

Overcapacity, where an industry can produce more than customers currently demand, is the result either of a fall-off in demand or the expansion of competition. During the 80s and 90s, three quarters of the industries that went into overcapacity did so as a result of expansion of competition. Industries such as semiconductors, airlines, mini-computers and even orange juice went into hostility as competitors expanded faster than demand grew.

Industry Capacity Expansion Despite Overcapacity

The global automobile industry is in world-wide overcapacity. In 2006, the industry had the capacity to build 80 million vehicles. It produced just under 65 million vehicles that year. The industry breaks even on factory output at about an 80% utilization rate, roughly where the industry was in 2006. And with demand falling globally by 3% or so in 2008, you would think that the industry would not be adding capacity, but it is. Capacity is increasing rapidly. By 2011, the global auto industry is likely to be able to produce 100 million vehicles in a year.

Killing the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg

About twenty-five years ago now, American Airlines introduced the first Frequent Flyer Program, which rewarded airline passengers miles for the “mileage” they had flown on the airline. These miles were convertible into airline tickets. This program spawned many copy cat competitors, including all the major airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, cruise lines and many other non-airline companies who wished to create a loyalty program. In many ways, the loyalty programs that the legacy airlines offered enabled them to keep their most attractive customers from falling for the blandishments of discount airlines, such as Southwest and Jet Blue. That may be coming to an end.

The New Schwab Credit Card and What it Tells Us

Charles Schwab Corporation is introducing the Schwab Bank Invest First Visa Signature credit card. This no-annual-fee card offers an unusual set of benefits. First, it returns a 2% cash rebate on all purchases, one of the highest rebate promises around, and it has no pre-set spending limits. Most other cards impose minimum spending hurdles before the rebates kick in. Next, there are no category (e.g. type of retail) restrictions on the spending with the card in order to earn the 2%. This benefit contrasts with most rebate card programs that require spending at certain locations to get the highest rebate. Finally, Schwab charges no foreign exchange fees if the card is used overseas.

Blockbuster vs. Netflix...Again

Blockbuster is under pressure, and has been for a number of years. It is closing hundreds of stores. Still, it continues to operate over 3,900 stores in the U.S. and nearly 2,000 outside the U.S. The reason for its struggles is simple: Netflix. Netflix beat Blockbuster by offering a better business model to the American consumer. Eventually, Blockbuster copied the Netflix business model. But by then, Netflix was a powerful competitor. Blockbuster has been unable to unseat Netflix from its position of movie rental leadership.

These two companies are about to square off again.

Cost Standards Come to the Service Industry

For many years, managers manufacturing have measured activities to a farthing using methods developed over a hundred years ago with the time and motion theories of Frederick Taylor. But throughout most of these last hundred years, the service industries have managed to elude this management approach. That may be changing.

The Good News and the Bad News of Reliability in Product Innovation

Over the years, we have studied several thousand customer buying decisions. We concluded from these studies that customers buy in a hierarchy of needs: Function, Reliability, Convenience and Price. Functions describe how a customer uses a product. Reliability defines how the company fulfills the promises made or implied to the customer. Convenience indicates the ease with which the customer can find, purchase and install the product.

Market Share at the Low End of the Market

I was struck by a recent article about statins. A recent study has found that these cholesterol lowering drugs reduce the heart risk in even healthy patients. That fact was not what struck me, though. What jumped out at me was the size of the market share for generic statins. The generics in the statin market make up 49% of total prescriptions. The well-known Lipitor is the leading branded statin, at 27%, followed by Crestor at 9%, Vytorin at 7%, and Zetia at 6%. But the generics dominate all of those branded drugs. (See “Low-end products are gaining share of market” in the Symptoms and Implications on

Masters of the Cost Cutting Universe

General Mills is a $13.7 billion food company. In 2007, the company increased its profits by 13% on a 10% increase in sales. It enjoys higher margins than either Kraft or ConAgra.

Nike Builds Brand Loyalty

Nike, ever the innovator, has found a new way to build brand loyalty. It has created a web site,, that connects runners around the world. This web site tracks a runner’s data and allows a runner to join with other runners all over the world to improve their times.

The Two Best Consultants in the World Warn the Associated Press

The Associated Press is a cooperative. This “non-profit” is owned by 1,500 newspapers. It employs its 3,000 journalists in 97 countries to provide news stories to these newspapers, as well as others in the media, including radio and T.V. stations and web sites. This company has been getting some significant warnings lately about its cost structure.

