The Austrian Federal Competition Authority (AFCA) launched an extensive sector inquiry into the food industry in October 2022 and has now published an interim report on price comparison sites. The overall results and final report are expected to be made available in October 2023. There has been an intensive public and political debate over the past few months on the extent to which simplified price comparisons for everyday groceries can help consumers save money. The AFCA has therefore surveyed and analysed the current status of various price comparison sites, determining under which conditions these can have a positive impact on competition as a result of improved price transparency for consumers. It can now make recommendations on how to improve price comparisons for consumers.
“Price comparison sites are a beneficial tool for consumers, enabling them to compare prices more reliably and more quickly. The important point is to offer consumers an intuitive tool. An example from Israel shows that prices have dropped by an average of 4-5% as a consequence of comparison sites. Having said that, there is still a lack of legal certainty for the providers of such sites in Austria. And, of course, retailers’ interests in accurate communication must be upheld, while any potential incentives to engage in coordination should be prevented,” explains interim Director General Natalie Harsdorf-Borsch.
In June 2023, the AFCA sent a list of questions to food price comparison sites with the aim of obtaining information about how they work, how they collect data, and the de facto and legal framework conditions. Five providers answered these questions in great detail, giving an in-depth insight into the obstacles of operating food price comparison sites. In addition, the Austrian Retail Association has also submitted a statement on the subject of price comparison sites. The subsequent analysis was based on all of the information received.
Current market situation and challenges for price comparison sites
The existing transparency initiatives in Austria are being offered by individuals, who are currently providing their service to consumers free of charge. The providers stated that it was not particularly difficult to provide the service from a technical point of view.
However, the site providers are facing legal uncertainty regarding their running of automatic searches of websites since some retailers prohibit web crawling in the general terms and conditions for their websites. There is also legal uncertainty around brand and copyright law.
A further problem is that product descriptions are not consistent in the various web shops, and determining price data is also difficult since not all supermarkets provide the necessary technical interfaces (APIs).
The range of products offered online does not necessarily reflect the offline product range, which is why sites can only provide information about a section of the full product offering. However, site providers feel that this is sufficient for the purpose of appropriate price comparisons. Smaller retailers generally do not have their own web shops.
All five providers of price comparison sites plan to expand and improve their services in future.
- Price transparency is an important cornerstone so that consumers can make appropriate buying decisions based on customised and intuitive comparison tools.
- Based on the price patterns shown by the site providers and an initial assessment by the AFCA, it can be assumed that web shop operators are increasingly crawling their competitors’ prices online before setting their own (online) prices. Web crawling is likely no longer done manually.
- The current situation is characterised by asymmetric price information. Companies currently have access to much more information than consumers. It can therefore be expected that an increase in price transparency would strengthen competition in the interests of consumers.
Key recommendations for the establishment and strengthening of food price comparison sites:
- Food retailers with an online shop could be required (possibly only when exceeding a certain threshold) to make price information on their food products available via an application programming interface (API).
- This information should at least include: EAN barcode, product name, origin, manufacturer, brand, price, quantity, weight, price, category etc.
- However, the legal parameters would have to be defined in order to give price comparison sites the opportunity to set up on a long-term basis.
- Retailers that do not fall under the obligation in point 1 should also be given the chance to make their products available via an API under the same terms.
Press releases on our sector inquiry into food industry
- October 2022: AFCA launches inquiry into food industry (press release of 25 October 2022)
- March 2023: AFCA conducts online survey of 1,500 suppliers to the four largest Austrian food retailers (press release of 17 March 2023)
- April 2023: AFCA starts survey of 13 online food retailers (press release of 27 April 2023)
- June 2023: AFCA surveys price comparison sites (press release of 22 June 2023)
- August 2023: AFCA publishes update on market inquiry into food industry (press release of 28 August 2023)