Shoppers spending more on groceries but buying less, private label evolving

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 15th January 2009

American research suggests consumer habits are shifting toward thrifty grocery spending but away from more extreme belt-tightening measures seen last year.

The American economy has entered the third stage of its unprecedented transformation and will be characterised by shoppers permanently changing several of their most important rituals involved in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) products they select, purchase and use, according to the “Transforming Economy 3.0: The Search for Affordable Solutions” report, created by Information Resources, Inc. (IRI).

supermarket shopping

With volatile and uncertain conditions ahead, consumers are spending with caution – continuing to define what is truly essential. Despite relief from record breaking fuel prices, increases in food prices still have shoppers spending more on groceries and getting less. It remains a challenging time for manufacturers who must reinforce the value proposition of their brands without selling out their equity. For retailers, private label continues to be a survival strategy for many consumers, and private label brands continue to evolve in their sophistication, quality and availability.

“While the recession is far from over, our new research reveals that we are entering a third phase,” IRI Consulting and Innovation President Thom Blischok suggested. “The first phase “Shocking the System,” was characterised by rapidly rising energy and food prices, and a dramatic weakening of the home mortgage market starting in late 2007.”

“This phase was followed by stage two, “A Refocus on Impact,” during which consumers reacted radically to their imperiled financial situation by extreme belt tightening, even while prices were beginning to stabilize. In the third phase of “The Lasting Reality,” prices are continuing to level off, financial markets have halted their downward spiral, and many shoppers are backing off their most extreme belt-tightening behaviors.”

Shoppers Continue to Struggle
Shoppers remain significantly concerned about how economic conditions are affecting their financial situation. For example, 84 per cent of surveyed consumers with annual incomes of $35,000 or less point to rising food costs as affecting their financial condition in Q3 2008, although this figure is down slightly from 87 per cent in Q2.

Concurrently, surveyed shoppers report they are spending more but purchasing less. In Q3, shoppers paid on average 3.7 per cent more, but purchased 2.0 per cent fewer units.

“Lower-income consumers began savings strategies the earliest and practiced them most aggressively as compared to other income groups,” Mr Blischok added. “While other groups are beginning to retreat from aggressive savings strategies, lower-income consumers are either not pulling back at all or doing so more slowly.”

Private Label Popularity Based on More Than Price
Private label products continue to be popular with consumers, with dollar share increasing 1 per cent and 0.9 per cent in Q2 and Q3 2008, respectively. However, the attraction of private label results from a combination of quality, variety and convenience, not simply lower prices – according to IRI. Private label purchases grew most rapidly among shoppers earning more than $100,000 annually during Q3.

“The private label phenomenon will continue to be a bright spot for innovative retailers that invest in providing a high-quality, convenient, affordable alternative to shoppers,” Mr Blischok claimed. “It is also a call to manufacturers to rewire the value proposition they offer shoppers and ensure that all product development, merchandising, pricing and related strategies are closely tied to a well articulated, shopper-centric strategy.”