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Merger may bring angst for suppliers

Thu., Nov. 18, 2004

DES MOINES, Iowa — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is widely referred to among its suppliers as the 800-pound gorilla. What the giant retailer wants, it usually gets.

Now, many manufacturers must be wondering whether Kmart Holding Corp.’s pending acquisition of Sears, Roebuck & Co. will create a second behemoth that demands lower prices for their goods or, worse, drops them altogether.

In announcing their marriage intentions Wednesday, the two retailers said they expect to save $300 million a year through “improved merchandising and non-merchandising, purchasing scale as well as improved supply chain, administrative and other operational efficiencies.”

For suppliers, the key words are “purchasing scale” and “improved supply chain.” Those goals might translate into such buying power that to retain Sears/Kmart’s business, manufacturers may be forced to go overseas to make products at a profit.

“When they say they need a $49 price point for an electric drill, people have to come up with ways to do it,” said Bill Drumm, president of Establish/Herbert W. Davis, a supply-chain consultant in Fort Lee, N.J. Significant U.S. manufacturing went offshore in order to meet the prices that Wal-Mart dictated, he said.

Moreover, whereas several companies may be making drills for Sears and Kmart now, in the future the combined company may seek a single source.

“Say today Sears has three suppliers of (something) and Kmart has three. Combining them you don’t get six,” Drumm said. “If I was No. 4 or 5, I would be concerned. If I was one of the top three I’d be thrilled.”

Indeed, Sears’ biggest supplier of major appliances, Whirlpool Corp., believes the merger “will be a plus for us, absolutely,” said spokesman Steve Duthie.

He expects Sears will convert more Kmarts into Sears outlets, which means more locations where customers can buy Kenmore washers, driers and other appliances that Whirlpool makes under Sears’ house brand.

Asked whether Whirlpool expects the combined retailer to exact cheaper prices from it, Duthie replied, “We don’t foresee that at all.” He noted that Whirlpool has announced plans to increase its prices to retailers between 5 percent and 10 percent next year to reflect higher costs of steel and other raw materials.


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