the government’s balancing act – L’Express

the governments balancing act – LExpress

A 58-page document, detailed and argued, with a clear observation: the meal voucher market contains “failures, first and foremost the existence of barriers to entry, expansion and innovation, and above all the existence of market power. In mid-October, the Competition Authority delivered its opinion on the options considered to regulate the sector, after a request last March by the Deputy Minister of Commerce, Olivia Grégoire.

The independent institution presents a series of recommendations, including the transition to dematerialization – announced by the end of 2025 by the minister at the beginning of October. “VSIt is up to the government and the legislator to act. It seems that we need to change the framework, because otherwise competition issues emerge,” explains Henri Piffaut, vice-president of the Competition Authority. On the other hand, it rules out the possibility of capping the commissions received by issuers to merchants and restaurateurs – which are around 4% of the price of the meal on average.

Battle between big and small transmitters

The report had the gift of dividing the issuers of meal vouchers a little more. If those already well established welcome it, new entrants speak of their incomprehension, particularly on the capping aspect. “We were stunned. We were told that there was a malfunction. The findings are clear, but there is a total asymmetry between the explanation and the answers provided which only take up a few pages”, says Benjamin Suchar , CEO of Worklife, a start-up founded in 2020, which offers an all-in-one card integrating most employee benefits.

There are around ten players operating in this market valued at nearly 8.5 billion euros in 2022 and which benefits more than 5 million employees. There are the four giants – Edenred, Sodexo, Up and Swile – which share 99% of the basket and the others. Over the past few days, Olivia Grégoire’s office has successively met with the various stakeholders to gather their analysis of the opinion. “It’s always complicated, because it’s a sector where both there is competition and at the same time there isn’t. Small players face barriers to entry and our objective is to reduce them as much as possible. However, we must not kill this market which the State created in 1967 and which it finances”, we emphasize on the Bercy side. A balancing act, as everyone tries to move their pawns forward.

A reform expected next year

Will the government follow the recommendations of the Competition Authority? “We take note of it and listen to everyone one last time before presenting arbitrations between now and the end of the year, which could follow the opinion of the authority or not,” assures Olivia Grégoire’s office . A small issuer remains pessimistic. “They are bothered because they want to implement a restructuring, but they have the report from the Competition Authority in front of them and will not go against it. They are trying to find a structural measure, but it “There is no magic recipe. The government says to us, ‘Give me some ideas.’ But without a cap, it’s complicated,” said one of them.

Because it is the capping of commissions which crystallizes the tensions. “Commissions are a bit of a black box. We can imagine that by bringing a little more transparency, the idea is to generate competition and avoid agreements,” analyzes Benoît Samarcq, director of studies within the Xerfi firm. Currently, companies that provide meal vouchers to their employees pay almost no fixed price to the issuers. The latter earn their income from commissions charged on meals and products sold by merchants and restaurants.

With a cap, issuers will have to pass on this shortfall to companies, putting an end to the almost free service. “This would remove the brakes on novelty. Companies would be more careful about the advantages offered by different technologies, thus allowing the arrival of new players,” estimates Catherine Coupet, former president of Up and co-founder of Open!, a solution entirely dematerialized meal vouchers available from a smartphone, launched in 2020. According to her, “small ones are faced with a recruitment difficulty. We remain at the same point. It’s a really latent subject and when it is not treated, it ends up bursting in everyone’s face.”

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An argument refuted by the main leaders. “This market is perfectly competitive. That would have been extremely dangerous and totally inefficient. If you cap the commissions, you create a constraint on the entire market in its ability to innovate. I don’t see what the connection is between the commission and market shares. There are thirteen issuers, among them, four which are large. It is a market where, to be able to succeed, you must be able to invest”, assures Ilan Ouanounou, general manager of Edenred France. Loïc Soubeyrand, boss of Swile, agrees and takes his company as an example: “We are proof incarnate that this market is open. From the moment we want to take a place, we must have the right product, the right time to market and the means of our ambitions. But is there room for around ten actors? That’s another question.” The start-up was in fact created in 2018 and has gradually gained market share with its entirely dematerialized solution. With the recent acquisition of Bimpli – a subsidiary of Natixis, it now weighs 25% market share.

For Benoît Samarcq, “all the big players have broader offers with gift cards and solutions for teleworking with a mobility package. These leaders are increasingly offering turnkey solutions, which tends to accentuate the “market concentration. Instead of going to two or three service providers, companies only have to contact a single issuer. This will disqualify those who only deal with meal vouchers.” Dematerialization should at the very least bring a little more competition to the market. A quarter of meal vouchers are still issued in paper form, particularly in the public service. With this shift, small players, 100% digital, will have the opportunity to win new contracts.