Lessons in Purchasing Economies from Costco, JD and Pinduoduo (Tech Strategy – Podcast 142)


This week’s podcast is about economies of scale in purchasing power. I go through Walmart and Costco as traditional examples. And point to JD, Apple, and Pinduoduo as digital examples.

You can listen to this podcast here, which has the slides and graphics mentioned. Also available at iTunes and Google Podcasts.

Here are types of economies of scale.

  • CA11: Fixed Operating and Capital Costs
  • CA12: Purchasing Economies and Bargaining Power with Suppliers
    • Larger companies can demand cheaper prices and/or better terms from suppliers than their smaller competitors. This is about bargaining power for important and/or sizeable inputs
  • CA13: Geographic and Distribution Density
  • CA14: Geometry Effect
  • CA15: Learning Scale

Cases of purchasing economies

  • Newsfeed of offers plus C2M results in purchasing economies. Pinduoduo.
  • Privileged technology access by Apple
  • Purchasing economies. This was JD’s biggest lever.
  • Platform business models power over suppliers.


Related articles:

From the Concept Library, concepts for this article are:

  • Competitive Advantage: Purchasing Economies and Bargaining Power with Suppliers

From the Company Library, companies for this article are:

  • JD
  • Pinduoduo
  • Walmart
  • Costco

Photo by Den Harrson on Unsplash

———-Transcription Below

Welcome, welcome everybody. My name is Jeff Tausen, and this is the Tech Strategy Podcast where we dissect the strategies of the best digital companies of the US, China and Asia. And the topic for today, four lessons from Apple and Pinduoduo about purchasing economies in digital. So this is really about purchasing economies, which is also sometimes called economies of scale and purchasing, purchasing and bargaining power. It has kind of a lot of names, but basically it’s a competitive advantage. Very common in the traditional physical world, retail, lots of types of businesses. This is sort of four examples, four lessons from when it shows up in digital companies. So I’ll talk about Apple, talk about Pinduoduo, also talk a little bit about VIP shop, probably Walmart, Costco. But basically four cases. that I sort of keep an eye on of when this competitive advantage can be pretty significant in a digital company. So that will be the topic for today. Now, let’s see, no housekeeping really. The Asia Tech Tour, which I mentioned previously, that’s gonna be a one week sort of deep dive trip to Asia that’s gonna be next March. Looks like we’re gonna go Singapore, Jakarta. and most likely Bangkok, but we’re still sort of figuring out that third city. Visit some tech companies, digital companies, a lot of sort of content along the way and a lot of fun. If you’re interested in something like that, send me a note over at info at thousand group dot com. You can always find that on the website. And let’s see. I think that’s it. Content coming your way for subscribers is going to be more about Zed delivery and Magalu. on the way, that’s magazine Luisa. So those are basically Brazilian tech companies. I’ve written a little bit about them, one article each. I’ve got a part two for both of those on the way. So you should get that in the next couple of days. If you’re not a subscriber, feel free to go over to jeffthousen.com. You can sign up there, free 30 day trial, see what you think. And standard disclaimer, nothing in this podcast or in my writing on the website is investment advice. The numbers and information for me and any guests may be incorrect. The views and opinions expressed may no longer be relevant or accurate. Overall, investing is risky. This is not investment advice. Do your own research. Okay, and with that, let’s get into the content. Now there’s only one concept for today, which is purchasing economies or economies of scale from purchasing and bargaining power with suppliers. I’ll give you an exact definition of that shortly, but that’s the only concept for today. It’s one of the 15 competitive advantages I talk about. You can always find my standard list for those, but this one would be under economies of scale, and I’ve detailed out basically five of those. So if you wanna look on the graphic, which is in the show notes, this is CA12, which is purchasing economies and bargaining power with suppliers. Pretty important one. So that’s the only concept for today. Now, let me just talk briefly about economies of scale. I’ve gone over this many, many times, but when you start talking about competitive advantages on the cost side, on the supply side, not on the demand side, You know, as I’ve said many times, competitive advantages are longer term advantages versus rivals. They can be large rivals, they can be small rivals. That’s different than a barrier to entry, which is a difficulty of entering a business. This is against current competitors. And they can generally show up on the demand side or the supply side. Also sometimes said the revenue side or the cost side, because basically, If you’ve got some sort of advantage that’s a scale advantage, I’m bigger than my competitor, therefore I have an advantage, it’s either going to show up as increased pricing power or something or decreased cost structure such that your return on invested capital for company A is higher than company B, revenue or cost advantage. Now when you talk