How will the current retail environment affect green industry sales in the spring?

Quick overview of some of yesterday’s December retail data (no real surprises):

Wal-Mart cut fiscal Q4 earnings target about 10%.
Costco posted a 4% drop in December same-store sales.
Family Dollar gained 8%; Same store sales gained 6%.
BJ’s Wholesale had 1.6% sales growth; the lowest in a year.
Sears (the largest U.S. department-store) sales fell 7.3%.
Target same-store sales fell 4.1%.
Macy’s December sales fell 4%.
Gap stores sales fell 14%.
Abercrombie & Fitch fell -24%.
Neiman Marcus reported a 28% drop off.
Limited Brands reported a 10% drop.

Also, a recent DJN press release states:

Food retailers are girding for a “battle” with vendors in the first half of the year as grocers push for lower prices to help shoppers through the recession and food manufacturers resist, Supervalu Inc. (SVU) Chief Executive Jeff Noddle said Wednesday.

With commodity and ingredient costs falling sharply in recent months, supermarket chains have been pushing for lower prices on everything from coffee to soups to help increase sputtering sales. In recent months, both Supervalu and competitor Safeway Inc. (SWY) have switched to a pricing strategy that sells more products at “everyday low prices” rather than relying on coupons or other promotions.

But food manufacturers have been reluctant to roll back their price increases, taken to offset higher input costs, despite some consumer product categories experiencing declines in sales volume of between 3% to 5%, Moody’s Investors Service said in a recent report on the sector.

Lastly, from Wednesday’s Business Week:

Shoppers are getting used to those 75 percent off sale signs, and that’s bad news for merchants who worry they will also have to quickly slash prices on spring goods to attract customers.

Anxieties about how rampant discounts have affected shoppers’ psyches and stores’ profits are running high…The deep price cuts are making shoppers question the true value of items.

My Commentary:

Obviously, all of the trends above begs the question of whether or not we are “training” consumers to be more price (discount) oriented that they have been in the past. Or, as a friend of mine put it…what is the longer-term psychological impact of the drastic price reductions of the holiday and post-holiday sales periods going to be on the going-forward consumer expectations and purchase behaviors?

Obviously, people are currently spending less than normal; certainly less than justified according to their actual incomes (they are saving more which is good in the long run but bad for the economy in the short run). They are also shopping smarter, focusing on the “value” they derive from each precious dollar spent. So as we have discussed before on this blog, those retailers that have their value proposition clearly delineated will be in a much better competitive position than those who don’t.

Without a doubt, several leading lawn & garden retailers are already positioning themselves for price-oriented competition this spring. We have always had a segment of consumers that are price-conscious shoppers and this will obviously bode well for them. Today’s economic environment may increase the number of these price-oriented consumers and the real question is by how much.

But the majority of our core lawn & garden consumer base have other things besides price in their value equation. The question is whether or not retail firms have successfully identified what THEIR key customer base truly values and are differentiating themselves accordingly.

Another key point to remember is that even though unemployment is at 7.2% (from today’s labor report), we’ll still have 93% of the workforce earning a wage. The monies not being spent now will eventually burn a hole in people’s pockets (if historical behavior holds true). It will probably take a few more months of spending declines for this hole-burning to take effect, so the economy will likely hit its low point this spring.

The key question then is whether “spring fever” will induce our core customer base to let go of those discretionary dollars burning a hole in their pockets. And, if so, will they be willing to pay the prices we must charge to cover the cost increases we’ve incurred in the last 2 years? Again, they are much more likely to do so if we appeal to their value equation.

It will also be very interesting to see how President-elect Obama’s yet-released-but-being-revamped stimulus plan is eventually structured and even more interesting to see how much of it is actually spent (historically only 20-40% of a stimulus is spent — the rest is saved or used to pay down debt). But fortunately, many folks will be receiving their tax returns about the time spring season kicks off, which means another influx of funds to burn a hole in their pockets!

Ok, now that we’ve discussed the retail environment, what does all of this mean for green industry growers? The tougher selling environment at the retail level this spring translates into a need to develop more intensive and collaborative relationships with your customers in meeting the needs of the end consumer – particularly in terms of their value proposition. During the downturn in 2008, those growers that proactively worked with their retailers (and usually these were pay by scan sales) to more closely provide landscape solutions for consumers were the ones who were most successful.

If any of you attended the recent industry webinar entitled, “It’s a Great Time to be in Business” you probably heard lots of great ideas. One of the best quotes that I wrote down during the webinar was “These are the times during which great companies are made.” Bearing that in mind, recall also that there are plenty of companies that have survived the last 50 years, which means they have gone through 11 such recessionary periods. How did they do it? By relentlessly focusing on and emphasizing their value proposition to their key customer base. There’s a great lesson there. What is yours?

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One Response to How will the current retail environment affect green industry sales in the spring?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Amen, brother! A lot of the value equation you talk about is the result of establishing relationships with the consumer and creating relevancy to both our product and with the retailerYour friend

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