Friday, 12 September 2014

Discount Grocers - Growing Now But Will it Last?

With Morrisons announcing a halving of their profits and a 7.4% like for like sales decline, and Waitrose facing profits down 9.4%, despite delivering a bit of growth (up 1.3% in like for like sales) it seems timely to examine reasons for the seemingly unstoppable rise of discount grocers.

New store openings are a big contributor to their growth. Aldi opened 42 stores in 2013, and will add a further 54 new stores this year.

Another key factor is their ever-widening appeal. Discount grocers can no longer be seen as a specialised shopping experience favoured by the financially hard pressed. Recent IGD (Institute of Grocery Distribution) data suggests that 26% of shoppers visiting discount grocers fall into the affluent AB category compared with 27% for traditional supermarkets. Conversely 26% of DE shoppers visit discounters compared with 25% visiting supermarkets. In August 2014, 54% of all shoppers in the UK claimed to have  visited a discount store in the past month, up from 45% in August 2013, and the average spend per visit has increased by 15%.

Despite the growth, discounters rely heavily on top up shopping. They have not captured a big share of the main grocery shop. Just 15% say that a discounter is their main store. If discounters want to continue growing they need to get more shoppers spending more per visit.

In theory they seem ready and willing to do so. A third of them agree strongly that they would use discounters more if they could get their main shop there.

But before they make an Aldi or Lidl a main shop, customers want to see more products. They want more fruit and veg , and they want to buy food for their evening meal. They want to be able to buy products for special occasions, and they want a range of staples.

So basically what they are asking for is supermarket variety at discounter prices. That is a challenge for discounters as they try to fit customer demand for more products into a business model which until now has relied on a small, high volume range manufactured at rock bottom prices. Discounters also need to address the march of technology. They are a long way behind mainstream grocers in producing smartphone and tablet friendly apps designed to make shopping quicker and easier.

It is probably safe to predict further years of fast growth. Aldi is committed to a near doubling of stores by 2021, up from the current 531 to 1000. The number of shoppers visiting a discounter will rise from the current 54%, and the emergence of Netto as a Sainsbury partner will mean even more opportunities for shoppers to visit a discount store.

Thereafter the going might get tougher as mainstream grocers start fighting back with competitive pricing strategies, intelligent use of variety and choice, and customer friendly technology.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

How do Mainstream Grocers Deal With the Quagmire of Low Market Growth, Rampant Discounters and Budget Minded Shoppers?

Food sales in the 12 weeks to 20th July grew attheir slowest rate for 10 years, up just 0.9% in value. 

Despite the uptick in the economy, and in consumer confidence, people are reluctant to give up their thrifty food buying habits acquired during the depths of the recession. They are helped of course by being able to shop at discount supermarkets. Aldi and Lidl have raised their quality game, kept rock bottom prices, and been rewarded with rocketing growth rates.

What then is the best way to deal with lacklustre growth rates, budget conscious consumers and rampant discounters?

Suggested action is falling into two camps. One says that mainstream grocers must reduce their prices by meaningful amounts, and soon. The other says go where the growth is and invest in online grocery shopping and convenience stores.

The IGD continues to back its online growth forecasts saying that sales will more than double in 5 years.  It points out that online grocery shopping is still in its infancy. Just 27% of shoppers use on line, and only 10% do their major shop online. The IGD reckons that the convenience of shopping online, providing as it does the ability to shop anytime, anywhere, combined with new initiatives being developed by retailers, and the added ease provided by mobile technology, means that more and more shoppers will gravitate to online buying.

Certainly some retailer initiatives look attractive. The boom in click and collect outlets avoids the need to wait in at home for the order to arrive, and even at home it is possible to select one hour slots leaving the rest of the day free. Retailers are also working on apps to make shopping easier. Instead of trawling through every category, Ocado’s app provides personalised guides to what is usually bought, what was bought last time, and ready prepared lists of what might be needed. Ocado is a leader in mobile shopping and says that 45% of its shoppers check out on a mobile gadget.

Retailers are also working on the opportunity to build volume over and above a standard shop by linking products in a way that is not possible in store – pizza and beer for example.

IGD points out that further growth will come from the advent of new players like Morrisons, the Coop, and Iceland who are all testing online shopping methods.

The above initiatives should encourage more online shopping, but there are two snags. First they are a double hit financially being costly in terms of investment and considerably less profitable than regular in store shopping. And second, they do not solve the knotty problem of uncompetitive pricing compared with the discounters.

