Sunday, January 11, 2009

Four Themes That Cross Categories

Since last Fall, the economic news has been uniformly grim. People losing their homes, deferring maintenance, unable to afford heat. Food banks and soup kitchens overflowing with “customers.” Donors to thrift stores in years past now shopping at them. As a November story on points out so clearly, “we may think that we need a lot of things. The stuff we really need — after breathing — are food (and clean water) in our stomachs, clothes on our backs, and a roof over our heads.”

This past year, we’ve talked to hundreds of consumers on behalf of clients. We’ve talked about food and eating at home vs. away from home. We’ve talked about shoes and clothing. And we’ve talked about home improvement and home maintenance. In these conversations, we heard several common themes:
  • DIY is booming

  • Pretense and conspicuous consumption are out

  • Coupons are back

  • At least in some categories, people believe they’re spending smarter, not necessarily spending less
So, I thought it would be interesting, and possibly instructive, to share what we heard. In this 3-part series, I'll start with the Food category, then Shelter, and in last installment, will talk about Clothing. Compare notes with your own experience, and let us know where we got it wrong…or right!

The problems at Whole Foods and other upscale grocery retailers started long before Q4. Food prices surged in the first half, and organic produce took a hit. Consumers shifted to private label and shopping the club stores for food and groceries in a big way early in the year. Big winners in the category were ALDI whose no frills, private label offering fits the current environment well, and the various 99-cent and dollar stores, for their low prices.

Coupon use is also factoring into food purchases. As market researcher ICOM found, “Households of two adults and two children who use coupons wisely can save 25% on their grocery bill annually, without cutting purchases.” And online coupons were the runaway hit of the year. Consumers of all ages told us they used them, and said would be more inclined to use them if they were electronic. The availability of electronic coupons would most influence the shopping behavior of 18-34 year olds, 77% of whom said they are much more likely or somewhat more likely to use coupons if given access to this paperless technology.

The other thing about food is that more people are eating at home. According to a story on NPR’s Sunday Weekend Edition, cooking skills may have atrophied during the eat-out/take-out days, so we’re seeing increased interest in cooking classes. Cook book sales are also surging. Whether thanks to the Food Network, the recession, both or something else, cookbooks were a bright spot in publishers' lineup.

In this recession, all four themes are at work in the food category.

Next up: Shelter.

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