about cost side competitive advantages, most people usually immediately think about economies of scale. This is when company A has a larger scale which can be measured by revenue, it can be measured by volume, by production volume, distribution volume, a lot of measurements, will end up with a lower per unit cost than a smaller competitor. And the example everyone usually thinks about is fixed costs. If we both have the same fixed costs for a company, which is pretty common in platforms and software. the company with greater volume will have a lower per unit cost than the smaller one. Now I list that as basically economies of scale, example number one, fixed operating capital costs, which you look at my list, that’s CA11, which stands for competitive advantage 11. Okay, fine, I’ve gone through that many times, I don’t wanna go through that again. But when you look at supply side economies of scale, five distinct competitive advantages, the ones I point to, which this is not my list, by the way. I mean, it’s a little, I’ve edited it and it’s, I’ve adapted it, let’s say, but this is not my thinking. People have been writing about this forever. Fixed operating capital costs, that would be a type of economy of scale on the supply side. Purchasing economies and bargaining power, that’s the one I’m gonna talk about now. Geographic and distribution density, very, very important in… food delivery and things like that, geometry effect and learning scale. Anyways, I’m just gonna go through CA-12 today, which is purchasing economies. Okay, now of the five types, this one’s nice and simple. Basically, it means if you have a scale differential with a rival and you can be on the small side or the big side, so it’s important to think about this not only when you have the advantage, but when you’re a smaller competitor. facing a larger company knowing that you’re on the receiving end of this advantage. But basically larger companies can demand cheaper prices and or better terms from suppliers. Pretty simple, not a big, not a lot of theory in that one. If you’re a larger retailer, you can demand smaller prices in your cost of goods sold. Fine. Now, if we look at larger companies. that would have this advantage. It’s really about bargaining power, but only for inputs that are important and or sizable. It just can’t be, I mean, if you have cheaper legal advice as a retailer than someone else, that’s not really gonna matter. That’s not gonna show up as a competitive strength versus a rival that I have cheaper costs for my legal advice, maybe because my brother’s a lawyer, something like that, right? No, it’s got to be a critical input that matters in terms of your offering to customers and or it has to be sizable. Now if it’s a major portion of your cost structure, okay, it probably doesn’t matter if customers care about that or not. It’s a big part of your cost structure. You’re going to be cheaper. The other situation would be okay, maybe it’s not a major part of your cost structure, but it’s really important like a key technology. So it’s gotta be an input that’s important and or sizable. And it’s also gotta be ongoing. It can’t be that you had a good deal this year or a good deal for this purchase order. No, it’s gotta be for several years in the past such that we can see this playing out as an advantage over significant amount of time in the past and sort of projected to go into the future. So it’s got to kind of, another thing you can sort of think about is, okay, if it’s gonna continue into the future, that I have this advantage based on scale that gets me better purchasing power, that will disappear if one of my competitors matches my scale. So you always got to think about the differential between you and a competitor. If that competitor is gonna close that differential, then this advantage is going away. Another thing to think about in terms of sustainability of this is, okay, what if the suppliers I’m dealing with come, they consolidate? Well, if I’m a powerful buyer, but my suppliers are consolidating, that is going to decrease my power as well. So you kind of got to look at the supplier situation, you got to look at rivals, which can be large and small, and figure out if this thing is significant and is it going to last. Pretty much it. Okay. Now, let me give you sort of the standard examples. When you’re talking about purchasing economies, usually people point to Walmart, but you could really point to any of these sort of traditional, very large retail powerhouses where their primary differentiation with customers is cost. Well, that wouldn’t be a different. Their primary position with customers, consumers, is we’re the lowest price, right? So Walmart, I mean, that is literally their motto. Their tagline is everyday low prices. Their value proposition is we have everything you might need. You know, 120,000 SKUs might be in a typical Walmart. And we are lower priced than anywhere else. Or if we’re not lower priced, nobody else is lower. So we’re the best price you’re gonna get. That is basically their value proposition. a massive spectrum of goods at the lowest available price. So most customers have no reason to go anywhere else for these items, why would you? It’s not gonna be cheaper. They’re not, unless it’s something they don’t have, unless it’s an exception, that’s their positioning. And that’s always been their strategy. It’s