The best thing to have in business, South Island hotels entrepreneur Earl Hagaman once mused, is a monopoly. At the time he was intent on buying the Christchurch Casino because of its protected monopoly status. Compared with owning and running hotels in a highly competitive market, owning a monopoly like the casino was a business dream, Mr Hagaman reasoned.
By that logic, the next best thing must be a duopoly, where two big players have the market sewn up. This is the case in the New Zealand grocery market, where home-grown co-operative Foodstuffs and Australian-owned Progressive Enterprises dominate. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show the giants are enjoying a very happy duopoly.
According to the OECD, grocery prices have risen 42 per cent in New Zealand in the past decade, while those in Australia, which also has a market dominated by two players, have risen 41 per cent. By comparison countries with more competition – Britain and the United States – have experienced more moderate rates of grocery price rises.
On the face of it there appears to be no shortage of competition between our big two. Both advertise extensively, constantly refreshing their offerings and rethinking their approach. The owner of Timaru's New World, under the Foodstuffs banner, has spent a small fortune redeveloping the Highfield supermarket and its mall and is taking on another 75 staff. You don't do that if you're not sitting pretty in a comfortable duopoly.
Likewise Progressive is spending up large to rebrand its Woolworths stores and its Church Street supermarket has just had a makeover.
While the big two argue their competition is cut-throat the suspicion is that it's become more of a handbags-at-dawn affair than a pitched battle. Critics believe they are going through the routine while protecting established positions which see the consumer lose out.
That is what the Australian Government believes and there has been a lot of jumping up and down about the OECD figures, and talk of bringing the "blowtorch" of competition to the incumbents.
In New Zealand The Warehouse had a crack at the duopoly and failed miserably. Supermarkets do have competition in the form of alternative meat and fruit and vegetable outlets, but there is precious little competition in terms of groceries.
In Timaru consumers have the option of a farmers' market. If the success of the first one, last weekend, is anything to go by, the supermarkets' traditional market is being nibbled around the edges. But until The Warehouse gets its act together, or someone else arrives, there seems precious little consumers or the Government can do.