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UK Retail Industry Marketing Analysis

by Suleman

The retail industry is at a stage of maturity as evidenced by the stagnating growth since 2002. Stagnation leads to the fight for market share at the cost of profit maximisation. The rules of business change as do customer expectations. A PEST factor analysis method may be utilized for the food retailing industry to scan the macro-environment:

Political Environment

The political environment of UK is favourable for business from the angle of stability and security. Suppliers had accused the supermarkets of unfair business practices like extended credit demands, suspension of dealings in case of complaint and forcing suppliers to bear marketing costs. This lead to a call for an ombudsman to include a non-partisan viewpoint on conflicts between retailers and vendors. A code of ethics for retailers and vendors is expected to be incorporated into the business arrangement. Employee benefits must meet with the Nationwide Minimum Wage Regulation standards. Labour regulations are rigorously applied.

Economic Environment

73% of the grocery retailing sector in the UK is made up by supermarkets. Food and drink account for 65 percent (including non-food items) of overall retail revenue. The United Kingdom’s economic structure is imperialist in design. Competition is promoted by liberal economic policy. The retailing industry’s stagnating development and decreased earnings are confronting the spectre of a 5 percent rise in doing business with effect from April 1, 2009. For the moment, the decision has been postponed. In recent years, the economy has experienced recessionary tendencies. This has influenced consumers’ ability to spend on luxury goods, while food production continues. As the battle for market share heats up, the food retail sector has matured in the country and profit margins are pinched (2-6 percent). Inflation was big, however, and to boost profits, merchants had to slash prices and sell better quality. The big players in the food retail industry have seen wage rises of 3.7 percent on average, although other retailers have reduced the result to 3 percent. Due to consumer appetite for low-priced products of high quality, manufacturers are under extreme market pressure.

Social Environment

The client demographics have experienced a change. The bigger groups in the past have taken the place of single and dual member families with smaller buying criteria. Increase in the number of women who work. With single pensioners becoming a significant part of the consumer base, clients are getting older. Customers are not confined to a retail store and are likely to check for good alternatives for purchasing. The price and consistency that they may demand are known to them. Owing to the sheer choice of channels that can satisfy the same requirement, better customer experience in delivering the commodity at the right time is all-important. To define consumer interests, grocery stores are launching innovative programmes such as rewards cards. With reduced time to market for food processing, fresh produce is an anticipation. In most households, the existence of refrigerators decreases the preparation for regular trips to food store outlets.

Technological Analysis

Technology permits retailers to benefit from economies in distribution, logistics, warehouse and purchase. Technology aids retailers in providing wide variety with controlled outgo on stock. Quicker check-out experiences due to advanced technology help reduce time lost in queues and increase customer appreciation. The presence of advanced technology with some retailers produces higher profits despite the competitive prices and high quality on offer at the outlets. The internet is another technology that retailers utilise but is easy to duplicate and does not offer a significant advantage.

Another way to review the factors affecting the retail industry is by considering Porter’s five forces model that considers rivalry as a key determinant to strategy building:


The food retail industry in UK appears in four types: Convenience, Traditional, Supermarkets and Alternative. Supermarkets make up 73% of the food retail industry. The market is stagnant and has brought up the need to improve market share and reduced profit focus. There are five main players in the region of which two have tried to expand their base by setting up numerous outlets in different formats ranging from local outlets to supermarkets. The food retail industry seems to suffer from a problem of differentiation but this has not deterred Tesco from having the highest market share with profits garnered from process efficiencies and technology. High competition leads to efforts to attract customers by offering a better shopping experience and providing schemes to retain loyalty. Customer service, effective range of products, competitive pricing are the main platforms for competitors. Supermarkets choose to differentiate from competition by providing high quality non-food merchandise at low prices.

In a situation of high rivalry, the industry will face the following problems:

  • Many players in a limited market
  • Low customer loyalty
  • Low product differentiation possibility

Barriers to Entry

New entrants into the region are deterred from acquisitions due to the high share prices. With the exception of Wal-Mart that acquired ASDA and entered, there have been no other entrants. The limitations on land and planning permission limit existing players from opening more outlets and make it difficult for new entrants to enter. Besides, the region is not attractive because of the decreased profitability of the business.

