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The Australian Wine Industry
The Liquor Wars - An Upheaval: The Trade Practices Act 1974 - Part 4
Tuesday, 9th August, 2011  - David Farmer

The Liquor Wars have traced how the two chains, Coles and Woolworths, came to dominate and then control the sale of liquor. In reality this story is about the breathtaking rise of Woolworths, from revenue of $500 million in the mid 1990s to $6.2 billion in 2011, with Coles riding along a very distant number two and hardly an equal at $2.7 billion.

This dominance has in turn created enormous problems for those who make and distribute wine and while the brand strength of the giant global spirit companies and the local brewers has kept the chains at arm's length they are well aware of the new realities and know they must be cautious and accommodating. The complete control of the chains has also seen the development of a tiered buying system with the chains on the lowest rung in purchase price while independents and even large wholesalers are on higher rungs depending upon their now limited negotiating skills. The opportunities that the chains have grabbed can be traced back to another event which needs to be woven into the story.

Trading terms prior to the passing of the Trade Practices Act in late 1974 were particularly rigid. Both the purchase prices and the selling prices were largely controlled - retail price maintenance. As the meaning and consequences of this act dawned on suppliers and retailers, slowly and sporadically selective discounting broke out. Retailers experimented with lower prices by reducing profit margins, initially without obtaining any additional buying advantage from suppliers.

Retailers found the previous rigid pricing had made customers very sensitive to even modest discounts off the set prices they were used to paying. Lower margins transferred into greatly increased sales particularly for beer. Retailer discounting spread rapidly and surprising groups, such as Farmers department stores (Sydney), built huge discount liquor businesses very quickly. At this stage supermarkets played only a minor role in this outbreak of discounting. Suppliers watched with amazement as brands with a previously tiny following sold in large volumes, greater than the market leaders, through the discounting by retailers. Suppliers then began to offer lower wholesale prices and volume discounts on slower moving brands to encourage this and the collapse of retail price maintenance gathered strength. The selling of liquor in Australia had changed for good. The day of the deal had arrived.

The Trade Practices Act, as it was designed to do, created market turmoil. Naturally this came at a cost as the profit made, at both levels, wholesale and retail became smaller. It is at best a crude guess but the transfer of profit from the producer/wholesaler and retailer to the customer can be measured in billions of dollars per year, onwards from 1975. This was received by the customer of course as lower prices.

This transfer of profit created instability for producers and suppliers of wines and spirits. What had been for over 100 years an easy, profitable business; acting as an import agent and local distributor of wines, beers and spirits, sold at regulated prices as determined by gentlemen, became a nightmare. The way to restore profitability was for the weak to leave the trade and for a few to get bigger by purchasing smaller businesses. The next decade or so saw many long established trading firms leave the liquor business or amalgamate and names such as Swift and Moore, Burns Philp, Elders, Dalgety's, Gollin, and Cawseys, come to mind. There were many more. Today xx companies, large multi-nationals supply most of the spirits and liqueurs. The local spirit brands that existed in the 1970s are largely gone, the exception being of course Bundaberg rum.

The change of trading slowly gripped the wine business though this was offset by a remarkable growth in consumption. Consolidation thus was blurred by the remarkable growth opportunities seen by some. In a future article I will plot the myriad takeovers and consolidations that spread through the wine trade culminating in Fosters buying Southcorp in 2005. The rearranging of the wine trade took 30 years.

The brewers had a natural protection as the consumer was reluctant to switch brands. As well the brewers maintained their margins and did not compete on price. It did though set off the slow breakdown of state based brand loyalty which has now almost run its course.

The onslaught of discounting created by retailers while it created disruptive effects in the supply trade leading to re-organisation was partly muted in its effects at the retail level by the state restrictions of retail licenses. This is still not dismantled. With time as the supply part of the trade consolidated power returned to the wholesalers/producers leaving the retail trade in an unstable condition. As explained it was this which Woolworths in particular has so brilliantly capitalised on. This rearranging of power at the retail level has taken about 35 years and is still underway.

Looking back over the last 15 years it is remarkable how suppliers, and here I refer particularly to wine companies did not understand the threat that retail domination would have on their businesses. Did they stupidly think they could control the chains? Perhaps they genuinely believed in their partnership models in which they could discuss with the chains, mutual benefits and assist each other in the market place.

They saw far too late that the power had shifted and surely the most comical illustration of this was witnessed with the release of the Penfolds Bin wines in 2011. Coles and the liquor chief Tony Leon saw the Bins as a useful attention grabbing device and to no one's surprise apart from Fosters promptly slashed the prices. So low were these that it was reported staff went from shop to shop buying back stock, particularly the Penfolds Bin 389. For an independent trader this was a beautiful illustration of the biblical proverb that you 'reap what you sow' in this case deserting the independent trade with more favourable terms for the chains. The chains in turn showed what they thought of 20 years of relationship building with Fosters.

And what did the ACCC think of all of the retailer consolidation leading inevitably to two dominant sellers? Well we may never know but we do know it was all too hard and they waved through all of the takeovers. Recently Woolworths have made several curious purchases, the Langtons fine wine auction house and the big direct selling house Cellarmasters. Cellarmasters after Woolworths and Coles may well be the third biggest retailer of wine in Australia yet Woolworths were so confident that this purchase would be waved through that they said so publically before they got the O.K.

