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Executive Summary of The 2010 American Pantry Study: The new rules of the shopping game

A Joint Report from Deloitte and Harrison Group
July 2010

Read the executive summary below or download the PDF.

A PDF of Fast Facts from the study is also available.

It is difficult to underestimate the impact of The Great Recession on American lives. It is, by far, the longest and most severe downturn since The Great Depression.  Economists define recessions statistically, telling us that the recession began in December 2007, but, for market researchers looking at consumer attitudes, it began in the summer of 2006 when the financial markets first began to unravel. Consumers immediately began to try to find ways to spend less and reduce risk. But, it is clear, in retrospect, that they didn’t start saving soon enough. Four years later, it is equally clear that they have learned new tactics to save, how to reduce the burden of credit and how to manage their households in sustained financial crisis.  Moreover, many consumers have learned how to enjoy the
new game of pantry purchase management. 

This marks the fourth year consumers have been refining their strategies for surviving and thriving in a recession.  Over 40 percent of all American consumers in our survey have been directly affected by the recession – lost jobs, pay cuts or reduced hours. Furthermore, it seems as if everybody in America knows several other people who have been affected directly. The effect of these events over the 28 months of the Great Recession, have bit deep into the American psyche. But instead of defeat and depression, many consumers in America have reacted with resolve and a remarkable sort of courage. They have gathered their wits, concentrated on their risks, re-discovered their self-sufficiency and reformed their purchasing practices. They have re-learned how to shop. 

Today’s consumers are, in a word, resourceful. Their shopping is, in a word, precise. They are using tactical tools and capabilities they have to perform better in the marketplace: coupons, loyalty cards, meal planning, shopping lists, delayed gratification, lowered standards (although not as often as one might think), brand switching, channel switching, store switching, cooking more, eating out less, buying fewer prepared meals, clarifying want versus need, reassessing convenience, larger packages, smaller packages, and more. They feel their personal economic challenges have been challenges well met – their confidence has risen as a result. In short, cutting back has made them feel smart, not deprived, and they have no intention of returning to old habits even when the economy returns. In our view, the new game of shopping is not about saving. It’s more aggressive than that, more calculating, more informed, more consequential: for the average American consumer, successful shopping is about profiting from the market competition for share of their wallet. 

And, too, the question is not who is trying to cut back and win the game. Nearly everybody is (92 percent of consumers surveyed). The only questions are how, and with how much vigor. Most people use one or two core strategies, shaped by the effort involved and perceived efficacy. Indeed, it is these core strategies, and the lifestyle philosophies underlying them, that define the structure of today’s market. Today’s consumers are unlikely to impulse shop, be new product focused or be brand loyal. It’s about preferred strategies for winning at the check-out counter so that families win in the food they eat and the pantry shelves they stock. The object of the new game of shopping is gratification of the family while maintaining food quality and minimizing spent dollars. 

We see this as more than a shift in consumer attitudes and behavior: We see a fundamentally changed consumer marketplace paradigm, one in which consumers and marketers do battle over surplus margins, where surplus margin is the difference between the regular price and the discounted effective price. We also see businesses chasing those resourceful dollars with tactics that remain market-share, advertising based, and point of purchase promotion oriented. Consumers have learned that they can use tactics to find the product at the price point they want, in effect taking margins from the manufacturer or retailer by withholding demand and waiting for a price acceptable to them. In a very real sense, what the consumer believes the price should be ends up being the price they actually pay – the market will come to them. Brands are losing their sway, and the consumer’s willingness to switch has led to private label brands providing not only the price reference point, but a measure of acceptable quality as well. It is time for producers, retailers, and distributors to consider how the precise consumer needs to be factored into a new profitability calculus.

We have learned through surveying more than 2,000 men and women that there are four primary purchase management strategies that have been tested and diffused across the American landscape. Some play the game to win definitively, and get an emotional charge by using coupons and other resources to win at the cash register. Some are managing their pantry by cooking more often and planning more carefully – they are playing to beat the spread. The most severely economically strained are playing not to lose, taking little joy from an increasingly stressful and trade-off filled shopping process. The least economically affected play the game as well, but more for fun and more opportunistically. But make no mistake, everyone is playing the game. When you’re winning the game is a whole lot more fun, savings feel more like profits.

Deloitte has joined together with Harrison Group to produce this study so that producers and marketers in the pantry chain can understand how the battle for margin has evolved and how to rethink the delicate balance of quality, loyalty and profit that is at risk. This is a new game in which consumers know that if they withdraw demand, prices come to them. We have discovered five critical characteristics of the game. First, almost all consumers (92 percent surveyed) are playing. Second, how they play it depends upon how they apply 10 rules involving self-perception, brand value, package management, home management and trade-offs. Third, we have identified how five price-value tactics (coupons, discounts, store-brands, channel choice and withdrawal) are systematically deployed by shoppers to increase dollar-based pantry yield. Fourth, we have discovered that attitudes of resourceful purchasing based on defined family need and a willingness to be disciplined in the store or on-line allow people to operationalize their purchase strategy. And, finally we have identified the strategies themselves in four shopper purchase-based segments: Super-Savers, Sacrificers, Planners and Spectators.

This report is not about how producers, retailers and marketers should join the battle. It is about how consumers are playing the game. That is, the competition for “surplus margin” between companies and consumers. We hope to stimulate dialog among the companies on the producer side of the pantry. Consumers have refined their strategies – have marketers refined theirs as well? Companies have quite unintentionally trained consumers to wait or shop for a better price. Marketers should price to true value: a stable price that represents component costs, the value of formulation, the value of distribution and the emotional value of brand charm. This is not a bombastic communication process: it is a learning process. Years of keeping up with the Joneses, spending beyond limits, tolerance for wastage, and brand loyalty seem to have come to an end. Moreover, few consumers intend to go back. It is time to reconsider the thrill of victory for consumers.

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To learn more about Deloitte’s Consumer Products Industry practice and Deloitte’s capabilities within the areas of consumer behavior and market research, visit us online at www.deloitte.com/us/consumerproducts.

Pat Conroy
Vice Chairman,
U.S. Consumer Products Leader
Deloitte LLP

Deloitte LLP
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Harrison Group
Harrison Group is a leading market research and strategy consulting firm headquartered in Waterbury, Connecticut with offices in Boston, Columbus, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Seattle and Scottsdale. Along with expertise in consumer packaged goods, Harrison Group specializes in the wealth and affluent markets, youth, media financial management and interactive entertainment markets. The firm’s cornerstone is providing sophisticated market strategy, market analytics and survey and forecasting services. Harrison Group consists of a cohesive team of researchers, analysts, field experts, focus group facilitators, marketing experts, brand specialists and multivariate statisticians who have all specialized in the business of clear, definitive results for many of the world’s most demanding clients.

Doug Harrison
Chief Executive Officer
Harrison Group

One Exchange Place
21 West Main Street
Waterbury Connecticut 06702

+1 203 573 0400