a really good strategy. And a lot of big retailers have this strategy. Walmart is just sort of an exceptional case. Okay. Now they’re going to have a cost structure that’s lower and there’s lots of ways they do this but you know one of their biggest levers is purchasing economies. They are absolute masters at negotiating and renegotiating their suppliers year after year after year. It never stops. If you’re supplying anything to a Walmart and that’s like one of your biggest customers, it is just constant pain. Every single month, two months, three months, hey, you know, we’d like to buy more from you, but we need a discount, my friend. Oh, we need another discount. Yeah, we know you gave us one last month. We need another one. They never stop. And the simplest version of this would be, give me a discount on price. But they can negotiate for a lot more than that. They can negotiate payment terms. We will sell the good and then we’ll pay you for the good after three months. Right, so they can hit you in working capital. They can do things like, we think you should come in and stock the shelves yourself. Your employees should do it, not us. And the inventory’s not on our books until the moment it hits the shelf. So if it’s in a warehouse down the street, that’s your inventory, and your staff that are gonna do this. Now I don’t know if they’re that aggressive, but I think they are in some cases. They can hit you on other terms like, We would like you to do a certain amount of promotion. We would like you to have in-store shelves. We would like you to do marketing in the neighborhood. I mean, they can hit you on just tons of stuff. It’s all gonna cost you more money. They’re gonna save money because they’re ultimately trying to decrease their cost structure. So there’s this sort of endless thing. So that’s why I’ve said. Economies of scale based on purchasing power, purchasing economies, larger companies can demand cheaper prices and or better terms. And that better terms clause can be a whole lot of stuff. So there would be a classic example. Now, Costco I think is actually kind of more interesting. People always talk about Walmart, they don’t usually talk about Costco. They’re actually kind of different. They are also a low-cost leader. I mean, Walmart used to be, we’re the lowest cost retailer. Sam’s Club and Costco were sort of the next generation business model of the same approach. Yes, we’re like Walmart, but we’re even cheaper. How are they cheaper? Well, they’re on the edge of town. There’s a lot of ways they’re cheaper. They have membership fees. They make their monies on the membership and they pass on. products at basically cost of goods sold. So they’re making their money in different ways. There’s a lot of ways that they have a very aggressive cost structure. But the one that relates to purchasing economies is, you know, they don’t carry, your typical Costco or Sam’s Club doesn’t carry 120,000 SKUs. They carry four to 5,000. A much more select list of goods that are available in the store. So you walk down the aisle, I don’t know, seasonings in Walmart, you’re going to see all types of different seasonings, Tabasco, hot sauce, all these types. You walk down a Costco aisle, you’re going to see three or four in a certain product category. They have a very select group of products they offer. Now why is that useful? Well that dramatically increases. They’re purchasing power. You know, they’re not, if you want to be on the short list of what is stocked in a Costco, you’re gonna have to give them a really good deal because they’re gonna say no to everybody. And three or four brands are gonna end up on the shelf for let’s say mustard and ketchup, right? So they’re enhancing their purchasing power by dramatically decreasing the number of brands they might have for product category, three to five. And that also. That’s actually a pretty good pitch for their customers because the customers are gonna know, look, they don’t have as many options, but everything they have is good quality. So on the customer side, hey, it’s cheaper, and hey, it’s got sort of a higher quality perception. Okay, so that’s a more powerful negotiating position with one of those few brands. Good, they demand greater discounts, they demand better payment terms, better other terms, fine. It also plays out kind of in some interesting ways. What are they not gonna ask you for? and I’m making this up, I haven’t verified it, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. They’re not gonna ask you to do a big in-store promotions and marketing activities. Why would they? You’re only competing against two or three other brands. There’s no need, once you become one of the top three to five brands that are in the store, there’s no need to do in-store marketing. There’s no need to do these promotions really. So. these brands save money in other areas by being there, and those savings are also passed on to the customer. So what tends to happen is the cost of a product within the store tends to be fairly close to the actual production cost of that good without any marketing or sales costs baked in. So anyways, it’s the same basic idea, but it’s an interesting variation. on purchasing economies. And those are both traditional retail approaches. So what kind of metrics do you wanna look for? Well, okay. If we think a company has purchasing economies of