The Supermarkets Demise – A Scenario

Back in November I wrote a post entitled: Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?

If you are at all involved in the retail food chain I suggest you go and read it in full. The short answer is yes, but it will be a slow train crash.

A story in MIT Technology Review last week illustrates one of the possible models that can replace the supermarket model of today:

Autonomous Grocery Vans Are Making Deliveries in London

 

Of course supermarkets will be trying to incorporate such systems into their business model as well but my view is that because of their underlying legacy systems they will find the transition close to impossible.

The story is about a quite limited trial but it points towards a possible future:

“On the back of the vehicle are eight pods, each with a crate that can hold three bags of groceries. The van is filled by human hands from a small distribution center—in this case, a larger Ocado van, which stores 80 of those crates—and sets off following a route to its drop-offs, which is broadly planned in the cloud but ultimately executed by the vehicle. When it arrives at an address, the customer is alerted via smartphone and must press a button on the vehicle to open a pod door and grab the groceries.”

In terms of the final use case:

“Clarke imagines vehicles like these being used to provide on-demand delivery of groceries from a small nearby distribution hub, so that instead of booking a delivery slot customers hail their groceries—when they arrive home from work, say, even if it’s late at night.”

This ties in with an interesting analysis of the IPO for Blue Apron, the food company which delivers meal recipes and the main ingredients for those meals to your door. In that analysis in the New York Times, chef Amanda Cohen theorised that the Blue Apron model may destroy itself. She describes the fact (which went against her initial view) that many people she has spoken to said that the Blue Apron process had given them the confidence to cook more. If she is correct then this means that Blue Apron is training its customers not to need it any more, not a great business model as it means lifetime value of a customer may be severely limited.

The combination of these stories may point to a completely different future. As Amanda Cohen says:

‘” In Hong Kong, many people swing by a “wet market” on their way home from work and pick up the vegetables, fish or beef they’re going to eat that night. Same thing in France, Latin America, South Korea or pretty much everywhere people don’t load up their giant S.U.V.s with giant quantities of groceries to store in their giant fridges once a week. The meal kit model of keeping some staples in the cupboard and getting the fresh stuff as you need it is the market way of doing things”

One of the major problems with food delivery systems and in particular with automated delivery systems is what do you do with the fresh stuff because timeliness and the refrigeration process really matters. This is exacerbated by the fact that people are home at different times of the day or night and cannot necessarily take delivery when the delivery system wants to deliver . Various ways of solving this have been proposed including smart delivery lockers in apartment buildings or the local post office, etc. I can see that models emerging where all of the non-fresh goods can be delivered by an automated delivery system from a small local storage facility where you request delivery when you are home, just like you do when requesting an Uber right now. There may even be discounts for people who take quick delivery so storage space is always available, or people who will take a shared delivery and therefore will wait longer.

If this is part of a wider adoption of driverless cars then it can be part of a larger change. Driverless cars do not need to park, or at least do not need to park in busy or congested areas. I am an advocate for a driverless car adoption model where government or privately owned fleets provide transport as a service and surpasses the personal vehicle ownership model that has dominated the last hundred years. Even if that does not come true individual owners can hire out their driverless car when they are not using it so it does not have to be parked in front of the house or the office, or at the train station.

I I imagine a changed urban environment where mass adoption of autonomous vehicles changes the urban landscape by freeing up parking areas on streets and parking facilities . The freed up space on streets creates the capacity for more foot traffic, and increases in safe bike lanes while, driverless vehicles increase the capacity for people to travel for short trips locally. The parking facilities can be repurposed for storage and/or specialty markets for fresh products.
In that changed local environment we could see a model where large scale supermarkets are no longer the norm, where specialty fresh food stores spring up everywhere within easy travel distance of people’s homes. These specialty stores would be powered by the back end logistics that Amazon creates for Whole Foods, or their competitors (go read Ben Thompson’s excellent post: AMAZON’S NEW CUSTOMER for more details on their strategy) You would pick up your fresh product and speciality items on your way home from work or by a short walk or bike ride, or driverless car ride to the local store. Automated vehicles would deliver the staples to your door on request using pre planned orders or automated ordering systems like the Amazon Dash Wand.

In many areas this could revive the concept of neighbourhoods that really work in urban environments.

There are many ways the supermarket model will be attacked in the future. This is just one possible scenario. Given the pace of driverless car adoption and capacity for the car industry to deliver the full model is still a fair way off. The automated delivery system is not so far off. It fits the four level of automated driving systems by being in a geofenced area (local delivery only from a small storage/transfer facility), and carried out at low speed to reduce the risk of accidents. Full level 5 driving automation where vehicles can go anywhere in all conditions and no driver actions required are a lot further off. That does not mean there will not be continuing experiments with automated food delivery systems.

