Supermarkets Coping with Recession

Discussion
Jan 26, 2009

By Tom Ryan

While many retailers
have gone broke or initiated massive store closings, the list hasn’t yet
included a major or even notable minor grocer. Since they sell largely
non-discretionary items and many families are eating at home to save money,
some retail observers see supermarkets as somewhat insulated from the recession
compared to other channels.

The biggest reason appears
to be a reversal in a long
trend of families eating out more. Menu prices are also rising due to food
inflation. Citigroup Global Markets’ Greg Badishkanian told FP Trading
Desk
that the rise in entree prices “combined with a weakening
economy continues to drive consumers out of restaurants and into grocery
stores.”

According to several
UK newspapers, the ability of grocers to weather the recession was also
evident in strong holiday sales performances from the four major supermarkets
in the region:

  • Tesco reported a 2.5 percent
    rise in comparable store sales in the seven-weeks to January 10;
  • Asda’s update in mid-February
    revealed it expected like-for-likes up by about seven percent or higher
    for its fourth quarter;
  • J. Sainsbury posted a 4.5 percent
    comp gain for the 13-weeks ending Jan. 3;
  • WM Morrison reported like-for-like
    sales jumped 8.2 percent in the six-weeks ending Jan. 4.

The results were particularly
notable given the sorry performance from general retailers. For instance,
comps at Marks & Spencer fell 7.1 percent in the third quarter, with
food sales down by 5.2percent.

The U.K. newspapers pointed
out premium retailers faired worse than budget chains, noting the standout
performance of Morrison versus Tesco. Some also noted that discounters
are growing much faster as well-heeled consumers look for bargains.
Aldi reported sales across the UK and Ireland rose 24.8 percent in total
for the fourth quarter.

Indeed, throwing water
on the whole supermarkets-being-recession-resistant theory was a report
released last week from Verdict Research that said the European grocery
market grew considerably in 2008 with the help of food and oil inflation.
But the study, European Grocery Retailers 2009, said both those
trends have reversed and any pressure on prices is expected to have a disproportionate
effect on the bottom line, given the grocery industry’s already slim margins.

Moreover, discounters
such as Aldi and Lidl are expected to put downward pressure on prices as
they look to gain market share.

“While grocers are
to a certain extent insulated against the downturn that is severely hurting
the rest of the retail sector, the effects of the credit crunch and the
onset of the global recession will still be felt across the European grocery
market,” said Daniel Lucht, European retail analyst at Verdict.

Discussion Questions:
How do you think supermarkets will fair as the recession goes on? Why
haven’t we seen bankruptcies or store closings so far among grocers?
Do you think the discount channel will accelerate and hold its gains
in food market share during this period?

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25 Comments on "Supermarkets Coping with Recession"


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William Passodelis
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

Mr Livingston did a great job of pointing out all the difficulty that we saw in the last 8 – 10 years within the grocery channel but let us also remember that grocers have a TERRIBLY difficult situation as a matter of daily life. The profit margin in grocery, as we all are well aware, is awful and our grocers have done a terrific job of creating ways to deal with and live with this reality. And let’s also remember that two years after entering the grocery channel, our largest US grocer became Walmart–knocking off long top dog, Kroger.

The grocers we have remaining with us, have refined their business model to survive and to reach this point. In this downturn we unfortunately, are bound to see more problems with grocers as MORE pressure is placed upon these brave stalwart retailers, who no doubt continue to struggle in a very difficult arena.

David Biernbaum
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

The reason that supermarkets have not had store closings is because in this channel, more so than others, there is already a proper balance of stores with the number of consumers that shop them. This is not the case with consumer electronics, home style stores, “linens” stores, department stores, etc, where the weakest links are dropping out and/or closing stores to as part of a “correction” to meet lower demand.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

The impact of the global recession on food retailing is seemingly more apparent in Ireland where Superquinn–long known for its outstanding customer service–announced it would be laying off a significant number of employees.

