Future Trouble for the Branded Foods Industry

Kraft Foods, Hershey Company, Kellogg and Campbell Soup Company reported higher profits recently. The key driver of these profit improvements was higher prices. For example, Kraft Foods’ profit in the first quarter of 2009 grew 10%, while its organic revenue grew 2.3%. Investors cheered because they had feared broad-based price rollbacks in the face of a tough economy.

One analyst noted that the market share improvement for private label products has gone down sequentially. Why don’t we put that analyst’s explanation in different words? How about “private label brands continue to gain share” or, even more accurately, “branded food companies lose more market share to private labels.” These are more realistic assessments of what is happening in the food business. Private labels are gaining share (see the Symptom and Implication, “Large competitors are maintaining price levels as smaller competitors discount” on StrategyStreet.com), plain and simple. Private labels are gaining share under the price umbrella set by the branded food companies.

The branded food companies are subsidizing the growth and long-term health of the private label suppliers. These private label suppliers are not going to be satisfied with market share gained on the backs of their current products. They will improve their products in quality and distribution. These improvements will cause more consumers to find these private label products a good alternative to the branded products.

To illustrate the point, Safeway recently announced that it was expanding its private label brands O Organics and Eating Right, to other supermarket chains in the U.S. and elsewhere. If branded food companies’ pricing would be more aggressive in this market place, Safeway would not be able to expand its private label business. Other private label suppliers would also see thin margins and turn to self-defeating cost reductions in order to keep their profits at an acceptable level.

In the last year, industry-wide private label grocery sales grew by 9%. At the same time, national brands rose less than 2%. Private label products now make up nearly 17% of grocery sales. They will get better as they get bigger. (See the Perspective, “Is Your Industry Ripe for Hostility” on StrategyStreet.com.)

Posted 5/18/09