On 27 January 2017, the Competition Authority of Kenya (CAK) exercised its powers in terms of section 18 (1) (a) of the Competition Act, 2010, to conduct a market inquiry into the branded retail sector.
The notice, as published in the Government Gazette and signed by CAK Director General Wang’ombe Kariuki stated that “the main objective of the study is to assess the state of competition in the market for branded retail by examining the multilayered structure of the market and the conduct of market players. The market inquiry will explore the dimensions and the intensity of competition between branded retailers and how these impact on price, quality and range of offerings to the Kenyan consumer.”
The CAK is the third African competition agency to conduct a market inquiry into the retail sector following inquiries in Botswana and South Africa. The COMESA Competition Commission has also announced that it intends to conduct a market inquiry into the retail food sector, although to date the CCC has not formally initiated such an inquiry.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of the CAK’s inquiry is strikingly similar to the grocery retail market inquiry currently under way in South Africa, with both authorities focusing their attention on large retailers who allegedly engage in practices which distorts competition in the market. In particular, the CAK will focus on the following issues:
- the allocation of shelf space and the relative bargaining power between retailers and their suppliers;
- the nature of and the extent of exclusive agreements at one stop shop destinations and their effects on competition;
- the pricing strategies retailers employ especially in regards to responding to new entrants;
- whether there are any strategic barriers to entry created by incumbent firms to limit entry in the market; and
- the effect of the supermarkets branded products on competition.
The issues listed above are largely common focus areas in market inquiries conducted not only in Africa but also in a number of European countries including France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom,
Interestingly, the CAK’s market inquiry goes broader than purely competition issues but also has an element of “consumer protection”. For instance, one of the practices which allegedly is a common feature in the industry is what is termed “dual pricing” – where Retailers display lower product prices on the shelf but which are higher at the till.
The CAK will also investigate the rate of recurrence of the sale of defective stock by retailers to consumers and how subsequent complaints by consumers are dealt with by retailers. The CAK intends to establish the proportion of retailers that have fully operational retail return policies and to what extent they are adhered to in an attempt to evaluate whether consumers are adequately protected.
Unlike the South African Competition Act, the Kenya Competition Act also contains specific consumer protection provisions which caters for unfair trade practices and transactions that affect consumer rights such as under-cutting and over-pricing of goods and services as well as the use of misleading information to sell goods and services. This is in addition to Kenya’s self-standing Consumer Protection Act which is governed by the Kenya Consumers Protection Advisory Committee (CPAC).
The CPAC is tasked with, inter alia, facilitating the “co-ordination and networking of consumer activities and the development of linkages with consumer organizations and the competent authorities and agencies locally and outside Kenya for the protection of consumer interests”. The CPAC is, therefore, responsible for monitoring and reviewing the trading and business practices relating to the supply of goods and services to consumers, and to activities related or ancillary thereto.
It remains to be seen to what extent the CPAC is actively involved in the CAK’s market inquiry, particularly in relation to the consumer protection provisions
Focusing our attention back to the competition law implications of the market inquiry, industry players across the retails chain should be particularly cognisant of the recent amendments to the Kenya Competition Act which introduced the concept of “abuse of buyer power”. Africanantitrust previously published an article by Michael-James Currie and Ruth Mosoti who noted that “it is not technically a requirement that a firm be ‘dominant’ in order to be considered to have “buying power”.
Furthermore, the introduction of the “abuse of buyer power” provisions was largely as a result of complaints received by the CAK in the retail sector, particularly by suppliers. In addition, the CAK may well have learnt from market inquiries conducted in other jurisdictions that absent any ‘dominance’ by retailers, there is a limited prospect of successfully prosecuting firms for engaging in practices which ay distort competition in the market. In this regard, Currie and Mosoti stated further that:
“the Kenyan Competition Authority may have thought to pre-empt this challenge and, therefore, included the “abuse of dominance” provisions without requiring a firm to actually be dominant for the provision to be triggered. Furthermore, the definition of “buying power” and the absence of any requirement that the conduct must in fact be anti-competitive may have been an attempt by the legislator to lower the threshold in an effort to assist a complainant in cases where a purchaser, such as a large retailer, exerts “buyer power”, but is not “dominant” in the market.”
Accordingly, in light of the broad scope of the CAK’s market inquiry coupled with the introduction of the ‘abuse of buyer power’ provisions, it is advisable for all players in the Kenyan retail sector to actively consider their business operations, not only from a competition perspective but also from a consumer protection perspective.