State of the Retail Industry

November 1, 2005
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State of the Retail Industry
By Lynn Petrak
Retailers respond to shifting consumer shopping patterns, providing opportunity and challenges to suppliers to the bread aisle.
Whoever said that the more things change, the more they remain the same hasn’t looked at consumers’ grocery shopping habits lately.
As those in the snack food and wholesale baking industry are all too aware, what was once a trip to the corner store for a loaf of bread has turned into jaunts to, alternately, the mainstream grocery store, club store, specialty grocer, convenience store and mass merchandiser. Call it channel surfing, in more ways than one.
And once shoppers get to a particular venue, they face ever-expansive cases and shelves stocked with products in a range of flavors, nutritional profiles, packages and prices.
Retail loyalty hasn’t quite gone the way of the buggy whip (or, for that matter, white-bread-only shelves), but many analysts agree that the notion of consumers buying the same products at the same place is, at best, limited.
“Now, the range of competition is so broad,” reports industry observer Doug Adams, president of Prime Consulting Group, Bannockburn, Ill., echoing the fact that a typical shopper who once frequented one or two local grocery stores now divides his or her time among a variety of stores. “The consumer is more efficient. They are conducting fewer shopping trips across a larger array of channels.”
That leaves traditional supermarkets, in particular, in a state of flux. “For the most part, the [mainstream supermarket] industry has responded weakly or barely to the changing consumer and changing lifestyles, allowing today’s consumers to be wooed and won by all the alternative formats. Even its older customers, once-core and loyal, have been wooed and won by formats that are easier to shop,” remarks Mona Doyle, founder and director of Philadelphia-based research and consulting firm The Consumer Network, Inc. and publisher of The Shopper Report.
According to Doyle, supermarkets lost some customers to mass marketers for price reasons and others to specialty markets because of broadening interest in new, unique or better-for-you products.
For any venue, how shopping habits net out on an aisle-by-aisle basis depends on several factors, from a consumer’s need and location at a certain time to ongoing concerns over price. To be sure, current marketplace trends are evident in the commercial bread category. Consumers looking for heartier, more upscale breads or rolls for a particular recipe or entertaining occasion, for instance, might head to the specialty grocer for what they perceive to be superior options, while they might buy a “traditional” loaf of bread at their usual supermarket. Short on time, those shoppers might pick up bread from the convenience market or fuel mart near their home or work.
In the end, it all goes back to a time-tested driver called competition. To vie for the shrinking share of the consumer food dollar with other retailers and with foodservice outlets, retailers and, in turn, their suppliers must find ways to differentiate themselves through their product mix, price strategies and promotions, including for breads and rolls.
Surfing the Retail Channel
As they face the proliferation of channels, mainstream grocery stores have had to grapple with issues of their own.
For one thing, mass merchandisers such as Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores and club stores such as Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp. continue to blaze ahead and cause ripples within the entire supermarket and retail industry.
Wal-Mart has been riding the crest of many waves and going against a tide in others. Even as the mega-company announced plans to open between 270 and 280 Supercenters beginning in 2006, it has had to grapple with weaker-than-expected sales in late 2004 and face opinion on the part of some analysts that the ambitious growth plan is risky. Meanwhile, the corporation is contending with towns around the country that have gone to court to keep Wal-Mart stores from being built in their communities.
To keep competitive with the price-slashing mass merchandisers, discount chains, club stores and supermarkets have gotten creative in a host of ways. Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets, for instance, has started a “welcome kiosk” for customers in its stores, while Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway has channeled resources into being more things for more people, balancing coupons and price breaks with self-described “lifestyle” designs, including organic sections, sushi bars and in-house Starbucks Coffee outlets.
Service has become a point of differentiation as well. Beyond shopper reward cards and grocery carryout service, chains such as Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, San Antonio -based H-E Butt Grocery Co. and others regularly invest in service-driven programs and promotions. Many chains have embraced technology as well, installing self-checkout lanes and, in some markets, equipping carts with self-scanners.
Meanwhile, although the pace of consolidation has slowed from the breakneck pace of the mid- to late-1990s, mergers and acquisitions continue. In some of the biggest breaking industry news, one of the nation’s largest chains, Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons, Inc., put itself up for sale earlier this fall in a effort to drive shareholder value The move drew interest from, among others, rival Kroger Co. of Cincinnati, currently the nation’s leading grocery retailer behind Wal-Mart.
In this charged atmosphere, specialty retailers are highlighting their uniqueness to capture customers looking for something specific or new. Stores such as Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. and Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets Inc. heavily promote their natural and organic offerings, but also draw mainstream consumers with expansive prepared foods areas, upscale meat departments and health-oriented fare. Trader Joe’s, a Needham, Mass.-based chain, is scoring points for combining distinctive, high-quality SKUs (stock-keeping units) with price savings stemming from private label marketing.
Not to be overlooked in a discussion of grocery sales are other mass merchandisers such as Super Target, based in Minneapolis, and Meijer, based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Such large-footprint retailers also are trying to make a name for themselves through their grocery as much as say, their automotive or toy sections. Both operations continue to expand their presence and add or revamp stores.
Bread’s Slice of the Market
As supermarket chains, club stores and mass merchandisers refine their own businesses, they focus on all areas of their stores, from signature delis to gleaming refrigerator aisles to expansive meat cases.