We have to remember that U.S. supermarkets have already gone through a substantial reduction in store/company count throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The survivors are leaner and much more better marketers than their peers in other retail sectors. Also, supermarkets do have an ability to “trade down” without disrupting their traditional “face to the customer” or overtly changing their approach to pricing.

David Livingston
Guest
13 years 3 months ago
Prior to the recession, we had a lot of grocers throw in the towel. Winn-Dixie and Albertsons were the two biggest. Winn-Dixie filed for bankruptcy and disposed of hundreds of stores. Albertsons was forced to sell out their best stores to Supervalu and now Supervalu is scratching the heads and closing some stores. The worst of the Albertsons stores were sold to an investment firm and now those appear to be up for sale. Penn Traffic seems to be pretty much done with retail. Ahold threw in the towel and sold off BI-LO and Tops. Supervalu seems done with Cub Foods except in Minnesota. A&P has closed one division after another over the past 10 years. Delhaize is in the beginning stages of closing Sweetbay stores in Florida. Why are there not more closings? They already did. We will probably see more stores put up for sale or the announcement of large chains closing some divisions. There are just too many chains on life support that for all practical purposes are closed. They just haven’t… Read more »
Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
13 years 3 months ago

First off, I would say that Tom Ryan has done a wonderful job of answering his own question. Of course the fact that grocers sell non-discretionary items combined with fewer people eating out will more than offset recessionary trends.

But what would be interesting to know is how sales of other items such as candy, snack food, baked goods, and beverages are holding up relative to the staple items.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

While supermarkets are not recession-proof, one would expect to see reduced sales as shoppers buy cheaper cuts of meat, more meal extenders, pasta, etc. People still need to eat and grocery stores sell food, so that’s probably why we haven’t seen bankruptcies yet. You would expect store closings only where an area is saturated, and that’s been happening long before we were in a recession.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
13 years 3 months ago

Grocery store chains will definitely feel the pinch in earnings and profits as the recession settles in. Most grocery chains (with the exception of the Walmart Supercenters) do not carry a large selection of non food (hardlines, apparel, home, etc.) and therefore have less of an impact from the major decrease in consumer spending on non-essential items.

John Lofstock
Guest
John Lofstock
13 years 3 months ago
Supermarkets are in as good a position during a recession as anyone. People have to eat. When facing financial turmoil, customers tend to forgo convenience to focus on bargains, and supermarkets can offer the best prices. Plus, according to one c-store operator I know in the Northeast, you have to factor in public assistance programs for things like milk and cheese, which are primarily redeemable at supermarkets. I don’t have statistics, but I imagine dependence on public assistance increases during these tough financial times and that benefits grocers. Bottom line is that as long as supermarkets are offering the best value and lower-cost “generic” brands they are going to be a destination for consumers that are pinching pennies. I think this can best be illustrated by looking at the popularity of organic foods and “green” products. For about two years, organics and environmentally-friendly products were gaining quite a bit of steam at retail, even though they were more expensive. As the economy has suffered, so have sales of these products as customers have become more… Read more »
Ben Ball
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

We are in the final stages of analyzing the RETAIL:NEXT – Formats in Transition Study survey and will be releasing results shortly (stay tuned to RetailWire). But one interesting finding relevant to this discussion is that the industry participants and observers in the survey slid grocery stores into the “Decrease Somewhat” category by a slim margin. This seems to support the prevalent view in this discussion that grocery stores have seen much–but not all–of the shakeout already.

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
13 years 3 months ago

I don’t think that Supermarkets are immune from the recession. I do think that they will be one of the last industries to see a large number of bankruptcies, but make no mistake, they will see them. Everyone has to eat, and therefore the Supermarket industry is not seeing the huge drop-off in sales that are other retailers are seeing. Food will be the last thing that people stop purchasing.

All the more reason that Supermarkets will have to market smarter, and harder to survive the economic downturn. Smart retailers such as Trader Joe’s, Costco, and Aldi will continue to thrive as people look for ways to save money. Traditional supermarket retailers who do not adjust their product mix will be the victims of the downturn.

No one in the food industry should sit back and relax. We have a long 18 months ahead of us before we start to see a real sign of recovery.