scale, we would look at the cost of goods sold specifically for important and or sizable inputs, not for everything, just for the ones that could manifest as a competitive advantage. And keep in mind that could be the cost of goods sold for the product or a service. It could be the borrowing and financing costs. I mean, it could be any real cost. And we wanna look at the payment and working capital terms. And then we wanna look at those other benefits like that suppliers might provide, like promotional activities, information sharing, privilege access. Okay. So that’s your sort of standard definition. I’ve given you two examples of purchasing economies, both of which are in traditional retail. So let me get to the so what was, which is, okay, how is this different for digital, which is my area. Now, the first one we actually talk about all the time, which is just platform business models. Alibaba, well, let’s not say Alibaba, let’s say DD, Uber, iFood, Uber Eats, grab anything where you’re buying something on most likely a marketplace platform, but it could be other types of platforms. Now we don’t, I’ve always talked about platform business models as multiple user groups, right? Like user group one is consumers, user group two is merchants on, I don’t know, Lazada. But you know. Just because there isn’t a cost of goods sold where the supplier is actually selling it to say Lazada and then Lazada is selling it to the consumer, that doesn’t mean that purchasing economies and bargaining power aren’t important because there is definitely a commercial arrangement between a platform business model and that user group which we might call suppliers. When you sign up as a merchant on Lazada, you are signing a deal with very specific deal terms. even though they’re not buying your goods directly. So the take rate, that is a negotiated term. The payment terms, negotiated terms. Well, one of the things we see in these platform business models that are dominant like Lazada, Shopee, they just, I mean, it’s not even a negotiation. They tell you the terms and everyone clicks okay. I mean, that is purchasing economies. and bargaining power over suppliers in an extreme form. If you’re a content creator on YouTube, they tell you the take rate. They just do. And you accept it. They’re gonna take 30% or whatever it is of the advertising. Actually, I mean, content creators get almost nothing. If you post stuff on Facebook, you get zero. It’s a 100% take rate. If you’re on DD or Uber or Grab or something like that, they’re typically charging a 20%, 25% take rate. That’s what, you know, I mean, that’s all a form of negotiation and purchasing power. We just don’t talk about it very much, but it’s really an extreme version of this because, big surprise, they have aggregated so much of the market demand under their control that suppliers have to sort of accept whatever terms they want. Now, one of the interesting examples, so like you hear about this in the news all the time, when the iOS Apple App Store, you know, takes a percentage of everything sold on the App Store, there are lawsuits about this between like Epic Games and Apple about their App Store take rate. And South Korea was one of the first countries to pass legislation limiting the take rate of App Stores. But we see the same thing with Alibaba. YouTube, Amazon, Didi, Grab, Gojek, almost all of them. Interestingly, when the Chinese government ramped up its regulations of the tech giants, which was really 2020, 2021, literally the first area they addressed was the power imbalance between platforms and suppliers. That was literally the first thing they did. and they started banning certain types of terms. Like you could not, as Alibaba or Metuan or JD demand exclusivity of a merchant. So like if you signed up for Alibaba, you couldn’t sign up for JD. That was a term that was in some of these deals and they immediately outlawed that. But a lot of these, what they would call abusive relationships between major platforms and these suppliers merchants, that was the first thing they went after. and they did other things. So that’s sort of, let’s say, case number one for purchasing economies in digital businesses, the relationship between platform business models and the suppliers, which are usually user groups, but they can also, in the case of JD and Amazon, be both suppliers where they’re supplying goods and participants on a platform, a user group. You can actually have both at the same time. But the power relationship is pretty much the same. So that’s case number one. Case number two, we can look at Apple. And this is what I would call privileged technology access. So one of the interesting things Apple used to do under Steve Jobs, I assume they still do this now, actually it might’ve been Tim Cook who was doing this when he was COO for Steve Jobs, was they were kind of famous for locking up new technologies like how do you make touch screens work on a smartphone? They were very good at locking up those technologies for several years where they were the only ones that had it. So we could call this privileged technology access, which would be a type of purchasing economies. And what they would do is, new technologies that get invented when it’s first to market is usually done by a smaller company, not a Samsung, but it could be. But there’s a big step between we’ve invented this technology