Stand-off in the Aisles
What do Ben & Jerry's ice cream, Pot Noodles, Persil, Dove soap and Marmite have in common? They are all made by Unilever. What does Unilever and Tesco have in common? Dave Lewis, Tesco’s current boss, spent most of his career at Unilever before being poached by Tesco. What does all of this have to do with negotiating? Well, having been in a stand-off that threatened to damage both parties, heads were banged together on Thursday 13 October and a deal was done. We at Scotwork have constantly maintained that external factors are the most common cause of the kinds of conflicts that need negotiated solutions and what happened between Tesco and Unilever is a classic example. External factors do not come much bigger than Brexit!
The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has had many consequences, chief amongst which is uncertainty. Hard Brexit or soft? Free movement of EU citizens or not? The triggering of Article 50 sooner or later? All of these as yet unanswered questions have led to uncertainty; business hates uncertainty; markets hate uncertainty and one of the results is a significant fall in the value of sterling against the currencies of the country’s major trading partners, Europe and the USA. Interestingly and on the face of it paradoxically, the FTSE 100 index has never been higher; this is mainly due to UK-produced goods being cheaper to sell abroad than they used to be. The downside of all of this though is that overseas-produced goods have become much more expensive in the UK.
Unilever is Tesco’s biggest supplier; I venture that Tesco is probably Unilever’s biggest route to the UK market. You might argue that the one needs the other as much as the other needs the one and that therefore both would tippy-toe lightly around each other when they come together to discuss their business arrangements. Occasionally, of course, things can go wrong!
Unilever has factories all over the world; in addition, it sources raw materials for production worldwide. The pound has crashed and so these ex-UK products and materials have become comparatively more expensive in the UK. Not unreasonably perhaps, the company sought to recoup some, if not all of these costs in an unscheduled price increase averaging around 10%. Tesco, as is often its wont, refused to countenance such an increase and further suggested that they would only pay the previously-agreed prices for Unilever’s products; Unilever refused to supply on those terms and we suddenly found ourselves observing an impasse.
A review of the balance of power between the two parties is interesting.
Tesco is a bigger business in a bigger market than Delhaize but the example is there. Critically, Lewis was on the other side of the fence in the battle with Delhaize; perhaps he remembered what had happened and decided to go for an early settlement.
Which brings us to negotiation. Obviously, both parties decided to sit around the table and come up with a negotiated solution. We are not privy to the deal yet but I venture that it might look something like this. In return for improved payment terms and brand listings as well as a 10% increase on some, if not all of its products, Unilever agrees to a figure of less than a 10% increase on some products and a waiving of any increase on a select chosen few other products until the next scheduled price review – whenever that may be. One imagines that both sides have given the other an opportunity to put a positive spin on the deal to their constituents – their customers, employees and shareholders.
Now let’s talk about Brexit. No. Let’s not.
About the author:
I come from a sales background, firstly selling brands like Del Monte, Campbell’s and Nabisco to the grocery trade, then working in the hotel business, selling and marketing top-end brands like Gleneagles Hotel and the St Andrews Old Course Hotel to an international market.