Len Lewis
Guest
Len Lewis
13 years 3 months ago

From my conversations recently, it is apparent that the industry is still highly recession-resistant and despite price increases in commodities retailers are doing pretty well.

But they used to say that about the restaurant industry and we saw bankruptcies at five major chains in 2008. Don’t be surprised to see some closings and bankruptcies in the supermarket industry in 2009. Don’t think we’re going to see anything earth shattering. But smaller chains and some independents–especially those with aging management or no line of succession–will be throwing in the towel. On the upside, good locations–and banners–may be picked up by larger chains.

Warren Thayer
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

I agree with the basic gist here, but under it all, what I’m really watching is evolution of private label in this maelstrom. Increasingly, retailers are “owning the shopper,” and this recession is continuing to tip the scales in their favor.

Cathy Hotka
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

Thumbs up for grocery, for these three reasons:

* Consumers are attempting to stay out of retail stores as a way of avoiding temptation, but most people can’t avoid grocery shopping.
* Small splurges are going to be the order of the day, and splurging at the grocery store is a lot more appealing to freaked-out consumers than eating out.
* Grocery chains seem to have increased the number of door-buster discounts, to help them retain market share.

Small glimpses of blue sky….

Bernice Hurst
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

Supermarkets, if they play their cards right, do have the potential to survive or even thrive but they had also better beware as the Financial Times warned today with food prices due to go up again sooner rather than later. It isn’t going to be easy for anyone – complacency definitely needs to be avoided.

W. Frank Dell II, CMC
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

Over the years we have seen plenty of supermarkets in bankruptcy court and more on the way. During this economic period, physical volume has increased, yet sales increases have been below inflation adjustment. Retail food does well during inflation times due to their perishable pricing approach.

Over the next year we will see food deflation, not just switching from National Brand to Private Label. Some of the weak players will go bankrupt within the next year. The limited assortment and dollar store attack will take market share from traditional supermarkets. Only those retailers that have a well-defined target market and execute well are likely to win in the short term.

Julie Parrish
Guest
Julie Parrish
13 years 3 months ago

People can’t eat laptops…I see this discussion constantly at the grocery site I operate. People do however have to eat. And while they’re making tough decisions about what to eat, they haven’t stopped eating. And what they can’t personally afford, the government has kicked in with food stamps, so the level of overall grocery spending by the consumer hasn’t fallen as dramatically as consumer electronics, clothes, and other retail sectors.

Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D.
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

Over the last thirty years the consolidation of grocery stores in the US has been remarkable in its breadth and depth. One, only one precipitating factor was consumers’ decrease in cooking at home. With today’s economy, cooking at home (at at least heating prepared food at home) is increasing because it costs less. As a result, share of wallet may be increasing at grocery stores. The kind of items purchased may be different, the kind of “grocery” stores frequented may be different, but the percent of wallet spent on food at grocery stores may be increasing.

To be successful over time, these stores need to make sure they understand these consumers and their needs and how they change over time.