Sainsbury’s tie up with discounter Netto starts to address the pricing issue, and there is a suggestion that Tesco could manage its stores like it does its product range, with three tiers of shops – value, to provide rock bottom prices, middle, and Finest as a Waitrose look alike to keep the profit margins up.

It is difficult to see how mainstream supermarkets will be able to afford a big drop in prices and the huge investment in online without radical restructuring, a dip in profits, and the usual squeeze on suppliers.

Competitive pricing has to be the priority, and with it an acceptance that online may not grow as fast as many predict. 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

NSA Vision for Sheep Farming Says Domestic Market Growth is Vital - But Who Will Lead the Charge?

The National Sheep Association/NFU’s recently published vision for UK sheep farming identifies domestic market growth as critical to a healthy future.

Quite right too. The Vision paper says that domestic lamb consumption has plummeted by nearly two thirds since 1990, and that relying on a buoyant export market, dependent as it is on currency values, will not save us.

What is required, says the paper, is that “we” have to persuade UK consumers, particularly younger ones, that lamb is a tasty nutritious source of food. They suggest that innovative cuts, more branding, and new products will help. (More ready meals would be good too as lamb is woefully underrepresented in this huge, fast growing and youth appealing market segment.)

Th paper also points out that price is key. It is no accident that after years of decline the volume of lamb bought from supermarkets grew by 14% in 2013 due to an average 5% drop in price.  But prices are volatile, retailers are fickle, and the price of lamb could accelerate once again.

Lower prices if achievable, and new brands and products will help, but they will not be enough, and the Vision paper ducks two major challenges.

 For starters, who are the “we” who will lead the charge to grow the domestic market? Who precisely is accountable for growing an industry? Is it the Association, the NFU, retailers, processors, levy bodies, or perhaps farmers? Unless there is clear accountability for setting and delivering the growth agenda then nothing will happen and this critical contributor to achieving the Vision will drown in a sea of many words, much opinion, but little action.

The second challenge is what should be done.

The investigation needs to go deeper than price reductions and innovation. Whoever is going to lead the industry growth charge needs address the biggest problem with lamb, and that is fattiness. According to work done by EBLEX, 57% of people say that lamb tends to be fatty compared with 28% for beef, and that number may well be higher among the young.

All players in the food chain have a role to play in understanding what makes lamb fatty, and then working to address the problem.

Why, for example, does New Zealand lamb as presented in the shops contain around half the fat of British lamb. Is it the NZ lamb diet, or overly fat lambs being so heavily penalised that the farmer will not submit them to the NZ abattoir, or perhaps carcasses arrive in the UK with much of the fat trimmed off.

Processors and retailers need to be much stricter about removing excess fat from the product. Consumers buy with their eyes and will shun a product where they can see superfluous fat, or even worse buy and once home realise that much of the product will be consigned to the bin. It is flabbergasting to note from Tesco’s website that they quote fat content as bought, and then with the fat cut off by the consumer. Why should the consumer have to pay for something they will not eat!

Thirdly, more attention needs to be paid to offering lower fat alternatives just as they do in the beef market where it is possible to buy mince with fat levels ranging from 5% to 20%.

The NSA and the Vision paper’s co authors the NFU are confident that sheep farming can expand, but without a clear champion focused on understanding and delivering what the consumer wants domestic sales will continue to drift downwards, taking the livelihoods of many in the sheep meat food chain with it.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

FarmDrop - The Online version of a Farmer's Market. Will it work?

 FarmDrop aims to connect producers and consumers using all the latest  online retailing ideas. It is a digital version of the traditional stall found at farmers’ markets, and has been set up by Ben Pugh a former city worker, and Ben Patten. Currently the business is trying to raise £400,000 through a crowd funding initiative, and has already received £301,000 in pledges from 105 investors.

Is FarmDrop a good investment? Will it, as the two Bens hope, turn out to be “the food system of the future”.

At first blush it all looks very simple. Consumers sign up to their local FarmDrop, order their goods on line, and pick them up at a fixed central point on the same day every week.

Producers fulfil the orders and deliver them to the central point.

And a “Keeper” mans the pick up point, ensuring that customers are given their goods.

Money wise, producers receive 80% of the retail price, the Keeper 10% and the brains behind the idea also get 10%.