Nearing End Game for the Domestic Auto Industry

Consumer Reports recently had a load of bad news for the domestic auto manufacturers. The big car retailers had even worse news.

A Win Win Cost Reduction/Performance Innovation in the Cell Phone Industry

The cell phone carriers are about to introduce a product innovation, called a femtocell, to improve cell phone reception within a home. These femtocells are about the size of a toaster. The wireless carriers will install these mini cell phone towers. The tiny tower will connect with cell phones inside the consumer’s home through a broadband internet connection to the telephone network.

Standard Leader Expands in Tough Market and Uses Price

Kohl’s Corporation is opening forty-six stores soon as part of a plan to gain market share as the busy holiday season starts in the U.S. Today, Kohl’s has something less than 1,000 stores open in the U.S. The company expects sales at stores open for a year or more to be down 2 to 4% during this year’s holiday season compared to last, so they are opening stores to make up for some of the sales fall-off.

Evolution of Markets: Patterns in Steel, Autos and Airframe Industries

The steel, automobile and airframe manufacturing industries illustrate three different stages of the evolution of mature markets. The theme is that mature markets with strong unions eventually end up with the workforce as the only true stakeholder in the business. Everyone else is secondary, and as a result, the workforce is at real risk of permanent job losses over a period of time.

A Standard Leader Blocks the Price Leader Competitor

Enterprise Rent-A-Car is an astute, well managed company. They have grown to the number one position in automobile rental by using their management skills to beat the likes of Hertz, Avis and National. Now they are starting to close the door on a growing low-end, Price Leader, set of competitors. A Price Leader is a competitor or product that offers below industry-standard performance for a very low price. More than 50% of a Price Leader competitor's total unit volume is usually sold at price points below the Standard Leader product.

Good Market Share. Fast Growth. No Profits. Why?

Cogent Communications sells inexpensive, all purpose, digital connections to the business community. Today it carries 17% of all internet traffic. This is comparable to companies like AT&T, Verizon and Level Three Communications. Its revenue this year is on pace to grow by 19%. That all sounds good until you realize that the company expects to lose $25 million this year on the $220 million in revenue it expects. What is the problem?

Avoiding Wastage of Resources

Honda has the most flexible auto plants in the U.S. It does so with simple modifications to the robots and assembly lines used to assemble its products. Of course, this high degree of flexibility is the result of significant investment over many years. Part of this investment included the company’s efforts to ensure that vehicles are designed to be assembled in the same way, even if the parts of the vehicle differ. This flexibility has become a key strategy advantage for the company as the auto market gyrates due to volatile gas prices. Honda has the capability of adjusting its production faster than any of its competitors.

Price Leaders Against Standard Leaders in Troubled Times

For once, the airline industry Standard Leaders, the legacy airlines seem to be improving their positions compared to the Price Leaders, the discount airlines. In our system of analysis, a Standard Leader is a competitor, or one of several competitors, or products that set the standard for performance and price in an industry. A Price Leader is a competitor, or product, that offers below industry-standard performance for a very low price. So far, none of the legacy airlines has gone back into bankruptcy. On the other hand, a number of Price Leader discount airlines have failed, including Frontier Airlines and Skybus Airlines. What has happened? Three things.

Nokia in a Leader's Trap

Recently, Nokia announced that its market share was likely to fall off somewhat in the future because it was refusing to enter into a price war with others in its industry who are discounting. Nokia has decided to stand apart from the discounters in the marketplace. (See the Symptom & Implication, “Large competitors are maintaining price levels as smaller competitors discount” on Unfortunately for Nokia, these discounters include the #2 cell phone maker, Samsung, and the #4, LG Electronics. (See the Symptom & Implication, “Price wars are spreading in the industry” on The outlook on this decision is grim.

The Future of Starbucks

In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson did something remarkable. He made the first automobile trip across the United States, from San Francisco to New York City. His trip took 64 days. This time includes the waits for parts after the car had broken down. There were few roads in those days. Automobile travel was challenging in the extreme. Jackson drove a Winton Tourer automobile that he had named the “Vermont” after his home state.

Commodity Pricing

In 2002, the average price for nickel was around $3 a pound. Shortly thereafter, the market took off. The price for nickel reached a peak of over $23 a pound in 2007, and has since fallen off. Today, its price is something short of $10 a pound. Still, the $10 a pound today is far above the $3 a pound of six years ago.

