Supermarkets Cut Prices to Lure Customers

Malle Putsch, above, checks meat prices at a Giant Food store in Bethesda. The supermarket chain has recently increased the number of items it discounts, as evidenced by this sign greeting shoppers in the same store.
Malle Putsch, above, checks meat prices at a Giant Food store in Bethesda. The supermarket chain has recently increased the number of items it discounts, as evidenced by this sign greeting shoppers in the same store. (Photos By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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By Ylan Q. Mui and Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Supermarket prices are plunging as the global downturn drives down the cost of staples such as wheat, corn and milk and grocers fight for the wallets of penny-pinching consumers.

Locally, Safeway stores have slashed prices on thousands of products by as much as 25 percent over the past month. Giant Food said three weeks ago that it has doubled the number of items on sale and papered its shelves with signs highlighting savings. And Wal-Mart, long feared by rivals for its aggressive pricing, plans to open its first area store with a full-service supermarket in Manassas in October.

The heated competition is being fueled in part by the steep decline in commodity prices after a year of dramatic increases, one of the few silver linings of the deep recession that continues to transform the economy.

The price of corn, for example, is down 56 percent since July 2008 on the Chicago Board of Trade. Such drops have helped drive down the grocery consumer price index, which measures what shoppers pay at stores, about 2.5 percent since its peak in November, according to new data released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While there was an upward blip in energy prices that drove the wider consumer price index up 0.4 percent in August, over the past 12 months overall consumer prices have fallen 1.5 percent.

"The declines have been so broad that even the core-needs kinds of spending have taken hits," said Adam York, an economic analyst with Wachovia. "Consumer budgets are pretty tight right now. You're going to do anything that you can as a retailer to keep consumers in your store."

The renewed focus on price represents a significant shift for the grocery industry, which promoted such amenities as olive bars and in-store sushi restaurants to lure shoppers whose palates had become increasingly discriminating during economic boom times. Supermarkets boasted about the varieties of cheese in stock and expanded their menus of prepared foods. Safeway and Giant remodeled their stores to include faux-wood flooring, soft lighting and farmers-market-style stands. Even the discounter Wal-Mart opened a test store in Texas that priced a bottle of wine above $500.

Then the recession hit, and gourmet grocers that were once emulated struggled to hold on to shoppers. Consumers began clipping coupons and opting for a dozen roses instead of floral bouquets, and 20 percent fat ground beef over 10 percent fat. Traditional supermarkets saw renewed interest in deals on mundane items such as toilet paper and laundry detergent that dominate the centers of their stores. Phil Lempert, a consultant known as "the Supermarket Guru," likened the changes in shoppers to those seen during the Great Depression.

"They learned certain behaviors that they stuck with for the rest of their lives," he said.

The supermarket rivalry is likely to heat up this fall, when Wal-Mart opens its first "supercenter" -- carrying a full line of groceries -- in the region. The behemoth retailer has dominated the grocery business in areas where it has opened supercenters, and food has remained one of its strongest categories during the downturn. Target has also said it is increasing the amount of space it devotes to food in its stores as shoppers shy away from spending money on clothes and home furnishings.

The drop in commodities prices has allowed retailers to lower prices for their customers, but it also can result in lower revenue: If shoppers buy the same food for less money, sales figures will decline.

That's what happened to Safeway, where revenue during the most recent quarter dropped 6.5 percent from a year earlier, even though it is ringing up more transactions. The cost of cheese dropped 17 percent, milk plunged 27 percent, and cherries fell 42 percent.

"The deflation is deeper and more sustained than we had earlier predicted," Safeway chief executive Steven A. Burd told investors, noting that those price declines were the worst in 17 years.

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