As Ben Thompson states in his article groceries are about 20% of consumer spending (USA). That is a big prize and lots of people are going to be going after it. Long term an automated vehicle delivery system will be a part of that. How big a part, and in what form remains to be seen.

 

I am writing a book on the adoption of driverless cars with Chris Rice entitled Rise of the Autobots: How driverless vehicles will transform our societies and our economies. Follow me here or on Twitter for more updates as we write and publish.

Paul Higgins

 

 

 

Are we entering a world of the new portals?

tim_tams

Yes we are, and it has serious possible consequences for a whole range of businesses.

Gather around children for a story when grandpa was young (in internet years anyway). Once in the deep dark history of the internet portals were all the rage. They were the place that companies hoped you would use as your stepping off point into the internet. If you were part of their portal and had it set up as your home page then they could offer you services, and make money from you being there rather than you wandering around on your own. Truly capable search killed off a lot of these efforts by allowing people to more easily find what they were looking for although portals still make sense in a number of areas. For example here in Australia the Our Community organisation which supports about 80,000 community organisations has a grants portal (Our Community) which aggregates all of the grant information across the country. Essentially it provides a specialised aggregation and search service. The government also offers a portal called myGov which aggregates a range of government services, offering both specialised search services but also common identification and log in systems.

Besides these sorts of services we seem to be moving into a new era of portals based primarily on mobile systems. On March 3rd TechCrunch stated that “Uber plans to turn its app into a ‘content marketplace’ during rides“. I have long believed that Uber is a data and services company with the transport model being an interim stage, and this fits perfectly with that theory (confirmation bias anyone). As a transport company they are in a brutally competitive world. They have already signaled their intention to be in the autonomous car business, but I think that business is going to be an even more brutal fight that will require huge reserves of cash. That fight will include the existing car companies and a host of new competitors and some will inevitably lose, and have their whole business model destroyed. In those sorts of fights technology plays a role but quite often it is a last player(s) standing sort of a fight where people bleed cash until they can no longer operate. In that sort of fight it makes sense to have multiple possible strategies rather than a single win or lose one. If, in the interim period before autonomous cars are widespread Uber can build a huge trove of data and insight for autonomous cars, but more importantly insight into the movement of people, and what they do during and after their trip then they have a separate strategy. If they are not able to slug it out in the transport space then they can supply data and services across the whole sector instead.

A content market place for Uber makes sense. According to the TechCrunch article they now are providing 10 million rides a day and to a large extent those riders are a captured audience for them. They also know in advance where you or I are going and when we will arrive which is enormously useful information. If they know you are going to a shopping centre then businesses at that shopping centre would really like to know that so they can send you offers in advance. If you are going to restaurant area at lunchtime, or an airport the same applies. If they can tie your trip data to what you do after the trip by tracking you through their application and partner applications then the value of the data increases astronomically.

In this new portal era they are the aggregators of customers for other businesses but they are also aggregators of data that increases in value as time goes on. In some ways it is the perfect business – profitable while it is building a new capital asset that is much more valuable.

There are lots of other companies that are pursuing this strategy. WeChat in China now has enormous capacity inside its app that is intended to keep you inside their ecosystem so they can aggregate demand and sell it to other companies ( WeChat is morphing so Chinese smartphone owners will never have to download an app again). Facebook is attempting to copy them while also trying to copy Snapchat and is a huge percentage of people’s mobile we traffic (Benedict Evans).

All of this raises a very serious question. Where will the profit accrue to in this new world? Here in Australia we have had retail dominated by two major supermarkets although this is slowly changing. As a result they  have had the highest retail supermarket margins in the world, which have now crashed back to earth due to competition (see my post: Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?). Through that time the suppliers of food into the Australian markets have been mostly constrained by having to supply to those two companies in large volumes. If you are Coca Cola or Mars this has not mattered too much but it has mattered to most suppliers (hence the high margins).

The advent of the internet and the capacity to connect to anyone around the world even if you are a one person business was supposed to break some of this  down, to usher in a new age of commerce. To an extent that has been true. However I have been working with a couple of businesses that want to use some of the new technologies to connect directly to the customer rather than going through the major supermarkets as “the agent of the consumer”. One of the key concerns is whether they are swapping one master for another. If they end up with channels going through systems and applications like WeChat or Facebook does the profit accrue to them or the platform, and how much can they rely on the platform continuing to deal with them in a fair and consistent manner. In part that question is answered by platform economics – if the deal does not work for the customers on both sides of the platform then the platform disintegrates. On the other hand if you are not key to the relationship between the consumer and the platform itself it leaves you in a very weak position.

