Monday, November 29, 2010

A Fast Growing Market Begins Developing Reliability and Convenience Innovations

In a fast growing market, new Functions and lower Price drive more share gains than do Reliability and Convenience (see Customer Buying Hierarchy descriptions on in the Perspective, “How Customers Buy” and in “Video 25: Short Explanation of Customer Buying Hierarchy”). After awhile, though, market growth begins to slow and Function innovations become less important than innovations in Reliability and Convenience. We can see this developing in the wireless applications market.

This market has been on a tear for the last few years. Recently, Amazon announced that it was planning to enter the market for phone applications by creating an online store selling apps for smart phones running Google’s Android software. Amazon will then compete with Google’s web site offering apps that work on the Android system.

Amazon’s entrance shows developments in both Reliability and Convenience. Amazon offers Reliability innovations in at least two ways. First, Amazon encourages the reviews from its customers of the products it sells. These customer reviews are important sources of Reliability information about a product. Second, Amazon insists that any app it sells will not sell for a lower price anywhere else. This Reliability innovation assures a customer that Amazon will have prices that are competitive with anyone.

Amazon also brings great Convenience to this market. There are so many apps today that the market is becoming chaotic. Amazon will organize these applications in ways that fit with its customer base. Amazon has a long history of doing this very thing with other products. Just as importantly, Amazon already has a working payment arrangement with millions of customers. It is particularly adept at the “one click” payment system, which enables a customer to pay for purchases very quickly.

Amazon’s entry is a good example of a natural evolution in a fast growing market.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Costs - The Problem with Weak Constraints

Here are two random observations of the results that any manager can expect to face when there is little to no constraint on the level of costs in an organization.

The first comes from the Heritage Foundation. This foundation analyzed the percentage of jobs gained or lost since January of 2008 through July 2010, a time of recession. The foundation measured job growth in the federal government, state government, local government and the private sector. The private sector was under extreme constraints as revenues flattened or shrank. This sector lost 6.8% of its jobs. Local government was under pressure from the fall-off in property tax receipts. This sector lost a little less than 1% of its jobs. State governments suffered from falling income tax revenues as the recession flattened consumers and commercial tax payers. It lost one tenth of one percent of its jobs. Then there is the federal government, who operated without constraints by creating debt. In just the two and a half year period, total federal government employment increased by 10%. Shocking.

The second observation is also a great source of concern. This data tracks the performance of public schools, K through 12, from 1970 to 2010, forty difficult years. Voters of all kinds have tended to support public education. This support shows up in both spending on the public school sector and in its employment. Since 1970, the real spending, that is after adjusting for inflation, on public K through 12 education has increased by 150%. (See “Audio Tip 195: Economies of Scale and Their Measurement” on The total employment has increased by about 100%.

Did we get any more for that additional spending? Enrollment increased by about 5%, after having fallen for the first twenty years of the measures. So, productivity, as measured by employment divided by enrollment, declined a great deal. But perhaps there was more benefit in the quality of the education? It turns out that hasn’t happened either. The scores for science, math and reading have not moved at all, despite the increase in spending.

In both of these examples, we seem to be spending without accountability. (See “Audio Tip 198: Diseconomies of Scale” on As much as you can criticize the budgeting system of most businesses, results like these are highly unlikely to occur over a period of time in business systems because there would be quick accountability with this kind of loss in productivity. If that accountability did not come from within the business then, surely, competition would call the profligate business to account.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I Guess it Takes Bankruptcy...

In our previous blog (see Here), we described the resuscitation of the comatose manufacturing employment due to renewed flexibility in many union shops, such as GM. I guess it takes bankruptcy to get attitudes to change. Look at American Airlines, for an example.

Over the last several years, its big airline competitors have been getting bigger. United and Continental combined, as did Delta and Northwest. U.S. Airways merged and Southwest has just purchased Air Tran. Through it all, American stood largely on the sidelines.

Most of the other competitors had a real advantage. They went through bankruptcy. Of course, Southwest did not, but the other legacy carriers did. What those airlines and their workforces learned in bankruptcy created a lower cost and more flexible set of work rules for these airlines. Now American Airlines is beginning to pay the price for its competition with lower cost airlines.

American is clearly a high-cost airline. Its 2010 cost to fly a seat mile is 12.76 cents. This is the highest among the six largest carriers. Predictably, its pretax margins for the first half of the year were negative, while its peers produced positive operating earnings.

The problem American faces is primarily due to high labor costs. This may surprise you since several of the unions agreed to give-backs in 2003. Further, the American Airlines pilots claimed to be working at 1993 hourly rates. In short, all the unions working at American seem to be up in arms in frustration over their lack of economic progress.

