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Why shoppers today are different, and how retailers can weather the changes

Today's shopper is drastically different than even just a decade ago. Contrary to the 1980's and 90's, when incomes were on the rise and Customers were demanding high quality, premium items; the new millennium brought about stagnant incomes, the housing bubble and the Great Recession. As Americans faced the harshest and longest lasting recession since the Great Depression, Customers' attitudes, values, and preferences—particularly around money spend—had shifted greatly. The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) saw shoppers began saving by taking advantage of coupons, sales, private brands, and larger pack sizes, making more shopping trips, and shopping more at discount stores.

A key question coming out of the recession was, "When will shoppers return to their pre-recession behaviors?" In 2019, after five years of robust economic growth, does the data show consumers shifting back to pre-recession behaviors, or are the consumer changes more permanent?

To address that question, we will look at the three most interesting behavioral changes from the NBER report:

  1. Private brand sales
  2. Shifting to discount retailers
  3. Making more trips

Private Brand

According to Nielsen, private brand's share of the market grew from 16.2% in 2009 to 18.0% in 2017 (source: Nielsen). This is a sizable chunk of the $682 billion grocery market (source: Nielsen TDLinx and Progressive Grocer).

Private brands have also grown faster than branded products from 2013-2017, when the private brand CAGR was 2.0% versus 1.2% for branded products. And the YOY number (2016 vs 2017) was 3.0% for private brand and -0.5% for branded products.

Discount Retailers

Looking at the top 10 fastest growing banners for grocery sales* since the Great Recession, five are price focused or discount retailers: Walmart Neighborhood, Dollar Tree, Aldi, Dollar General, and Winco Foods. Sprouts and Trader Joe's are not discounters but are known for the best prices within the premium segment. The Fresh Market is the only true premium banner, while Albertson's made the list because of an acquisition.

*(source: Planet Retail grocery sales. Filtered by banners exceeding $1 billion in 2018 grocery revenue)

Moreover, since the Great Recession, fewer people define the traditional supermarket as their primary place to shop. FMI data shows a 12-percentage point decline since the Great Recession. And immediately following the 2009 recession, it dropped 5 percentage points as people explored lower cost channels.

More trips

More trips opened the door to visiting multiple retailers, allowing shoppers to find their preferred combination of price, quality, and store experience. In recent years, visits have fallen somewhat, but the number of channels and retailers visited continues to grow, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). In fact, it's grown by almost 20% since 2015. Moreover, FMI, along with dunnhumby's RPI, finds that the average household visits about four different retailers in a month (source: FMI Grocery Trends 2018).

When will pre-recession behaviour return?

The evidence suggests that much of this price-conscious behaviour continues into 2019 and will likely persist for many more years. Private brand will likely continue to strengthen as Aldi, Lidl, Costco, and Trader Joe's continue growing. Many retailers are realizing that a strong private brand is key to their success, as it drives differentiation, improves value perceptions, and builds the overall retailer's brand.

Shoppers are also likely to continue shifting toward discounters, particularly for the commodity categories and items. Ecommerce will also make it easier by buying commodity items from low-cost providers. Lastly, Brick and Mortar visits could continue to fall as Ecommerce gains share and shopping multiple banners will likely continue as the market continues to fragment and specialize.

What does this mean for traditional supermarkets? 

The key takeaway? We think about value differently since the Great Recession. Perceived value is the combination of our perceptions of quality and price. Before the recession, value was driven more by quality, but since the recession, it's driven more by price. Quality is still important, but when deciding to take action, retailers must carefully consider how those changes will impact price perceptions.

For example, many regional retailers think they can differentiate themselves by moving more upmarket, either more premium and/or more natural/organic. Still others think that becoming more digital and multichannel is the answer. In both instances, retailers should understand how these changes will impact both quality and price perceptions. In today's post-recession market where shoppers' price anchors are increasingly influenced by Walmart, Costco, and Aldi, significant reductions in price perception must be countered by significant improvements in quality perceptions. Moreover, if a retailer's footprint covers lower, middle, and higher income markets, it is not likely that the quality improvements will exceed the lower price perceptions. If a retailer wants to move more upmarket, targeted real estate becomes essential for success.

This also holds for digital and eCommerce. Will the benefits exceed the costs? eCommerce often requires fees or increased prices to cover the incremental costs. Does the improvement in quality exceed the hit to price? Dozens of grocery retailers believe it does, while one of the most successful--Trader Joe's--recently cancelled their eCommerce pilot because they felt the added costs exceeded the benefits.

What can traditional supermarkets do to improve value perceptions? 

The good news is that several factors can shape value perceptions besides investing in price. dunnhumby research finds that about one-third to half of a banner's value perception is impacted by base price – meaning that there are other areas that contribute. The most effective method is to layer lower prices with changes in assortment, merchandising, and store experience, and then tell your customers about these changes with carefully crafted messages.

The first step is to build a highly efficient organization. Efficiency and keeping costs low are essential for any retailer to compete in today's market. This is seemingly quite obvious but getting there can be painful. Labor is a big cost. Do you really need someone behind that counter? Trader Joe's, Costco, and Walmart are almost exclusively self-serve. How about ready-to-eat foods? This department can also be very costly, so do the benefits exceed the costs? Trader Joe's has minimal fresh prepared foods but fills that vacuum with high-quality frozen prepared foods that are easy to prepare. This reduces shrink and maximizes profit.