At present there are 17 Drops either open or in development.

The FarmDrop website summarises the benefits of the idea as follows:
Consumers receive local produce, and the satisfaction of knowing they are supporting farmers. Keepers also support farmers and earn money in the process. Producers receive the lion’s share of the retail price.

The business model raises some issues. Its definition of local is broad with producers needing to be within 100 mile radius of the central point. Some might feel that this is not very local at all. Wholesalers can be used, which adds a further layer of complication, and is at odds with the idea of wholeheartedly supporting producers.

The biggest issue is that FarmDrop has underestimated the pivotal role of the Keeper without whom the idea collapses. The Keeper is charged with signing up producers to support the Drop, recruiting the customers, and troubleshooting any problems that might emerge either from producers or customers. Their financial return from putting in all this effort is modest. The example quoted by the operation says that keepers could earn £640 per month for 7 hours work a week, 5 hours manning the drop and 2 hours on admin. That comes out at £23 per hour and takes no account of the time, petrol, or telephone costs spent setting up the drop, enrolling producers, and signing up customers, work which is likely to be ongoing as some customers and producers will inevitably drop out of the system and need to be replaced.

The return to the operators of the business is the same as the Keeper’s but their involvement seems to be limited to setting up the website, and doing some training. The founders assert that “we stand for fairness”. The allocation of reward for the hard pressed Keeper does not sound at all fair.

It would be good if FarmDrop could reassess the way the model works, for a successful method of enabling producers to reduce reliance on supermarkets is to be welcomed.

Unless they address either the load being put on the Keeper’s shoulders, or increase the financial return the Keeper receives, FarmDrop will  remain a very small business, and investors will be disappointed.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Not Only Consumers Love Aldi and Lidl - Suppliers Do Too

You might think that discounter retail prices are so low that suppliers’ profits from serving them are thin to the point of non existent.

Not so. Yes it is true that Aldi and Lidl negotiate hard, and a recent article in the Financial Times suggests that margins are of the order of 5-10% lower than for traditional supermarkets. But the discount model means that there are many upsides.

The keys are the limited range of products on offer and selling at the same price every day. Aldi and Lidl stock around 3,000 lines compared with a standard supermarket range of 40,000-50,000. This means that suppliers can manufacture long runs of product instead of incurring cost by stopping the line to change to another variant. Everyday low pricing means that volumes are consistent and easier to forecast, as opposed to volatile and unpredictable, which is the case when goods are sold on promotion. Because there are few promotions there are few demands for add ons like promotional support. And listing fees seem to be a rarity.

Aldi and Lidl tend to be loyal to their suppliers and the narrow range and everyday price mean that suppliers need fewer people to manage the account, and waste little time in meetings.

Discounters operate efficiently and this philosophy benefits suppliers. No costly chopping and changing in manufacturing, no cash draining peaks and troughs in volumes, no wild and expensive ideas about promotions, no rug pulling at the last minute when an activity seems to have been agreed, and minimum numbers of meetings – it all adds up to a financially beneficial relationship.

Add to that the enormous growth potential that discounters offer, and it becomes clear why suppliers find that dealing with the likes of Aldi and Lidl a satisfactory experience.


Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Online Grocery Shopping - Being Realistic About Growth Prospects

The Institute of Grocery Distribution has just updated its 5year growth forecast for the UK grocery market., and predicts a slower rate of growth than in the last 5 years, down from 19.5% to 16.3%.

It remains, though, exceedingly bullish about the prospects for online, convinced that sales will more than double by 2019, an average increase of nearly 18% per annum.

What will power this growth, they say, is the roll out of grocery click and collect to more locations, greater competition to raise standards since Morrisons entry ( a tribute to the strategy that Morrisons have adopted), lower delivery charges, and more delivery subscription schemes.

The projections seem optimistic.

For starters, growth rates in online grocery shopping are falling. Ocado, which is an online only retailer reported growth slowing from plus 18% in the first quarter to plus 12.6% in the second. They also reported a modest reduction in the value of an average order, down from £117.99 to £117.53. Sainsbury’s online sales growth has dropped to 10% in the last quarter. Tesco’s Philip Clarke indicated at a recent conference that their online sales at Christmas were growing at around 10%.

Secondly, the projection seems to ignore the various forms of competition that online faces.

There is internal competition as parent supermarkets invest in making their bricks and mortar stores more attractive places to shop.