Supplier Power

The ability of the suppliers to unite and direct governmental attention to the unfair business practices highlights this as a strong group. The products are commoditised in the food retail industry and make it easy for the retailer to substitute one with another.

Buyer Power

The significant size of the supermarket business in the region makes this the largest buyer of farm produce. There is an option of buying the same produce on more suitable terms from the international market. The advent of internet communication and superior storage facilities has increased the bargaining capability of the retailers.

Threat of Substitutes

Food retail industry provides few options in terms of product substitution. Superior storage practices that allow for lower wastage, strong supply chain, suitable technology are examples of substitution that provide a cost advantage while giving the retailer to provide a wide range of items. The priority among the players is to continue to improve on the commodity offerings in terms of quality and price and also create superior non-food item choices that make the retailer a preferred choice.

Competitor Analysis

DEFRA (2006) has provided a view of the market shares among the top retailers in the UK.

Tesco was the leader with a 30% market share followed with a huge gap by Asda at 16.3%, Sainsbury’s at 16% and Morrison’s at 11.3%. Tesco is not a clear leader evenly across the region, there are a few areas in the region where Tesco is at second in market share. Profit margins of retailers are moving southward with the exception of Tesco. While Tesco records a profit margin of 6%, ASDA has reduced to 4.5% while Sainsbury’s is at 2%. Iceland is operating at a loss of .5% while Somerfield has gained some ground from -2% to 1.5%. Morrison’s has operated at a reduced profit of 3% from 6.2%.


TESCO made a strategic decision to cater to the middle-class with its food and non-food retail offering. The product range of 40,000 included 15,000 for non-food items. Half of the additional floor space created was earmarked for non-food items. TESCO effectively offered the customer a value for money proposition and created a perception of being a reliable source of low cost high value in the market. The retailer continues to focus on the core business of food retail but has created independent brands that cater to the price-conscious as well as to the brand- and status-conscious.

TESCO has gained from creating internal expertise in the area of retail technology. The global presence has provided the retailer the advantage of an easily replicable technology framework that provides the advantages of speedy time-to market, increased efficiency and superior customer care and support.

Another strategic advantage TESCO introduced is the loyalty card that allows the customer to earn points that can be redeemed on reaching a pre-set value. The card will soon start providing more value for loyalty with higher points on purchase. This is expected to lead to an upsurge in sales.

The TESCO clothing brand Cherokee and Florence + Fred are popular for the same low value high quality proposition that customers find attractive and consistently delivered by the brand.

Tesco has seen an 11.8% increase in profit and an 11% growth in sales, all despite the 1.5 % increase in expenses. The card scheme was launched and proved to be a great success. TESCO has now announced that it will start a new service centre in Scotland and create 800 new jobs.

Tesco operates 1779 outlets in five different formats.


This retail outfit is now a part of a global giant, Wal-Mart. The focus of the retailer has traditionally been price competitiveness on groceries. The tie-up with Wal-Mart has improved the company’s focus and performance in the non-food sector. The low prices along with the promise of fresh food home delivered have earned ASDA a market share ahead of Sainsbury’s.

The introduction of George, the clothes chain, met with immense approval by consumers and spun off George apparel networks, a corporation worth a billion pounds.

ASDA has kept away from providing loyalty cards on the grounds that the scheme is gimmickry.

Current performance of retail business in UK has helped boost the sagging international fortunes of Wal-Mart. The main growth constraint ASDA faces is the country’s policy that permits it to grow business by extending existing outlets but disallows the setting up of new ones.


Morrison’s started from a fresh eggs and butter store to become the fourth largest retailer in UK. Growth has happened organically and through strategic acquisitions that allowed a larger customer base. The strategy for growth comes from high discounts and a good shopping experience. Promotional offers and low prices have made this retailer a good value for money option. A financial accounting oversight caused the company to lose profits. The retailer prefers to avoid the copycat strategy of doing what the larger players do, no cards, no high street supermarkets, only strong discounts.

An Overview of the Offerings of Products and Services:

  1. Strengths and Weaknesses of Sainsbury’s

Sainsbury’s has a history of being in the business of providing high value produce at premium prices to customers. Changing market circumstances have led the company to take the decision of changing its strategy and portraying the brand offering as low price with good quality.

