Monday, November 24, 2008

Retail Memo: What's Next For U.S. Retailers if the Economy Picks Up in 2010?

Retailing in trying economic times

The Kiplinger Business Resource Center, which has been forecasting business, economic and consumer behaviors and trends in the fields of agriculture, retailing, finance and other sectors for many decades in the U.S., and writing about these forecasts and trends in its popular Kiplinger Letter newsletters, is out today with a retail forecast for the U.S. for 2010. The premise of Kiplinger's forecast is what retailers in the U.S. can expect if and when (as optimists we say when) the economy picks up in 2010.

Among the trends Kiplinger suggests could stick after the current severe economic recession include consumers sticking to value and continuing to trade down to discount retailers like Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., a current phenomenon we wrote about earlier today in this piece: "Consumer Behavior Memo USA: 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Frugality' - America's New Consumer Frugality."

Additionally, Kiplinger sees quality making a comeback -- but it must come with value. Again this is something we've been saying in regards to upscale, specialty and natural foods stores in terms of the need to offer a value proposition even on organic, higher-end and premium food and grocery products. For example, Whole Foods Market, Inc. has learned that lesson and is trying to do just that -- create and communicate a value proposition for its stores.

The Kiplinger 2010 forecast also suggests consumers will do much less frivolous buying than they did before the current recession (American consumers have been buying frivolously from about the mid-1980's to 2007 in fact, with the exception of a couple years during the recession of the early 1990's), even if the U.S. economy comes roaring back strong in 2010.

This consumer behavior change (less frivolous buying, trading down, searching for value) which is happening right now is something we've suggested could last after the recession is over. We see a deep recession all through 2009. Consumers will trade down even more because they have to all of next year, we believe, and once the economy improves (hopefully by 2010) will have developed some learned behavior in this regard, which we think will prevent them from going right back to the old shopping patterns.

However, we also think there is going to be some pent-up buying desire among consumers once the recession is over. We think that will be good for upscale-oriented food retailers because it's our analysis the first things consumers will start buying again in significant volume are affordable luxuries like organic, specialty and premium food products. They won't be able to buy a new car perhaps, and certainly not a new house, but can afford to spend a little extra at the grocery store, and receive the gratification doing so brings, once the recession ends and things look more optimistic.

Additionally, as we've suggested previously, if the recession lasts all of next year, which we believe it will, consumers will have had nearly two years worth of trading-down and penny-pinching retail shopping behavior. They likely are going to expect value even when the economy improves. After all, the loss in home values and retirement savings, for example, will still be there in 2010. Much of the meager wealth, which was mostly in housing equity, of the middle and upper-middle classes in the U.S. has been wiped out already.

Other 2010 forecasts from Kiplinger include a continuation of retailers building smaller stores -- what we call the "small-format food and grocery retailing revolution" in the U.S -- a beefing up of customer service by retailers of all formats, and retailers developing a whole new set of coping strategies in order to deal with the challenges ahead.

On the small-format store front, Kiplinger agrees with Natural~Specialty Foods Memo that retailers like Wal-Mart who build and operate huge stores won't stop doing so. Rather, as we often write, they will continue what's already been started, which is building smaller-format, sibling formats and stores to go with the mega-stores like Supercenters and Sam's Club formats. We think other chains will join the small-format sibling store club as well in 2009-2010, despite the recession.

Read the latest retailing forecast, written by Laura Kennedy, from Kiplinger: "What’s Next for Retailers? What can retailers expect when the economy finally picks up in 2010? here.

The Kiplinger forecast in our analysis is a good snapshot of some likely consumer and retailer behavioral trends come 2010, assuming the U.S. economy improves by then. If it doesn't improve though, all bets are off, as a recession still strong in 2010 is going to result in some serious changes not only in consumer and retailer behavior, but in the entire structure of the U.S. economy, we believe.

And the government, corporate and individual debt load by 2010, even if the economy comes roaring back by then, still is going to alter retailing as usual for some time, in our analysis.

Just look at what's happening across the board already in terms of consumer debt and lack of credit. Now unemployment and job insecurity has been added to those negatives. In just two months many middle class consumers have gone from cutting back to not knowing if they can even afford the basics in food and groceries each week or month.

For these reasons we believe all food and grocery retailers, regardless of format, must develop and communicate their own unique value proposition now. We strongly believe doing so is a matter of survival as things continue to first get worse then shake out in 2009 and beyond.

We even believe high-end specialty-gourmet food retailers like Dean & DeLuca, which tend to cater to upper middle-class and wealthy consumers, need their own unique value propositions. As an example, in the quarter just ended Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. reported the average income of the shoppers in its stores has increased considerably in the last six months. That's because higher income consumers are trading down to the retailer.

Retailers must remember the upper middle-class and even many of the wealthy are hit hard by dramatic losses in the value of their homes and retirement savings. Housing values are down by 25-50% in many parts of the U.S. And down by at least 10-15% even in the best regions. Retirement accounts are down for many people by as much as 40-50% because of the poor performance of the stock market.

As a result, the upper middle class and even many of the wealthy (or we should say the recently former wealthy) are in growing numbers looking for value, even at Dean & DeLuca and other upscale and specialty food and grocery retailers.

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