The decline of the supermarkets

The big supermarket chains are struggling. Is this a short-term blip or a long-term trend? Can the web save them? Simon Wilson reports.

How are the supermarkets doing?

Not well. Market leader Tesco recently reported a third consecutive quarter of falling UK sales, with like-for-like sales down 3.7%. On some measures, that’s Tesco’s worst performance for 40 years – and its beleaguered chief executive, Philip Clarke, predicted that trading would remain challenging “throughout the coming quarters”. Morrisons is doing even worse: it posted a 7% fall in underlying sales in early May.

And even the sector’s recent bright spot, Sainsbury’s, has just reported a second consecutive quarter of falling sales.

What’s going on?

There are two main explanations for what is happening. Firstly, large out-of-town hypermarkets are no longer so popular with shoppers. Many consumers now prefer to buy items other than food, such as appliances and clothing, online.

Secondly, the big four supermarkets (the three mentioned above, plus Asda) have been hit hard by the economic crisis and recession. That’s not because overall spending on food has slumped – it hasn’t – but because a significant number of consumers have started shopping at the discount chains, Aldi and Lidl, for at least some of the time.

Aldi’s UK sales surged by almost a third last year; Lidl’s were up 14%. In response, the big four have tried to cling on to market share by competing on price, with the constant domino effect of ‘price-matching’ promotions driving margins ever downwards.

As a result, share prices have slid across the board, with investors losing faith in the supermarkets as traditional defensive long-term plays. “Until the downgrade cycle ends, the sector is largely uninvestable,” reckons Shore Capital analyst Clive Black.

What does the future hold?

Most likely, a continuation of current trends. The big four will continue to expand into the fast-growing convenience sector and grow their online businesses. The discounters will continue to prosper too.

According to a survey by the Institute of Grocery Distribution, discount retailers will see overall growth of 65% between 2012 and 2017, while online grocery shopping is expected almost to double. But sales at superstores will grow by 6% – less than inflation.

So will the web save supermarkets?

Possibly. With their large store networks, the supermarkets are certainly well placed to benefit from the latest online trend: ‘click and collect’. This is especially true for Tesco and Sainsbury’s, which have more convenience stores. And customers won’t just click and collect for food – there’s a big opportunity for clothes and other non-food items as well.

There’s at least a chance that the supermarkets could successfully take on Amazon in the UK, thanks to their store estates. Tesco’s Blinkbox online video service also has great potential.

However, we mustn’t get carried away here. A recent McKinsey report suggests that costs for online retail, including delivery, can be high. Looking at online groceries alone, McKinsey reckons that the additional costs are simply bigger than the fees customers are prepared to pay. So maintaining margins will be a challenge.

And to make life even harder for the traditional supermarkets, McKinsey’s research shows that consumers tend to become less loyal, with an astonishing 64% switching their preferred retailers when they migrate online.

What else can supermarkets try?

Another option is to expand more aggressively into financial services. Just this week Tesco announced that its bank would be offering current accounts for the first time (a move, incidentally, which it admits will damage profitability in the short term).

There’s potential here, but investors should remember that current-account customers are notoriously reluctant to switch banks.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for the supermarkets, especially Tesco, lies in ‘big data’. Tesco has accumulated data on the shopping habits of 400 million customers worldwide, and as data analysis becomes more sophisticated, the value of the data should rise.

Interestingly, Tesco recently bought a company called Sociomatic, which has data on 700 million online customers, so that should help Tesco’s attempt to build a strong presence online.

The big four supermarkets clearly have serious problems, but they have some assets
too. Don’t write them off just yet.

Five ways to reinvent the supermarket

Traditional supermarkets risk being squeezed out of existence, says Brad Spirrison in US magazine Retail Leader.

Here’s five ways that they might help themselves survive.

1. Provide value and fun. Store centres can focus on value; the perimeters can draw in customers with everything from children’s cooking classes to sushi bars.

2. Go green, and improve image while cutting costs.

3. Make natural and organic categories a priority; lead the way in nutritional transparency and education.

4. Add more partners to become one-stop shops: not just pharmacies and key-cutters, but childcare centres or estate agents.

5. Use new digital technology to improve marketing opportunities and improve the customer experience within the store.

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