The 30-year-old from San Clemente, California, was out of work for a
short time last year and saved money by moving in with her boyfriend
and cutting back on clothes shopping and dining out. Though she now
has a good job working for an investment firm, she's maintaining her
Consumers "have gotten really good over these last four years at
stretching a penny," said Pat Conroy, leader of the U.S. consumer
products practice at Deloitte LLP. Referring to the recession, he
said, "Our hypothesis was that this thing was going to leave a scar,
not a bruise. So far, we've been right."
According to Deloitte's annual survey of food shoppers released last
week, 94 percent agreed they would remain cautious and keep spending
at the same level even if the economy improves. That's about the
same percentage as it was in 2010 in the aftermath of the credit
So Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, McDonald's Corp, Hillshire
Brands Co and Kraft Foods Group Inc, all of which are raising
prices, will be trying to retain consumers stuck with stagnant
incomes and unhappy memories of the recession. Faced with little
choice but to boost prices to cover the spike in costs for products
like milk and meat, companies often are taking extra care to justify
or soften the increases.
COLD CUTS AND BACON
Kraft has raised, or will soon increase, prices on about 45 percent
of the products in its portfolio, including cheese, cold cuts and
bacon. Hillshire raised the prices on Jimmy Dean sausage and Ball
Park hot dogs as retail pork prices hit a record high of $1.99 a
pound in March, from $1.40 a pound a year ago, according to the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. McDonald's eliminated its "dollar menu"
last year to give it flexibility to raise prices to offset high
costs for meat and other ingredients.
Chipotle is one of the few companies expected to have the power to
raise prices due to its popularity with higher income diners. The
burrito chain is increasing menu prices this quarter, but only after
giving customers a benefit by removing almost all food ingredients
made with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
"You're hearing that they want to, but the question always becomes:
Can it stick?" said Prudential Financial market strategist Quincy
Krosby, referring to raising prices. "What the consumer has been
very good about is going on strike."
That's happening now in the dairy aisle. As U.S. milk prices go up,
shoppers buy less, according to Dean Foods Co, the largest U.S. milk
processor. Fluid milk industry volumes fell 2.1 percent in the first
quarter, according to Dean.
"There are certain price thresholds that we can't cross, or it
starts to impact the demand," Dean Chief Executive Gregg Tanner said
on a conference call with analysts last week. "We experienced
additional softness in our volumes during March and April."
The wholesale price for beverage milk was about $2.10 per gallon in
May, a record, and up 38 percent from a year ago, according to dairy
analyst Jerry Dryer. In March, retail milk prices were up only 6.5
percent, suggesting that retailers are eating much of the cost
increase, he said.
U.S. consumer prices rose 1.5 percent in March from the year
earlier, led by food and housing rental costs. An index of inflation
tracked by the Federal Reserve is running even lower at 1.2 percent,
against the central bank's target of a 2 percent inflation rate.
[to top of second column]
Many consumers are still struggling in a tough labor market. Labor
force participation remains depressed. Private-sector wages were
unchanged in April and over the past 12 months have averaged monthly
increases of just 0.16 percent.
"There's still a large swath of the population that just doesn't
have the spending power," said Mark Luschini, chief investment
strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.
Pricing issues already have changed the fortunes of Whole Foods
Market Inc <WFM.O> and McDonald's, which are battling rivals that
emerged from the recession willing to start price wars.
McDonald's raised prices late last year in a bid to protect profits
from higher meat costs. Its customers, who tend to earn less than
those who frequent Chipotle, voted with their feet and U.S. sales at
established restaurants have not posted a monthly gain since
Whole Foods, the leading natural and organic grocer nicknamed "Whole
Paycheck" because of a perception among some consumers of high
prices, has seen same-store sales growth cool as mainstream food
sellers add more organics and undercut it on price.
Its most aggressive rival could be Wal-Mart Stores Inc, which in the
United States will introduce 100 Wild Oats-branded organic packaged
food products ranging from olive oil to black beans in about 2,000
stores in coming months.
Walmart, which tends to cater to lower-income shoppers and sells
more groceries than any other domestic retailer, said those products
would be priced on par with conventional rivals and at least 25
percent below branded organic foods.
"It's really hard for Whole Foods to start a price war. It's really
easy for Walmart," said Wolfe Research retail analyst Scott Mushkin.
For her part, Sumrow says she's spending more time in the dollar
store produce aisles and less time in upscale places like Whole
Foods, though she still splurges on things like unpasteurized milk
for about $6 a gallon and fresh spinach, kale and chard for her
daily juicing ritual. She's not inclined to loosen up her spending
anytime soon, even though she's making more money.
"We have to be very careful with our finances to be able to get
anywhere," she said, adding that neither she nor her sister plan to
have children because it doesn't make financial sense. "We have to
tighten our belts and invest wisely and try to get established when
everything is working against us."
(Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles, Theopolis
Waters in Chicago and Lucia Mutikani in Washington; Editing by
Jilian Mincer and John Pickering)
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