October, 2011

Walmart Pricing Study

In Dallas, Wal-Mart Gets Squeezed Between Low Price Alternative Formats & High Service Conventional Stores

 In this the 22nd iteration of the Produce Business Wal-Mart Pricing Report, we return to Dallas, TX, which we last visited back in October of 2003, and we find that much has changed and much has not.

Back in 2003, Wal-Mart was the undisputed King of the price point. Indeed, the only retailer in town that beat the Wal-Mart Supercenter in offering low produce prices was its own sister banner, Wal-Mart’s Neighborhood Market concept. That was really a bit of randomness thrown in the mix, however, as Wal-Mart’s policy at that point in time — since abandoned — was that Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets should price identically.

So when Wal-Mart’s Neighborhood Market took the low price crown on an equally sized market basket of produce, it was probably due to either a pricing error or an in-store markdown.

Although Brookshire’s came close in 2003, being only 7 percentage points over the Wal-Mart Supercenter in pricing, Kroger, Albertsons and Tom Thumb all took a licking.

In general, whatever problems Wal-Mart may have had back in 2003, it really was still the low-price leader, and if consumers were going to go elsewhere, it would certainly cost them money when it came to buying fresh produce.



Fast Forward to 2011

In many ways, the picture hasn’t changed in 2011… although in one big way it has. Analyzing a common market basket of produce gathered from Wal-Mart and six conventional stores, plus an Aldi store in mid-August, the conventional supermarkets remain at a significantly higher price point. Albertsons, which back in 2003 came in at 22.68 percent over Wal-Mart Supercenter pricing, now eight years later finds itself at 24.83 percent over Wal-Mart Supercenter pricing.

Kroger, which back in 2003 came in at 19.05 percent over Wal-Mart Supercenter pricing, came in at 21.34 percent over Wal-Mart Supercenter pricing. Safeway’s Tom Thumb banner, which is an upscale alternative in the market, obviously didn’t mind its performance at 27 percent over Wal-Mart back in 2003 to be problematic, as its produce pricing in 2011 came in an astounding 51.03 percent over Wal-Mart. This is the one of the greatest differentials we have seen in our rolling study – though Tom Thump still comes in second place to Jensen’s Foods out in Palm Springs, CA, which tallied a produce basket 60 percent over Wal-Mart in 2004.

Although Tom Thumb is an outlier, the lack of effective price competitiveness by the conventional grocery segment is not at all surprising. All across the country, after 20 years of competition with the Wal-Mart Supercenter concept, conventional grocery stores typically remain from 15 percent to 20 percent more expensive than Wal-Mart Supercenters when it comes to fresh produce pricing. This seems to work for these stores because they have successfully differentiated themselves from Wal-Mart by offering a more upscale experience and by executing better at the store level.

In many ways, conventional grocers have ceded the low income market to Wal-Mart and others, closing stores in lower income areas while adding service and flair to their other stores. In this way, they have succeeded, and Wal-Mart’s gains in market share over the years have typically come from the independent sector, as these less well capitalized retailers found themselves unable or unwilling to make the very substantial investments necessary to remain competitive.



Unconventional Competition

Though they may be willing to let low income shoppers shop at Wal-Mart, the conventional chains need to keep on their toes. H.E.B. is not the major player in Dallas that it is in South and Central Texas, but its Central Market concept, famous for its upscale ambiance and quality assortment — which one might expect to have a price point more similar to Tom Thumb than a conventional supermarket — actually beat both Albertsons and Kroger, coming in a 19.12 percent over the Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Although the gap is not large, with a market basket of fresh produce that cost $106.35 at Central Market, $108.33 at Kroger and $111.45 at Albertsons, the fact that Central Market is pricing like a conventional supermarket rather than an upscale alternative means it will be a powerful competitor.

For Wal-Mart, though, Central Market is not the problem. One issue is the growth of Target and its supercenter concept. It performs in our study pretty much right where one would expect. With a price point at 10.13 percent over Wal-Mart, its produce pricing comes in a little less than conventional supermarkets and a little more than Wal-Mart.

Added Loyalty

Another question is whether other retailers can use loyalty cards to offer their core customers deep bargains. Although we have seen a substantial difference in price competitiveness when factoring loyalty card discounts in recent cities studied, such as Philadelphia, Raleigh and Phoenix, that doesn’t seem to be the case in Dallas.

Kroger’s loyalty card shifted its price position from 21.34 percent over Wal-Mart to 16.71 percent over Wal-Mart, and Tom Thumb went from outer space to merely high orbit as its number dropped from 51.03 percent over Wal-Mart to merely 35.06 percent over Wal-Mart.



And Then There’s The Alternative

Wal-Mart’s real problem is the rise of alternative formats that are exceedingly price-competitive. Sprouts emphasizes produce and value, and it shows. Offering a full range of produce, Sprouts beats Wal-Mart’s produce pricing, coming in 6.68 percent below Wal-Mart.

Yet the biggest threat is, literally, off the charts. We went to see one other retailer in Dallas. Its assortment is not large enough to include in our main study, but it is a fierce competitor on the items it does sell. Who is this fierce competitor? Its name is Aldi. It had a pretty rich produce assortment, offering 35 items out of the 53 items on our comprehensive basket.

Because these are typically the higher volume items, they account for a much higher percentage of produce department sales.

Aldi came in at a full 26.14 percent under Wal-Mart’s produce pricing. In other words, the difference in price between Aldi on the low side and Wal-Mart on the high side is actually larger than the gap between Wal-Mart on the low side and conventional supermarkets on the high side.

Thus Wal-Mart’s reputation for offering the lowest prices in Dallas begins to tatter and, in the end, Wal-Mart finds itself in the middle, being squeezed by deep discounters such as Aldi on price and conventional supermarkets on service.

Is there a way out from this dilemma for Wal-Mart? Stay tuned for the next edition of the Produce Business Wal-Mart Pricing Report to find out. pb