The original strategy was sound and should have followed a distinct growth route from the middle market adoption strategy. The retailers had not realised the business realities of the two consumer types. A strategy that hones in on the preferences of a premium market looks to exclusivity and high margins. Marketing for this group is distinctive and calls for high promotional spend and visibility in appropriate events. Investment in higher efficiency provides a base for any other inroad into the same business.

Sainsbury’s decision to enter the low price market without aggressively delineating the high end products created a dissonance in the market. A communication campaign was necessary at this stage. The high end buyer would prefer to purchase a brand that is visibly exclusive and satisfies the need for recognition. The middle market buyer is interested in value for money and is highly conscious of quality. The decision to cater to both markets simultaneously has impacted the brand which is now neither exclusive nor a value for money proposition.

At this point, with reduced profits and market share, the earlier strategy cannot be adopted. Around the same moment, the agency is seeking to be somewhere in between the leader and the second position. In the sense of a global setting, the organisational resources and core competencies are the necessary base for competitive advantage. Current capabilities will not provide an advantage over a long time frame since these will be replicated and lose currency in dynamic market conditions.

A core competence of an organisation that cannot be substituted, is unique and involves high cost of replication can provide a competitive advantage to the company. The presence of 676 outlets is a competitive advantage to the retailer.

The other resources that provide Sainsbury’s the framework to compete are the existence of trained personnel, an existing technology framework that can be built upon, existing supplier network and a program that recognised the need for refurbishing to improve customer experience.

A value chain analysis reveals that the framework for developing competitive advantage and customer value is available with the retailer.

Inbound logistics -> Operations -> Outbound logistics ->Marketing and Sales ->Service->Profit

The aspects of logistics and operations have been improved over years of experience and strengthened with the use of technology. The presence of 583 outlets with trained resources to support the sales effort forms a base for future action. The existing supplier network and technology framework provides a base for improved customer service, lower process cost and higher efficiency. The historical provides a fund of entrenched business knowledge that is a learning ground for review and future action.

The weaknesses in the current strategic scenario are:

  • History of player in the premium market segment
  • Top management churn
  • Management Culture
  • Low on innovations
  • Follow the leader instead of finding competitive options

The image of being a premium player creates dissonance with the effort to communicate a desire to cater to the middle market. The need to aggressively promote the renewed strategy was ignored as customers hesitated to accept the new image. Competition quickly cued into the opportunity to provide the same high end products at lower cost. The company is involved in an effort to sustain the brand as high quality at lower prices.

The reducing fortunes of the company have led to quick changes in the management group. A refurbishment program that led to quicker check-out on payment was stalled as the head of the group was replaced. The new incumbent went on to reduce the employee numbers at the head office and increased the numbers at the outlets. There was a concurrent measure of cutting prices across products while focusing on high quality.

The company let go of the possibility of garnering market share by focusing on profit increase through reduced promotions and operating costs and faced a downturn in sales at a time when competition was facing an upsurge. This may have been a sign of a management culture that preferred to follow the familiar route rather than risk a new one.

When TESCO introduced a customer loyalty card, the company held back from doing the same. As soon as the move was found to be successful, Sainsbury’s launched a similar scheme for increasing customer loyalty. The absence of will to find an alternate strategy to garner customer loyalty is evidence of a need to instil a culture that fosters innovation.

An area that requires attention is that of marketing. Though the front-end is trained and well aware of managing individual preferences, it is the strategic design of new schemes and identifying ways to increase customer contact and loyalty that will help the company. This focus will lead to the development of thought to finding the right way forward than being the laggards in introducing ideas and schemes that provide little by way of unique value of differentiation in the mind of the customer.

Evaluate the Competitive Strategy

The mission statement may be seen in two parts ‘To meet our customer needs effectively by providing the best quality and choice to meet their every day shopping needs…’

The customer purchase pattern has changed. Customers are often working in full time jobs and driven by a desire for efficiency at the outlet. Speedy clearance, good quality merchandise that is available in a timely manner is the promise of the mission statement. Investments in the area of store upgrade, communication technology and increased internal efficiency would be the way ahead to implement the intent of this statement.

The statement goes on to profess commitment to provide shareholders with good returns.

