On May 20, 2019, the Commission carried out dawn raids at the premises of two grocery retailers in France, Casino and Intermarché-Les Mousquetaires.[1] On the same day, the Belgian Competition Authority raided Carrefour and Provera, a joint purchasing venture of grocery retailers Cora, Match, and Louis Delhaize. Although the two series of dawn raids occurred simultaneously, the Commission’s press release leaves open whether the raids were coordinated.

The Commission suspects that Casino’s and Intermarché-Les Mousquetaires’ joint purchasing venture Intermarché Casino Achats (“INCAA”)—which at the time of its creation in 2014 accounted for about 26% of the French purchasing grocery retail market—may have breached EU antitrust rules.[2] The Commission already raided Casino and Intermarché in relation to INCAA in February 2017, suspecting anticompetitive information exchanges concerning rebates for hygiene and cleaning products.[3]

Both companies appealed the 2017 dawn raid decision, with their appeals pending before the General Court. Although the Belgian competition authority’s press release does not disclose the nature of its concerns, according to public sources its investigation may concern Carrefour and Provera’s newly created joint purchasing venture.

These investigations arise in the context of increasing scrutiny from EU and national competition authorities into the practices of joint purchasing ventures between competitors in the grocery retail sector. Joint purchasing agreements have traditionally been recognized as procompetitive insofar as they “usually aim at the creation of buying power which can lead to lower prices or better quality products or services for consumers.”[4] However, the recent proliferation of joint purchasing ventures in the food retail sector has led to a high concentration of buyer power, and customers have raised concerns that this has in fact reduced competition and retailers’ incentives to pass on the benefits of possible price decreases to consumers.

Competition authorities have, in turn, started to apply stricter scrutiny to the possible anticompetitive effects that could result from these joint ventures. For example, in July 2018, as Auchan/Casino/Metro/Shiever and Carrefour/Système U announced their plans to form new purchasing alliances, the French Competition Authority opened an investigation and subsequently extended it to Carrefour/ Tesco.[5] The investigation is in all likelihood still pending (as the French Competition Authority has not issued any subsequent public statements). Similarly, in 2014, the Italian Competition Authority accepted commitments proposed by five grocery retailers to end their joint purchasing venture Centrale Italianato.[6]

[1]      Commission Press Release MEMO/19/2689, “Antitrust: Commission confirms unannounced inspections in the grocery retail sector in France,” May 22, 2019.

[2]      French Competition Authority, Opinion No. 15-A-06, para. 121.

[3]      MLex, “French, Belgian retailers face EU cartel probe over consumer-goods buying, May 5, 2017 and French retailers appeal EC raids over alleged information exchanges,” May 15, 2017.

[4]      Guidelines on the applicability of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union to horizontal co-operation agreements, OJ 2011 C 11/1, para. 194.

[5]      French Competition Authority, “Joint purchasing agreements in the food retail market sector – The Autorité de la concurrence deepens its investigations and opens inquiries,” July 16, 2018.

[6]      Italian Competition Authority, Case I768, “Centrale d’aquisto per la grande distribuzione Organizzata,” September 17, 2014.