CMA merger block leaves Sainsbury’s boss in tough spot, GlobalData

CMA merger block leaves Sainsbury’s boss in tough spot, GlobalData

Yesterday, RTIH reported that Sainsbury's and Asda had ditched their planned £13 billion merger after it was blocked by the Competition & Markets Authority (CMA).

The decision puts the heat on Sainsbury’s CEO Mike Coupe, according to Patrick O’Brien, UK Retail Research Director at GlobalData. “Whatever the rights or wrongs of the CMA’s decision, Coupe appears to have wasted a year chasing an impossible dream while Sainsbury’s competitors took full advantage of its distraction. Its results over the last year have been poor, with store standards falling noticeably, and it must now refocus on retail basics rather than chase another big acquisition,” he comments.

A key mistake has been failing to offer any assurances on price cuts until the CMA’s devastating provisional findings in February, O’Brien argues. Sainsbury’s built the rationale for the merger on the rather vague notion that it would reduce prices by 10% by putting pressure on major suppliers, though it didn’t make it clear how many products this would include. It only made some assurances of audited price investment later, but this might have had more sway if it had offered them at the start.

“The confidence Coupe placed in getting the deal past the CMA in light of its previous – generous – decision to allow Tesco to buy Booker looks like a bad misjudgement now,” says O’Brien. “Coupe may feel hard done by, but the CMA made clear that the Tesco-Booker deal was passed because it considered the acquisition to be a vertical one, by a retailer of a wholesaler, and so viewed that the combination did not significantly damage the competitiveness of either market.”

The rights and wrongs of that decision are debateable but it looks difficult for Coupe to argue that the CMA’s decision then is in direct contradiction of its decision regarding Asda/Sainsbury’s now. Asda, meanwhile, has been more successful in managing the distraction of the merger. “We do not believe Walmart will want to keep Asda as it is now, and may look to sell Asda to other suitors, but it would look unlikely that other major players in the UK would consider it, given the strictness the CMA has displayed,” says O’Brien. 

This opens the possibility of private equity or floating the business, or a foreign retailer entering the market. Amazon will always be speculated about, but GlobalData does not believe that taking on a major physical food presence in the UK fits with its strategy, despite the Whole Foods deal in the US, which was a distressed (i.e. cheap) business, more focussed on affluent customers.

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