That Germany’s Schwarz Beteiligungs GmbH, owner of the Lidl discounter and Kaufland hypermarket chains, would launch some sort of venture in Australia has long been considered a case of when, not if – but speculation has been rife for over 16 years now.
Yet an end to the rumours could be in sight, as Kaufland announced its intention to recruit a property developer in Melbourne via its local website in March 2017, the latest stage in the hypermarket chain’s feasibility study for the Australian market. Kaufland Warenhandel GmbH & Co KG had previously lodged an application for an Australian trade mark for “Kaufland” in July 2016, which covers an extensive range of food and beverage, retail and financial services.
This is somewhat of a surprise move. Lidl has long been considered the more likely candidate, given the success of Aldi’s expansion in Australia, the ready acceptance of the discounter model by Australian consumers and the inroads the brand has made around the globe.
Kaufland, on the other hand, presents customers with a new model of grocery retail. For instance, the chain is smaller than an average hypermarket and is considered to be, in many ways, closer to a discounter-hypermarket hybrid. This could be a game-changer on the Australian market; but it could also prove incongruous as it’s not a logical fit.
According to conventional retail wisdom, Australia simply doesn’t have the in-store foot traffic to sustain a successful hypermarket business model, particularly when it comes to covering the significant overheads such a venture would entail. Additionally, a company would need enormous market power and scale to eliminate the competition of other types of retail outlets, whilst still competing with online prices and discounters.
Previously there has been little incentive for the leading grocery retail players in Australia to explore the hypermarket format. Woolworths and Wesfarmers / Coles Group have made a concerted effort over the years to develop unique brand positioning by channel for their supermarket, mass merchandiser, and previously, department store brands. Any push towards the hypermarket channel and the companies risk cannibalising their own sales.
While Kaufland’s success in Eastern Europe has been largely based on fewer players competing within its unique hypermarket-discounter category blend, in Australia this space is largely unexplored.
The most likely match for Kaufland would be warehouse club chain Costco, which has grown its market share within mixed retailers in Australia since its launch in 2009 to 6% in 2016. As a warehouse club operator, Costco offers a wide spectrum of products, from grocery to electronics to jewellery, but with each consisting of a narrow range of approximately 4,000 SKUs. Due to selling in bulk, the company offers a mix of branded products and private label at substantially lower prices than other retailing channels, such as supermarkets and mass merchandisers.
Kaufland also offers both branded products and private label, with its K-Classic economy private label playing a crucial role in the hypermarket’s low-price positioning. Yet in contrast to Lidl, private label accounts for only a minor part of Kaufland’s range. The comparative simplicity of sourcing could explain why Kaufland seems to be making quicker progress than Lidl in conducting its local market feasibility study, but it also prompts the question of how the brand will have the scale and networks to offer unbeatable prices in the Australian market, especially as deep discounting on brands is already the well-established realm of the “Big Two” supermarkets, Woolworths and Coles.
The geography of the move is strange, to say the least. Lidl continues to expand at speed in its domestic and international markets, with the United States its next frontier and Russia and Australia slated for the subsequent wave of international growth. Lidl is present in 24 markets across Western and Eastern Europe, the second ranked discounter in the world, behind Aldi.
Kaufland’s retail footprint, by comparison, is currently limited to its domestic market of Germany, and Eastern European operations that are within reasonably close proximity to the company headquarters: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
Whatever the outcome, local consumer sentiment will most likely be cautious, but curious. Australian consumers are willing to try new things, as shown by the reception to Aldi or Costco, but are not likely to make significant changes to their store-based retail shopping behaviour in the short-term.