Finally, we get to check out how our supermarket twins set prices

The cost-of-living crisis has left many convinced the two big supermarket chains – known to some as Colesworth – have been “price gouging” – raising their prices without justification. “Gouging” is a rude, pejorative phrase that would never cross an economist’s lips (nor mine), but economic theory does say that, when an industry is dominated by just a few huge companies, this will give them the power to manipulate prices to their own advantage.

But anecdotes and even economic theory are one thing, hard evidence is another. And knowing what to do about it is a third.

Illustration by Simon Letch
Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:

So it’s good that last Friday, Treasurer Jim Chalmers launched a full inquiry into supermarket prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Chalmers said this was “about making our supermarkets as competitive as they can be so Australians get the best prices possible”.

The inquiry, which will take a year, will include an examination of online shopping, the effects of loyalty programs and how advances in technology are affecting competition.

The competition watchdog’s chair, Gina Cass-Gottlieb, said the commission will use its compulsory information-gathering powers to collect financial details from the supermarket giants.

The government has also commissioned a former Labor minister and economist, Dr Craig Emerson, to review the effectiveness of the “food and grocery code of conduct”, introduced in 2015 to stop the big supermarkets from using their buying power to extract unreasonably low prices from their suppliers, particularly farmers.

The code is voluntary and has no way of punishing bad behaviour, so hasn’t worked well. It’s drawn few complaints from suppliers, probably because they’re afraid of retaliation by Colesworth. Only if it’s made compulsory and given teeth is it likely to improve the farmers’ lot.

Our groceries market is one of the most concentrated in the developed world. Woolworths has 37 per cent of the market and Coles has 28 per cent, leaving Aldi with 10 per cent and Metcash (wholesaler to IGA stores) with 7 per cent.

Professor Allan Fels hands over the report into Price Gouging and Unfair Pricing Practices to ACTU Secretary Sally McManus, at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday.
Professor Allan Fels hands over the report into Price Gouging and Unfair Pricing Practices to ACTU Secretary Sally McManus, at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen
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So our two giants’ combined share of 65 per cent compares with Britain’s top two’s share of 43 per cent. In the United States, the four largest chains make up just 34 per cent of the market.

While we wait for the competition watchdog’s report, what do we know about the chains’ behaviour?

The report of an unofficial inquiry into price gouging and unfair pricing practices, commissioned by the ACTU from a former competition commission chair, Professor Allan Fels, will be published on Wednesday.

But we know from a letter Fels sent to Chalmers last month what it will say about supermarkets. Fels said the inquiry had been inundated with concerns from experts and regular Australians alike on the prices set by the chains.

Fels found that neither Coles nor Woolworths suffered declines in profit during the pandemic because their services had been deemed essential. Since then, however, both have increased their profit margins, thanks to weak competition and their ability to delay passing on any cost reductions.

Fels noted that high prices, including co-ordinated price increases between the two, aren’t actually prohibited by competition law, except where there is unlawful communication or agreement between the firms. (Which, of course, doesn’t prohibit tacit collusion.)

Duopolies have a mutual incentive not to decrease prices where possible, Fels said, particularly on those goods whose prices are closely watched by customers.

“There has not been a price war between the major supermarkets in some years,” he said. This contrasts with the British experience, where Tesco and Sainsbury’s entered an aggressive price war with Aldi.

Here, the entrance of Aldi has been helped by outlawing the ability of the big two to do deals with shopping centre owners preventing rival supermarkets from setting up. Fels said he shared the watchdog’s concern about the big two’s ability to limit competition by engaging in “land banking” – hoarding supermarket sites, so rival companies can’t get a foothold.

Fels worries also about the giants playing “rockets and feathers”. When their costs rise, their prices go up like a rocket, but when their costs fall, their prices drift slowly down like a feather.

Fels found that, as prices have increased, consumers had noticed again and again that once-normal prices were being advertised back to shoppers as “special”.

He quoted one submission to his inquiry asserting that, until August 2022, Coles and Woolies sold a 200-gram jar of Timms coffee for $8. Then Coles increased the shelf price to $12.70 before, a couple of weeks later, reducing the price to $10.70 with a tag saying “was $12.70 per bottle, now ‘down, down!’.”

Another submission asserted that Devondale cheese had gone from $5 to $10 in recent months, but had then been on “special” for $10.

Cass-Gottlieb has said the commission was “carefully looking” at claims that some discounts amounted to deceptive conduct. She also said it was concerned by “was, now pricing”, which might be outlawed.

If all the pain of the cost-of-living crisis at last prompts this government to get tough with the game-playing supermarkets, it will be some consolation.

Ross Gittins is the economics editor.

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