John Gaffney
Guest
John Gaffney
13 years 3 months ago

This is a “need” economy. It is no longer a “want” economy. The retailers that have what people need rather than want will avoid the more extreme events of this downturn. Supermarkets have done a nice job of extending their brands into the consumer mindset, and they have refrained from destructive price competition. Must be nice to operate from a position of confidence and service rather than fear and survival instinct.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
13 years 3 months ago
In this recession, no retailer will be immune. Supermarkets, however, will be in a better position than most. As many of my colleagues already noted, people do have to eat. And further, the supermarket has a cushion in a country where a huge part of the food dollar has been spent on restaurant meals. Consumers will trade from eating out to eating in. Not only will this trend be experienced in the sit down restaurants, but also many who purchase fast food will be switching to the old brown bag. Unfortunately, it is not a dollar for dollar trade off. In fact, it is more like $3 down in fast food for $1 up in the supermarket. Similarly, the supermarket will win as the consumer moves from brands to private label. But, it will lose considerable margin as consumer abandon prepared and premium products. But, at least the supermarket has areas to win with. Walmart will continue to have the edge in these tough times because no operator minimizes operational costs as well as they… Read more »
Mike Romano
Guest
Mike Romano
13 years 3 months ago
While some perceive supermarkets as recession proof–which to a certain degree may be true–they are still subjected to the same downward forces of the economy as the rest of U.S. corporations–reduced spending due to lost wages and jobs, reduced frequency as consumers purchase staples and bypass the higher margin outside aisles, increase in cherry-picker consumers and downward brand shifting, etc. With these challenges lie opportunities. Now is the perfect time for grocers to fortify customer loyalty. There are several grocers that understand this opportunity and are implementing many different measures to increase their brand value in their customer households with more targeted and relevant offers, investing in marketing technology improvements with interactive recipe widgets, free curbside pick-up of groceries ordered online or via cell phone, customized prepared meal plans and initiating mobile marketing and m-coupon programs. We are also seeing many grocers reducing their dependency on expensive print & broadcast buys, and their declining returns, by implementing more direct marketing programs that offer a higher ROI, better measurement capabilities and ultimately deliver better brand loyalty.
Mark Burr
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

While the industry may be recession resistant, its not recession proof. Like any area in retail it takes focus, blocking and tackling, and pruning and trimming where ever possible.

It’s a good time to be looking at any innovative way to increase your share of the customer’s wallet. It’s now that you have that opportunity better than any other time. Offering meal solutions, recipe planning, and a full and complete offer.

Carefully done, it’s a time for slow and careful growth for the industry. Done well, that growth can be retained upon resumption of a more favorable economy.

Brian List
Guest
Brian List
13 years 3 months ago
While I agree with the sentiment of this discussion, when reading David Livingston’s response, I had to shake my head and disagree with many of his points. Yes, while Winn-Dixie sold off many of its stores, it now operates a much leaner company, generating a profit and a decent stock, considering the environment. Albertsons LLC, the private equity-owned company, recently sold 49 locations to Publix in Florida. It was more of a defensive move on Publix’s part, and they paid a premium for the real estate and building properties. Penn Traffic recently sold its WHOLESALE division to C & S, as they are remaining in retail. Sweetbay closed 7 underperforming stores in FL, and is in now form of restructuring. Not to mention that Florida is one of the most difficult retail environments to operate it, one that was among the hardest hit by the real estate bubble, and one where Publix gets the high-end customers and Walmart dominates the bottom share. Thousands of underperforming chain-supermarkets on the verge of closing? Highly doubt it. Maybe… Read more »
Rachel Magni
Guest
Rachel Magni
13 years 3 months ago

Grocery chains may not be hit as hard as other retailers, but we have observed the recession’s impact in several areas.
1) Fewer impulse purchases
2) More coupon-clipping, price-consideration
3) A growing emphasis on private labels (and developing meal solutions with these)
4) The premium market (e.g. Whole Foods, Wegman’s) backlash – food to admire and inspire (like art) but not to buy
5) A growing trend to developing smaller footprint, “neighborhood” stores with at least 20% fewer skus and a focus on attracting the local demographic.

All of these trends fit the hypothesis of one lasting recessionary impact–that over time, all retail is shrinking.

Mark Lilien
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

Supermarkets are government subsidized via food stamps, Medicare, and Medicaid. All 3 government programs expand spending when times are tough. Ask any supermarket executive, manager or cashier how much sales volume goes through the food stamp program, Medicare Part D, and Medicaid. Take away those government subsidies and you’d see thousands of drug and supermarket locations closed asap.

Justin Time
Guest
13 years 3 months ago

I agree with Blist. Supermarkets are open and primarily thriving, because they serve their customers at the local level.

Great A&P is celebrating its 150th anniversary year and sells food products that customers really want to purchase and eat.

Private label offerings are multiplying because consumers like the quality and the savings. Supermarkets with strong private label lines will expand their sales as customers shop for the best quality products at the best prices.

A simple mindset is that people have to eat. So they will make choices that are easy on their pocketbook and taste good all at the same time.

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