Friday, 30 January 2009

Could The Retail Industry Save Itself Using Game Theory?

In my previous post on whether the Christmas Sales have destroyed hopes of a retail recovery, I discussed how retailers have exhibited classic non-cooperative behaviour. By focusing only on individual interest and survival, their collective actions have likely damaged their entire industry's market size. By encouraging people to spend their liquidity faster through low prices in over-competitive price wars, people now facing redundancies will run out of spending ability much quicker, and retailers give themselves no time to be able to adapt to reducing market sizes and changing consumer need.

Retailer actions thus suggest a basic lack of understanding of collective strategic options. Even just a basic group recognition of Game Theory might have helped. Game theory attempts to model behavior in strategic situations, where players interact and make decisions to maximise their returns based on each others choices - arguably leading to optimal behaviour for all. The classic example is the 'Prisoner's Dilemma' which involves two participants who can either benefit together or suffer together. However this is a zero sum game and rational behaviour in this model is self-interest, so consequently the optimal solution is never chosen.

In a normal situation the retail space would probably be modelled as a non-zero sum game. One firm's success does not necessarily mean losses for everyone else, because that success may increase the general size of the market to mean success for all players. However in the current economic climate, it looks more like there is a finite and decreasing amount of money that people have to spend, and therefore a limited resource available to all players, bringing the situation closer to a zero sum game.

For retailers, what Game Theory therefore suggests is that the players can either try and maximise their own gain, in which case some will come out well while others do badly, involving high risk for everyone; or they can all cooperate strategically to all do a little less well but significantly minimise each player's risk of severe failure.

What retailers should have done, is considered working together to keep prices sensible, and thus manage both the market and their ability to stay alive long enough to change with the environment. On balance, all companies who aren't over-leveraged, would benefit and be better off as a group.

Trying to gain maximum benefit for themselves however, probably means that many will end up with little or no benefit at all as their behaviour helps ensure the market collapses. Unfortunately we must accept that historical competitive and non-collaborative behaviour means that there's very little realistic chance of retailers co-operating like this even now, so we should probably start preparing for further insolvencies and more job losses.