Comment: Price remains centre stage as grocers gather to discuss future
"Breakthroughs" was the title of this year's IGD Convention, the annual gathering of the UK grocery trade, a fitting recognition that in the face of wilting consumer confidence and increasingly paralysed governments, it was up to the trade to drag its own backside out of the current economic gloom.
"We used to think growth was the norm," said IGD boss Joanne Denney-Finch, in her opening address. "From the mid-nineties to the mid-noughties, consumption in Europe grew by almost 4% per year. But since the credit crunch, sales volume for our sector is down by 2%. People are calling this the Great Correction and no-one knows how long it'll last. So the economy won't help us. If we want to recapture growth we'll have to be bold, decisive and truly exceptional. We need real breakthroughs."
In a week where the newspapers were filled with gloomy forecasts and damning statistics on current economic activity - the cost of living in the UK has now hit a 20-year high - delegates were fed further bad news.
IGD figures showed that 40% of consumers now say they're more likely to stick to a set budget over the next six months and over half say they look out for the price of every item they buy. Even the digital sector, often held up as the future, took a dent with Denny-Finch saying almost half of all shoppers who've tried buying groceries online are now lapsed.
Her rallying cry, however, was that this Great Correction should also be a golden age of innovation.
Smart phone technology; food technology; nano-technology are but some of the possibilities the industry can harness.
Few can doubt UK retail's ability to think creatively and deliver real innovation to consumers - just look at Tesco's virtual food wall in Korea. But the boundaries that mark the space within which these businesses can operate are more squeezed than ever.
Price is no longer a competitive advantage in the UK grocery sector, Sainsbury's commercial director Mike Coupe told just-food on the sidelines of the event.
But, as a long line of impressive speakers from the country's top retailers took to the stage, what became apparent was that the conversation never strayed far from who could deliver a basket for less.
Coupe claimed that price competition remained fierce, but that the transparency of price available now makes it very difficult to gain a competitive advantage.
"That doesn't stop us trying to do it which you can see in the last couple of weeks; everybody is making a stand on price. But if you actually look at it, it does very little to move customers around. The values that underpin the business, in my view, will become the differentiators," he said.
It's a bold sentiment, to try and move the current debate away from price. The trouble is that when all is said and done, it is imperative retailers engage consumers on what matters to them most: and, few shoppers are looking further than their wallets at present.
Peter Marks, chief executive of UK retailer The Co-operative Group, was asked on stage whether he felt the government was doing enough to pull the economy back from the precipice. His answer was that the Coalition was running out of levers to pull. As the economy continues to worsen, the same could be said for how retailers can truly engage their customers.
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