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Beefs and Beliefs

Which is better: High volume or high price?

adisa/iStock/Thinkstock fancy purses
One retailer make good profits with high-priced purses. The unanswered question for the beef industry is whether its more profitable to sell high volume and lower price, or low volume at very high prices.
The little-spoken debate in the beef industry is whether we should produce high quality at high cost or more volume at low cost.

The beef industry has an ongoing, but sometimes unspoken, discourse about selling high-end, expensive products versus a higher volume of low-cost products with their own inherent quality.

This is most obvious in the retail marketplace where ground beef is king of the beef case and works mightily to compete with chicken and pork, while steaks compete for dollars from fewer consumers who feel particularly well-heeled at the meat case or restaurant table.

It's also a struggle on the farm or ranch, where we're told endlessly that we must produce a quality product, regardless of price, all while expenses are climbing and our paychecks, with rare exceptions, are meager in the face of this real inflation.

To this end, I have written repeatedly about low-cost production and especially about a more "holistic" planning process where managed grazing and animals that fit the environment and management lead us to much higher productivity at much lower cost.

I've even heard, on occasion, beef producers arguing the merits of a high-priced animal model with extremely limited market share, such as can be seen with the lobster industry, versus a lower-priced, higher-volume animal model such as I just described.

To that end, I decided as a mental exercise to look up the profitability of a major retailer that uses low markup and high-volume, and compare it with a large specialty retailer that sells high-priced merchandise at whatever volume the price will bear. I chose Walmart as the low-markup seller and Coach as the high-priced/quality seller. Coach is a retailer specializing in women's leather handbags, shoes, wallets and other high-priced accessories. Both are considered highly successful in the business world.

I decided to use their public financials to help me analyze which is "more profitable," if you want to define it that way. I wanted to know first what is the relationship of net income to overall revenue. In rancher terms, this would be how much of your calves' price you actually put in your pocket. I converted this to a ratio, and you might be able guess that Coach beat Walmart.

Walmart's 2016 net income was $14.69 million and its sales/revenue was $482.13 billion. When I divided net income by revenue I got a ratio of 0.03.

Coach's 2016 net income was $460.5 million and its sales/revenue was $4.49 billion. When I divided the net by the revenue I got a ratio of 0.10.

By this measurement, Coach is clearly keeping a higher percentage of the money it takes in.

But I also wanted to get an idea what the return on investment is, and since I was working with the most basic of financials, I decided one way to do that might be to measure the amount of income gained per unit of expense. In rancher's terms, I think this is similar to measuring the return on real out-of-pocket expenses. On a cow-calf operation, those would duly include real, annual cow depreciation.

The total expenses listed on the financials are called selling, general & administrative (SG&A). I'll just call them total expenses.

When I divided Walmart's total expenses of $97.04 billion by its net income of $14.69 billion, I found it spent $6.61 cents per net dollar earned.

When I divided Coach's total expenses of $2.29 billion by its net income of $460.5 million, I found it spent $4.97 per net dollar earned.

So Coach wins in that category, too. They spend less per net dollar of income.

But business acumen tells us three ways to increase profits:

1. Increase price

2. Decrease expenses

3. Increase turnover

Clearly, Coach has managed to build a market where it can increase price, much like beef does with its branded beef programs and attendant middle meats. In both cases, there are a somewhat limited number of customers willing to pony up the price. Perhaps Coach works at decreasing expenses, too, but their merchandise is unique and costs more to produce.

Walmart, on the other hand, is one of the masters of the retail industry for increasing product turnover and driving down expenses. It reminds me of the chicken industry, and in both these cases the number of consumers seems endless.

Clearly, ranching economics do not work in exactly the same way, but if I may borrow another comparison from the above example, Walmart's annual sales are 100 times bigger than Coach's because it offers passable quality at very low price and does it at very high volume.

If we can wrap our minds loosely around these ideas and others, maybe we can think about the business of our own beef businesses a little more efficiently.

TAGS: Beef Marketing
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