Rebates, discounts, and other forms of incentives are common parts of customer loyalty programs. Done right, they improve the profitability of the firm and the reduce costs for customers. As such, they are common marketing programs and are often included in marketing and pricing recommendations.
Yet recent court rulings indicate that they are sometimes illegal.
As an author, professor, and consultant on pricing strategy, I have to take notice of the legal decisions regarding pricing – for I never want to suggest that my readers, students, or clients do something that will land them on the wrong side of the law. The challenge, however, is that the law isn’t exactly written in stone, nor is it always clear. The law evolves and lines can be blurry.
The latest evolution of the legality of price reductions suggests that customer loyalty programs that engage a pricing component are illegal for firms with dominant market shares. But what constitutes a dominant market share? What kinds of customer loyalty programs are illegal? When can a customer loyalty program be recommended and when might it land you in court? Let’s look at the court rulings regarding programs by Intel (INTL) and Eaton to see what we can learn.
In 2009, European regulators hit Intel with a $1.45 billion fine for their customer loyalty program in the silicon chip industry. As part of its settlement with AMD (AMD), Intel also paid $1.25 billion in damages. In 2010, the U.S. antitrust regulators and Intel settled a lawsuit by the FTC which restricted Intel from renewing anticompetitive practices.
The customer loyalty program in question revolved around customer-specific rebates to computer manufacturers contingent upon those customers using a high percentage of Intel chips in their products where appropriate.
Of course, using a high percentage of Intel chips meant not using many AMD chips. Partly as a result, Intel held roughly 80% market share in the global microprocessor market.
No damage was found to be inflected on Intel’s customers, nor was Intel found to be selling their chips below cost. Rather, the fine was justified on the grounds that it harmed Intel’s competitor, AMD, and that Intel held a dominant market share.
That is, in my reading of this cases, Intel was found guilty of improper pricing in both the US and the EU because (1) they held roughly 80% market share in the global microprocessor market that was overwhelmingly dominated by only two competitors, and (2) their price structure included rebates for large computer manufacturing customers if they purchased most of their chips from Intel (and therefore not from their competitor).
In June 2014, Eaton Corp. (ETN) lost an antitrust lawsuit against Meritor Inc. (MTOR) and ZF Friedreichshafen for their customer loyalty program in the heavy-duty truck transmission industry. Damages will be determined in a separate hearing which began 23 June 2014 but are expected to be between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion.
The customer loyalty program in question had the following features: 1) Required customers to use a high percentage (up to 90%) of Eaton transmissions in their trucks. 2) Required customers to identify Eaton as their standard or preferred transmission on a list of options. 3) Encouraged customers to pledge to price Eaton transmissions below its competitors’.
The customers in question included Daimler AG (OTCMKTS: DDAIF), Paccar Inc. (PCAR), Volvo Group (OTCMKTS: VOLVY), and Navistar International Corp (NAV). For these customers, using a high percentage of Eaton transmissions meant not using many transmissions produced from the Meritor and ZF joint venture. Partly as a result, Eaton maintained a roughly 80% market share in the commercial truck transmission market despite lacking a key product in their product line. That key product was a clutchless manual transmission produced by the Meritor and ZF joint venture in 2001 and not offered by Eaton until 2004. Strategically, the customer loyalty program could be justified as a means to maintain strong customer relationships until Eaton could produce a matching offering.
No damage was found to be inflected on Eaton’s customers, nor was Eaton found to be selling their transmissions below cost. Rather, the suit was ruled on the grounds that it harmed Eaton’s competitor, the Meritor and ZF joint venture, and that Eaton held a dominant market share.
That is, in my reading of this cases, Eaton was found guilty of improper pricing because (1) they held roughly 80% market share in the truck transmission market that was overwhelmingly dominated by only a few competitors and (2) their price structure included rebates for large truck manufacturing customers if they purchased and promoted most of their transmissions from Eaton and not their competitor.
So what kind of firms need to worry about the legality of their customer loyalty rebate and discount policies? It appears as though the kind of firms that need to worry are the highly dominant firms in their market. But the term “dominant” isn’t perfectly defined. It does not appear that the number one firm in a market with many competitors but holding less than 50% market share is defined as “dominant” in this area of the law. It does appear that if the market has only two significant competitors and perhaps a few very small niche players (less than 5% market share each), and if one of the competitors has nearly 80% market share (though perhaps the line should be drawn lower from a legal risk perspective to 50%), then that major player is defined as dominant in this area of the law.
As to what kinds of customer loyalty programs by “dominant” firms are illegal, or under what circumstances a customer loyalty program can land you in court? We have to look at intent and outcome. If it can be determined that the customer loyalty pricing program was done to harm a competitor and it did indeed harm the competitor, it will fall afoul of the law. Even if it can be proven that the customer loyalty pricing program was undertaken to improve profitability or improve customer outcomes, this may not be enough to defend against the lawsuit if it can be shown that the program harmed a competitor. It also appears that both of these cases involve not a single product or product line, but rather a broad swath of products wherein a competitor may have offered only a fraction of the breadth of products where those products may have been targeted at a specific set of customer needs.
We can argue whether it is the court’s role to ensure competitors survive. We can argue about the merits of limiting price competition. And we can argue about what industry structures should be found in free markets, why firms enter and exit, if price wars ever make strategic sense, and whether bundling and loyalty programs are “unfair” forms of competition or simply a wise strategic maneuver. We can even argue whether the law should have a bias against market-share winners and for market-share losers. Or, in a hyperbolic rage, we can argue that these kinds of rulings may be replacing market forces with political and legal forces signaling the demise of free market capitalism and the rise of crony capitalism, but that is probably overblowing the issue. In any case, those discussions belong in legal journals, editorials, and political stump speeches. The point of this article is to help managers manage.
So, to help managers manage, when it comes to customer loyalty programs that have some form of price discount or rebate, the law seems to say that you are free to do what you want unless you are a Goliath. If however you are a Goliath—that is, you operate in a market with only a handful of competitors and you are the dominant player—then your pricing, rebates, and customer loyalty programs need to include a legal review in their formulation. From an anti-trust perspective, it is always safer to be the David than the Goliath.
Note of Interest and Holdings: At the time of writing, the author is not currently a direct consultant to nor investor in any of the firms listed in this article. But, in the name of complete disclosure, the author’s wife, Yvette Kaiser Smith, has sold a piece of sculpture that can be found in Eaton’s Cleveland offices.
Bob Tita, “Eaton Faces Over $2 Billion in Damages in Court Battle”. The Wall Street Journal, [New York, N.Y] 19 June 2014: B3.
Charles Forelle and Don Clark “Intel Fine Jolts Tech Sector — EU Levies Record $1.45 Billion in Monopoly Case; Win for Rival Chip Maker AMD”, Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition [New York, N.Y] 14 May 2009: A.1.