DEFRA’s recently published Family Food Survey compares 2009 with 2006 and shows that people coped with rising prices and recession pessimism by buying less food. They did not, as might have been thought, buy the same quantities as before but pay less by searching out good deals, moving to value ranges, switching to own label products, or flocking to discount supermarkets.
So, in volume terms, 2009 saw grocery shoppers buying 11% less red meat than in 2006, 7% less fish, and even 4% less poultry which is usually the fall back protein when prices rise. Sales of vegetables have fallen by 3%, potatoes by 6%, fresh fruit by 11%, fresh milk by 3%, and butter and spreads by 2%. Even bread sales have fallen by 5%.
The only fresh foods bucking the downward trend are eggs, up 6%, cheese and yogurts which are level with 2006, and, bizarrely, cream where sales are up by 5%.
By contrast, flour sales are up 8% which could mean that people are baking more. Confectionery, which usually holds up when times are tough has seen purchase grow by 9%, and cereals are up 3%.
Overall, when food inflation soars shoppers seem to work to a budget, and accept that they will get less for their money.
The cutback does not mean that people are necessarily eating less. They could be reducing the amount of food they throw away. A DEFRA study published in July 2010 estimated that 15% of food is wasted, with bread waste reaching a shocking 40%.
As far as the catering sector is concerned, the DEFRA figures show that the amount of food eaten outside of the home in 2009 was 9% less than 2006, although expenditure, excluding alcoholic drinks was up by 3%.
Short term, the DEFRA figures show signs of growth in grocery food buying 2009 compared with 2008, and, given anecdotal evidence about a return to premium food purchasing and the excellent performance of more up market retailers, it would seem that 2010 saw a further increase. What consumers will do in 2011 though, is difficult to project. Food inflation is ramping up again, and signs of depressed consumer confidence are re-emerging.
So, how can profits grow if volumes are shrinking?
Food inflation can help when prices rise ahead of costs. Currently food inflation is running at about 4.6%, compared with wages at about 2%. Those businesses with clout will negotiate lower costs from suppliers.
Another strategy is to develop premium products so that maximum revenue is extracted from a smaller volume.
The third, albeit often costly avenue is to grow market share, stealing volume from competitors.
Examples of all three will no doubt be seen this year.