SN POLL SUGGESTS COMPETITIVE ACTIONS FOR SUPERMARKETS

Last month, SN commissioned an online survey of 405 selected consumers in an effort to find out what they think of food-shopping alternatives now before them. Results, which should be broadly projectable to much of the population, are referenced on the front page of this week's issue.Let's take a look at what can be learned from the consumer survey.Perhaps it will come as no great shock to observe

Last month, SN commissioned an online survey of 405 selected consumers in an effort to find out what they think of food-shopping alternatives now before them. Results, which should be broadly projectable to much of the population, are referenced on the front page of this week's issue.

Let's take a look at what can be learned from the consumer survey.

Perhaps it will come as no great shock to observe that consumers are very interested in low prices at the moment. The only shock value that might hold is to those who hew to the traditional outlook that price is but one element in consumers' decision-making hierarchy, and, at that, not a top consideration. That was once true, but the price spread between low-price providers and all others is so large that price is becoming the chief factor considered by consumers in selecting a shopping venue. There are ways around that, though, which we'll get to later.

Here are some specific survey results: When asked what supermarkets might do to better attract them, a huge 75% of consumers responding held that supermarkets should offer better prices. They also said it would help to improve quality and selection (40%); to offer more healthy food (9%); and more ethnic food (5%). Several other factors were cited, too. (Multiple responses were permitted in this survey section and others.)

Now let's see why consumers said they patronize non-supermarket food-shopping choices: 58% responded that prices were lower there. Others said they try them because they are great in number (33%) and have more selection (25%). Similar numbers were registered by those who said they shop membership clubs and limited-assortment stores, too.

Now let's look at the question that specifically addressed supercenters. Needless to relate, price reigns supreme with 66% of consumers attracted to supercenters on that basis. Here, however, we begin to perceive what looks like a competitive opening that favors conventional supermarkets. Here are elements of supercenter shopping that were ranked surprisingly low: the offer of healthy food (0.2%), knowledgeable staff (2%), produce (2%), in-store excitement (3.5%) and quality (5%). Several other low-ranking qualities were cited, too.

These findings underscore what has been previously alluded to -- that the price spread between supercenters and supermarkets is great enough to swamp many other considerations, including those just cited, which are the very ones consumers should and do view as quite important. Therefore, it seems that success could be found by means of a supermarket-oriented advertising and merchandising campaign centering on the attributes that rank so low at supercenters.

Further clues about possible competitive responses are offered in the part of the survey that invites consumers to write their own observations about food shopping. Here's a sample:

"I have been shopping [an independent]. The prices aren't the lowest, but they feel 'fair' [and] I don't feel that someone down the line is suffering so I can pay 30 cents less for a can of tuna."

"[The independent-store experience] is consistent with reasonable prices and it offers good community support."

"[The independent] has most of the amenities of a supermarket on a smaller scale, and a good variety of healthy and ethnic foods."