and we’re producing some of it to when we are manufacturing at scale for hundreds of millions of units. There’s a big step up right there. And that’s kind of where Apple could come in and they could come to a smaller medium-sized company that let’s say had a new novel technology about how to do touch screens on a smartphone. and they would sort of do the deal, which is like, we would like to buy, you know, contract you so that you are a supplier for us. We will put this in iPhones and we will buy this at such scale that you will get a big check that will let you build out your manufacturing scale for the first time, which is a big benefit to them. In return, you don’t give this technology to anyone else for let’s say a period of two years. So, I mean, you do see this with iPhones, where they will roll out a new feature, which is based on a technology, and they’re the only one that has it for a couple years. Well, that’s just a, this is just bargaining power. This is negotiation. And in this case, it was really kind of a win-win. The other cases I gave you were kind of win-lose. Walmart dealing with suppliers is kind of win-lose. This one is kind of a win-win. Anyways, so there used to be stories about this all the time. I assume they’re still doing it, but I haven’t checked recently. Anyways, so let’s call that number two, privileged access to technology. Case number three, basically online retailers. I gave you an example of a physical retailer, Costco and Walmart. Okay, this is online retailers. So, you know, the company I always think about is JD. Very cool company, 50% of their GMB is usually from marketplace model, 50%. operating as an online retailer. They’ve always been an online retailer. Well, I mean since 2002, 2003 when they moved from physical retail on to online retail. So they’re buying and selling goods so that is not unlike the Walmart example. And they are known for being more customer focused in terms of quality. So they have a smaller spectrum of goods than let’s say Alibaba Taobao you know, they’re a marketplace platform. But I mean, they’re still mostly like Walmart because they’re not down at Costco level. Yeah, they have fewer goods than Alibaba, but it’s still a very large sort of number. So they look a lot more like Walmart. The difference is, okay, purchasing economies is a relative advantage. Some competitive advantages like switching costs, everybody in the market can have those. If you sign up customers and your competitor signs up customers and gives them a loyalty program they have a degree of switching costs. Economies of scale, usually only the market leaders get, the large companies get this versus the small companies. So in this case you look at, okay, does JD as an online company, what is their purchasing power relationship with other large online companies, other small online companies? And then we also have to look at large, offline physical retailers and small physical retailers. Now when you look at the large physical, let’s say the large small retailers, that’s pretty easy. We know they have greater purchasing power and we know that online has fewer costs than offline historically. Because you don’t have the stores and the people and all that. Although that’s not as obvious as you think. When you actually look at sales and marketing staff sales and marketing spend of online companies, it can actually be significantly more than a physical retailer, so they can kind of balance out sometimes, but generally speaking, fine. So really we can see them having an interesting situation when you compare them to a large physical retailer like a Suning or a Carrefour. In that case, this doesn’t really play out. They don’t have a big advantage in purchasing power there. They have an advantage based on cost structure because they’re digital and other things. So really this is playing out for them against smaller online retailers. And that’s who they’ve sort of beat into the ground over the last 15 or so years. You know, when they started JD going online, 2005, 2006, that time period, they were not number one by size. They were… Definitely, they were kind of like number four, number five. There was these other companies that were doing book sales and appliance sales, and JD really sort of fought their way up, and then when they started to get some degree of purchasing power versus these smaller online rivals, they started to deploy that against them. But it was really just against that group, and then when you look at them against sort of large online players like them, it doesn’t really play out. So it’s really just in that sort of one scenario. that it becomes important. And when you look at JD’s competitive advantages against other rivals, it usually ends up being in fixed cost. That’s kind of what’s going on. And then they have their marketplace model, and then you get network effects. So it’s kind of those three things, but it really only plays out in one space. OK, let me get to the final case, which is really, I think, the most interesting one. Now the final sort of case of purchasing economies going digital, I think about Pinduoduo. Now Pinduoduo is, you know, they did a lot of interesting stuff in the early years. They’re a bit different now, but in the early years they were sort of going after fourth and fifth tier cities in China which were much poorer. So being cheaper was their biggest