Pricing in a Profitable Market

Over the last two years, eBay has raised its prices to improve its financial performance. Not that its financial performance has been bad. In fact, it has been good. But management believes it can be better with a price rise. The price increases eBay has provided the market have impaired eBay’s long-term future, even while improving its short-term profits.

A Price Leader Enters the Performance Leader Market

Hyundai has announced that it will offer a luxury sedan in the U.S. market this Fall. The new model, the Genesis, purports to offer Lexus and BMW quality for a price 35% less than those competitors.

Union Negotiations During Good Times

Boeing and its key union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, are clashing over negotiations for a new contract. The company is enjoying some of the best of times. As a result, the union has unprecedented leverage. So, what do these negotiations tell us?

GM Goes for Help with its Used Cars

Recently General Motors decided to provide a bumper-to-bumper full warranty for one year or 12,000 miles on its used vehicles going back to the 2003 model year. The warranty applies to GM Certified Vehicles. You might ask yourself, why would GM bother to add a warranty to cars that they have already sold? The answer is that the company wants to improve the residual values that the market puts on its used cars, and for very good reason.

Reliability Measures: The Good News and The Bad News

The domestic auto industry has several companies that monitor the quality of automobiles. Some are short-term in nature. The J.D. Power & Associates’ Initial Quality Survey measures the quality of buyer experience over the first ninety days of ownership. Since all automobiles are under warranty during that period, this survey measures the hassle factor associated with early problems.

Schlitz, Lessons From the Past

“Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous.” The older baby-boomers among us may remember that advertising slogan. It was all over the media in the 50s and the 60s. Schlitz, after leading the domestic beer industry for most of the first half of the 20th century, disappeared. It has been gone now for a long time. Recently, though, its current owner resuscitated the old brand and formula and re-introduced it to the market. Schlitz is in test phase now, mostly in selected mid-west markets, and its popularity sounds an echo of its former prominence. The story of the rise and fall of Schlitz offers lessons for us, even today.

Will a Partial Silver Strategy Work for United?

Recently, United Airlines announced that it would reduce its service to some of the biggest cities it serves and shift assets to the service of smaller cities. Big cities like Nagoya, Japan and Chicago will lose some service, while cities like Grand Rapids, Michigan and Gillette, Wyoming will gain service.

How the High End Company is Vulnerable

The housing market is in a shambles, especially the new home construction market. In partial response to this horrible market, some of the home building industry’s largest competitors, including Toll Brothers and Hovnanian Enterprises, have entered the custom home market. Their entry illustrates the strengths of companies at the high end and exposes their vulnerability.

Consolidation in the Waste Industry

The leading waste management company, Waste Management Inc., has just offered to buy the number three ranked competitor, Republic Services. This offer preempts Republic’s offer to purchase the number two competitor in the industry, Allied Waste Industries.

GM in a No Win Position

You have to feel sorry for the beleaguered leaders of General Motors. The company is suffering through a perfect storm. Automobile sales this year will be fourteen million units, down from the sixteen million the company had expected. Down even more are sales of large SUVs and trucks, on which GM had pinned its hopes for profitability and cash flow.

Economies of Scale at Work...And Not

Economies of Scale are important, at least in the minds of many managers and investors. Often, we can see these Economies of Scale at work in powerful ways. Sometimes, they seem to disappear.

The Fate of Price Point Specialists in Hostility

As a market works its way through overcapacity and Hostility, the industry’s Price Point specialists come under extreme pressure.

International vs. U.S. Growth

Recently, CIBC World Markets’ Jeff Rubin, who is Chief Economist, and Avery Shenfeld, a Managing Director, produced a slide show called “The Age of Scarcity.” To see the slideshow in full, click here.

Cost in Two Hostile Industries

Again, we will look at two domestic industries in overcapacity: the automobile and the airline industries. We call these industries Hostile markets, because returns for most of the players in the industry are low and price competition is intense.

Value in Two Hostile Industries

We have two domestic industries in overcapacity: the automobile and the airline industries. We call these industries Hostile markets because returns for most of the players in the industry are low and price competition is intense.

Capacity Reduction to Raise Prices

Some analysts have estimated that the domestic airline industry needs to reduce its capacity by 20% in order to become profitable. This estimate sounds very high to me, as I’m sure it would to most of the flying public. If you miss a flight today, or if one should happen to be canceled on you, you are not necessarily going to get to your destination today. Airlines are flying with a high percentage of their seats filled.

