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Best Buy in a Leader's Trap

Few industry leaders believe their prices are too high. Often, they are right. They are usually less right in a market where prices fall. Consider GM in automobiles and IBM in personal computers in the past. At one time or another, most industry leaders will get caught in a Leader’s Trap, where they assume that customers will stay loyal to their products because the low-end products do not enjoy their quality and reputation. This assumption rarely, if ever, holds. Best Buy has been in a Leader’s Trap and its assumptions won’t hold this time either.

Through the third quarter of 2009, Best Buy was gaining market share in flat panel TVs and personal computers. However, in the most recent quarter of 2010, the company lost over 1% of its market share in televisions and computers to competitors who were discounting. (See the Perspective, “The Two Best Consultants in the World” on StrategyStreet.com.) Now, if it were just a simple low-end, low value competitor, Best Buy might not worry. But their discounting competition was Wal-Mart and Amazon. By any definition, these companies would count as peers of Best Buy in the television and personal computer retail market.

In the recent quarter, Best Buy emphasized high technology, and high margined, TV and personal computer products. Customers did not follow along. Best Buy noted that it had faced tough competition from off brand televisions at lower price points.

Best Buy could have offered private label products to compete with low-end, off brand, competitors. Its store brands include Dynex and Insignia. The company decided not to emphasize these lower-priced products in their promotions because they have low profit margins. Best Buy “failed” its customer by refusing to offer something that at least half the other competitors could and would offer. (See “Audio Tip #35: How Does a Company “Fail” in a Market?” on StrategyStreet.com.) Nor did competition “win” the customers who switched. Amazon and Wal-Mart simply took what Best Buy allowed them to take. (See “Audio Tip #34: How Does a Company “Win” in a Market?” on StrategyStreet.com.)

The result: Best Buy missed its targets and saw its stock price fall by 15%. The company lost market share to peer competitors. And its sales and profits fell in televisions and personal computers. Competitors gained strength.

Best Buy is a fine company with capable management. It won’t stay down for long. You may expect to see them leave the Leader’s Trap very soon.

Posted 1/24/11