lever. That’s how they sort of got market adoption. That’s how they kind of beat Taobao, is they came in at a very low price point in these regions, fourth and fifth through cities, where cost was the major thing consumers cared about. Okay, now they actually did that by multiple mechanisms. The one that everyone talks about was group buying. Hey, you can go on Pinduoduo, you can buy with your friends, this was on WeChat. If you buy together, you get a discount. That was much more about virality than dropping the price, although it did have a cost impact. But really the price dropped for a couple reasons. Number one is they were C to M. They went from being an app, directly connecting with manufacturers, cutting out distributors and retailers. That took a big portion of the cost structure out, especially in these fourth and fifth tier cities, which were very hard to reach. And there was a tremendous logistics cost. So going C to M whacked a bunch of big costs. They passed that on to consumers as lower prices. But the one that’s interesting is, I think, purchasing economies, which was, you know, the business model was not Walmart, where we have absolutely everything you need. No, their business. model was much more of we have a select number of items which we will show to you at special deals and if you want to participate you can buy. So the analogy that I’ve used before is like if you go to a restaurant and it’s Walmart or let’s say Taobao that’s like going to a restaurant where they hand you a massive menu with everything you could ever want to eat. Going to Pinduoduo was more like sitting down at the sushi restaurant where the little tray passes by and they have special deals all the time and you just pick the one you want as it goes by and you get a special deal. So it’s really about the newsfeed plus CDM. That’s when I think about purchasing economies at a company like Pinduoduo. What I’m really thinking about is a newsfeed plus a CDM model, which is, you know, a newsfeed on your phone is it’s one video being teed up after the next. That’s TikTok. It’s a flash sale. Here’s the special deal we have for you today. And as it goes by your screen, you choose if you wanna participate in that one. Now, when you sort of combine that approach with C2M, consumer to manufacturer, they can negotiate deals. for those select items direct with manufacturers and get you a good price. It’s like if you’re at the sushi restaurant and I don’t know, the blue fin or something goes by, the yellow tail goes by, and everyone in the restaurant decides to buy at the same moment, you can then negotiate a good price on the yellow fin. Okay, that’s not an awesome example, but I think you get what I’m talking about. It’s combining a newsfeed with offers on a smartphone with a C to M business model gets you purchasing economies of scale in that scenario. And you can see how they could do this. They could, you know, it doesn’t happen in real time. They go ahead of the time to certain manufacturers and say, would you like to sell us some goods? We will make it one of our, you know, major items for the next week that’s gonna flash up on everybody’s screen all over China, and you’ll get a massive amount of orders in one week. Give us a good price. Give us better deal terms, that sort of thing. VIP Shop, which is a you know, their big feature was flash sales. Every day you would get a flash sale for, usually in apparel, and usually for a well-known brand, like not Gucci, but sort of mid-tier well-known brands. Well, they were negotiating those deals with the suppliers ahead of time, and then putting them up on flash sales, get a massive amount of ordering over one week. That’s how it works. So that’s all about purchasing economies. It’s just that they’ve combined it with the newsfeed on people’s phones, and that actually works pretty well. So anyways, those are sort of four cases I’ve been keeping an eye on for when sort of purchasing economy matters and when it doesn’t. I’ll list those in the show notes, but I’m sure there’s others. But I think it’s, you know, between all of those, I gave you four, six examples of purchasing economies of scale. Four are digital, two are traditional. I mean, that’s basically it. So I think I’ve sort of finished with this subject pretty good. And I guess that is the content for today with purchasing economies being the concept. As for me, I’m doing pretty well. I got back into Thailand a couple days ago. That’s why I’m doing this on a Sunday instead of my normal Thursday, Friday. Yeah, it was kind of a long trip, but not bad. I basically just… how many podcasts I listen to. I sort of store a podcast and articles I’m supposed to read and they sort of become this massive file on my iPad. So I burned through basically all of that. Like my brain was pretty tired by the time I got off the airplane. But yeah, it’s great to be back and just sort of running around town getting things set up. So I got all my audio equipment here as well. So that, you know, I don’t like using the travel microphone very much. So hopefully the quality should be a little better. But yep. And that I guess is it for this week. I hope everyone is doing well and I will talk to you next week. Bye bye.

I write, speak and consult about how to win (and not lose) in digital strategy and transformation.

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