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Dominant Retailers and the Countervailing Power Hypothesis

The growing dominance of powerful big-box retailers in recent years has enhanced the interests in Galbraith's (1952) hypothesis of countervailing power. The objective of this paper is to assess rigorously this hypothesis using a theoretical model that captures the main ingredients of Galbraith's arguments as well as some of the important features of retail industry. It is demonstrated that consistent with the hypothesis an increase in the amount of countervailing power possessed by a dominant retailer can indeed lead to a fall in retail price for consumers. But this fall in retail price is not the result of a benevolent retailer acting on behalf of consumers but of a self-interested supplier trying to offset the reduction in profits caused by the rise in countervailing power. Total surplus does not always increase with the rise of countervailing power because of the possible efficiency loss on production side. Furthermore, the presence of fringe competition is crucial for countervailing power to benefit consumers and that there is a limit to how far a dominant retailer will go in its pursuit of countervailing power. The analysis in this paper, therefore, does not support the contention that countervailing power can replace competition as the regulatory mechanism of the economy.

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Paper provided by Carleton University, Department of Economics in its series Carleton Economic Papers with number 01-05.

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Length: 34 pages
Date of creation: 2001
Date of revision: 2003
Publication status: Published: Revised version in RAND Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Winter 2003), pp. 612–625
Handle: RePEc:car:carecp:01-05
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