tesco tills

Voters visit the polls on 7 May expressing their political views and preferences for the first time in five years. The result will provide a an indication of how people’s confidence has shifted since 2010 when this country was just beginning to emerge from one of its deepest-ever recessions. 

In the intervening period, a British shopper will have expressed his or her views at the tills 1,280 times. Grocery shopping accounts for 11.4% of an average household’s total spend, which makes the sector a compelling barometer of the mood of the nation. 

There are a number of parallels between the election and the grocery market. Since 2010 the British grocery market has polarised significantly. The big four now have their lowest combined share of the market for a decade, admittedly still high at 72.8%, while the majority of the growth has come from the fringes. Waitrose at the premium end has grown sales by 31% over the past five years while Aldi and Lidl have increased their combined market share from 4.9% to 9.0% - equivalent to a £4.5bn rise in revenue. This resonates with politics with a much greater shift this time away from the major parties towards the outliers such as UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. 

“At the fringes of grocery messaging has been simple and unequivocal”

The reason for this polarisation can be found in the way the UK economy has recovered in recent years. While wages and job opportunities have improved for some, many are still financially pressed. This economic disparity is reflected in the shopping basket. Consumers who don’t intend to vote on 7 May, arguably because of dissatisfaction with what’s on offer, spend £1,000 less on their groceries each year than Conservative voters. Dining out at restaurants has returned to growth, but this is a trend fuelled mainly by the more affluent and the South. At the other end of the market, people’s spending is still under pressure, and the amount of own-label grocery produce sold has risen over the past five years to nearly half of all grocery spend. A major reason for Aldi and Lidl’s recent success is that shoppers have switched to help make stretched budgets go further. The impact of austerity on Britain’s households should not be underestimated by politicians, retailers or brand owners. 

The lesson for political parties and grocery retailers alike is clear: stand for something. Success over the past five years has come at the fringes of politics and grocery retail where messaging has been simple and unequivocal. The discounters campaign on a platform of value, Waitrose on premium produce, the SNP all things Scottish, and UKIP on ‘Brexit’. 

Labour and the Conservatives have set out their manifestos in an attempt to focus voters’ minds on key issues they can back - the NHS, education and the economy. Similarly, Britain’s supermarkets must declare theirs. Will they be the grocer of low prices, of quality products, or of an enhanced in-store experience? 

Changes are already afoot at many supermarkets. It remains to be seen if the middle ground can rediscover its past success. In grocery we don’t need to wait five years to find out. People vote with their feet every single day. 

Giles Quick is a director at Kantar Worldpanel