The problem is less the rate of pay for the workforce than it is the work rules. American is at the bottom on industry measures of productivity because of restrictive work rules. Does that sound like the American automobile industry’s problem before the recent spate of bankruptcies?

Still, the unions are up in arms. Despite long term negotiations, the company has reached little in the way of agreements. Some unions are now threatening a strike. Let’s see. Take a high cost airline that is losing market share, increase its costs and scare away its future passengers with a threat of a strike. That sounds like a prescription to insure the future of an airline and the jobs that go with it, doesn’t it?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Green Shoots and Attitudes and Jobs

Here is something that may surprise you. We are now gaining manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Manufacturing employment has fallen every year since 1998, until 2010. Since the beginning of 2010, there has been a 1.6% gain in manufacturing jobs. That’s twice the pace of the growth in other private sector jobs. The unemployment rate for the manufacturing has improved from 13% in December of 2009 to 9.5% in August of 2010. That’s a better performance than that of the overall labor force.

These gains have come primarily in four industries: automobiles, fabricated metals, primary metals and machinery. These industries have all been losing jobs for several years. What is behind the change? Here is a significant indicator. Recently, the United Autoworkers Union has crafted an agreement with General Motors to encourage GM to invest money to assemble a low-priced sub-compact car in the U.S., with unionized labor.

This will be a first. All other domestic and foreign manufacturers have produced their sub-compact cars offshore. GM’s sub-compact, the Aveo, came from South Korea. Ford’s Fiesta came from Mexico. Chrysler and Fiat are planning to manufacture the Fiat 500 in Mexico. The Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris are imported from outside the United States.

This new agreement is truly ground-breaking. Under the terms of the agreement, GM will pay 60% of the sub-compact plant’s 1550 workers a wage of $28 an hour. The other 40% of the plant’s employees will make $14 an hour. By GM’s calculations, this would enable the company to build a sub-compact at a profit in the U.S.

This new agreement may, in fact, reduce the average wage rate to competitive levels. Before GM’s bankruptcy, the average GM worker earned over $70 an hour in wages and benefits. After bankruptcy, that rate of cost fell to about $57 an hour…good, but not good enough to compete profitably. (See “Audio Tip #163: Introduction to Step 25 of the Basic Strategy Guide” on Toyota has average labor costs of about $50 an hour. The Toyota workers are not unionized. This new UAW agreement with GM should make the new sub-compact plant competitive with the cost that Toyota incurs in the U.S.

A change in attitude at the UAW is behind this job-creating agreement. A senior UAW official explained that this agreement was the result of some very difficult decisions the union had to make in order to safeguard jobs. He further explained that the UAW developed a new understanding of the realities of the 21st century global auto industry while living through the GM and Chrysler bankruptcies. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is reducing costs aggressively” on

Three cheers for the UAW/GM agreement. Let’s hope that it creates jobs and profits.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The ETF Arms Race

In our previous blog (See Here), we discussed Vanguard and its unseating of Fidelity as the largest money manager in the U.S. Vanguard has done this with low-priced attacks on virtually every market Fidelity serves. Fidelity, and much of the rest of the market, is allowing Vanguard to get away with this, at least for now. In this blog, we want to see how pricing affects even a fast-growing market and then watch what happens when a Vanguard flexes its muscles in such a fast-growing market.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) are some of the hottest products in the financial industry today. They are cheaper and, often, more tax efficient than are mutual funds. Because of these advantages, many independent registered investment advisors and individual investors have shifted out of mutual funds and into ETFs. The ETF market is growing rapidly.

A year ago, Schwab decided to take share in this market by using low prices. Schwab offered eight ETFs to its customers on a commission-free basis. Since Schwab is such a leader in the market, the company’s move started a war. (See the Symptom & Implication, “The industry is seeing its first price wars” on In short order, E-Trade, Fidelity and Vanguard joined the fray. Fidelity offered twenty-five iShares ETFs, commission-free. Recently, TD Ameritrade upped the ante. This company offered more than one hundred ETFs, commission-free, to both individual investors and investment advisors. This is a real arms race in the fast-growing ETF market. Prices on already inexpensive ETFs continue to fall.

Why this focus on industry prices? The industry has learned that high prices cost you market share. This is a sure signal that customers are having increasing difficulty making buying decisions among the top industry ETF providers on the basis of Function, Reliability or Convenience. When an investor can not chose among peer competitors on the basis of performance, that is Function, Reliability or Convenience, they make their decisions on the basis of Price. (See the Perspective, “What Ends Hostility” on

In this price war, Vanguard stands to gain the most, at least in the short term. This company is well known for its low-cost funds. So far this year, Vanguard has garnered 37% of the new money coming into the ETF market. Their 37% share of new money is greater than the combined shares of the two biggest ETF companies, iShares and State Street Global Advisors, combined.