Pricing in today's airline industry - Part 2

How and where you raise prices is an important question. The legacy airlines are doing it badly.

Pricing in today's airline industry - Part 1

I am surprised and confused by the airline industry today. All the legacy airlines have announced substantial capacity reductions, in some cases by more than 20% of capacity. For example, United Airlines plans to ground 100 of its 460 planes in the foreseeable future. Some smaller cities will lose airline service completely. The legacies’ hub and spoke system is about to have fewer spokes.

A Silver Competitor Follows the Wrong Strategy

Deutsche Post AG is surrendering in the battle for the ground shipments, the U.S. market for express delivery. Over the last few years, Deutsche Post has purchased both DHL and Airborne in order to compete in the U.S. market. These two competitors were numbers 4 and 3 respectively in the industry. Deutsche Post plans to transfer DHL’s North American Air parcel deliveries to UPS and reduce its U.S. capacity for ground shipments by a third in order to cut losses.

Industry Leader Preempts the Low End of the Market

Recently, Intel announced the Atom chips. These chips are inexpensive, built for ultra-cheap desktop or portable computers called Nettops and Netbooks. The Atom chips for Nettops cost $29 each, while those for the Netbooks will sell for $44. These are both Price Leader products.

Dell Slips at the High End

Two years ago, Dell bought Alienware, the leader of the game-oriented personal computer business. Game-oriented PCs are the high-end of the market. They usually sell for several times the price of the average PC. A game-oriented PC is a Performance Leader product (see “Why Do Leaders Lead?” in the Tools/Perspectives section of In the computer hardware business, the differentiator at the high end of the market is Functionality. This Functionality includes both design and computing capability. If you have these two functional benefits, you can generate word-of-mouth among buyers and become a hot product.

RV Market in Hostility

The RV market is in hostility. A hostile market sees low returns on investment, even for the industry leaders. One of the largest players in the market, Fleetwood Enterprises, has seen five straight years of losses. Another leader, Winnebago Industries, while still profitable, has seen four consecutive years of falling sales. This hostility has been caused by a rapid and deep fall-off in demand.

HP/EDS Combination: The Conclusion

This entry is the last in our series of four entries on the HP/ED deal.

HP and EDS: The Cost Case

This entry is the third in our series of four entries on the HP/EDS deal.

HP and EDS: The Customer Case

This entry is the second in our series of four entries on the HP/EDS deal.

HP and EDS: The Product Case

This entry is the first in our series of four entries on the HP/EDS deal.

Microsoft Office Versus Google Apps

Microsoft has problems getting its stock price up where it thinks it belongs. Some analysts believe that the reason, in part, is that Google has introduced free substitutes for the Microsoft Office products. These substitutes are called Google Apps and include spreadsheet and word processing applications. The fear is that Google’s advertising-supported free applications will force Microsoft to reduce prices on Office products where it enjoys a 70% gross margin. These fears are premature and probably overblown.

Lagging Badly Pedaling Downhill

Microsoft, at least for now, has failed in its efforts to acquire Yahoo. If it had succeeded in this acquisition, Microsoft would have had to do some radical surgery on Yahoo’s search business, and on its own as well.

Discounters at the High End

Even high-end brands can offer lower-end products. We call the high-end companies and products Performance Leaders. These companies and products offer better performance than the Standard Leader products in an industry for prices starting at least 10% over the Standard Leader product prices. Price Leader competitors are those companies who offer less performance than the Standard Leaders products for prices generally starting about 25% below those of the Standard Leader.

The Brand is Worth More than the Land

The modern hotel industry is really two separate businesses. The first business includes companies that have the hotel brand names. These companies manage and operate hotels. These companies include InterContinental Hotels Group, Starwood, Wyndham and Marriott. The second group are companies that are owners of the hotel properties. Most of these are REITs.

The Picture of a Predator

Heico Corporation is a Predator. In our research, we have found that there are four types of low-end competitors. They differ from one another in the benefits they offer, compared to the industry-leading products, to either the user or the buyer of the product. We call the industry-leading companies and products Standard Leaders.

Low-End Competitor Exposes Fundamental Strategic Errors of the Leaders

Low-end competitors don’t think like industry leaders. As a result, they often blow big holes in the leader’s plans.

Allstate's Innovative Pricing

The automobile insurance market has seen price declines since 2006. During this declining-price period, Allstate has done well, gaining market share by offering innovative pricing.

