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.