Consumers forced to rein in spending at supermarkets, AUEB survey finds

Typical consumers today do not spend more than 50 euros per visit to a supermarket (unlike the more free-spending 1980s and 1990s), do not succumb to their spontaneous desires by planning their purchases in advance, and take advantage of the dozens of discounts to further reduce the cost of their visit, according to a survey by the Athens University of Economics and Business (AUEB). This behavior concerns mainly low-income households and has affected the policy of most supermarket chains. Competition among them, combined with the strong pressures they are under from discount chains and the general financial situation have led them to offering more products at cheaper rates. Consequently, in the last few years the number of supermarkets’ own-brand products has soared, the price cuts follow one another and investment efforts continue. The AUEB survey shows that the majority of consumers (61 percent) are loyal to one chain. The remaining 39 percent buy from two or three chains at least, including 5 percent who buy from four or more chains. Consumers visit supermarkets once a week (55 percent) or twice a week (26 percent) and usually spend up to 50 euros per visit (57 percent). Some 29 percent spend between 51 and 100 euros and just 14 percent exceed 100 euros per visit. Customers of the big seven supermarket chains spend an average of 315 euros per month on their visits, against just 235 euros spent by those who prefer discount chains. It is particularly interesting that 94 percent of consumers say they have already decided what they will buy when they visit a supermarket, and that one in every two choose a brand inside the store, being open to on-the-spot promotion activity. «In our chain, people arrive with a specific shopping list for some years now,» notes the general director of Vassilopoulos supermarkets, Constantinos Maheras. «Previously, they would easily buy many products. Now they have rationalized their purchases, reducing them to what they definitely need each time and avoiding anything they might need later in the future,» he explains. Some other supermarket executives believe that this trend may be the reason for the rather low growth in sales in periods without a major crisis such as a food scare. The survey suggested that 72 percent of consumers consider prices as the most important criterion for choosing a chain, followed by quality, variety and service. Consumers also show a strong preference for the market’s big seven, while discount chains have earned a 7 percent market share. Despite the often negative publicity, 78.7 percent say that they are satisfied or very satisfied with supermarkets: «This finding reflects the positive impact of the sector’s modernization in domains such as technological infrastructure, product range organization, service, supply and the application of marketing principles and methods,» says Georgios Baltas, the AUEB professor who headed the survey. The rate of satisfaction with smaller chains, though, is much smaller than with the big seven, as smaller supermarkets cannot afford a wide variety of products, low prices or a better atmosphere, and rely instead on the proximity factor for their clientele. Customers of the big chains have a relatively high monthly income (about 2,170 euros), while those opting for smaller supermarkets have lower monthly incomes than those of discount chains (1,725 euros against 1,835 euros). In their effort to face or predict consumers’ desires in a tight and competitive environment, supermarket companies do everything they can to maintain and expand their market share. Investments by big groups in total range from between 150 and 200 million euros a year and are channeled toward the creation of new stores, the improvement of existing ones, the expansion of product range and the development of own-brand products along with more attractive prices through price cuts and offers. French chain Carrefour will invest an impressive 300 million euros in the next two years, while the annual sum spent by Vassilopoulos ranges between 30 and 35 million euros. Food retailing is one of the top sectors in investment. In 2001-2003, the 55 biggest companies in the sector invested more than 1 billion euros, while the eight biggest groups alone reached 849 million euros. All this is without including the investments of Lidl and Plus, which come to 600 million euros. This year there is not a single chain that has not entered the price and offers war or has not intensified its effort to supply more own-brand products. While in the past own-brand products, a market now exceeding 500 million euros in Greece, used to include mainly non-food categories (tissues, detergents, etc.), it has now even expanded to fresh dairy products, which until recently would have seemed very unlikely. For pasteurized milk, the lowest price on the market is now 0.69 euros per liter, according to Dodoni dairy company president, Manos Kassalias, with average prices ranging from 0.80 to 1.40 euros per liter. Own-brand products spearhead the promotion campaigns of discount chains (Dia Hellas, Lidl and Plus), whose combined store number exceeds 500, while their turnover is estimated at 800 million euros. The prospects of discount supermarkets appear positive, as according to a study by M+M Planet Retail research company, over the next three years their market share will reach 10 percent from an estimated 6.4 percent in 2005. In this context the restructuring of forces is certain, as not all supermarket chains can afford to maintain an aggressive policy for long. Market sources suggest that four or five small to medium-sized companies are interested in joining forces with bigger firms. The Veropoulos group has negotiated the acquisition of a smaller company, expected to be completed by the end of this year. Restructuring, of course, does not only concern small companies; Manolis Apostolou, the chairman of listed supermarket chain Atlantic, has forecast that no more than three or four groups will dominate the market.