In a delicate balance, consumers are buying less, but not foregoing quality, says Dr Clive Black

The consumer recession in the UK is a deep one. That food volumes have been down in six of the last seven months is something that is pretty much unprecedented in recent decades, never mind years.

When households cut the number of food units they are buying Sainsbury's says its shoppers have been buying one fewer item per basket, in a basket of relatively low-priced items that is a clear sign of shopper distress. More to the point, whilst we think things may not deteriorate too much from the present position, we are in for a slog there is little hope of an immediate and material upturn.

Unlike previous consumer recessions, this one is not characterised by much evidence of trading down. As such, it differs from, say, the 1990s, when the more seasoned of you may recall the 3p can of baked beans, or the sub-20p loaf, or the emergence of value lines.

Instead, this recession is characterised by consumers reducing the volume rather than the quality of items in their baskets. This reflects an important change in the nature of the shopper.

It could certainly be argued that some in the retail trade particularly higher-category players like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose have benefited from consumers trading down from eating out to eating in, but still aspiring to higher-category food. Behaviour of this kind has spawned 'dine in' deals from the trade.

Correspondingly, the drive to cut car use combined with the widespread lack of willingness to trade down has meant that Asda the superstore with the best price value credentials, but possibly weaker quality scores than competitors has under-performed in what, on paper, may appear relatively favourable economic conditions.

This neutral outcome in terms of basket value mix has also been supported by the huge promotional participation (Nielsen suggests about 40%) in which proprietary-branded players, in particular, are investing. For good reason if consumers only bought cheap items, it would be calamitous for most of the trade.

We expect basket value mix to remain neutral for this year and still harbour hopes that, with inflation levelling off (and early northern hemisphere harvest reports give some grounds to believe that upward price pressure may ease), the retail industry can at least see the tunnel if not, yet, the light at the end of it.

Dr Clive Black is head of research at Shore Capital Stockbrokers