The strategy is stated to be the provision of great quality food at good value prices. In the face of strategies like TESCO, ASDA and Morrison where the customer rules and low pricing is seen to be the demand of the customer, ‘good value prices’ does not stand out as a strong strategic intent. The company needs to decide on the niche it prefers to cater to. Since it has moved from the premium customer base to the middle market where the practice of high discounts and promotional offers are seen to be the tool to attract customers, Sainsbury’s has no choice but to follow suit. This aspect is not recognised in the strategy statement.

The absence of high investment in technology puts paid to the capacity of Sainsbury’s to offer low prices and maintain profit margins through backward process integration. Upping the value chain’s capacity to provide the final result of shareholder value is an area of required action. Sainsbury’s looked to correct internal processes to gain profits and lost out to competition by failing to keep products ready at peak season.

In a situation of low customer acceptance of the brand as being low priced with high quality, the company cannot aim for higher profits. It must either differentiate itself from the competitors by product or service or follow the leaders completely. The building of credibility in the eyes of the customer can happen only when the company shows that the intent is to offer something better than the others.

The company has failed to identify that the two parallel missions of customer satisfaction and shareholder profit can occur only if sales are high. High volume and low returns is the only way to garner customer attention and capturing the market. Porter states that the initial low shareholder value should be compared with what the value would have been in the absence of such an action.

TESCO and ASDA have a wide product range which increases the potential profitability of the space occupied. Though Morrison’s has not focused on the non-food range as much as the top players, floor utility is higher than that of Sainsbury’s. Well-stocked and attractively placed range of products to cater to different tastes and budgets is an area of expertise for TESCO and ASDA. Sainsbury’s has yet to reach this level of floor space efficiency.

Space Productivity (2005)

TESCO 23.9
ASDA 22.3


Morrison 16.8

The use of technology has allowed TESCO and ASDA to create offerings that take them ahead of conservative retailing into areas like fashion, finance and travel. Sainsbury’s has failed to improve the existing technological capability to be in line with the competition. Speedy communication and integrated applications are the strength of a good retail system. The electronic link between the parts of the value chain determines the effectiveness of the whole in achieving the final objective.

Porter describes three strategies that can provide a company with an effective competitive advantage. Cost leadership, differentiation and market focus are the possible strategies with the first two providing a broader market scope. In the present scenario, Sainsbury’s is facing a downhill trend in profit and may like to reconsider the products it prefers to offer. It may choose differentiation as a way to pull some customers to its brand rather than being something to everyone.

Cost Leadership

Cost leadership comes with cost effective practices through the value chain. The company that is able to leverage its skills and resources to a level that sustains a low-price strategy is a cost leader. Cost control on areas like material sourcing, labour charges, communication, compensation based on target achievement helps the firm to attain leadership in the marketplace. Cost leadership presupposes investments into areas that allow the organisation to gather higher economies of scale. At the same time, the retail outlets may opt for backward integration in pertinent areas to reduce cost and control quality or it may choose to outsource part of its activities to a professional organisation. This investment will provide dividends at a later stage. This advantage is available to the few who are able to invest in a similar exercise when the company is in state of growth. When the company stagnates there is marked shareholder resistance to investments that will yield results over a longer timeframe. Though the methods are not unique, they are difficult to replicate.

Since the company has chosen the strategy of providing services to a value conscious customer, there is no choice but to follow the leaders in pricing at competitive rates. Market days in supermarkets are a strategy followed by most; Sainsbury’s may follow this route but also work on optional ways to entice customers to prefer their outlets. However, it must be realised that this is a strategy that will yield limited dividend and is easy to replicate. The time is overdue for investment in technology to sustain the value chain. The retail giant will need to consider an alternate route to ensure that the low cost strategy does not result in widespread shareholder dissent. The independent TU brand has provided the company with success.

Differentiation Strategy

The capability to provide a unique and product or service that cannot be replicated without specialised skill and knowledge is a part of this strategy. This is a strategy that allows for a premium pricing model and high profits. The funds generated from this strategy may be utilised to create the technological advantage that will prove useful to both the strategic initiatives. Keller, Sternthal and Tybout highlight the case of Subway that was able to utilise the fact of health and weight-loss as a differentiator in the sandwich business. No new product was created to build the concept. The same product was positioned in a manner that suited contemporary context. McDonald’s on the other hand introduced a health angle to the fast food offerings with a product that was different from the norm. This strategy can be applied in a variety of ways, tweaking an offering to suit customer needs or highlighting a pre-existing aspect.

