Pursuant to Article L 462-4 of the French Commercial Code, the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) has the ability to carry out investigations, at its own initiative, on any competition-related issue.
On 10 February 2016, the FCA decided to review the hearing aid market, suspecting that the high price of the devices discourages potential customers. In fact, the average cost of hearing aids in France is € 1,550 per device, representing a yearly turnover close to € 1 Billion, but only about 32% of the hard of hearing in France are equipped with a hearing aid device, compared to 41% in the UK.
Besides high prices and a comparatively low rate of hearing aid use, other factors which led the FCA to look more closely into the hearing aid market include the following:
- The market structure is oligopolistic, with only six main manufacturers in the world, four of which share over 80% of the global market (Sonova, Starkey, Siemens, and William Demant).
- The margin earned by hearing care professionals (“audioprothésistes”) is substantial and can be as high as 3.5 times the cost of purchase from manufacturers.
- Due to a lack of publicly available information on the products, hearing care professionals may be in an advantageous position to talk customers into purchasing the more expensive devices.
Therefore, the FCA has announced it will notably (i) consider the potential anti-competitive effects of the current structure of the hearing aid market, (ii) review the high profitability of hearing care professionals in light of the level of services they actually provide to customers, (iii) look into ways to reduce the asymmetry of information, but also (iv) evaluate the entry requirements to the profession of hearing care professionals (the number of students enrolling in French hearing care professional diploma studies was restricted in 2015).
The FCA will start conducting a market survey by interviewing all interested parties (manufacturers, distributors, doctors, and consumers alike) and by holding a public consultation. The FCA will publish its official recommendations in December 2016.