Feb 6, 2008

Pricing Wars in Canada Fraying Relationships

Wal-Mart announced today that their stores in Canada will no longer be stocking best-selling LEGO building block products. For some time, Canadian's have been lamenting that retail prices of goods sold in canada have been too high relative to what the canadian dollar can purchase in neighboring US markets. It seems that retail prices have not been adequately correcting for shifts in US dollar-Canadian dollar exchange rates.

With a long legacy of building relationships based on muscular strong-arming of suppliers, it's hardly a surprise to anyone that Wal-Mart is looking outside the company to extract retail price relief from vendors. When that doesn't work, they start looking to boost sales of more vulnerable (and compliant!) second-tier products on their shelves. in LEGO's case, that means Wal-Mart is reallocating it's shelf space to Mega blocks (made by Montreal-based Mega Brands).

Two strategic problems with Wal-Mart's old school strong-arming tactics. First, consumers want LEGO brand products. Does Wal-Mart really have research to the contrary? I wouldn't bet your stock investments on it!

But secondly, LEGO products are euro- (or kroner-) denominated purchases. They're made in Denmark. If you look at what's happened to euro (and kroner) exchange rates, you see that it's US retailers feeling the squeeze in 2008 as their cost of goods sold rise in US dollars. LEGO products selling for $35 (CN) today at a 40% gross margin have COGS of $21 (CN). That $21 (CN) is equivalent to 14 euros. And that same 14 euro wholesale price from Denamrk (with similar mark-up) would be priced at $35 in the US. The same pattern holds for kroners.

So where is the pricing gap? (US and canadian dollars are essentially at parity today) .

We know what's really behind the news, and so does LEGO. Wal-Mart is disingeniously using this exercise as a PR smoke screen to strong-arm LEGO into margin concessions. Not surprising.
The good news for consumers is that LEGO is standing firm. Passing system efficiency gains on to consumers in the form of lower prices is smart retailer-vendor strategy. But unhealthy and unrealistic price pressure to simply grab retail share in a tough market can only lead to cheapened products, cheapened brands, and eventually safety problems as subcontractors make risky cost-cutting decisions.

But then, Mega Brands knows that story well. Remember the toy recalls last year? It seems that price isn't the only concern consumers have.

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