How Hostility Starts

Many years ago, I had the good fortune of living in London for three years. During that time, I would often have lunch in one of London’s many public houses, “pubs” to you and me. They served rich and ample fare such as Shepard’s pie, sliced turkey sandwiches and, of course, English “bitter.” Sometimes, after work, I would meet friends for a drink at the same pubs. When I traveled the countryside, I could always rely on a local pub to provide good food and drinks at reasonable prices. They were a more comfortable equivalent of a fast food restaurant. And they were great places to socialize.

Things have changed. A couple of years ago, my wife and I spent a vacation in England. I was anxious to take her to some of my favorite pubs, both while we were in London and while we were in the Cotswolds. To my surprise, most of these pubs were gone. Those that had survived had largely transformed themselves into much more upscale restaurants. Gone were the gorgonzola sandwiches and the cheddar and bread offerings. In their place were white tablecloths and nice silverware settings.

The public house is under significant pressure in Britain. The number of pubs has fallen by 10% in just the last five years. What happened? New competition.

Competition, both above and below pub prices, has reduced the market for pubs. At the lower end of the market, supermarkets easily undercut pub prices with their substantial buying power. At the higher end, the British have expanded their taste for wine. All of this new competition has reduced the sales of beer, the pub’s key product.

This is a picture of the development of a hostile market, where price competition is intense and returns for the industry are often low. A reduction in the number of competitors is a hallmark of a difficult, hostile market. We have studied many of those markets over the last twenty-five years. Most hostile markets are caused by the expansion of competition. The minority examples of hostility are the result of a fall-off in demand. The British pub industry has seen both factors at work. But the most pressing has been the expansion of competition.

For a relatively short summary of how to operate in a hostile market, see these two Perspectives: “Success Under Fire: Policies to Prosper in Hostile Times” and “Use Subtle Strategy in Tough Markets”.

Posted 10/11/10