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A Pyrrhic Victory?

Wal-Mart stores and Costco Wholesale are disrupting markets again. The market they are disrupting today is the grocery industry. In truth, they have been disrupting the grocery industry for the last several years, to the point that Wal-Mart is now the largest grocery store company in the country. These two competitors drain their competition of their life blood by using low prices. The recession, along with the pressure applied by Wal-Mart and Costco, has reduced the consumer pricing index for food by nearly 3% over the last year.

So, what is an industry leader to do when faced with the Wal-Mart challenge? Kroger answered right away. The company reduced its prices along with those of Wal-Mart. (See “Audio Tip #180: The Real Low-Cost Competitor” on StrategyStreet.com.) The result is that Kroger expanded its market share. This growth in market share came at the expense of other industry leaders, such as Safeway and Supervalu, who did not cut their prices as deeply. (See the Symptom & Implication “As large competitors match low prices, other competitors face difficulties” on StrategyStreet.com.)

There is a rub, of course. Kroger’s margins declined in the face of the price deflation. Predictably, Wall Street pummeled Kroger’s stock.

Wall Street is wrong here. In the long term, the increase in Kroger’s size will enable it to reduce its cost structure compared to that of its smaller rivals. The easiest way to reduce a cost structure is when the company’s sales aren’t growing and you can find opportunities to improve the productivity of the cost structure by increasing efficiency and effectiveness. (See “Audio Tip #196: Why Economies of Scale Exist” on StrategyStreet.com.) It is much harder to reduce costs when the business is shrinking. In a shrinking business, company morale tends to be bad and companies almost inevitably cut muscle as well as fat.

A growing business will also allow Kroger to fine tune its value proposition in the face of the Wal-Mart price challenge. The customer buys Function, Reliability and Convenience before Price. Kroger’s ability to tailor its offerings for a broad swath of customers, and its local presence, are powerful advantages, even in the face of a competitor with lower prices. (See “Video #56: Design to Value as an Approach to Cost Management” on StrategyStreet.com.) Kroger is right.

Posted 1/11/10

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