Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Does Waitrose Sales Growth and Deal with Duchy Signal Return to Premium Food Buying?

Market research company Taylor Nelson Sofres tells us that in the last three months, Waitrose sales grew by 10.2% versus 5.6% for the whole grocery market.

So what prompted the spurt?

Contrary to popular belief the powerhouse has not been Essential Waitrose. This range was never meant to a budget offer competing with value ranges from other supermarkets. In fact most of the products in the range remained as they always had been, and were sold at the same price as previously. The difference was that the range was pulled together under one distinctive brand name.

Essential Waitrose was a rebranding of mostly existing lines, but the vast publicity surrounding its launch seems to have encouraged shoppers back into the stores to re-evaluate what Waitrose had to offer. Once back inside, and helped many more price promotions than hitherto, shoppers liked what they saw and started buying again across the whole Waitrose range. Indeed, Richard Hodgson Commercial Director told the Grocer “Essential Waitrose has played a role at the bottom end but most of our growth is coming at the top end”.

The other factor behind growth may well have been the froth coming off discount shopping. Many of the shoppers who were lured to Aldi and Lidl tried them once, and never came back. The discounters have not converted triers into regular shoppers and growth has slowed from north of 20% per annum to a still respectable but not earth shattering 8% for Aldi and 6% for Lidl.

So does the growth in Waitrose sales and the bloom coming off the discount rose signal the end of the recession and a return to premium food shopping? Well in truth, premium food shopping never went away provided the product in question justified the price charged. What shoppers were not prepared to do was buy premium merely because the label said premium. This is where many organic foods struggled.

Which leads to the Duchy deal. This does seem to be a good thing for both parties. Duchy Originals is a well known and respected brand which should benefit from Waitrose support, and Waitrose commitment to donate to the Prince of Wales Charities can only be beneficial.

It will be interesting to see what Waitrose does with Duchy. The brand is apparently being positioned as super premium, and Mark Price Waitrose Managing Director reckons that it will grow to about 2.5% of Waitrose sales, equating to a turnover of some £100million. The challenge will be to ensure that shoppers are given a clear justification of the super premium positioning. We know that just saying organic on its own will not be enough. One thing is certain. Unless the quality of Duchy products is absolutely superb, and better than anything else available for a similar price, the brand will not blossom.

Finally, can we say that the growth in Waitrose sales, their optimism about Duchy, and the slow down in growth for discounters means a return to pre credit crunch ways of shopping?

Not completely. Shoppers now have a much better handle on what is and is not worth paying for. They have got the taste for chasing bargains. And lurking at the back of most people’s minds is a worry about what the economic climate will be like over the next few years. They won’t be throwing their money away in a hurry.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

UK Lamb Market - Farmgate Prices Strong, Yet Amount Eaten Plummeting. Should We Be Worried?

To the relief of farmers across the land, farmgate prices for lamb remain firm. Eblex (the English Beef and Lamb Executive) attributes this to the strong euro boosting exports, and a reduction in UK sheep numbers. Eblex forecasts that the euro will continue relatively strong, lamb numbers will fall in the UK, Ireland and France, and good prices will probably continue.

The one cloud on this bright horizon is the effect high lamb prices are having on the amount people eat. Farmgate prices for lamb over the twelve weeks to end July rose by around 12% compared with last year, the average price in the shops rose by 17% and the amount that people bought fell by 15%. This compares with a fall of 5% for beef and level sales for pork, both of which have been hit by higher prices and consumer cutbacks because of the recession, although not nearly to the same extent.

The drop in lamb sales is startling, although not surprising. The shopper is now paying an average of £7.15p per kilo for lamb versus £6.22p for beef, £5.10p for pork and £4.02p for chicken. No wonder that fewer people are choosing lamb. All cuts are affected particularly roasting joints.

The question is where it will all end? What happens if the euro falls back, flock numbers increase as farmers, attracted by higher prices dip a toe in the water again, yet consumers lose the lamb buying habit, and there is little demand for lamb either at home or abroad.

The obvious solution is for supermarkets to slash the price when farmgate prices fall, and get people buying again. History would say though, that prices in supermarkets do not come down nearly as quickly as they go up, as we saw during the foot and mouth crisis.

If supermarkets don’t support the market who might? This could be an opportunity for butchers to become very price competitive, and attract customers with a banner comparing their prices to the local supermarket. It’s also an opportunity for the catering trade who sell disproportionately more lamb than supermarkets, and for direct sellers. The trouble as always is that supermarkets are so big they do dictate market trends.

The easy conclusion is that we should be worried about people eating much less lamb, as it is bound to have an effect on prices, perhaps not next year but soon enough. The harder bit will be working out how to reignite the lamb buying habit.
Note: Farm gate prices based on Farmers Weekly data, and consumption on Taylor Nelson Sofres data, published by BPEX.