The Value Chain and Evaluating the Industry

Read these sections on the value chain and Porter's five forces. While you read, think about the impact information technology can have on these concepts.

Evaluating the Industry

The Power of an Industry’s Buyers

Buyers purchase the goods and services that the firms in an industry produce. For Subway and other restaurants, buyers are individual people. In contrast, the buyers for some firms are other firms rather than end users. For Procter & Gamble, for example, buyers are retailers such as Walmart and Target who stock Procter & Gamble's pharmaceuticals, hair care products, pet supplies, cleaning products, and other household goods on their shelves.

The relative bargaining power between an industry's competitors and its buyers helps shape the profit potential of the industry. If buyers have greater leverage over the competitors than the competitors have over the buyers, then the competitors may be forced to lower their prices over time. This weakens competitors' profit margins and makes them less likely to be prosperous. Walmart furnishes a good example. The mammoth retailer is notorious among manufacturers of goods for demanding lower and lower prices over time. In 2008, for example, the firm threatened to stop selling compact discs if record companies did not lower their prices. Walmart has the power to insist on price concessions because its sales volume is huge. Compact discs make up a small portion of Walmart's overall sales, so exiting the market would not hurt Walmart. From the perspective of record companies, however, Walmart is their biggest buyer. If the record companies were to refuse to do business with Walmart, they would miss out on access to a large portion of consumers.

On the other hand, if buyers have less leverage over the competitors than the competitors have over the buyers, then competitors can raise their prices and enjoy greater profits. This description fits the textbook industry quite well. College students are often dismayed to learn that an assigned textbook costs $150 or more. Historically, textbook publishers have been able to charge high prices because buyers had no leverage. A student enrolled in a class must purchase the specific book that the professor has selected. Used copies are sometimes a lower-cost option, but textbook publishers have cleverly worked to undermine the used textbook market by releasing new editions after very short periods of time.

Of course, the presence of a very high profit industry is attractive to potential new entrants. Firms such as Unnamed Publisher, the publisher of this book, have entered the textbook market with lower-priced offerings. Time will tell whether such offerings bring down textbook prices. Like any new entrant, upstarts in the textbook business must prove that they can execute their strategies before they can gain widespread acceptance. Overall, when analyzing the profit potential of their industry, executives must carefully consider whether buyers have the ability to demand lower prices. In the textbook market, buyers do not.

Every industry is unique to some degree, but some general characteristics help to predict the likelihood that buyers will be powerful relative to the firms from which they purchases goods and services. Buyers tend to be powerful, for example, to the extent that there are relatively few buyers compared with the number of firms that supply the industry, the industry's goods or services are standardized or undifferentiated, buyers face little or no switching costs in changing vendors, the good or service purchased by the buyers represents a high percentage of the buyer's costs, and the good or service is of limited importance to the quality or price of the buyer's offerings.

Finally, buyers possess power to the extent that they have the ability to become a new entrant to the industry if they wish. This strategy is called backward vertical integration. DIRECTV used to be an important customer of TiVo, the pioneer of digital video recorders. This situation changed, however, when executives at DIRECTV grew weary of their relationship with TiVo. DIRECTV then used a backward vertical integration strategy and started offering DIRECTV-branded digital video recorders. Profits that used to be enjoyed by TiVo were transferred at that point to DIRECTV.