If we use that thinking and go back to Uber then I do not believe that a coffee shop at my local shopping centre is going to have the clout or expertise to efficiently partner with Uber to market specials through their App. It seems far more likely to me that another aggregation platform for coffee shops (and others) will partner with Uber and connect up the systems required to send me a notification of a special as I am on my way, or take my order via the Uber app as I travel . That means if there are three coffee shops at my local shopping centre, and Uber has a significant transport footprint, as soon as one of them has joined up the others are forced to do so or lose customer traffic. In that case none of the coffee shops actually wins because the actual customer levels between all of them are likely to be the same (ignoring any marginal traffic that may come from signalling). However the two aggregators (coffee shops and Uber) are going to want a cut of the action so it is likely that the profit margins of the coffee shops will fall.

So in a world that promised better contact and relationships with customers for small businesses the result may actually be less contact, more distant relationships, and less profits as a result. The advantages go back to the portal holders.

Of course in a modern world there is always the opportunity for the coffee shop to make a direct contact with me when I come to their shop. If they can establish a contact with me via my messaging App of choice (WhatsApp in my case) then they can form a direct relationship. However that relationship lacks a geo-location and proximity/arrival time context so unless my messaging App can supply that then the direct relationship is at a significant disadvantage. It also lacks the sophistication to be able to take my order, so unless another aggregator can link to my messaging app and provide those services the friction of the relationship will be too high. And so the dance continues.

The whole process is complicated by the fact that people actually use very few apps. In theory the coffee shop could have an App that does all these things and connects with me but given the limited real estate on my device and the fact that most people only really regularly use 5 apps that is not going to happen.

It is going to be very interesting to see where all this goes in the not too distant future.

p.s. – for those of you not from Australia the picture is one of Arnotts Tim Tams which one of the major supermarkets tried to force a price reduction on but was unable to do so because of their popularity. Therein lies a lesson. You should try them, they are awesome.

Addendum

An additional point is that this means that the brand reputation issues that are afflicting Uber today are far more important than might be thought. If one of your key strategy pillars is that people need to trust you to share their data with you then your culture, behaviour and leadership become critically important. Because of the network effects of the data collection and utilisation if volume falls in broad terms but data sharing falls more then capital value of the company falls far more rapidly. I am sure that the board is having that discussion with the CEO right now

 

 

Are The Two Major Supermarkets in Australia Doomed?

Yes but it will be a slow train crash

Following stories in the Australian Financial Review and News Limited last week (Amazon delays Australian launch to September to include fresh goods and Amazon to ‘destroy’ Aussie retail ) I decided to complete this analysis which has been kicking around in draft form on my system for a few weeks.

It is not just Amazon that is the problem. A combination of threats on margin, volume, and customer traffic is threatening the existing business model of the major supermarkets. Not all have to be successful for there to be major effects. To understand how that is happening we need to understand the business model.

A long time ago I tried to get ex Woolworths Chief Executive Paul Simons to come on board to market Australian Pork by becoming Chairman of the Australian Pork Corporation. That bid failed but something he told me about the supermarket business when we met has always stuck in my mind. Paul told me that there were five things that attracted people into supermarkets and while they were there they bought a heap of other stuff. Those five things were discounted bacon, Coca Cola, Pal Dog Food, fresh meat and fresh vegetables. A quick look at the Woolworths weekly specials catalogue for Victoria for the week starting August 31st (when I first started putting together this article) shows discount bacon, a discounted leg of lamb and a discounted whole duck front and centre on the first page. That is followed by  a full page spread on fridge mate packs featuring Coca Cola and two full pages of double points on fresh fruit and veg.

woolworth special august 31 2016

Source: Woolworths

 

Given that was the early nineties we could probably add rotisserie chickens, specialty pet foods, Huggies, petrol vouchers, and reward points to the list. That does not change the point that there are major group of items that get us in the shop and we buy other stuff when we are there. We certainly might buy half price Edgell Red Kidney Beans when we are there over another brand or product because they are on special but it is not going to get us in the door.

Later I chaired a board where a senior executive of one of the major supermarkets was also a board member. He told me that the supermarkets did not make money out of selling things. Their main two sources of income were the cash difference between when customers paid and when suppliers got paid and selling prominent shelf space to suppliers. While the story is illustrative of the business model rather than a statement of fact it does help understand the model.