There is competition from discounters who continue to see growth accelerate, and who, if they can pull off the trick of offering ever more up market food with rock bottom prices may exceed the near doubling of sales forecasted by IGD.

And the trend towards convenience store shopping shows no signs of stopping.

Thus the shopper is being offered an ever more attractive selection of ways to buy their groceries.
As they ponder the best way of feeding themselves and their family they will be working out what best suits them at a particular time. It may be they want to browse the shelves in a supermarket and see immediately the quality of what they want to buy. It could be that they want the lowest price possible, or maybe a trip to the local convenience store for speed. Or it could be that tapping a shopping list into their smart phone is the easiest way to shop.

In this increasingly multi channel world, online shopping can only grow at the high rates projected if the numbers of people shopping that way doubles (and they spend roughly what is being spent now), or the same number shop online as now and double their spend, or some combination of both. All of which looks stretching.

This is not to suggest that offering shoppers the opportunity to shop on line is a waste of time, for clearly it has its attractions.

Rather it is to suggest that any forward projections, particularly if they involve heavy financial investment, should take a realistic view of likely sales growth.

Friday, 20 June 2014

UK "Big Four" Supermarkets - A Busted Business Model

The woes of the big 4 supermarkets continue to fascinate watchers of grocery businesses. Latest Kantar worldpanel data for the 12 weeks ending 25th May show Tesco sales down by 3.1%, Morrisons by 3.9%, and a struggling performance from Sainsbury, up 0.9%. Only ASDA seems to be holding up, managing to grow by a steady, if unspectacular 2.4%.

Meanwhile over at Aldi and Lidl sales keep soaring. Aldi’s usual trend performance of growing by over a third every quarter continues, and Lidl’s year on year growth has accelerated to 23%. Another low price player has started to make its presence felt - frozen food specialist Farmfoods grew by 27% over the same period.

A couple of commentators are beginning to draw parallels with the rise of low cost airlines. Easy Jet and Ryanair in the UK, and South West in the US operate with a basic service but extraordinarily low prices. Just like Aldi and Lidl they worked out where costs could be stripped out, and in so doing left the big carriers like BA, Air France and Lufthansa floundering.

And so it is with the “Big 4” Uk supermarkets. All have identified that what they are doing now is not working. Tesco, Morrisons and Asda have resorted to price reductions. Sainsbury hope that a superior quality own brand offering plus selective price reductions will help.

But reduced prices have to be paid for somewhere along the line, and the cost base has to be examined.
The challenge for the supermarkets is to identify what their shoppers would class as a “frill” which could be sacrificed to pay for low prices, and what is a critical part of the reason why they shop at a particular supermarket.

 This is where a good look at the value of online investment might be useful. Neither Aldi nor Lidl has an online offer and it does not seem to be holding them back. Morrisons poor performance has been laid at the door of no online, but the performance of all the other supermarkets would suggest that lack of online presence is not the root cause of the problem. Rather, the success of the big supermarkets in affluent times has led them to become greedy and bloated, and shoppers have rumbled them, finding that it is possible to eat well but much more cheaply. Yes, maybe there are fewer varieties of extra virgin olive oil or exotic tomatoes in Aldi, but look at how much is saved on the grocery bill. The airline analogy is probably along the lines of yes, I’ll get a meal on the flight and carry on a bigger bag, but it will cost me twice the price of a Ryanair ticket.

Online growth is slowing. From annual increases of 20% per annum or so, growth has now slowed to 12% (ONS). Sainsbury a couple of weeks ago reported annual growth of just 11%, and Tesco did not mention it at all which they would have done if the news was good. On line still represents just 3.7% of all food sales.
Where does the consumer stand in all this. No research has been published investigating a straight trade off between low prices and an enhanced online experience.

We do know is that consumer confidence is growing. The number of people who feel that they will be worse off in the next twelve months has dropped from 42% in May 2013 to 32% today. (IGD)We also know that people are expecting food prices to stabilise, possibly because of the publicity given to supermarket price drops. However, 55% of people still say that the amount of money spent on food is a very important factor.

There will be no let up in the price battle, and it has to be funded from somewhere. A huge hit to profit will not be acceptable to investors. Suppliers will of course feel the cosh.

But only a thorough re-evaluation of the major supermarket business model will address the challenge of new models now competing for the consumer grocery pound.