Never Mind The Retail Apocalypse. We're Still In The Middle Of The Post-Recession Storm

Why shoppers today are different, and how retailers can weather the changes 

Today’s shopper is drastically different than they were even just a decade ago. Contrary to the 1980s and 1990s—when incomes were on the rise and customers were demanding high quality, premium items—the new millennium brought about stagnant incomes, the housing bubble and the Great Recession. As Americans faced the harshest and longest lasting recession since the Great Depression, customers’ attitudes, values, and preferences—particularly around money spend—had shifted greatly. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) saw shoppers begin saving by taking advantage of coupons, sales, private brands and larger pack sizes, making more shopping trips and shopping more at discount stores.

A key question coming out of the recession was, “When will shoppers return to their pre-recession behaviors?” In 2019, after five years of robust economic growth, does the data show consumers shifting back to pre-recession behaviors, or are the consumer changes more permanent?

To address that question, we will look at the three most interesting behavioral changes from the NBER report:

  1.  Private brand sales
  2. Shifting to discount retailers
  3. Making more trips

Private Brand

According to Nielsen, private brand’s share of the market grew from 16.2% in 2009 to 18.0% in 2017 (source: Nielsen). This is a sizable chunk of the $682 billion grocery market (source: Nielsen TDLinx and Progressive Grocer).


Private brands have also grown faster than branded products from 2013-2017, when the private brand CAGR was 2.0% versus 1.2% for branded products. And the YOY number (2016 vs 2017) was 3.0% for private brand and -0.5% for branded products.

Discount Retailers

Looking at the top 10 fastest growing banners for grocery sales* since the Great Recession, five are price focused or discount retailers: Walmart Neighborhood, Dollar Tree, Aldi, Dollar General and Winco Foods. Sprouts and Trader Joe’s are not discounters, but they are known for the best prices within the premium segment. The Fresh Market is the only true premium banner, while Albertson’s made the list because of an acquisition.


Moreover, since the Great Recession, fewer people define the traditional supermarket as their primary place to shop. FMI data shows a 12-percentage point decline since the Great Recession. And immediately following the 2009 recession, it dropped 5 percentage points as people explored lower cost channels.


More trips

More trips opened the door to visiting multiple retailers, allowing shoppers to find their preferred combination of price, quality and store experience. In recent years, visits have fallen somewhat, but the number of channels and retailers visited continues to grow, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). In fact, it’s grown by almost 20% since 2015. Moreover, FMI Grocery Trends 2018, along with dunnhumby’s RPI, finds that the average household visits about four different retailers in a month.

When will pre-recession behaviour return?

The evidence suggests that much of this price-conscious behavior continues into 2019 and will likely persist for many more years. Private brand will likely continue to strengthen as Aldi, Lidl, Costco and Trader Joe’s continue growing. Many retailers are realizing that a strong private brand is key to their success, as it drives differentiation, improves value perceptions and builds the overall retailer’s brand.

Shoppers are also likely to continue shifting toward discounters, particularly for the commodity categories and items. E-commerce will also make it easier by buying commodity items from low-cost providers. Lastly, brick and mortar visits could continue to fall as e-commerce gains share and shopping multiple banners will likely continue as the market continues to fragment and specialize.

What does this mean for traditional supermarkets?

The key takeaway? Consumers think about value differently since the Great Recession. Perceived value is the combination of our perceptions of quality and price. Before the recession, value was driven more by quality, but since the recession, it’s driven more by price. Quality is still important, but when deciding to act, retailers must carefully consider how those changes will impact price perceptions.

For example, many regional retailers think they can differentiate themselves by moving more upmarket, either more premium and/or more natural/organic. Still others think that becoming more digital and multichannel is the answer. In both instances, retailers should understand how these changes will impact both quality and price perceptions. In today’s post-recession market where shoppers’ price anchors are increasingly influenced by Walmart, Costco and Aldi, significant reductions in price perception must be countered by significant improvements in quality perceptions. Moreover, if a retailer’s footprint covers lower, middle and higher income markets, it is not likely that the quality improvements will exceed the lower price perceptions. If a retailer wants to move more upmarket, targeted real estate becomes essential for success.

This also holds for digital and e-commerce. Will the benefits exceed the costs? E-commerce often requires fees or increased prices to cover the incremental costs. Does the improvement in quality exceed the hit to price? Dozens of grocery retailers believe it does, while one of the most successful--Trader Joe’s--recently cancelled their e-commerce pilot because they felt the added costs exceeded the benefits.

What can traditional supermarkets do to improve value perceptions?

The good news is that several factors can shape value perceptions besides investing in price. dunnhumby research finds that about one-third to half of a banner’s value perception is impacted by base price, meaning that there are other areas that contribute. The most effective method is to layer lower prices with changes in assortment, merchandising, and store experience and then tell your customers about these changes with carefully crafted messages.

The first step is to build a highly efficient organization. Efficiency and keeping costs low are essential for any retailer to compete in today’s market. This seems obvious but getting there can be painful. Labor is a big cost. Do you really need someone behind that counter?  Trader Joe’s, Costco and Walmart are almost exclusively self-serve. How about ready-to-eat foods? This department can also be very costly, so do the benefits exceed the costs? Trader Joe’s has minimal fresh prepared foods but fills that vacuum with high-quality frozen prepared foods that are easy to prepare. This reduces shrink and maximizes profit.

Of course, the pricing blocking and tackling plays a role. The high-volume items play a bigger role in price perception than the lower volume items. Are these higher volume items priced competitively? Could you increase prices on lower volume items? What about entry level price points or the minimum and maximum gap across the category? Lower entry price points and smaller gaps have both been shown to improve price perceptions. 

Assortment and merchandising can also affect value perceptions. How much variety is on the shelf? Are there opportunities to simplify the SKU? Research has shown that too many choices can negatively impact variety perceptions and reduce the likelihood of purchase. How is the store merchandised? What products occupy endcaps? High volume, competitively priced items or less relevant overstocked items? What’s at eye-level on the shelf? Is this filled with your key value items or expensive premium and natural/organic items? What do customers see when they shop your store?

Private brand is also a key element within assortment and is unique in impacting both quality and price. On the quality side, it can uniquely help differentiate the overall brand by providing products that can only be found at your store. They have your logo on them and are the quickest way to build overall brand equity. There is also an opportunity to aggressively price these items, defending you against the more price-focused banners. And once you have a strong private brand, those items can occupy your end caps and prime space throughout the store.

The fact of the matter is, today’s consumers are different. So how can you adjust your value proposition to better align with the fundamental shifts? Of course, there is no silver bullet, but a review of which banners are succeeding, and which ones aren’t, is a clear indicator of what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime -- recalling a fictional storm memorialized in film -- we are clearly not in Kansas anymore. Nor are we likely to ever return. There's a new normal in retail, and the smartest players are adjusting to the realities. For more on who is succeeding, see our most recent Retailer Preference Index report.

This post is sponsored by dunnhumby