Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Retail Memo - UK: Sainsbury's CEO and Tesco Marketing Chief Offer Differing Analysis of Food Retailing and Shopper Behavior at Retail Week Conference

News & Analysis

The British trade publication Retail Week is holding its annual retailing conference this week in the United Kingdom.

Today, executives from two of the UK's top supermarket chains, number one Tesco and number three Sainsbury's, addressed the UK retaling conference focusing on what each chain views as the state of food and grocery retailing and food shopper behavior in the nation at present in these recessionary times.

Representing Sainsbury's and speaking at the conference was its CEO, Justin King. And representing Tesco was Carolyn Bradley, the supermarket chain's director of marketing for the UK.

Interestingly, Sainsbury's CEO King and Tesco's Ms. Bradley painted an almost complete opposite picture of how their respective chain's are currently viewing consumers and food retailing in the UK, which like the U.S. and most elsewhere in the world is in the midst of a severe recession.

For example, Tesco UK marketing chief Bradley said the nation's leading supermarket chain believes consumers are trading down. Therefore Tesco has and continues to adjust its merchandising, marketing and promotions in a more discount price, value-based direction, she said in her speech.

According to a story in Retail Week today, she said UK consumers' trading down behavior is "manifesting itself through them changing lots of little things: consumers doing without a latte, finding cheaper ways to treat themselves and trading off larger purchases such as sofa or a holiday."

But in contrast, in his speech, Sainsbury's CEO Justin King said he doesn't see a significant consumer trade-down in the UK. Rather, he argued in his speech that the middle, where Sainsbury's is positioned in the market, continues to hold.

Below (in italics) is a summary of what CEO King said in his talk, from a report in Retail Week today:

"King said assertions that consumers are downtrading, that people revert to selfish behaviour and that the middle ground erodes in a recession is not what the supermarket is experiencing.

Sainsbury's is seeing that its customers are largely sticking with the company, but changing what they buy, cooking more and transferring spend from eating out to buying things like family ready-meals, King said.

Despite the warnings of many, Sainsbury's is not feeling the middle ground being squeezed, he added.

He said: "Being in the centre is a good place and you are uniquely positioned to work with customers as they make changes."

He added that the £10 million Sainsbury's has banked for Comic Relief so far this year proved that consumers were not becoming less altruistic.

King said that while his customers genuinely fear for their jobs, those that still have jobs also have household budgets that are under less pressure than they have been for a very long time.

Sainsbury's has conducted research into how different sectors within retail have been affected by previous downturns, and food has traditionally been the most resilient.

He also demonstrated the consistent messaging - "having the "same DNA", as he described it - in Sainsbury's adverts over the years, and over previous downturns.

He said that Sainsbury's focus on cooking and ingredients in its adverts is as relevant today as ever, with more people rediscovering cooking as a way to mitigate the food inflation that has been experienced.

King is keen to provide leadership to his staff and customers with a "glass half-full attitude".

He said that even if 1 million consumers lose their jobs this year, as economists predict, that will still leave 97 per cent of the workforce in employment, and Sainsbury's must continue to serve them.

At the same time, he believes that everything Sainsbury's is doing, with its focus on value, switching to own-label and more home cooking, will be even more relevant to those who are unfortunate enough to lose their jobs this year."

Now, read below (in italics) the Retail Week summary of Tesco's Ms. Bradley from her speech at the conference:

"Bradley said Tesco has been tracking consumers changing confidence, and where as price and fuel inflation were the main concerns last year, this has given way to job security as the biggest issue.

Unlike Sainsbury's chief executive Justin King, who spoke at the conference earlier in the day, Bradley said that she believed consumers are trading down.

She said that this is manifesting itself through them changing lots of little things: consumers doing without a latte, finding cheaper ways to treat themselves and trading off larger purchases such as sofa or a holiday.

Unlike King, Bradley also sees that consumers' concern for ethical matters giving way to price. She says that mums' main concerns right now are providing for their family, and not letting them suffer even when budgets have to be cut.

She defended Tesco's decision to launch its Discounter range, and said that it was done after Tesco had identified a substantial gap in the market between generic branded value products, and big brand merchandise.

She used the example of one customer who had been able to cut her weekly shopping bill in half by moving to the Discounter products.

