A full product range would include industry consolidation.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

American Supermarkets Give U.K. a Wake-Up Call

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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Royal Ahold's move to buy Delhaize Group, which engineers what will be the fifth-biggest U.S. grocer, is the world's biggest supermarket deal for almost a decade. It should also be a wake-up call for the U.K. grocery industry, which needs to spend less time waging price wars and more time engaging in takeover battles.

The motivation for the 9.3 billion-euros ($10 billion) deal echoes the themes playing out in the U.K. Ahold's Giant chain and Delhaize's Food Lion stores have been hurting from competition with discounters, including Wal-Mart Stores. That mirrors the British backdrop, where Tesco, Sainsbury and WM Morrison have seen their market share eroded as Aldi and Lidl, two privately owned German companies, have flooded the country with cut-price food.

The three biggest publicly traded U.K. grocers have all suffered a collapse in their enterprise values (a proxy for takeover value that counts market capitalization, preferred equity and debt less cash and equivalents). While Tesco still isn't exactly a minnow with an enterprise value of almost 27 billion pounds ($42 billion), all three are much cheaper targets than they were five years ago:

Source: Bloomberg

Debt-rating company Moody's Investors Service reckons U.K. supermarkets face another 18 months of price wars that will hamper efforts to restore profitability. Morrison announced earlier this month that it would slash prices by as much as one third for 200 of the most popular grocery items, trimming 25 percent off the cost of a bag of sugar and 11 percent off a box of eggs, for example.

While those price reductions have boosted volumes, they've damaged margins. And, as Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Charles Allen said on Monday, the popularity of food shopping on the web makes it less likely that customers will spontaneously add extra items to their baskets:

U.K. food retailing is seeing a more sustained recovery in volumes, an important indicator of industry health. This gain was only achieved at the expense of major price reductions, as supermarkets adapted to competition from a limited assortment of discounters. Online grocery continues to take shoppers out of stores, making it more difficult for supermarkets to stimulate impulse purchases.

As a small island with a decent road infrastructure, the U.K. has embraced Internet food shopping, with Britons opting to pay for the privilege of two-hour home-delivery windows rather than schlep around the supermarket aisles themselves. As a result, Internet sales have outstripped store income on a relative basis in recent years:

Source: Bloomberg Intelligence

Consolidation is long overdue for Britain's food retailers. It's 15 years since Wal-Mart Stores paid almost $11 billion for Asda. It's 12 years since billionaire Philip Green took a shine to Safeway Plc when it was the U.K.'s fourth-biggest grocer, before conceding defeat to WM Morrison's 2.9 billion pound offer. (Tesco had also considered bidding for Safeway in 2003.) And it's a decade since Green abandoned his 9.1 billion pound adventure in trying to buy Marks & Spencer Group.

Blackstone Group's John Studzinski said this week he reckons 2015 mergers and acquisitions activity will beat the record set in 2007, with this year on track to surpass $3 trillion for the first time in eight years. It's time U.K. grocers added to the 11,000 global deals already underway -- before the price war wounds one of them fatally. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mark Gilbert at magilbert@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Cameron Abadi at cabadi2@bloomberg.net