Low-End Competitor May Not Stay at the Low End

One of your competitors may be a low-end player today. If that competitor stays at the low end, the likelihood is that its share of the market will not exceed 15%, even if it is quite successful. However, the very success may breed a significant challenge to industry leaders in the future. If the low-end competitor is earning a good return on investment, it may enter the market for the industry’s higher-end products in order to enhance its own profits and future.

Garmin Tail Wags the Dog

Garmin is having big trouble these days. As one of the leaders in the personal-navigational device business, Garmin is besieged by much larger competitors from an adjacent industry. In particular, the cell phone hand set makers are doing the same thing to GPS functions that they did to the PDA market a few years ago. They are turning GPS into one of the functions on smart phones. In 2007, 18% of mobile phones already had the GPS function embedded in them. That percentage may double within a couple of years.

Toyota's Good News/Bad News Story

The North American auto market has turned ugly. Normally, analysts expect the industry to sell about sixteen million vehicles a year, about what we sold in 2007. We seem to be on track to sell around fifteen million in 2008. Today GM, Ford and Chrysler are all losing money in the North American market. This is a market that we would define as Hostile.

Google versus Microsoft in the Office

Google has entered Microsoft’s most treasured domain, the office suite. Google offers its Apps for free. Using these Apps, a consumer may prepare basic reports and spreadsheets. Google claims two advantages over Microsoft with its Apps product: it operates on the internet, and it is free or very inexpensive in its premium version. So, what might be the outlook be for both Google and Microsoft?

Reality Strikes Discount Air Carriers

After thirty years of unmitigated success in the airline industry, the smaller discount airlines are starting to fall by the wayside. Aloha, ATA and Skybus recently shut down. Others are likely to follow. Even Southwest is feeling the pressure. None of these discounters is able to fully recover the burgeoning cost of fuel.

The Company Did Not Get an Invitation

Remember the grade school experience when you learned of a party to which you did not receive an invitation? For most of us, that was a hurtful experience. But the failure to receive an invitation can cost real money in the business world, both now and in the future.

Postponing the Real Clash

Delta recently announced that it was trimming its domestic capacity and shifting that capacity to international flights. It will cut its domestic capacity by about 5%, which will bring its capacity in August of 2008 to a level 10% below that of one year earlier. United Airlines did something similar earlier in the year.

What Do We Really Believe?

There were two items of interest in recent press reports. Both suggest something about our fundamental beliefs in our economic system.

The Failure Behind Progress

Bear Stearns is gone. The explanation is in my old neighborhood.

There is a new (rich) sucker born every minute...

For those fortunate few out there who travel to London regularly, I envy you. What I don’t envy are the hotel rates you pay, which are averaging over $600 a night in the city. We have seen hotel rates go up a great deal in the U.S., as well, over the last few years. New York is a particular example of that phenomenon.

Debt Crisis: Worse Than Some Commentators Tell Us

I ran into a neighbor today. He is an attorney who, for many years, has run a successful practice specializing in working for creditors to recover defaulted debt payments. We began talking about the economy and I, half jokingly, said “at least your business should be up in this credit crisis.” He quickly corrected me. “My business is really getting squeezed now because of this credit crisis.”

Patterns of Cost Reduction

I was fortunate to work for some years with McKinsey and Company. As an alumnus of that organization, I receive regularly the McKinsey Quarterly. Every once in awhile, the McKinsey Quarterly emails a feature called Chart Focus.

Southwest: Joining the legacy airlines?

A recent San Francisco Chronicle article on Southwest Airlines revealed some interesting information:

Sprint Nextel's Stumble

Sprint Nextel appears to be in real trouble. A recent Wall Street Journal article offered a long analysis of the company and its current challenges. Sprint Nextel is illustrating the way market share is lost in most markets. In short, Sprint Nextel is losing the most profitable customers (post paid contract subscribers) to the top two carriers, AT&T and Verizon, as well as to the fourth ranked competitor, T-Mobile USA. Sprint Nextel’s losses in customers may be as much as 2% of these valuable customers in a quarter. These are the best customers so the company’s percentage loss in revenue would be much higher than the percentage loss in number of customers.

GM and Sears...slip sliding away

Over the last few weeks, both GM and Sears, while leaders in their markets, have announced a new round of lay-offs. This is a sad development to watch, especially since these lay-offs are unlikely to be the last.