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Monday, 16 March 2009

The Fallacy of Market Share

In our last Exceeding Expectations article we demonstrated how being in a high growth market sector and/or having a temporary market advantage are not reliable indicators of long term performance for a business. In this article we explain why “market share” is misunderstood and misused as an indicator of future performance – and so often also as a strategic goal. Given that the ONLY rationale offered to persuade Lloyds TSB shareholders to support the merger with HBOS was the “largest-market-share-in-UK-retail-banking-Gordon-has-given-us-the-nod” argument , this is a highly relevant subject to address.

The argument in favour of achieving high market share is that this creates many advantages that lead to superior financial performance. This fallacy has a corollary– the conclusion that high market share requires a very large organisation. Frequently this prompts boards to “shortcut” their way to increased market share through merger and acquisition. However as the record shows, M&A has a chance of between 50 and 80% of failing to produce value; what does this say about the advantages of high market share?

The research on this subject appears superficially to back the notion that high market share leads to superior financial performance. However one piece of research identified a crucial element needed if this superior performance is to be sustainable. The research, carried out at Harvard and still ongoing is titled Profit Impact of Market Strategies (PIMS). This research involved gathering performance data over many years from many thousands of business units to identify the business strategies most likely to lead to success in a range of contexts. In their book (“The PIMs Principles”) Robert Buzzell and Bradley Gale showed how their PIMS research discovered that only market share growth based on relative perceived superior quality will result in market share growth that delivers sustainable superior financial performance.

For an example of how the lack of relative perceived superior quality results in poor financial performance in spite of high market share we need look no further than DSG, the owners of Currys and PC World. This company built itself into the market leading electricals retailer and showed all the characteristics of a high market share operator, e.g. using its buying power to offer low prices and occupying prime retail sites throughout the UK. Three years ago, after one of our clients suffered one of the worst customer experiences we have witnessed from PC World’s so called Business Division, we looked at DSG from our Competitive Strength perspective and warned that all was not well. Since then other commentators began to voice concerns and in due course DSG’s profits began to slide along with its share price.

Then came the recession and of course this has meant a tough period in retail. In spite of this a few retailers have been able to report results that exceeded expectations whereas DSG announced trading results that were every bit as bad as expected. The media’s financial and business pundits once again cited market conditions, the credit crunch, shifts in demand for one technology or another, and so on. DSG attempted to cushion the bad news by reporting that trials of new store formats had delivered increased sales and margins. On the strength of this news one analyst actually changed his recommendation from sell to hold – obviously he has never heard of the Hawthorne Effect (research that showed the refurbishing of working environments can improve performance – but only for an extremely short time). The thinking (or is it a Prayer?) goes that if the market leader upgrades all their stores, the improved performance seen in the trial will replicate across the business to restore the high market share and once again deliver high profits.

We have to ask - has this analyst or any of the other commentators actually tried to buy anything recently from a DSG store? If they had, they might just understand why even an infinite number of expensive store refits will not stop DSG plunging further and crashing – why there is no sign of a competent pilot and no River Hudson nearby.

Recently, my wife and I popped into our local (large) branch of Currys. She wanted to buy a new electric iron. There was a reasonable choice of items lined up along a display shelf. The chief decision maker examined them and finally decided which one she wanted to buy. We looked at the lower shelves for the boxed item. It was not there – in fact, there were boxed examples of fewer than half the items “on sale”. After a search, I found two assistants busy chatting and asked for help. Visibly irritated at being interrupted, one of them came to the shelf, removed the label, disappeared to a computer terminal and then returned. “We don’t have one, but you can order it”. We asked when, if we were to order, would it be available? He did not know. He asked another lady assistant who said that a delivery would be in 4 days. Would it include that item? “Probably – if you order it”.

My wife asked if we could buy the display item? Could we have the box and instructions? “Oh no, we throw those away. We would be full of cardboard boxes, wouldn’t we?” My wife then asked how much reduction they would offer for the item as incomplete. “Oh no, we can’t reduce it because it is a current stock item. You can order it”. She walked out, fuming. We went straight to Sainsburys – a whole 300 yards. Within 10 minutes she found what she wanted and bought it.

This is why DSG are doomed. Disastrous Customer Service experiences and the inability to deliver the basic function of a “shop” (somewhere that sells things you can buy there and then) demonstrates DSG’s relative perceived inferior quality. Disposing of the packaging and thereby devaluing all their display stock is simply one of many inevitable, stupid consequences of the core problem. This core problem is low Comparative Competitive Strength for which no amount of “bigness”, whether in market share or anything else, can compensate.

Their new chief executive is promising change “but it will take time”. With rapidly diminishing Competitive Strength, my friend, you don’t have the time. This is a business behaving in a way that spells disaster even in good times. What hope does it have in a time of economic crisis? The Abyss looms – and a great deal faster than you may wish to believe. Size matters, a bit – the Titanic took much longer to slide under the waves than a rowing boat, but the only variable was the time, not the sinking. And, as a very large organisation, when DSG crashes, the tsunami will drown many others that do not deserve to die. If, as they have announced, DSG think they need redundancies – it is not in the stores – it is in their leadership.

If you own DSG shares, forget them, write them off. If you are a DSG employee, sorry, look for another job now. If you are a DSG Supplier – get ready for massive contractions at any minute. If you are a DSG Creditor – take protective action now. If you are a Financial Analyst, ask yourself if you are saying the right things but for the wrong reasons and consequently at risk now of giving wrong advice? If you are an Institutional Investor (on behalf of my pension fund perhaps?) and if you still hold a stake, you should be sacked, now.

If you think we are just picking on DSG, what about Lloyds TSB and HBOS? Sorry, Lloyds shareholders, it is probably too late, get ready to sue your Board members and the government.

The only hope the UK has in these troubled times is for every business to raise its game NOW. There is no longer time to pussy foot around. Every enterprise that fails, as DSG seems determined to do, will be an avoidable burden on the few survivors. Don’t expect the Government to help – they haven’t a clue about Comparative Competitive Strength or its importance to saving the British economy – just a few stalwart pursuers of Excellence will, if the banks don’t stop them, provide the only solid base for our future economic survival.

Frankly it makes us want to cry. But if you are of stouter heart, and want to know more about how you can raise your game – NOW – please have look at our website here and at the Comparative Strength Report page here.

Exceeding Expectations is brought to you by Steve Goodman and Tony Ericson. It is one of our "Excellence Quartet" of blogs promoting the cause of Excellence as the key to prosperity. Each blog has a new article each month using a recent business/financial topic to highlight different perspectives and conclusions from those obtained using conventional thinking and techniques. You can read the other three blogs are "You're having a laugh ... Seriously?", Business Bloop of the Month Award", "Capitalism or ... Common Sense" .