Bakers Journal

The Final Proof: January-February 2015

February 18, 2015
By Stephanie Ortenzi

Discount addiction

New research reveals how food retail is taking a beating — and by whom

Carman Allison has a great way with words. He uses turns of phrase you don’t expect from an economic report, which is refreshing. Allison is vice-president of consumer insights for Nielsen Canada, and he presented his new report about food retail and demographics at the 2014 Food Trends Forecast Symposium in November, sponsored by NSF-GFTC, formerly known as the Guelph Food Technology Centre.

“Sputtering for growth,” according to Allison, is what’s happening in consumer packaged goods, two-thirds of which is made up of food. His title for metrics showing how inflation has stayed at two per cent since 2011 and how no growth could be wrenched from that: “Flat is the New Growth.”

Feeling that economic conditions haven’t improved much since last year, consumers are keeping a tight hold of their wallets: 59 per cent are trying to bring down their household expenses, and 73 per cent are working on lowering their grocery spending.

Consumers are discount-addicted, says Allison, a habit they can feed liberally thanks to discount food shopping available from retailers like No Frills, Wal-Mart and Target, and more recently, from dollar stores.

In big-picture terms, $6 billion in grocery sales has shifted to discounters since 2007. A U.S. metric gives us a feel for where we could be headed: 83 per cent of Americans who shop at dollar stores are buying food there, too. If Canadian dollar stores follow a significant American trend – adding refrigeration to offer dairy and other perishable food staples to the dollar-store buy – we can expect sales and shares to rise here, too.

So who’s gobbling up all those discounts? Here’s Allison’s current generational breakdown: boomers (aged 48-67) make up 28 per cent of our population. Gen Ys (19-37) are nipping at their heels at 27 per cent. Gen Zs (18 and under) make up 16 per cent. The GI generation (68+] and Gen Xers (38-47) each make up 14 per cent.

(In case you’re wondering, because we don’t hear the term much, the GI generation came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. GI stands for “Government Issue,” but we know it best as a synonym for soldier.)

Millennials, essentially a composite of Gen X and Y, are vastly underrepresented in the market, says Allison. It’s tough to win their business. Their loyalty is very difficult to earn and keep. Price is the first thing they consider, and 80 per cent of them are easily persuaded to buy a different brand, which is to say, if you’ve won them as a customer today, don’t expect them to keep them, unless you’re offering the right price, tomorrow.

So, how are they eating? Millennials take 68 per cent of their meals at home, compared to boomers at 79 per cent. Millennials want foods with little to no prep time. Boomers want to cook from scratch, using basic and fresh ingredients.

Why are millennials so important? They are poised to become the country’s largest population group by as soon as 2020. Is five years long enough to get our products in front of them, at the right price?

Two more food retail trends worth noting: ethnic food shopping is up 20 per cent, involving 17 per cent of Canadian households, to the estimated tune of $4-5 billion; and online grocery shopping has Loblaw in the game mid-September, but it’s Amazon that Canadian food manufacturers need to watch.

Like Allison, J.P. Gervais also presented at the GFTC symposium. Gervais is chief agricultural economist at Farm Credit Canada, and like Allison, he had some valuable intel for our sector’s boots on the ground. He used an interesting phrase more than once, the kind truth tellers might use: “… but nobody wants to hear that.”

What does the food-processing sector not want to hear? We need to get more out of our labour. Food processing has invested heavily bringing new products to market, but they haven’t invested heavily in process innovation to increase productivity. Companies are differentiating themselves with successful product innovation. Consumers are demanding —and getting—higher-value, healthier and more sophisticated products. But the value added comes at a high cost.

“Business is always getting squeezed between raw product costs going up and retail pressure,” Gervais said. In the end, it will all come down to how much the consumer is willing to pay when household budgets are also stretched.

Finally, off-presentation and onto important commodity news for the bakery sector, I asked Gervais what he thought of the so-called looming chocolate shortage, which has been causing some speculation and uncertainty. “What we’re really talking about when we talk about a shortage,” said Gervais, “is the availability of chocolate at the price we want to pay at any given time. There are supply issues from traditional sources (Africa), but there are also a stronger demand from economies in emerging markets (South America).” His prediction: prices could stay high for a couple of years, “just enough time for producers to increase supply.”

Stephanie Ortenzi is a food marketing writer and blogs at

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