Why would Woolworths want Cellarmasters? It will be a nuisance to operate as it requires experts and for the price they paid marginally profitable. Cellarmasters has several unique features and at least one may have been of concern. They are the only vertically integrated wine business in Australia, meaning they cover all stages from making the wine to selling it to their own customer base. This is not easy to achieve and could be used to create a problem for Woolworths. It would be best to own them to remove any nagging doubts as the position Woolworths has achieved means that the wine category is immensely profitable and the price to stop any disruption is a small one to pay.

It is ironic that Woolworth and Coles have now no re-imposed order. With time Woolworths and Coles and will cease fighting on price. The odd skirmish will breakout but no real advantage can be built for long so they will agree to agree and the battle will move to who has the best locations. If that is the case Coles must resign itself to a very distant second place and rue their mistakes.

The chains have established a new price order which competitors go under at their peril. And for most suppliers of spirits and beers they would rather have it this way and really do not care what happens to the independent trade.

For the wine companies this has not been so easy to adjust to. A slimmed down and quite chastened Treasury (Fosters) will look elsewhere for growth while the rump of Constellation is, to all effects, a different company. The rest can look for rather limited pickings as they have lost all pricing power. Up to a certain size a winery will be tolerated but to get bigger is not possible without the support of Woolworths and Coles and why would they offer that?

Who would have thought after the events triggered off in late 1974 that a new price order would be established 37 years on. Peace reigns across the land and over this time the customer has been given a fair slice of the 'price saved' cake.

Part 5 will look at how Woolworths and Coles may fight over the spoils and what their domination of liquor may have on the future of the wine business.

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Tuesday, 21st June, 2005

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Wednesday, 15th June, 2005

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Wednesday, 15th June, 2005

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Wednesday, 15th June 2005

Straight Talking By the Man From Thomas Hardy

Tuesday, 7th June, 2005

The Downward Price Vortex Gathers Speed

Sunday, 5th June, 2005

Trying Until the End

Wednesday, 2nd June, 2005

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Thursday, 19th May, 2005

Holding up Well Ė All Things Considered

Tuesday, 10th May, 2005

One for the Brave Investor

Sunday, 8th May, 2005

We Talk with U.S. Importer Peter Weygandt

Friday, 29th April 2005

Ned Kelly Rides In

Wednesday, 27th April 2005

More on that Disappearing Wine

Tuesday, 26th April 2005

Wine Investment Takes Another Knock

Friday, 22th April 2005

Let the Hard Work Begin

Friday, 22th April 2005

Will a Desperate Company do a Desperate Thing?

Wednesday, 20th April 2005

Nearly Half are Yellowtails

Tuesday, 19th April 2005

The Smell of Death

Thursday, 7th April 2005

Fake Medals to Go

Thursday, 7th April 2005

An Update on Australian Wines in the U.K.Market

Saturday, 2nd April 2005

A Peep Behind the Wine Show Door

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Downward Wine Price Pressure Continues

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Make Me Some Clean Skins

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

The Fosterís-Southcorp Game of Bluff

Thursday, 10th March 2005

Greg Norman Back on the Winning List

Tuesday, 8th March 2005

Bridget Jones Enters the Wine Marketing Lexicon

Saturday, 12th February 2005

Mine is Bigger than Yours

Friday, 11th February 2005

Bridget Jones Enters the Wine Marketing Lexicon

Saturday, 12th February 2005

No Surprises from Foster's and Southcorp

Wednesday, 9th February, 2005

Jacob's Creek and Wyndham Estate Feel the Pressure

Saturday, 5th February, 2005

A Wine Merchantís Warning

Monday, 31st January 2005

Drinkers Will Smile and Investors Frown

Friday, 28th January 2005

Great News For Southcorp Shareholders - the Bid is for Cash

Monday, 17th January, 2005

A Record to Inspire Confidence?

Friday, 14th January, 2005

A Terrible Botch at Takeovers

Thursday, 13th January, 2005

AUSTRALIAN WINE INDUSTRY ARCHIVE 2004
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Saturday, 25nd December, 2004

Wine Comes to the Big Screen

Wednesday, 22nd December, 2004

American Journalists Must be Wine Drinkers

Tuesday, 14th December, 2004

Memories of 1905

Tuesday, 14th December, 2004

ABARE Report Shows Meagre Returns for Grape growers

Monday, 15th November, 2004

The Value of a Brand

Tuesday, 9th November, 2004

What Governments Give...

Thursday, 28th October, 2004

Hot Weather to the Rescue

Tuesday, 26th October, 2004

The Battle for Pubs

Tuesday, 19th October, 2004

Back to Being a Cash Cow Good News for Investors

Tuesday, 19th October, 2004

Another $70m of Embarrassment for Fosterís Group

Wednesday, 13th October, 2004

A Good Idea at the Time

Friday, 1st October, 2004

How do You Grow a Wine Company While Cutting Vineyards and Stock?
The Answer is:

Tuesday, 2nd September, 2004

Glug visits the Adelaide Wine Show

Friday, 8th October, 2004

The Price Of Being One Industry

Tuesday, 29th June, 2004

Cork Amnesty Ė The Move to Screw Tops Continues Apace

Thursday, 16th October, 2004

Coming to a Bar Near You?

Wednesday, 8th September, 2004

Andrew Garrett Goodbye?

Tuesday, 24th August, 2004



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