On 9 July 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the full text of its infringement decision finding that Korg (UK) Limited had breached the Chapter I prohibition of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union by engaging in resale price maintenance in relation to the online retail prices of Korg’s synthesizers and hi-tech equipment.

Background

In April 2018, the CMA launched an investigation related to alleged anti-competitive agreements and/or concerted practices in relation to the distribution of musical instruments and equipment by Korg (UK) Limited (Korg UK). On 24 March 2020, the CMA issued a statement of objections alleging that Korg UK had breached Article 101 of the TFEU and the Chapter I prohibition by restricting retailer freedom to discount the online retail prices of synthesizers and hi-tech equipment supplied by Korg UK, in other words, that Korg were guilty of resale price maintenance.

Korg UK subsequently reached a settlement agreement with the CMA and, on 29 June 2020, the CMA announced that it had issued an infringement decision, fining Korg UK £1.5 million for engaging in resale price maintenance designed to restrict retailer freedom to set prices online by requiring their musical instruments to be sold at or above a minimum price. The CMA has now published the full text of the infringement decision.

The facts

Korg UK is active in the distribution of musical instruments and music-making equipment (MI) including electronic MI in the UK and Republic of Ireland. The CMA’s investigation was limited to the supply of Korg synthesizers and hi-tech equipment (including DJ equipment, electronic percussion, stage pianos, and controllers) (Relevant Products).

The CMA concluded that during the relevant period (9 June 2015 to 17 April 2018), Korg UK operated and enforced a wide-ranging pricing policy, the purpose of which was to ensure that MI Resellers would not advertise or sell the Relevant Products online below a certain minimum price specified by Korg UK from time to time, for example in Korg UK’s price lists. The CMA found that the nature of the Korg Pricing Policy was such that Korg UK rarely needed to contact MI Resellers about it (in writing or otherwise), when MI Resellers were complying with it because the Minimum Price was, in general, clearly displayed on Korg’s UK’s price lists relating to the relevant products.

This generally limited the need for verbal and written communications concerning the Korg Pricing Policy, and therefore limited the amount of written records related to the Korg Pricing Policy. Despite this, the CMA obtained evidence which, in the CMA’s view, demonstrated the existence of the Korg Pricing Policy. Relevant contemporaneous documentary evidence was corroborated by certain witness evidence describing verbal and/or written communications that took place between Korg UK and its MI Resellers during the relevant period.

Resale price maintenance – Korg evidence

The commercial aims, content and communication and scope and duration

Korg UK’s commercial aims for introducing the Korg Pricing Policy were as follows:

  • It was designed to enable Korg UK’s MI Resellers to achieve attractive margins through the maintenance of high and stable pricing, so increasing the attractiveness of the Korg brand and encouraging MI Resellers to stock and sell the Relevant Products (and the Korg brand more generally).
  • In doing so, it aimed to help Korg UK secure, maintain and/or improve its UK market position in the relevant products relative to its competitors, in particular, by maintaining the brand value of the relevant products.

Resale price maintenance – Korg’s monitoring and enforcement

The evidence showed that Korg UK sought to monitor and enforce the Korg Pricing Policy by contacting MI Resellers in advance of Korg UK issuing a new price list or immediately after issue to ensure early compliance with the Korg Pricing Policy.

Korg UK’s awareness of competition law and potential illegality, and culture of concealment

The evidence shows that Korg UK staff were very familiar with competition law and appeared to know what conduct would constitute a breach of it. Korg had introduced a compliance code in 2015 and senior employees took an active role in giving competition compliance training as part of the induction for new Korg UK staff. The CMA further concluded that “Korg UK staff operated under a culture of concealment and tried to avoid generating an evidence trail of potentially incriminating written records.”

CMA’s legal assessment of resale price maintenance

The decision sets out CMA’s legal assessment of Korg UK’s agreement and/or concerted practice with Reseller 1, one of its MI Resellers, that Reseller 1 would not advertise or sell online synthesizers or hi-tech equipment supplied to it by Korg UK below a certain Minimum Price specified by Korg UK from time to time, in accordance with the Korg Pricing Policy.

The CMA had reasonable grounds for suspecting that more than 20 MI Resellers of the relevant producers were subject to the Korg Pricing Policy, and that MI Resellers generally complied with Korg UK’s requests to adhere to the Minimum Price.

The CMA, therefore, concluded that throughout the relevant period:

  • Reseller 1 generally complied with the Korg Pricing Policy, due to a credible fear of sanctions for non-compliance.
  • Korg UK monitored Reseller 1’s pricing and requested Reseller 1 on numerous occasions to follow the Korg Pricing Policy with regard to Reseller 1’s advertising and selling online of the Relevant Products (this tended to happen when Korg UK issued a new price list or when Reseller 1 had been caught matching another MI Reseller’s lower prices, at least temporarily).
  • On numerous occasions Reseller 1 increased its pricing (albeit not always immediately) to at least the Minimum Price, on Korg UK’s request.
  • On numerous occasions Reseller 1 reported to Korg UK other MI Resellers advertising or selling the Relevant Products online at prices below the Minimum Price.

Decision to impose penalties

The CMA concludes that there is strong evidence that Korg UK must have been aware, or could not have been unaware, that its conduct had the object or would have the effect of restricting competition. In particular, there was evidence that staff were aware that resale price maintenance was illegal and that there was a culture of concealment to hide evidence. The CMA therefore found that Korg UK committed resale price maintenance intentionally.

Case study

The CMA has published a case study explaining the facts of this case. It notes that there are a number of lessons that businesses can learn from this case, including an understanding that:

  • It is illegal for a supplier to interfere with a reseller’s ability to independently set their own price.
  • The CMA has sophisticated means of gathering evidence and uncovering evidence even where the companies have tried to hide their actions by deleting communications.
  • If you are ever asked not to put something down in writing, you should be suspicious as it could relate to something illegal. If so, you should seek legal advice and seriously consider whether to report the matter to the CMA.
  • Directors and senior staff have a special responsibility to be well informed on competition law and make sure their companies are behaving legally and ethically.
  • Attending compliance training alone is not sufficient to be compliant – you must actively comply with the law.
  • As a reseller you can also be investigated for breaking the law if you are found to have co-operated with a minimum pricing policy. If a supplier tries to make you comply with a minimum pricing policy, you should refuse and point them to our guidance. The CMA would also urge you to report them. Resellers may also face enforcement action such as fines if they have gone along with the supplier’s resale price policy.

EM Law help a wide range of clients with compliance and structuring around their operations. Please contact us if you have any questions on the issues raised in this article.