If we look at the cash from customers as a source of of revenue then inventory turnover is important. The faster the inventory turnover the more money the supermarkets get in before they have to pay their suppliers.There are various numbers available for supermarket inventory turnover rates. The Inland Revenue Department of New Zealand reports median turnover of 14 times with a range of 10-19 for large supermarkets and grocery stores). The ratio of sales to inventory in the Woolworths annual reports 2011-2015 vary from 12.46 to 14.81 although these are affected by their non supermarket sales. Because this is not an investment analysis I think that it is safe to assume that the inventory turnover for Woolworths and Coles supermarket business would be at the higher level of the IRD estimates. If we use 16 x turnover that is equal to turning over inventory every 22.8 days. If the average payment terms to suppliers is 90 days (personal experience) that means that on average the supermarkets have customer cash for 67 days before they have to pay suppliers. With daily sales of  Australian Food and Liquor of $115.4m that is a whole lot of cash in the bank. Of course lower interest rates will have damaged the revenue the supermarkets receive form having that cash on hand.

When we look at paying for products to be on shelves and supplier rebates it was reported in The economist last year that In Australia supplier rebates had boosted margins for the major supermarkets by 2.5% point to 5.7% over the past five years (Buying up the shelves)

The other part of the business model puzzle is that the supermarket business is generally a low margin business once all costs are taken into account, although margins in the Australian market have been higher than the rest of the developed world. The Woolworths five year financial summary  to 2015 shows that margins for the Australian Food, Liquor and Petrol operations have been between 6.63% and 7.20% before interest and tax. While this is generally a low margin for businesses it is 30-42% higher than the margins in the Woolworths New Zealand supermarkets in the same report.The margin before interest and tax for 2016 fell dramatically to 4.43% as Woolworths lowered prices to compete with Coles and Aldi. The margins before interest and tax for Coles supermarkets in 2016 and 2015 were 4.73% and 4.67% respectively ( http://www.wesfarmers.com.au/docs/default-source/Quick-guides/2016-full-year-results-shareholder-quick-guide.pdf?sfvrsn=2).

While this net margin is quite low the gross margin is much higher For example the gross margin for Woolworths was 25.37% and 26.19% for 2016 and 2015 respectively ( Woolworths Financial Reports (pdf )) .

The gross margin is essentially sales minus the costs of purchasing goods for sale. This means that the difference between gross margin and net margin is all the other costs such as property leases, energy, staff, etc. This is a critical point because it means that the contribution to profit of the last customer or the extra sale is much higher than the average across the business. What this means is that if I drive down the road and turn left to shop at Woolworths or turn right to shop at Coles the loss in sales to the one I do not choose is very high. Whether I turn right or left both those businesses still have to pay their staff, pay their energy bills, pay their property leases, etc. That means that if roughly 18% of customers disappear and they cannot adjust their costs then their profit disappears, and adjusting high fixed costs like leases, staff and energy is very difficult.

The same applies to sales volumes. If the same amount of customers go through the door but buy 18% less in volume the supermarkets do not make 20% less profit, they make virtually nothing if the same costs structure remains in place.

So the supermarkets run a high turnover, low margin, high fixed cost business where they make lots of money on inventory turnover and payments/rebates from suppliers. This gives is the basis to look at their strategic future. Attacks to their profitability can come from primarily three points:

  1. Lower margin business forcing them to reduce margins as Woolworths has done in 2016 to combat the threat of Coles and Aldi in particular. This may be extended further in a major Amazon push into fresh produce.
  2. Customers being drained away so the high costs structure causes problems for profitability.
  3. Customer numbers staying the same but buying less every time they go to the supermarket.

Lets look at each of those individually:

Customer numbers staying the same but buying less every time they go to the supermarket.

This is the most serious threat to the long term viability of the supermarket businesses. The threat is analogous to guerrilla warfare or asymmetric warfare. Only some of the attacks need to be successful for the supermarkets to be in trouble. People will still go to the supermarket but there purchases will be reduced.There have been lots of efforts to look at direct delivery models with varying success but we are now reaching the point where multiple models are developing that have a good chance of being successful. This is devastating for the supermarkets because if 40% of people reduce their purchases by 30% that is a 12% reduction in  overall sales. But the supermarkets will still have to operate their existing business model to retain the other 60%of customers  as well as to be able to retain the people that have reduced their purchases but are still coming into the store. Lets look at some of their threats:

Dollar Shaver Club

dollar-shaver-club

These guys run a direct delivery service for razors direct to your door. They combine an irreverent marketing attitude with social marketing that gives you free blades if you recommend a friend.  They promise to reduce your costs of shaving and take all the friction out of the process. I don’t use a razor any more as I use clippers to manage my George Clooney like designer stubble, but if I did use razor I would sign up today – no longer buying that product from the supermarket. A small individual purchase perhaps but they start to add up.