Sainsbury’s could opt for a strategy that allows for a mix low pricing in some products and identify areas where people are more likely to be willing to spend. An example would be to consider niche services for special events that allow all products to be purchased from within the outlets at specially discounted rates. The bottom-line is the relevance that the customer feels to the differentiated offer. An offer that is intrinsic to the background of Sainsbury’s will be difficult for competitors to replicate. Clothes consulting services that offer to help people choose well and drape them for special occasions is a possible option that utilises the existing products of the outlets and keys merchandisers into the changing customer preferences.

Market Focus Strategy

This strategy involves focusing on the target audience and changing to suit the preferences. This is a strategy that focuses on the power of the brand or the offering. The niche market that is identified is sought to be served in a superior manner by the brand than the existing competition. This strategy focuses on the needs of a narrow based market and effectively captures it. An organisation may cater to the needs of patients who are not in a position to travel alone by offering a suitably designed vehicle at the door. Some may cater to the poorer segments by providing facilities at cheap rates.

Arranging parties, promotional events and other specialised functions with the aid of part-time or freelance professionals who are expected to utilise only products from within the range available provides Sainsbury’s a route to tap corporate groups, event managers, hospitality industry players and increase exposure to the brand in certain audience groups.

The last decade has seen the company floundering in trying to implement strategy. The movement of control to professional management was a welcome change since the heir was not interested in running the business. The new CEO was from a different industry which could have been a source of fresh perspective.  He realised the need for the company to refresh its approach on the value for money offering. The company has not fully accepted the import of the strategy statement and accepted the changes it should have brought.

A shift from a premium price market to the middle market calls for a paradigm shift across all levels of the organisation. The HR department would have had to re-orient and train the shop-floor managers and sales personnel in stocking and customer management processes. The customer service department would have to be equipped with facilities to manage complaints and service requests. The merchandisers would have to review the vendor network and gain strengths in the area of providing quality merchandise at highly competitive rates to the outlets. The company may have considered independent branding of items that could be mass produced and sold at a low cost and thereby provide a boost to sales figures. The sales and marketing department would have been pressured into considering schemes that would attract higher footfall and conversions. The logistics department would have to provide timely service to many outlets while the company would have been forced to review its stock carrying practices. The store managers would have been forced to ensure better queue management practices which would in turn have brought up the need for technology support for faster customer check out. These pressures would have borne out the need for better internal business practices and for superior technological support. However, the traditional culture that the organisation seems to have fostered would have prevented the flow of communication from the shops to the CEO.

If the CEO and the top management team had bought into the strategy statement of the company, they would have initiated appropriate actions that would have led to churn across the organisation. The absence of acceptance and commitment to the strategy statement would be one of the main reasons why the organisation floundered. The strategy statement itself leaves the intent vague by the choice of neutral words. Herein is the issue. When drafting the statement, the company has not looked within and confronted the reality of the situation. Past habits and attitudes were not overcome when accepting the fact that the market reality had changed. The absence of seriousness in drafting the statement has reflected in implementing capability and a series of downturns in the business.

This may be viewed as a sign of a conservative organisation culture. It is possible that the stewards of the company had not considered the possibility of the extent of change in company and thereby personal definitions would change. The preference was to stay ambiguous and hope that performance would happen. This attitude is displayed in the absence of necessary investments in important areas that would have boosted the retail service capability.

The 2004 strategy has again focused on profit recovery as the high priority. It would be unwise for the company to expect shareholder support for a year of loss, but profit recovery is not the answer. Justin King has taken over at a time when the company is undergoing a severe downturn. There are certain pressing needs to be considered while wading through this difficult time. Firstly, employee morale is at an all time low. Employees who have been with the company for a long time will be undergoing the anguish of being associated with the fall of the brand. Newcomers will be less likely to show willingness to stay. King would do well to address the issues pertaining to morale and providing thought direction about the way business is to be done. A possible way to retain employees is to explain the organisational situation, garner support for the cause of business revival, provide information about the actions that are being undertaken and emphasise earning with an incentive scheme based on quantifiable performance.