For their part, the top two ETF sponsors argue that they will not be drawn into a price war. This is simply a Leader’s Trap. You can ignore these protestations. They, and everyone else in the market, will have to respond to Vanguard, or stand aside and watch Vanguard trample them in the market.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vanguard vs. Fidelity

We are going to use this blog, and the next one, to speak more about pricing. Over the years, we have learned some surprising things about pricing. For example, in the average market, price moves much less share than most people assume. (See the Perspective, “The Price Segment” on In most markets, the true price-driven market share volatility is 15% or less of the current volatile, changing, market share. You might ask how that can be. But the explanation is relatively easy. Most of us buy most of the things we purchase on the basis of a unique Function, better Reliability, or more Convenience, before we even get to Price. Did you buy your last car on the basis of Price? How about those snow skis? Were they the cheapest on the market? Do you stay in the cheapest hotels or drink the cheapest beer? True Price buyers are in the minority. And before these buyers get to Price in the decision sequence, they have satisfied themselves that there is no important difference among competitors on Function, Reliability or Convenience.

Even more surprising to most people is that in a hostile market, one with severe overcapacity and intense price competition, price moves even less share. We have worked in many hostile markets. In all of them, the true price-based volatile market share was less than 5% of the available volatile share. The reason for this phenomenon is that in a true hostile marketplace, virtually all competitors have learned to copy lower prices, or face an immediate loss in market share. (See the Perspective, “Why Price Cuts Don’t Build Share” on For an example, look at the airline industry. When one airline offers a price discount, all the other peers of that airline offer the same discount on the same flight to the same locations.

Now I am going to offer what seems to be an exception to these “guidelines” I have just set down. The exception appears to be Vanguard in its competition with Fidelity Investments and the other money managers. This year, Vanguard Group replaced Fidelity as the largest U.S. mutual fund company. Fidelity had held that number one ranking since 1988, when it passed Merrill Lynch. At one time, the Fidelity Magellan fund, while it was run by Peter Lynch, was the world’s largest mutual fund. In 2000, it reached $110 billion under management. Lynch had a phenomenal record, but his successors did not. Today, the Fidelity Magellan fund has less than $30 billion under management. The biggest mutual fund today is the Vanguard 500 Index Fund at $87 billion under management.

The big difference between a managed fund and an index fund should be performance. A managed fund is supposed to earn more than an index fund. Some do, most don’t. So many investors have been migrating to the lower-priced index funds. Stock index funds charge an average of 29 cents per hundred dollars invested. Actively managed funds charge more like 95 cents.

Vanguard has unseated Fidelity by offering low-cost funds. Fidelity offers mostly managed funds. Vanguard is the ensign bearer for index funds. Investors seem to pay more attention to management costs when returns are already low. Over the last ten years, Vanguard has taken in more than $4 in new money to manage for every $1 Fidelity has gained. Almost 80% of the new money coming to Vanguard this year went to index funds. Exchange traded funds, ETFs, are even cheaper than many index funds. Vanguard has over $100 billion in ETF funds. Fidelity has side-stepped that business.

So Vanguard appears to be winning in the market due to pricing. How does that jibe with the guidelines we talked about? The key rule is that a customer does not buy on Price until after the customer has satisfied herself, that there is no important difference to the customer on Function, Reliability or Convenience, so the customer decides on Price. Vanguard has proven to many investors that it is the Functional equivalent of Fidelity, that its returns are Reliable and that it is equally Convenient to purchase, so many customers buy on Price. The price markets here are the index funds and the exchange traded funds. Fidelity needs to offer exchange traded funds to stay in the game. What really is happening is that Fidelity is “failing” on Price while Vanguard beats the other competitors on the basis of Reliability and Convenience.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Previews of Coming Attractions in Public Services

A generation ago, public servants earned less than equivalent employees in the private sector. This is no longer the case. Many reports today suggest that public servants earn 25% or more greater compensation than equivalent private sector employees. While a percentage of the workforce employed in private industry union shops has steadily declined for more than thirty years, unionization in the public sector has grown rapidly. This is important because of the inflexibility of many unions in changing work rules and compensation when confronted with economic realities such as tightening budgets.

