Crickets in aisles 1 to 15

Supermarkets need to re-secure their grip on packaged-food sales, suggest SymphonyIRI Group statistics.

Facing a backdrop of lower unit sales in seven of the 10 largest center-store categories, retailers and brands tinker endlessly with merchandising, pricing, promotions and new products to induce purchases.  Hear the crickets?

Silence can fill the air even when brilliant analysis, strategies and execution meet a weary and jaded public—when brands that have fed families for years wonder what else they must do to move the needle on consumer buying.

Shoppers seem so financially stressed and unmoved by what they see in the packaged-goods aisles of supermarkets that one out of six shoppers (16%) purposely skips aisles to avoid the temptation of unnecessary impulse purchases.  This figure comes from Center Store: Driving Growth from the Inside Out, a SymphonyIRI Group Times & Trends report.

Keen to market dynamics, F3 believes this self-guiding behavior is one part conservatism, fed by discord in the nation’s capitol and economic statistics that don’t always mesh with the lives people are experiencing today.  The rest of the tale, we feel, is consumers’ growing desire to eat healthier and the immense appeals of perimeter fresh and prepared foods—let’s call it competition under the same roof. 

Therefore, to F3, real center-store growth (not just inflation) will resume when supermarkets artfully balance their in-store appeals—when they cross-promote and cross-merchandise packaged goods with fresh towards mutual benefit.  When brands cut the double-talk and confusing labels, and sincerely sell items that taste great and are more nutritionally sound and well understood by consumers.  And when shoppers can easily see how center-store items help them satisfy specific eating occasions and achieve personal goals (such as fun, weight loss, eating well with certain health conditions).  This adds up to powerful retail differentiation.

Back to the SymphonyIRI Group report, which reveals a mix of positive and negative traits and trends.  For example:

  • Center-store, which accounts for about two-thirds of CPG dollar sales and 70% of unit sales, has outperformed the industry the past two years (3.7% center-store dollar-sales growth vs. 3.4% total CPG in 2012, for instance).  Yet supermarkets lose considerable food and beverage share to alternate channels.  “Dollar stores and supercenters are successfully winning over the heaviest shoppers of grocery…,” the report states.
  • Promotional and merchandising support is down in 58% of center-store categories, including six of the 10 largest.
  • Edibles linear footage has grown 1.3% the past two years, at the expense of general merchandise and other non-edibles.
  • Unit sales rose in only three of the 10 largest center-store categories in the 52 weeks ended Sept. 9, 2012 across multiple outlets—coffee (4.5%), energy drinks (18.7%) and bottled water (4.6%).  The next-biggest categories all declined in the same period—salty snacks (-0.6%), chocolate candy (-3.7%), dog food (-0.2%), toilet tissue (-2.2%), cold cereal (-3.0%), carbonated beverages (-0.8%), and fresh bread and rolls (-3.3%). 
  • Grocers and convenience stores have a combined 69% of beverage sales. C-store share is up nearly one percentage point this past year, and even more (1.5 share points) in coffee.