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Hostility's End Game

The late 80’s and 90’s were hostile times for the beer industry. The period saw constant price wars. All the domestic competitors, except for Anheuser Busch, suffered from relatively low returns. A hostile industry is notable for constant pricing pressure and very low returns in the industry. The brewing industry certainly fit that description for a long period of time.

Then came the 2000’s. This decade brought a great deal of consolidation to the market. InBev bought Anheuser Busch. SabMiller PLC consolidated operations with Molson Coors Brewing Company. These changes, and others, produced a consolidated industry. Today, the two largest companies control 80% of U.S. beer sales. These companies have introduced products at every price point so they dominate the market at virtually all Price Points.

This dominance gives the industry Standard Leaders pricing leverage. Over the last year, the price of beer, ale and other malt beverages grew 4.6%, while overall consumer prices in the U.S. fell 2.1%. The beer makers now have pricing power that looks much like that of the breakfast cereal makers and cigarette manufacturers. The brewers are able to raise prices, even in the face of declining unit volumes, just as the cigarette manufacturers are able to do. Profits in the domestic market are rising at more than 25% a year. (See the Perspective, “What Makes Returns High?” on

Hostile markets end in one of two ways. (See the Perspective, “What Ends Hostility?” on Either demand bails the industry out or industry consolidation shifts pricing power back to the industry. In our extensive work in hostile markets, we have observed that three quarters of the time demand growth bails out a hostile industry. The demand in the industry grows and gradually sops up excess capacity. As the excess capacity ebbs away, pricing power returns to the industry participants in order to encourage the addition of the capacity that the customers will need in the future. In the other quarter of the cases, the industry consolidates until four or fewer competitors own at least 75% of the market. And, all remaining competitors must have reached the conclusion that trying to gain share with low price is an exercise in futility. The beer industry has consolidated far more than the average industry. In the average domestic industry, four competitors to own 85% of the total industry market share. In brewing, it only takes two to approach that concentration. (See Share)

Not many industries succeed at reaching this degree of consolidation. But once they do, the world is their oyster.

Posted 10/5/09


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