267-A Likely End Game to Hostility
The hard disk drive business has been a lousy place to compete for nearly twenty-five years. It has been the graveyard of many competitors. Twenty years ago, there were eighty disk drive manufacturers. By the mid-90s, there were only fifteen. By 2001, there were eight, and today it appears there are only four. But the fact that we are at four competitors, especially the size of the leading competitors, means that the industry is likely to come out of its recurring bouts of overcapacity and hostility.
As 2011 began, there were five hard disk drive manufacturers. Western Digital led the market with a 31% market share, followed closely by Seagate with a 29% market share. Hitachi enjoyed an 18% market share, while Samsung and Toshiba shared the remaining 22% of the market. Recently, Western Digital agreed to purchase Hitachi. This acquisition would bring Western Digital’s potential market share to 49%. The top two of the remaining four competitors would then have a potential market share of 78%. The top three would have more than 85% of the market.
Hitachi was not just any other competitor in the market. It had a well deserved reputation for being the most aggressive price discounter in the market. Hitachi was the major reason that pricing stayed under pressure in the hard disk market. Western Digital’s acquisition removed the major discounter.
In the past, acquisitions among the hard disk drive manufacturers brought somewhat better margins to the remaining players, but not as much market share as the acquisition would suggest. The reason was customers rotating other strong suppliers into their relationships to maintain low prices. With only four players left, and a dominant leader in the market, there is little purpose for the three followers to discount against Western Digital. A discounter might pick up some temporary share in a market saturated with “last look” arrangements, but it might face a very aggressive pricing response by one or both of the remaining leaders in the market. No, rather than discount, the economics for all the players would argue for firm industry pricing. That is the most likely outcome of this acquisition.
Over the years, we have studied many industries in overcapacity. Overcapacity produces a hostile market, where returns are low and price competition remains intense. These kinds of markets end in one of two ways, either demand picks up and sops up the industry’s overcapacity, or the industry consolidates to the point where the top four competitors control 85% or more of the industry’s volume. The remaining players then demur from competitive price discounts. The majority of industries see demand growth pull them out of hostile conditions.
There is one potential fly in this hard disk ointment. Computer tablets and other portable devices don’t use hard disk drives. Instead, they use NAND flash drives. These are solid state drives. They are more expensive than hard disks, have a much smaller form factor and are generally more reliable. Samsung, Toshiba and SanDisk are the leaders in this market. It could happen that Samsung and Toshiba, two of the four remaining hard disk drive suppliers, use low prices in the hard disk market to create customers for their more expensive flash drives. It is more likely, however, that these two companies, who are distant followers in the hard disk market, would prefer to see higher prices for hard disks. These higher prices on a competitive product would help some customers in the market transfer alliance to flash drives.
By 2018, there were but three survivors in the hard disk market. Seagate led the market with a 40% share. Western Digital and Toshiba followed with 37% and 23% respectively. The three survived nearly 60 years of competition from the time IBM invented the technology. They represent less than 2% of the companies who once competed in the industry.
The hard disk drive (HDD) industry is a shrinking but profitable enterprise. It is slowly losing market share to its more expensive competitor, solid-state drives (SSD). These latter drives offer smaller form factors, lower energy usage and higher reliability than does HDD. Solid-state drives have prices considerably higher than hard disk drives, but the price difference is falling with the growing economies of scale of the solid-state drives. Solid-state drives control the bulk of the memory storage market, after passing the share of hard disk drives in 2019. SSDs are replacing smaller-capacity (less than one-terabyte) HDDs in desktop and notebook computers and MP3 players. Hard disk drives remain important in the commercial storage market. The hard disk drive market has seen exabytes shipped growing substantially even while the number of units sold falls. The net effect is falling revenues for the hard disk drive manufacturers. Still, the hard disk drive market is attractive and profitable. Seagate, in particular, enjoyed very high returns on investment in 2022.
HOW CAN THESE BLOGS HELP ME?
If you face a competitive marketplace, read these blogs. We wrote them to help you make better decisions on segments, products, prices and costs based on the experience of companies in over 85 competitive industries. Much of the world suffered a severe recession from 2008 to 2011. During that time, we wrote more than 270 blogs using publicly available information and our Strategystreet system to project what would happen in various companies and industries who were living in those hostile environments. In 2022, we updated each of these blogs to describe what later took place. You can use these updated blogs to see how the Strategystreet system works and how it can lead you to better decisions.