Competitive pricing strategy will help the company gain lost ground in the war for market share. It is often assumed that same industry experience will lead to success in a different scenario. However, players in an industry come with different business advantages and habits. A good way to integrate the new role holders into the organisation is by involving them in front end awareness exercises. Every member of the top management must know day to day business realities on the shop floor.

High quality products at reasonable prices can provide the much needed boost in the area of differentiation. However, it must be recalled that an effort in this direction requires product differentiation. If the same items are sold at the stage of competitor outlets, it ceases to provide an advantage. Besides, the product must cater to a need of the market. For example, a middle market customer may choose a premium skin care product on the strength of its superior image. An offer a free skin consultation along with the product can provide a boost to sales figures and alter the image of the retailer in the minds of customers.

Recommended Organisation Structure

Fahy has brought up the relevance of integrating the organisation with the strategy in a manner that allows the structure to support the activities.

Support functions include Finance and Accounts, HR, Legal, etc. Marketing includes sales and marketing, shop management, merchandisers and front-end staff Logistics refers to the backward value chain that supports the delivery of goods to the outlet.

IT is represented as directly associated with the head of the business in order to provide more focus to the technological needs of the organisation. There is a need for an integrated approach that provides relevant information inputs to all departments. Dual effort and wastage are reduced and lead to a possibility of talent optimisation. Besides, the benefits of effective cost control on account of internal process efficiency, optimum stock control and turnaround time can be garnered.

A restructuring at the top is required to display the right support and pressure areas of the organisation. The restructuring is in line with the organisation’s pledge to renew business. Kroon highlights the need for a formal organisation structure to reflect the business focus.

It is not however, prudent to restructure the lower working levels since this will create unnecessary fears. Talent that can be utilised in other directions should be tapped while the remaining should continue in the current assignments. Rather than call for an organisational overhaul which can dilute the importance of the strategy under consideration, the organisation would do well to spend time in identifying the important assignments that need to be conducted and getting to know the talent repository available within.

There should be no further changes at the top levels of management, the failure to achieve strategic objective is a team or an organisational failure. At this stage, it is necessary for the organisation to prove the capability to stay together and weather the coming problems. The mandate for HR is clearly to integrate the coming 3000 employees into the system and provide effective training so that they are up to mark at an early stage.

The review of the property portfolio will highlight to the management possible areas that can be considered for higher floor space productivity. Cash flow management and increasing operating efficiencies will help the organisation to improve the quality of service and internal cost reduction.

The investment on improving customer offers requires the marketing and shop management to identify discrete types of offers that will attract different customers to the outlets. A study of customer preferences, observation of purchase patterns and understanding of customer types and a creative view of their situation will aid the teams to come up with innovative offers that will stand apart from the rest. It would, at the same time, raise the efficiency of the expenditure.

Cultural Change

Traditional business cultures worked in relatively stable environments that did not draw the chief of the company into day-to-day activity. While this approach is necessary to send a message of top management commitment, there is also a need for a formal cultural overhaul. Structures and processes must be introduced in order to increase the level of knowledge sharing, information gathering capability and emotional bonding with the organisation as a whole.

The need of the hour is for the organisation to alter the culture to suit the strategy. The traditional top-down approach will not be able to provide long term benefits. It is necessary to understand the issues that come in the way of effective customer care and service delivery. Efforts are required to make process changes and review the effect on the customer. These require commitment of time and budgets from the management. The important knowledge and learning that is derived from reviewing practices for effectiveness must permeate through the organisation. Formal structures for facilitating the expansion and dispersion of learning are necessary.

A beleaguered organisation is trying to revive business fortunes. This is possible with the human energy available to the company. The organisation must commit to the path ahead along with each member from the highest to the lowest working level. It is important to display commitment so that employees are enthused to go beyond the requirements of their roles to sort out key issues.

Traditional methods pertaining to offering customer a value proposition, integrity in dealings with customers and vendors are necessary to be retained. At the same time, the creation of an environment that has each individual searching for solutions, finding and implementing them and sharing the process with others in the organisation is important for successful harnessing of potential emotional energy.


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