Some interesting retail numbers from my archives:
Highest Single Store Revenues
||Sales (2010 $mm)
|A. T. Stewart
(Data from Gary Hoover) Continue reading “Retail Numbers”
Large competitive moats play an important roll in determining the current and future success of a business. Moats are barriers to entry that protect the economic castle—from both new entrants, or expansion by current competitors. So the bigger the moat, the better the business, right? For the current and very near future, yes. But huge competitive advantages can become disadvantages when they lead companies to become complacent about their customers and potential alternatives to their product.
On the one hand, you have Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola—companies where consumer preference plays a large role. Wal-Mart has economies of scale that result in lower costs—probably the biggest competitive advantage in all of retail. But as the old saying goes, “retail is detail” and they still have to work hard to get the customer experience right (at least for their price point). If they don’t, competitors like Target and the dollar stores are more than willing to pick up new business.
Coca-Cola also has seemingly large advantages: a powerful brand name due to strong consumer habit and share of mind, plus large economies of scale in global marketing and distribution. Coca-Cola-owned brands account for 3% of every beverage consumed in the world today. But consumer preference still drives this market share, and a single slip-up (like this) can drive customers to the also-dominate #2 in the market, Pepsi.
On the other hand, you have companies with extremely wide moats like Microsoft and Ebay. They essentially have a lock on most of their customers because of high switching costs or strong network effects. Ten years ago, if you used their products and wanted to switch, it would be very difficult. Among other reasons, I think that led them to skimp on product quality and customer experience. There were product updates and improvements, but little innovation compared to alternatives. Why upset the apple cart when people are essentially forced to use your product?
The details matter!
Having a powerful lock on customers can lull companies into complacency. By the time they realize customers have a good alternative or their business model is being disrupted, it may be too late. For companies who have big competitors or have to constantly cater to customers, it’s easier not to fall into that trap. So if you have the luxury of running or investing in a business with a strong lock on its customer base, remember to sweat the details. Customers will always eventually have an alternative.
The following is a writeup I did for Wal-Mart on Sum Zero, included in its entirety below. Also at the end of the post are some charts that show how Wal-Mart has evolved over time. There is no doubt that Sam Walton and Wal-Mart are one of the, if not the greatest success story over the past 50 years. So it’s a great case study to take a look at. (I believe Warren Buffett once said that his greatest error of omission was not investing in Wal-Mart, a business he could understand very well, in its early days–which is clearly seen in the charts below.)
Wal-Mart is often listed as a cheap large-cap, but is owned by surprisingly few value investors. One reason is that it’s big and well scrutinized and hence its price is more “efficient.” This is partly true, and you won’t get stellar returns investing in Wal-Mart. But it is a cheap, well-managed company that returns cash to shareholders and should fare well under a number of different macro scenarios.
The U.S. stores division of Wal-Mart (about 3/4 of pre-tax profit) has significant competitive advantages. To consumers, Wal-Mart’s brand represents one thing: low prices. Customers in the vicinity of a Wal-Mart remain loyal because they can be certain that they will have the lowest prices. And as long as Wal-Mart doesn’t slack off in the service and facility departments, there will be no good reason for customers to switch.
Wal-Mart can have the lowest prices because of their (1) efficient operations and (2) economies of scale. Operationally, expenses are lower because of their non-unionized workforce and other shrewd cost management (shrinkage, inbound logistics, etc.). This penny-pinching mentality has been ingrained in the company since it was founded by Sam Walton. The biggest cost advantages are from Wal-Mart’s economies of scale. The most obvious consequence is purchasing power—Wal-Mart can buy products at lower prices because they can purchase in such enormous quantities. But the biggest and most un-replicable scale advantage is geographic concentration. Wal-Mart has a “hub and spoke” system of a distribution centers with 100-150 stores around them, all within about a day’s drive. Because of this concentration, costs can be distributed over a larger base of potential customers: distribution, advertising, regional management, etc. Wal-Mart also has some of the most technologically advanced merchandise and logistics systems in the world. This is something that smaller or more spread-out retailers can’t match. Continue reading “On Wal-Mart Stores Inc.”