Since the pandemic, supermarkets’ standing in society has switched from hero to (almost) zero. At least regarding shopper faith in them, that is, with the Which? monthly consumer insight tracker giving grocery a tumbling ‘trust score’ of 30 this month.
The scale runs from minus 100 to 100, so 30 might not seem too bad. Although, it is now the lowest the metric has been since February 2013. That was in the wake of the Horsegate scandal, when equine DNA was discovered in frozen beef burgers and lasagne and the trust score cratered at 24 – so we’re not far off.
So, what’s causing the consumer trust bust? And does it really matter anyway?
Food inflation seems to be the chief factor. “Month after month of soaring food prices has seen trust in supermarkets plummet to a 10-year low – comparable to the dark days of the horsemeat scandal,” explained Katie Alpin, head of strategic insight at Which?.
According to the survey, the cost of an average weekly shop is on par with energy bills as the biggest worry for UK households.
Critical facts about supermarket performance being lost
The loss of trust comes from the idea that supermarkets are opting not to cushion consumers from the blow of rising costs. Less than half of shoppers said they trust the supermarket sector to act in their best interest, according to Which?.
And who could blame them? Supermarkets were in July cleared of profiteering during this cost of living crisis following a Competition & Markets Authority probe. But that came after months of accusations from politicians and pundits that they were deliberately keeping prices high to greedily boost margins and profits.
If the government’s strategy was to pull focus away from its mishandling of the economy and towards a new horror, it seems to have worked.
And those apparent new baddies – the supermarket executives who faced government committees investigating food and fuel prices – hardly helped themselves. Asda co-owner Mohsin Issa’s aversion to answering quite straightforward questions was likened by MPs to “drawing teeth”.
The fact operating profits in the grocery sector fell by 41.5% last year, while average operating margins narrowed from 3.2% to 1.8%, has been lost in the red mist.
“Critical facts like these are simply drowned out by populist grandstanding,” wrote former John Lewis COO Andrew Murphy on LinkedIn.
The fall in supermarket trust is to be watched
“Far too often our public discourse is dominated by the uninformed or self-interested,” Murphy added. “‘Greedflation’ – an entirely made-up narrative driven by politicians and media to serve their own ends – is a perfect example of this.”
Should the low trust score be a cause of concern? After the horsemeat scandal, sales of frozen burgers and ready meals took a significant but temporary hit. And the supermarkets worst hit by the revelations didn’t lose customers, Kantar data revealed. The scandal had next to no impact on market shares.
A similar non-effect is seen elsewhere. Facebook users’ confidence in the company’s commitment to privacy plunged 66% after the 2013 Cambridge Analytica scandal. But while usage fell slightly in the weeks immediately after, the number of total users rose. The same can be said of the Volkswagen emissions scandal in 2015. The German car manufacturer’s UK sales rose to a record high the following year.
Admittedly, those were far more specific and emotive scandals, with specific brands at the centre, rather than a general sense of being done over by a sector as a whole. People must buy their food somewhere. And supermarkets will always be the cheapest place to do so.
The fall in trust is to be watched but not worried about – at least for now.