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Whirlpool and Electrolux Blink

The home appliance market has been a difficult place to compete during several periods over the last thirty years. It is tough again today. Sales of large appliances have fallen steadily since 2007. Competition is intensifying with the pressure of the South Korean competitors, LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics, on Whirlpool Corp and Electrolux AB. Whirlpool and Electrolux are suffering from rising costs for steel, copper, plastics and other raw materials. To offset these cost increases, the two companies plan price increases of 8% to 10% in the spring.

The problem: the Koreans aren’t playing ball. The two South Korean firms are pricing aggressively and have been doing so since Thanksgiving 2010.

The South Koreans are formidable competitors. At one time, LG was known as Lucky Goldstar, a seller of low-end, cheaply made, products. Today, it has a much better brand name and sells quality products. Samsung does as well. It is a leader in the large screen TV market. The products that the South Korean companies are pricing aggressively are not the low-end products. They are the mainstream, heart-of-the-market, products.

The domestic U.S. market is slow growing. So is the market in the rest of the world. The North American market is growing 2% to 3% a year. Europe is growing 2% to 4%, while Latin American and Asia grow in the 5% to 10% range. Large appliance companies will have no trouble supplying all the capacity the market needs at these demand growth rates. The industry is likely to have excess capacity for the foreseeable future.

If the two Western competitors institute their price increases without the two South Korean companies in a lock-step march, they will be in a Leader’s Trap. A Leader’s Trap occurs when one or more of the leading companies in an industry hold its prices high in the mistaken belief that customers will stay loyal despite the lower prices of competition. Leader’s Traps rarely end well. Either the Western competitors will lose market share or they will ultimately rescind their price premiums.

These four giant large appliance competitors are peers of one another. The only way to stop the Koreans from discounting against the Western competitors is to have a cost structure that scares them out of the discounts. The discounting competitors have to see that their discounts will only cost them margins because the other peer competitors in the market will match their low prices since they have equally low cost structures.

Posted 3/23/11

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