The commercial bread aisle, too, reflects the push-and-pull nature of modern food marketing, in which consumer demand drives manufacturers to develop new products and in which suppliers recognize potential new opportunities. The retailer role in this dynamic varies, from challenging their wholesale bakery suppliers to provide items that consumers want to finding innovative ways to balance their product offerings, given the limited shelf space and fixed layout. In many ways, they want bakers to add creativity to their category management efforts.
Retail analyst Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of New York City-based Strategic Resource Group, says that the bread aisle is expanding, but it could benefit from a bit more attention from some retailers.
“Because a bread buyer often doesn’t have the amount of power that he or she deserves to have in a major chain, the chief merchandising officer of a retailer too often takes the bread business for granted and doesn’t look at bread as a key part of merchandising for a given sales week. Too often, it falls by the wayside,” he observes.
Indeed, in mainstream supermarkets, as well as most club stores and mass merchandisers, the commercial bread aisle remains true to traditional form. Products are displayed not by type, but by manufacturer.
“The shelf set is portioned by the company – ‘This is my space and I’ll do what is right by my space,’” explains analyst Mitch Pinheiro, director of research for brokerage firm Janney Montgomery Scott, LLC, Philadelphia. “That is a structure that won’t allow change in the bread aisle. If store employees were the ones stocking shelves, I’d say [it would change], but they are not [stocking the shelves].”
Change in the bread aisle, then, has largely come from product diversification and beyond-the-shelf merchandising, such as stand-alone and end-cap displays.
Scanning a typical supermarket bread aisle, it is evident that traditional varieties of white, white, rye and the like are being squeezed by an influx of better-for-you products, ranging from Chicago-based Sara Lee Bakery Group’s new Soft & Smooth Whole-Grain White bread to multi-grain breads from smaller specialty bakers.
According to Dan Raftery, president of Raftery Resource Network, Inc., Antioch, Ill., the commercial bread category is conducive to health trends.
“The bread aisle has flexibility. You can move to more of what is perceived to be healthy ingredients and offer products like multi-grain and reduced fat. All of the major players have done that,” he says.
Specific dietary trends come and go, of course. At this point, consumers seem to have gotten over total bread avoidance resulting from the low-carb fad, which many experts concur peaked in 2004.
“If you look at the total bread aisle sales, the category has come back in the last few months, but there was a definite impact of Atkins and South Beach,” says Raftery. “One of the reasons, it may be argued, [that] sales are coming back is the fact that the products have been redesigned.”
To Raftery’s point, many bread companies have created or reformulated breads that are lower in carbs, sugar, calories and fat. Interstate Bakeries Corp. (IBC), Kansas City, Mo., announced earlier this year that it was introducing a new white bread that is nutritionally equivalent to whole grain. The company also has hired a nutrition expert to answer consumer queries on its Baker’s Inn Web site.
For his part, Pinheiro points to Flowers Bakeries, based in Thomasville, Ga., as a leader ahead of health and diet trends. “Flowers has been one of the more innovative fresh bread companies in the industry. They started their health line several years ago, including lower sugar, and morphed it a year and a half ago into low-carb bread. They were one of the first to have a low-carb bread in addition to having a low-sugar bread,” he says.
As Pinheiro points out, bakeries able to offer such better-for-you options can reap real benefits.
“You can have a lot of trade-up from 89-cent white bread to $2.29 low-carb bread,” he notes.
In addition to removing product attributes that consumers don’t want — a la carbs and calories — bread producers are adding beneficial ingredients. Some brands feature grains and additions such as flaxseed, bulgur, sunflowers and soybeans, while other companies have enhanced their bread with various nutrients such as extra fiber and vitamin D. Each slice of the new Smart & Healthy Fibre Goodness bread from Bay Shore, N.Y.-based George Weston Bakeries includes twice the amount of fiber found in traditional whole wheat bread. Ft. Wayne, Ind.-based Perfection Bakeries’ Aunt Millie’s Hearth Fiber for Life bread includes as much high fiber as a serving of high-fiber cereal.
Beyond weight loss and bolstered fiber levels, the notion of “healthy” is linked to other attributes such as freshness.
“Freshness has many meanings to many consumers, including quality and health and fewer preservatives,” Doyle explains. “It is different for packaged and bulk foods and different before and after first opening. It sells donuts and cinnamon buns, as well as milk and veggies and much more.” SF&WB
IDDBA
That the traditional definition of “snacks” no longer applies is a point that cannot be overemphasized, according to the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) new original research report — Snacking Trends: A World of Opportunity. The report points to the fact that retailers have not caught up with consumers’ expanded view of snacks and snacking, leading to lost business opportunities. IDDBA commissioned Datassential Research to conduct this multi-component study that explores the dynamics and trends that define snacking today. The objective of the study is to provide insight into snacking trends, giving businesses a vision of product and marketing directions more likely to attract today’s consumers. Additional information on IDDBA’s research also is available on the association’s Web site, www.iddba.org, or by calling 1-608-238-7908.
Pioneering retailer Sheetz, Inc. raised the bar for area residents when it opened its new 7,000-sq.-ft. c-store on 236 West State Street on September 29 in Alliance, Pa. As part of the grand opening, the company said it would make a $2,500 donation to Alliance High School. The new Sheetz location will offer customers a fun, high-energy restaurant-style atmosphere. Inside, customers will experience digital menu boards that show food selections, which can be ordered easily and quickly at electronic touch-screen order kiosks.

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