Is the recession over? As well as politicians, plenty of economic experts are pointing to a nascent recovery at long last, with consumer confidence measures rising and a number of commodities starting to fall off the back of high-yielding harvests and, in the case of sugar, some much-needed competition.
“Any measure of inflation that works at a SKU level these days is skewed”
Such news is certainly welcome. As we report, the operating margins of The Grocer/OC&C Food & Drink 150 fell 0.5ppts to 5.2%, their lowest-ever level, in 2012. But while their fortunes appear to be turning - as share price recovery among the PLCs attests - it’s a different picture for many supermarkets right now.
All the supermarkets made hay in the July heatwave. But even before the weather turned last week, the shine had already come off grocery sales in August - partly because, last year, we were all toasting Great Britain’s glorious Olympic achievements, but also, one suspects, because consumer behaviour was overly stimulated in July by the near-tropical conditions.
While some of the retailers’ ills are self-made, and some are structural, key to true economic recovery is a reduction in inflation, as such increases in disposable income as there have been have been quickly wiped out by the punitive effects of what some term ‘asymmetric growth’. As we reported in The Grocer Price Index (GPI) last week, inflation has fallen from its early summer high. And the good news is a reduction in commodity price inflation will help further. In the meantime, supermarkets seem to be reducing the depth of promotions, even if the volume is increasing. What muddies the waters, when it comes to measuring inflation, is the impact of £5 off £40 (or £10 off £60 at Morrisons last month). Any measure of inflation that works at a SKU level these days is skewed. Which is why the most important barometer of inflation is not the GPI, or the ONS, or Kantar or Nielsen, or all the other measures. It’s the results of the supermarkets themselves. And with the exception of upmarket retailers and downmarket discounters, they’re not making comfortable reading.