What might you expect to happen in such an environment? Growth of private sector companies offering the same services, or better, for less money. These private companies operate under the price umbrellas of the public sector. That is certainly happening today, even in the most unlikely of places. A little company in Maryland has grown into the country’s fifth largest library system, measured by number of branches. This small company, Library Systems and Services, Inc., runs fourteen library service systems operating 63 branches. It has $35 million in annual revenue and 800 employees. It ranks behind Los Angeles County, New York City, Chicago and the city of Los Angeles in the size of its branch system.

The company is finding it relatively easy to succeed by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees with non-union employees willing to do the jobs for less. In a recent $4 million contract, the company pledged to save $1 million a year using its cost reduction techniques. (See “Audio Tip 187: The Components of Productivity” on

Nor does the company need to reduce hours and services in order to succeed. The company has found that the operating policies of public libraries often serve to protect job security and ensure high rates of pay. (See “Audio Tip 182: Productivity as a Measure of Physical Costs” on Of course, not all people are happy with the success of this company. In particular, the company’s most recent contract came in for severe criticism from the Service Employees’ International Union. That union has 87 members in libraries recently transferred to Library Systems and Services.

As the cost of public employee pay and pensions becomes less bearable in the future, we can expect to see a good deal more of companies like Library Systems and Services. These private companies should also be good investments. Their first need is not to generate greater revenues, though I am sure they will try that. Instead, they need only reduce costs. That should be relatively easy, due to the price umbrella held up by current public sector management of citizen services.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dominick’s Finds a Way to Reduce Price…Successfully

Dominick’s is a wholly owned unit of Safeway, the large retail grocer. They have found a way to use price to gain share in a highly competitive price environment.

If a company wishes to use a discounted price to gain market share, it must assure itself that its competitors will not copy its price reduction. If a competitor copies the price reduction, then the original company’s discount is no longer distinctive and cannot drive a gain in share. Instead, its low prices cause its margins to fall without the offsetting benefit of increased sales volume.

You would like to be able to predict whether a competitor will copy a discount you offer. In the course of many pricing studies, we have found that the likelihood of a competitor responding to a company’s price reduction depends on three factors: the competitor’s knowledge of the price reduction, the company’s capacity to meet that price reduction and, often most importantly, the competitor’s will to meet the lower price. (See “Diagnose/Pricing/Competition and Their Knowledge, Capability and Will” on

If your competitor does not know about your price reduction, they can not respond in kind. In some markets, customers do not “shop” a lower price offering to their suppliers in what’s called “last look” Their suppliers may not respond to a competitor’s lower price offering because they do not know of it. The competitor also must have the capacity to respond to the lower price. In the vast majority of falling price environments, most competitors have ample capacity to respond to lower prices. Still, some competitors are unwilling to meet falling prices in an industry. These competitors are in a Leader’s Trap, where they assume that the lower prices will not attract their customers. This is virtually always a losing assumption. The phenomenon of the Leader’s Trap leads us to the third determinant of the likelihood that a competitor will respond to a lower price: does the competitor have the will to do so. A competitor needs the will to do so because its margins are likely to fall, even if it maintains its current market share. Some competitors refuse to suffer the margin consequences and live, at least for a time, in a Leader’s Trap. (See many examples on StrategyStreet/Tools/Grossary/Leader’s Trap)

So, it is difficult for a company to use a low price to gain market share. Difficult, but not impossible. Dominick’s has found a way. Dominick’s is in a price war, not only with traditional grocers, but also with Wal-Mart, Target and discount stores. These competitors of Dominick’s often have lower prices on categories of consumer purchases that Dominick’s would like to sell to their own customers.

Dominick’s has used its “Frequent Shopper Card” information to help it offer low prices to very targeted customers. It analyzed the shopping patterns of its frequent shoppers. It found that some of its customers have assumed that supermarkets are not competitive in some high-priced, high-margin products. These customers then start buying those categories from discount chains and spending their retail grocery money on perishables like milk, meat and produce. Dominick’s used this information to offer shoppers personalized savings on items they have purchased in the past and could purchase again. The store offers these shoppers very competitive discounts on products, which are profitable for Dominick’s, but that customers purchase from other competitors. The shopper is offered a very good deal. The offer comes automatically at the cash register when shoppers use their loyalty cards. The offers are good for up to ninety days on unlimited quantities of the discounted items.

Dominick’s is gaining share with this program because competitors do not have the knowledge of the lower prices. These low prices are not advertised, nor are they available to all shoppers. Instead, they are personalized offers, targeted at customers who are likely to use them soon. These same customers tend to buy these discounted products from other suppliers, assuming that Dominick’s is not price competitive with those other suppliers. Dominick’s picks up some extra sales that pay for the selective discounts it offers and competitors are unable to respond because they do not know about the discounts.