She said price is where retailers need to start, and so Tesco has focused on reducing the cost of reducing everyday items, and giving customers more price choice for each item they buy.

Finally, she said that it was important to allow customers to retain a sense of fun and treats. Tesco has seen an increased take up of its Clubcard Deals, where customers can exchange Clubcard points for vouchers for days out and other leisure activities.

She said: "It is a way that they can still afford to go out to [places like] Café Rouge. These little luxuries offer huge value to customers."

She also pointed to deals on Finest meals, and entertainment promotions, as other ways the supermarket is allowing its customers to treat themselves."

Reading the summaries of the speeches given at the conference by the Sainsbury's CEO and Tesco's UK marketing chief, one could easily come to the conclusion they aren't talking about the same country or market, if we hadn't told you in advance that they are.

What makes the stark differences in Tesco and Sainsbury's analysis of the UK food and grocery retail marketplace all the more interesting is that historically both supermarket chains have a very similar customer base -- the middle. Neither are discounters like Wal-Mart-owned Asda. Nor are Tesco and Sainsbury's upscale supermarket chains like Waitrose or Marks & Spencer. They are historically mid-range operators.

For example, both competing supermarket chains offer an extensive selection of natural, organic, specialty and premium foods on store shelves alongside conventional manufacturers' and store brands. These natural, organic, specialty and premium products include the retailers' own brands, as well as premium prepared food items, organic produce and meats.

However, because of the recession, Tesco has made a strategic decision to go more discount; to put a much more aggressive focus on price than it has ever done. This decision is largely because the UK's leading supermarket chain (it has a nearly 31% sales market share) has been losing market share points (about 2.5 points in the last 18 months) to Asda and to the small-format, hard-discount German chains Aldi-UK and Lidl.

Sainsbury's on the other hand has resisted getting into the discount game full-force, although it to has been sharpening its pricing, promotions and value offerings, as CEO King said in his speech. But unlike Tesco, it hasn't strategically made a strong price- discount move.

This got us to thinking: Could it be that the main reason the viewpoints of the two executives representing Britain's leading supermarket chains are so differing is because each of the respective chain's has staked out a very different recession strategy and therefore used their speeches at the conference more to defend what each supermarket chain is doing strategically instead of actually attempting to diagnose what British grocery shoppers are really doing in terms of their behavior in these tough economic times?

We aren't making a value judgement on what either of the executives said in their speeches. Rather we're attempting to account for the major differences in how each of them says their supermarket chains view the current state of the British grocery shopper and UK food retailing.
Were Tesco and Sainsbury's radically different formats and food retailers, such an attempt at understanding these differences would be a moot point. But they aren't -- in fact the two chains have far more merchandising, positioning and and operational similarities than they do differences.

Lastly, the explanation could be simple. It's always difficult to attempt to describe consumer behavior in any global way. Perhaps what's happened is Sainsbury's has retained more mid-range shoppers than Tesco has. Therefore, Sainsbury's has yet to see a loss in sales of the same volume as Tesco has because of this possible scenario. So, based on this observation, CEO Justin King's "the center continues to hold" position makes more sense.

And if this scenario is true, that in the case of Tesco it has lost more customers to the discounters like Asda and Aldi, as the market share data tends to suggest, and it needs to win back these shoppers, then it makes sense the retailer tends to see the trading down consumer behavior much more so than Sainsbury's does.

From a macro perspective though, all data in the UK suggests shoppers are trading down when it comes to food and grocery shopping. The Tesco scenario. This is why Aldi and Lidl are the biggest percentage gainers in market share. There's also an abundance of other evidence that the trading down behavior has been going on in the UK for at least a year -- and increasing as the economy worsens.

If Sainsbury's isn't seeing it, that's good news for the chain and its shareholders. But if instead of not seeing it, Sainsbury's is missing it, then that will be bad news for the chain and its shareholders.

But fortunately we have a scorecard to track it. Sainsbury's will soon release its financial results. And new UK market share numbers will also be released soon.

By the same token, is what Tesco seeing, and doing about it, a clear picture of UK shopper behavior? Since Tesco is set to release it financials soon as well, along with the upcoming market share numbers coming out as mentioned above, we will be able to make some analysis of Tesco's approach, as voiced by UK marketing chief Bradley in her talk at the Retail Week conference, soon.

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