It looks as if the days of "I want what I want when I want it" are over, even for the relatively affluent, and even when it comes to food which still only accounts for about 10% of UK consumer expenditure. Shoppers are planning more carefully, shopping more wisely, and weighing up the quality/price equation more thoughtfully.
Consider what we know.
Latest research from the Institute of Grocery Distribution (The Credit Crunch-Adapting to Change) shows that 16% more of us are planning meals, 13% more are cooking smaller portions, and 6% more are cooking with leftovers. Indeed the research found that 59% are actively economising.
We also know that shoppers are seeking bargains. The ALDI phenomenon is well documented, as is the growth in shoppers visiting Morrisons and ASDA. Tesco is now promoting itself as the UK's biggest discounter, which makes sense given that it is still 10 times the size of ALDI. Sainsbury claims a growth of 30% in their Basics range and a big uptake in their own label products which sell about 20% cheaper than the equivalent brand. Waitrose says that 30% more products are being bought on promotion. Certainly in the red meat market there is ample evidence of careful buying, with less being bought on each shopping trip, and much more thought being given to the relative price of the various meats. For example lamb, which has seen a huge drop in sales this year, has suddenly bounced back because it has become much closer in price to beef.
It does look though as if consumers have not turned their backs completely on premium tier foods. Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range is growing, albeit modestly, and is still 3 to 4 times the size of its Basics range. Waitrose says that it As Good as Eating Out products have grown by 40%, and that it is "still selling alot of organic".
Which leads to the often raised question of whether ethics have gone out of the window in favour of cheapness. Joanne Denney Finch of IGD, presenting their research findings said ethical purchasing is still important, and that that 79% of people are "still engaged in purchasing some type of ethical product", be it organic, Fair Trade or local produce. And it seems as if as many people as ever are visiting farmers markets. My guess would be that there is still a core of committed people who feel strongly about a particular issue, and continue to buy, but that fringe purchasers who were perhaps following a trend rather than a principle have dropped out completely.
What all this points to is that consumers are being much more thoughtful about how they buy food. Now it's "two stop shopping" for value instead of one stop for convenience. Its being much more canny about promotional offers. And its being much more marketing savvy. Consumers are twigging that the salmon in a store's best range is actually the same as in the basic product, but it's just uniformly presented, and so costs up to 50% more. The label on the premium mince might be classier, but it's still mince. The cooking apples, carrots and parsnips in the cheaper range might be all sorts of odd sizes, but they still taste the same as the more expensive version.
I can't see people reverting to unthinking consumerism any time soon. Yesterday's worry about petrol prices might have abated now that it's below a £ a litre, and the banks seem a bit less wobbly, but today the spectre of unemployment looms, and tomorrow it will be something else.
In this more discerning climate the winners will be those who truly understand what is important to consumers, and offer great quality at a price which consumers think is worth paying.