Dear Readers,

Few sectors are as vital to modern life as the grocery industry. Napoleon famously derided the United Kingdom as a “nation of shopkeepers.” But in today’s urbanized, industrialized world, shopkeepers provide the link between nourishment and the people who require it.

Grocery businesses, as a key part of the economy (and indeed life in the 21st Century), are therefore subject to detailed antitrust scrutiny. This scrutiny of shopkeepers is the focus of this edition of the Antitrust Chronicle. 

Not unlike other sectors of the economy, grocery has seen great change over recent years. This is a result of multiple transformative trends: There has been a shift to online delivery services (accelerated by the recent pandemic), to mass-production of foods, and the growth of large multiples who enjoy massive economies of scale. All of the above complicates and emphasizes the need for careful antitrust review of conduct and M&A in the industry.

Yet not every antitrust authority has had the same approach, either over the decades or in relatively recent years. Benoît Durand underlines that competition authorities in Europe have adopted very different approaches to the competitive effect of mergers in grocery markets. Specifically, there have been substantial differences between the UK CMA, the German Cartel Office, and the French Competition Authority.

Indeed, as Dimitri Dimitropoulos, Renée M. Duplantis & Loren K. Smith highlight, particular consumer trends inform competition authorities’ approaches to grocery markets. Though it may seem quotidian, grocery shopping is one of the more dynamic aspects of the economy, as reflected in changing consumer habits. Another key parameter in this dynamic, as Henry C. Su describes, relates to the format of grocery retailers, in particular as the format relates to their size, scale, and scope.

But the ultimate retail market is only part of the picture. Behind even the smallest grocery business, there is an intricate supply chain. As Steve McCorriston astutely points out, there is a complex interaction between the underlying supply chain and the retail sector that consumers end up interacting with. Of course, the ultimate goal of competition policy is to enhance competition – to the benefit of the consumer – in the most optimal way. How to do this is a complex calculus.

Andrew Taylor & Nick Warren point out that much of the competition law scrutiny of grocery businesses has focused on high-profile mergers. Yet also, the grocery sector has proved fertile ground for novel behavioral theories of harm, such as the hub-and-spoke cartel model that gained favor in recent years. Ana Sofia Rodrigues, Catarina Tourais, Margarida Robalo Cordeiro, Mariana Dias, Marta Roch & Rafael Longo delve deep into this theory of harm in their contribution to this Chronicle. 

If any of this reveals anything, it is that competition authorities, consumers and market participants have a clear stake in monitoring antitrust developments as they relate to the grocery sector. Market studies, such as the one carried out in New Zealand and detailed by Andy Matthews & Danny Xie provide a prime example of such an initiative.

In short, the articles in this Chronicle provide an up-to-date snapshot as to how competition policy applies to the grocery sector. It is vital reading for anyone who needs to eat – whether they are a shopkeeper or not.

As always, many thanks to our great panel of authors.


CPI Team

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