AS RETAIL property trusts, shopping centres and retailers pore over preliminary retail sales figures for December before aggregating them for next month's profit results, the speculation is that supermarkets experienced a strong month, while department stores and discount department stores were middling.
The unofficial figures follow strong ABS retail sales in November with supermarket sales up a solid 5.7 per cent with fresh produce deflation disappearing and promotional intensity in grocery items abating.
Anecdotal evidence for January is that retail sales are slowing, which implies more price wars ahead.
The figures come as supermarket giant Coles marks the second year of its "Down, Down" prices strategy along with its bread and milk price cuts, which sparked outrage among dairy farmers and prompted a parliamentary inquiry.
And it comes almost two years since beer giant Foster's took the bold step of aborting delivery to Coles and Woolworths liquor outlets tens of thousands of cartons of VB, Carlton Draught and Pure Blonde after learning of a promotional campaign to sell the brands at below cost.
Over the past two years there have been a lot of column inches, political debates and regulatory scrutiny of the detrimental impact of the supermarket wars on suppliers, farmers, independent retailers and retail competitiveness generally. Unfortunately, most suppliers are reluctant to speak on the record for fear of upsetting their masters, and the ones that Coles rolled out in a pamphlet last year are so well versed in their lines that it is hard to take them as representative of the norm.
But a few have come out. For instance, Giant Steps winemaker Phil Sexton told the press that while his grape input costs were up 10 per cent it would be a difficult ask to get the retailers to share the impact: "But the general trend among the big retailers is to decrease their selling prices, so it's a difficult discussion - single vineyard wines where there is some scarcity might be exempt from that, but for wines made in any quantity, trying to get an increase in price at the moment is a very hard negotiation."
If Metcash's recent performance is anything to go by, the independent trade is also hurting. Late last year Metcash issued a profit warning and highlighted that discounting was a major factor.
As the debate rages about whether the grocery price wars are as dramatic as the hype, Coles announced 100 new discounts and extended some of them to their petrol and convenience stores.
Coles also released a report by Deloitte Access Economics on the impact of its activity. Its overriding message was this: rising profits and lower prices are being achieved through rising revenue and lower unit costs, such as reduced wastage of goods, competitive tendering arrangements, larger and more productive stores and not by screwing suppliers.
For the 1200 "Down Down" goods for which data is available, retail prices have been reduced by 8 per cent on a volume-weighted average basis since 2011. For these goods, cost of goods sold per unit has fallen by 17 per cent overall and 2 per cent on a volume-weighted basis. Coles would argue that a lower cost of goods sold can reflect supply chain efficiencies as much as lower goods purchased rather than attempts by Coles to squeeze supplier margins.
But as one source says, "On these numbers, some suppliers would clearly have seen significant reductions in revenue from Coles and even a 2 per cent reduction in revenue is harmful if Coles is a large portion of your overall business and you have little or no margin to protect in the first place. Just ask the milk and bread manufacturers."
In a recent report, Macquarie analyst Greg Dring sums it up thus: "Perhaps the biggest contributor to profit growth is the transfer of profits from suppliers to the retailers. A popular positioning is that Australian suppliers over-earn relative to overseas peers or parent companies. There seems little evidence of this with local suppliers' gross profit margins declining around 600 basis points over the last five years."
At the end of the day the question is whether price discounting is sustainable in the longer term, particularly if the Australian dollar pulls back or suppliers can't be squeezed any further. Goodman Fielder recently achieved a modest increase in pricing which Coles passed through on branded bread but absorbed on private label. As part of the $1 bread deal, Coles also agreed to stop bread returns to Goodman Fielder on its private label bread to offset any margin pressure on them.
It is a tough and complicated debate with no clear answer. Lower prices for consumers and the convenience of a one-stop shop versus the spectre of fewer retailers and less choice.