July, 2015

Walmart Pricing Study

Report From Omaha: Are Grocers Competing With Wal-Mart? Or Getting Out Of Its Way?

Much media attention has been paid to the rise of the deep discounters. In the United States, these stores include Aldi, Save-A-Lot and, soon, Lidl. There is good reason for this attention. In other countries, market share for this concept exceeds 10 percent and Aldi is, by Produce Business’ estimates, the fastest growing grocer in America. Still, Aldi has a total market share of less than 1 percent in the United States. So even while analysts ponder the implications of this thriving competitive sector, it is important not to lose sight of Wal-Mart and how conventional grocers are still competing with Wal-Mart.

This time, in the 27th iteration of the “Produce Business Wal-Mart Pricing Report,” we visit the heartland, Omaha, NE — a city that has an often-overlooked link to Wal-Mart’s produce program. It is well recognized that former Wal-Mart vice president of perishables, Bruce Peterson, worked at Meijer, and his experience with this supercenter-type concept made Peterson an attractive candidate for Sam Walton, who personally hired him to run Wal-Mart’s then nascent produce program.

What is less widely known is that Peterson didn’t go directly from Meijer to Wal-Mart. He made a brief pit stop at the now Kroger-owned Baker’s, which is one of the retailers we study this edition. Peterson implemented some pretty impressive initiatives when at Wal-Mart. The store’s success at moving into produce and perishables was in no way guaranteed, so had Meijer or Baker’s managed to retain that one key employee a long time ago, perhaps the Wal-Mart produce and perishables program would not have blossomed as they did under Peterson; Baker’s, Meijer and other retailers could be facing a very different supercenter today.

In this report, we compared Wal-Mart to Baker’s, Hy-Vee, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe’s. Because Trader Joe’s does not carry a complete enough produce assortment to allow for our typical market basket, we present three charts. The first excludes Trader Joe’s, but offers the prices of Wal-Mart, Baker’s, Hy-Vee and Whole Foods Market across our customary market basket. The second compares just Wal-Mart and Trader Joe’s on a longer list of items they both carry. Finally, the third chart compares all five stores but excludes from comparison items not carried by Trader Joe’s, and is thus a smaller market basket.

So how are the conventional grocers competing with Wal-Mart in Nebraska? Certainly not on price! Baker’s came in over 20 percent over Wal-Mart, and Hy-Vee priced out at an astounding 51.17 percent over Wal-Mart. What about Whole Foods Market’s long-term effort to establish that it is not worthy of the “Whole Paycheck” moniker? It came in at 55.72 percent over Wal-Mart.

Although we have to add the usual caveats — notably that this is a study of produce department pricing and not the entire store. So some chains that choose to price aggressively in, say, meat but not produce will show up better in overall studies. However, our experience has been that at price differentials of over 20 percent, it is difficult for competitors to grow in a city where Wal-Mart has substantial market share. The exception being those retailers that do not so much compete with Wal-Mart as that try to avoid competing with Wal-Mart.

Another caveat is Whole Foods Market (in its national advertising campaign) is aiming to differentiate its products based on its own proprietary sustainability index. What Whole Foods Market would like consumers to believe is that there is no such thing as a parity product sold at Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market, and that somehow the higher price points at Whole Foods Market filter down through the supply chain, ensuring more environmentally friendly production methods, higher paid farmers and farm workers, and much more.

The program had better work, for as Wal-Mart, Costco and others increasingly sell organic and specialized products that were previously Whole Foods Market’s domain, consumers will be tempted to buy elsewhere if Whole Foods Market is priced more than 55 percent over Wal-Mart.


Closer Comparison: Trader Joe’s

What about when we restrict the market basket to allow a comparison with Trader Joe’s? How does this reshuffle the deck?

Well, it is a mixed bag. With a limited market basket, restricted by Trader Joe’s common items with Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s comes in at 24.12 percent over Wal-Mart prices, and Hy-Vee’s limited market basket brings it closer to Wal-Mart, coming in at 44.26 percent over Wal-Mart. Both Baker’s and Whole Foods Market come out as less competitive with Wal-Mart, with Baker’s being 28.25 percent over Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market an astounding 60.66 percent over Wal-Mart.

Trader Joe’s is one of the fastest growing chains in America. It has much that consumers find attractive, from a warm and friendly atmosphere to distinctive flavor profiles on private label products that consumers covet. The secret sauce, though, is that the chain does all this while maintaining price competitiveness. If you look at the chart on page 42, you will see that on an extensive market basket, Trader Joe’s comes in at just 10.47 percent over Wal-Mart. When you consider gas costs and transit time to get to a more remote Wal-Mart Supercenter, that 10 percent difference keeps Trader Joe’s looking very competitive.

It used to be said that there was no such thing as a national supermarket chain in America. But a very substantial part of the growth in the business is now coming from national concepts: Aldi, Costco, Trader Joe’s, Wal-Mart Supercenters, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, Whole Foods Market, etc.

And it is interesting to note in this prototypically American Midwestern city that national chains copped both the low-price and the high-price positions, leaving conventional supermarkets to fight for the mushy middle. Yet this is not where the growth is in American society.

And it is not just about price. Trader Joe’s is mostly an epicurean concept. Aldi manages to sell inexpensive products without embarrassing its customers by forcing them to buy unattractive generics. Costco is known for selling upscale food at value prices. Will any conventional grocers play in this space? There is talk that Kroger might make a play for the U.S. division of a combined Ahold/Delhaize, which would bring it close to being a national chain.

In general, one can see retail evolving as foodservice has in America. Whereas not all that long ago, every town had its little diner, nowadays it is more likely to have an Applebee’s. National branded foodservice operations — in which every outlet has a well-known specialty, an advanced supply chain to support it, and a well-established training program and market program to ensure uniformity and attract customers — these national branded concepts have spread across America at the expense of local eateries.

It is not much of a stretch to say that national branded specialized retail concepts will continue to gain market share at the expense of the local grocer for a long time to come.

Can local chains fight back? What is the role of deep discounters? How does the Internet play into all this? These are the questions that future editions of the “Produce Business Wal-Mart Pricing Report” will study.      Pb