Although examining a firm’s awareness, motivation, and capability is important, the results of a series of moves and countermoves are often difficult to predict and miscalculations can be costly.

Although examining a firm’s awareness, motivation, and capability is important, the results of a series of moves and countermoves are often difficult to predict and miscalculations can be costly. The poor response by Kmart and other retailers to Walmart’s growth in the late 1970s illustrates this point. In discussing Kmart’s parent corporation (Kresge), a stock analyst at that time wrote, “While we don’t expect Kresge to stage any massive invasion of Walmart’s existing territory, Kresge could logically act to contain Walmart’s geographical expansion.…Assuming some containment policy on Kresge’s part, Walmart could run into serious problems in the next few years.” Kmart executives also received but ignored early internal warnings about Walmart. A former member of Kmart’s board of directors lamented, “I tried to advise the company’s management of just what a serious threat I thought [Sam Walton, founder of Walmart] was. But it wasn’t until fairly recently that they took him seriously.” While the threat of Walmart growth was apparent to some observers, Kmart executives failed to respond. Competition with Walmart later drove Kmart into bankruptcy.

Speed Kills

Executives in many markets must cope with a rapid-fire barrage of attacks from rivals, such as head-to-head advertising campaigns, price cuts, and attempts to grab key customers. If a firm is going to respond to a competitor’s move, doing so quickly is important. If there is a long delay between an attack and a response, this generally provides the attacker with an edge. For example, PepsiCo made the mistake of waiting fifteen months to copy Coca-Cola’s May 2002 introduction of Vanilla Coke. In the interim, Vanilla Coke carved out a significant

6.3 Responding to Competitors’ Moves 192

market niche; 29 percent of US households had purchased the beverage by August 2003, and 90 million cases had been sold.

In contrast, fast responses tend to prevent such an edge. Pepsi’s spring 2004 announcement of a midcalorie cola introduction was quickly followed by a similar announcement by Coke, signaling that Coke would not allow this niche to be dominated by its longtime rival. Thus, as former General Electric CEO Jack Welch noted in his autobiography, success in most competitive rivalries “is less a function of grandiose predictions than it is a result of being able to respond rapidly to real changes as they occur. That’s why strategy has to be dynamic and anticipatory.”

 

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