Vertical Integration: Pros, Cons, and Examples

Vertical integration is a restructuring strategy

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Definition

Vertical integration is a business strategy in which a company controls multiple stages of its production process and supply chain, minimizing or eliminating the need for outside entities.

Definition and Examples of Vertical Integration

Vertical integration is a strategy businesses can use to reduce some costs and control the quality of the products and services they provide. By merging various stages of the production processes and supply chain into its own operations, a company can create a competitive advantage.

Depending on the source of information, there are generally six accepted stages of a supply chain. The stages relative to vertical integration are materials, suppliers, manufacturing, and distribution.

One example of a company that is vertically integrated is Target, which has its own store brands and manufacturing plants. It creates, distributes, and sells its products—eliminating the need for outside entities such as manufacturers, transportation, or other logistical necessities.

Manufacturers can also integrate vertically. Many footwear and apparel companies have a flagship store that sells a wider range of their products than are available from outside retailers. Many also have outlet stores that sell last season's products at a discount.

Types of Vertical Integration

There are more than a few types of vertical integration. All types involve a merger with another company in at least one of the four relevant stages of the supply chain. The difference depends on where the company falls in the order of the supply chain.

When a company at the beginning of the supply chain controls stages farther down the chain, it is referred to as being integrated forward. Examples include iron mining companies that own "downstream" activities such as steel factories.

Backward integration takes place when businesses at the end of the supply chain take on activities that are "upstream" of its products or services. Netflix, a video streaming company that distributes and creates content, is an example of a company with backward integration.

A balanced integration is one in which a company merges with other businesses to attempt to control both upstream and downstream activities.

Pros and Cons of Vertical Integration

Pros and Cons
© The Balance 2020

Pros Explained

There are five noteworthy benefits of vertical integration that give a company a competitive advantage over non-integrated competitors.

A vertically integrated company can avoid supply disruption. By controlling its own supply chain, it is more able to control and deal with any supply problems itself.

A company benefits by avoiding suppliers with market power. These suppliers are able to dictate terms, pricing, and availability of materials and supplies. When a company can circumvent suppliers such as these, it is able to reduce costs and prevent production slow-downs caused by negotiations or other aspects external to the company.

Vertical integration gives a company better economies of scale. Large companies employ economies of scale when they are able to cut costs while ramping up productions—they take advantage of their size. For example, a company could lower the per-unit cost by buying in bulk or by reassigning employees from failing ventures. Vertically integrated companies eliminate overhead by consolidating management and streamlining processes. 

Note

"Economies of scale" is the concept of producing more to lower prices. This increases supply, lowers fixed and variable costs per unit, and makes a product more attractive to consumers.

Companies keep themselves informed on their competition. Retailers know what is selling well. If a company was vertically integrated with a retail store, manufacturing plant, and supply chain, they would be able to create "knock-offs" of the most popular brand-name products. A knock-off is a copy of a product—a similar product but company-branded with company marketing messages and packaging. Only powerful retailers can do this. Brand-name manufacturers can't afford to sue for copyright infringement, as they would risk losing major distribution through a large retailer.

Lower pricing strategies can be used. A company that's vertically integrated can transfer the cost savings they create to the consumer. Examples include Best Buy, Walmart, and most national grocery store brands.

Cons Explained

The biggest disadvantage of vertical integration is the expense. Companies must invest a great deal of capital to set up or buy factories. They must then keep the plants running to maintain efficiency and profit margins

Vertical integration reduces a company's flexibility by forcing them to follow trends in the segments they integrated. Suppose a company acquired a retailer for their product and created an outlet store that carried the old merchandise as well. That retailer's competition began using a new technology which boosted their sales. The new parent company would now need to acquire that technology to stay relevant in that market.

Note

Rapidly changing technology can have a major effect on integration. Different technologies across the various stages of supply can also make integration difficult and more expensive.

Another problem is the loss of focus. Running a successful retail business, for example, requires a different set of skills than a profitable factory. It's difficult to find a management team that's good at both. Integration can cause management to focus less on their core competencies, and more on the newly acquired assets.

Culture clash is an issue. It's also not likely that any company will have a culture that supports both retail stores and factories. A successful retailer attracts marketing and sales types. This type of culture isn't responsive to the needs of factories and the clash can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and lost productivity.

Vertical Integration vs. Horizontal Integration

Vertical Integration Horizontal Integration
Involves acquiring a key part of the supply chain Involves acquiring a competitor or related business
May reduce costs, offer greater control, and prevent operational disruption May reduce competition, allow expansion into new markets, or diversify offerings

Vertical integration involves acquiring or developing one or more important parts of a company’s production process or supply chain. For example, Netflix’s shift from licensing shows and movies from major studios to producing its own original content is an example of vertical integration.

In contrast, horizontal integration involves acquiring a competitor or other related business with the goal of expanding its customer base or reducing competition. Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios is an example of horizontal integration.

Key Takeaways

  • Vertical integration is a business strategy in which a company controls multiple stages of its production process and supply chain.
  • Companies that are vertically integrated can minimize or eliminate the need to rely on outside entities such as manufacturing and transportation
  • Advantages of vertical integration include resilience to supply chain disruptions, market power, and economies of scale.
  • Drawbacks of vertical integration include high costs, less flexibility, and loss of focus.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the difference between vertical and horizontal integration?

In horizontal integration, a company expands its customer base and product offerings, usually through the purchase of a competitor or another complementary brand. It's designed to increase profitability via economies of scale rather than through expanding operational controls, as vertical integration does.

Who created vertical integration?

The concept of vertical integration has been around since the Industrial Revolution. Andrew Carnegie was one of the first to employ it broadly. His company, Carnegie Steel, controlled the iron mines that were used for mining steel resources, the coal mines that provided the fuel to create the steel, the railroads for transporting materials, and the steel mills themselves.

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Updated by
Heather van der Hoop
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Heather van der Hoop (she/her) has been editing since 2010. She has edited thousands of personal finance articles on everything from what happens to debt when you die to the intricacies of down-payment assistance programs. Her work has appeared on The Penny Hoarder, NerdWallet, and more.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The National Bureau of Economic Research. "Do Prices Determine Vertical Integration?"

  2. University of Minnesota. "8.3 Vertical Integration Strategies."

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