Blue Apron

blue-apron

Blue Apron promotes direct delivery of all the ingredients you need to prepare a healthy great tasting meal. I met with one of the Nokia trends scouts in Austin Texas a few weeks ago and she is an avid fan. As Blue Apron delivers the exact amount she needs to make a meal there is no waste and she said that the service is not costing her any more money than shopping for the ingredients. It is estimated that Australians throw away about $8 billion dollars of food a year (fact checked by the ABC) so certainly there is a cost saving there. While they are not yet in Australia the business model is one that is easily transferable here.

Youfoodz

youfoodz

Youfoodz is a company that will deliver a week’s worth of fresh (non frozen) meals direct to your door in Australia. You can choose all meals or a proportion of meals and snacks. I have done a cost comparison on their service and while they are slightly more expensive than making your own food for quality meals the difference is not large. Again there is no waste and for the time poor there is no shopping or preparation to be done. For people working long hours or running their own businesses where more time means more money this is a very viable alternative.

Amazon Dash

amazon-dash-button-washing-machineAmazon Dash is a programmable button that you can put in your house. The example here is one of putting one on your washing machine so that when you run out of washing powder you just push the button and washing powder is delivered into your house. It takes all the friction out of buying and I imagine them building in services integrated with Alexa (the interactive home system) so that rather than just buying your normal brand the system can queue up order requests and talk to you about special offers, etc at your convenience. Once adoption gets high enough then Amazon can use its considerable logistics and information system to package up multiple orders, supply weekly orders based on your usage, and give you special offers.  It has not really caught on yet but the system is adding more and more brands and Amazon is pushing it out to more countries (Amazon triples Dash Button brand lineup, orders surge 75% in Q1  andAmazon brings its Dash buttons to the UK, Germany and Austria for ordering staples with one touch). It has the smell of a long term strategy to harness all of their capabilities into an offering that makes sense, especially for dry goods.

So if we think of an example household of an above average income couple (the most attractive customer) that are busy with work or their own business you can imagine a combination of all of these services. They use a service like Youfoodz to have a couple of meals pre-supplied on their two busiest days of the week when a combination of work and commitments for kids activities have them stretched. They use a service like Blue Apron once a fortnight for a lunch or a dinner where they want to cook but want to eat healthy and not think about recipes or shopping. They use Dollar Shave Club for monthly supplies of razors. They install Amazon Dash buttons for washing powder, toilet paper, paper towels, dish washing liquid, and cereal and it all gets delivered. Gradually Amazon influences them through their Alexa to buy more dry goods because the marginal cost of freight is so low the system is cheaper. Convenient and lower cost is a killer combination.

They still go to the supermarket they always went to but slowly but surely the amount they buy there until it is down to 50%. Some families at that level then start questioning the trip to the supermarket and start changing their total shopping habits.

The problem with all this from the major supermarkets point of view is that they don’t really have a strategic response that makes sense because of their legacy model. They cannot abandon the majority of their customers so their model stays the same and their margins get steadily eroded.

If they reduce stock lines then they slide more towards an Aldi/Costco model and they don’t want to go there. If they move to more and more online systems they can sort of compete but they still have to supply their standard customers and that model is based on big stores based in solid catchment areas. If they close one of them or move to a small store model a lot of customers probably end up with their competitor who did not close. So neither wants to be the first to do that. It is a little like the banking branch model problem. Less and less transaction are being carried out in branches but people will not travel far to conduct those less frequent transactions so banks keep branches open for fear of losing customers.

At every step of the way their business model is eroded:

  • Lower customer traffic/less spend per customer reduces cash held in the money market.
  • Lower customer traffic/less spend per customer erodes margins as there are less customers/customer dollars to spread non cost of goods costs over.
  • Lower customer traffic erodes the capacity they have to charge for shelf space. It is a bit like television advertising rates. If you have less eyeballs watching your shows you cannot charge as much for advertising.

The final straw in this nightmare scenario for the major supermarkets may be Amazon moving its vision to applying its impressive logistics and intelligence systems to support a national network of independent specialty shops. This is where the high margin customer of the future, who has already reduced their supermarket purchases as described above, may be headed. If that is the case then the major supermarkets are caught trapped in a legacy business model they cannot get out of and assailed on all sides.

Only 5% of each attack has to be successful. No-one has to destroy them.