Of course, the pricing blocking and tackling plays a role. The high-volume items play a bigger role in price perception than the lower volume items. Are these higher volume items priced competitively? Could you increase prices on lower volume items? What about entry level price points or the minimum and maximum gap across the category? Lower entry price points and smaller gaps have both been shown to improve price perceptions.

Assortment and merchandising can also affect value perceptions. How much variety is on the shelf? Are there opportunities to simplify the SKU? Research has shown that too many choices can negatively impact variety perceptions and reduce the likelihood of purchase. How is the store merchandised? What products occupy endcaps? High volume, competitively priced items or less relevant overstocked items? What's at eye-level on the shelf? Is this filled with your key value items or expensive premium and natural/organic items? What do customers see when they shop your store?

Private brand is also a key element within assortment and is unique in impacting both quality and price. On the quality side, it can uniquely help differentiate the overall brand by providing products that can only be found at your store. They have your logo on them and are the quickest way to build overall brand equity. There is also an opportunity to aggressively price these items, defending you against the more price-focused banners. And once you have a strong private brand, those items can occupy your end caps and prime space throughout the store.

The fact of the matter is, today's consumers are different. So how can you adjust your value proposition to better align with the fundamental shifts? Of course, there is no silver bullet, but a review of which banners are succeeding, and which ones aren't, is a clear indicator of what works and what doesn't. In the meantime -- recalling a fictional storm memorialized in film -- we are clearly not in Kansas anymore. Nor are we likely to ever return. There's a new normal in retail, and the smartest players are adjusting to the realities. For more on who is succeeding, see our most recent Retailer Preference Index report.

white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.

1. Loyal to Customers

We start to act loyally to customers when we understand them to a level of detail that ensures that we remain responsive to changes in their behavior, relevant to ever-changing customer needs and rewarding in the way we treat customers.


Acting loyally is about adopting a loyalty mind set of managing customer segments as strategic business units (aligning with how we think about a category management strategy as managing categories as strategic business units). This context demands change that is both incremental and transformational—evolution, but with a bit of manageable revolution.

What customer loyalty is, and is not:

  • Acting loyally (responsive, relevant, rewarding) to our customers; not about customers being loyal to us
  • An overall approach throughout our business; not a proposition or program
  • Earning customer loyalty; not thinking that customers should become loyal
  • Collaborative partnerships to win customers together; not tolerant of internal conflict between areas of the business or with suppliers
  • Transparent; not opaque
  • Driving sales and cash margin; not customers being responsible for percent margin

2. Loyalty Approach vs. Loyalty Program

We demonstrate loyalty to our customers by taking a loyalty approach wherein we commit to rewarding and delighting our customers with products and experiences that meet their wants and needs.

  • We call this putting customers first—when we decide on priorities and actions based on insights from our customer data.
  • By doing so, a retailer becomes an even more prominent choice in the customer's consideration set. This is not a tactic; it is a long-term strategy that makes the customer the focal point of our business decisions and objectives.

The loyalty program is an important element within a loyalty approach, as the key source of the data that enables customer intelligence, and as the channel that enables us to talk to our customers personally. I call the loyalty program the "little l" in loyalty, with the loyalty approach as the "big L."

But a loyalty program is not required to act in a loyal way to customers. Here's how to think of "big L" loyalty:

A loyalty approach, simply put, embeds customer insight throughout the retail organization to enable better, faster decisions and thereby increase sales and profit sustainably. Best-in-class practitioners have seen an incremental sales uplift in the early stages of a loyalty approach of between 1% and 2% and later stages between 3% and 4%, quarter over quarter and year over year.

3. Loyalty Is About the Store, Not Just the CRM

As I used to say to my retail colleagues, "If the store is lousy but we deliver brilliant targeted CRM, the store will still be lousy."

Even if the personalized CRM is perfect, customers need to perceive that tangible changes have been made in the store itself before they will respond by giving more of their custom. We must put customer insights into action within the "hardwiring" of retail practices—pricing, promotion, assortment, adjacencies, new products, the checkout experience and so on.

In a previous article, I shared several examples of being loyal to customers in store by simply making the shopping experience easier—setting the yogurt section by customer need rather than by brand blocks, for example, and by setting product adjacencies according to how customers shop, rather than by how items are sourced in the supply chain.

3 Ways to Activate a True Loyalty Approach

  1. Make better business decision by putting the customer first. Everything is better when you start with the customer. Start with the data you hold on customers—understanding how they shop and behave, what is important to them and how they engage with your business. This insight will identify a number of opportunities for better decisions using the data.
  2. Improve the customer experience by using data-driven insights to improve your retail offering, such as assortment, pricing and promotions. Use insights to connect you to your customer through the store. Think of the mantra "data to insights to actions"—this is how improved like-for-like sales growth and customer loyalty is delivered.
  3. Transform the organization using customer-driven insight to help you better understand, anticipate, measure and continually respond to your customers. This is realized through empowering, aligning and equipping your people with relevant insights, values, goals, strategies and actions.


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[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at David.Ciancio@dunnhumby.com].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.


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FOR RETAILERS

Smarter operations and sustainable growth, powered by Customer Data Science.

FOR BRANDS

Better understand and activate your Shoppers to grow sales.

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The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".

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