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Abc the Just-in-Time Consumer

In: English and Literature

Submitted By longteo
Words 2120
Pages 9
NOVEMBER 23, 2010
The Just-in-Time Consumer
Julia Robinson for The Wall Street Journal
Rebecca Seabern in her destocked pantry. She is using groceries that she already has before buying more. Executives peddling wares from canned goods to cashmere say the shift in consumption habits is prompting them to change how they produce, package, price and deliver their goods.
When the economy sank two years ago, Rebecca Seabern realized she could shrink her grocery bill just by eating into her crammed kitchen pantry.
"I had eight boxes of lasagna in there and a year's worth of paper towels," says Ms. Seabern, a 31-year-old accountant and married mother of two in San Antonio. Today, Ms. Seabern still has her job, but her antipathy to hoarding hasn't changed. "I've stopped purchasing things just to have them on hand," she says, preferring to make bigger mortgage payments instead.
The Great Depression replaced a spendthrift culture with a generation of frugal savers. The recent recession, too, has left in its wake a deeply changed shopper: the just-in-time consumer.
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For over two decades, Americans bought big, bought more and stocked up, confident that bulk shopping, often on credit, provided the best value for their money. But the long recession—with its high unemployment, plummeting home values and depleted savings accounts—altered the way many people think about the future. Manufacturers and retailers report that people are buying less, more frequently, and are determined to keep cash on hand.
"Consumers are saying, 'I'm going to buy what I need for a specific period of time,' rather than loading up and buying two or three extra units just because they can get a good price on it," says Richard Wolford, CEO of Del Monte Foods Co. He calls the phenomenon "need it now."
Executives peddling wares from canned goods to cashmere say the shift in consumption habits is prompting them to change how they produce, package, price and deliver their goods.
Food and household-product manufacturers, including Del Monte and Kimberly-Clark Corp., are rolling out smaller package sizes for consumers who would rather buy a week's worth of toilet paper or dog food than stock up for a month.
Grocers are trying to accommodate smaller but more frequent shopping trips. Supervalu Inc. is changing displays more often. BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. is going after a new clientele of families and individuals by selling eggs and margarine in smaller lots.
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Apparel makers and retailers such as Elie Tahari and are changing their production and selling schedules for shoppers who increasingly want to buy their clothes in season rather than ahead of time.
The new buying behavior is expected to be on full display this holiday season, which kicks into high gear the day after Thanksgiving, known as "Black Friday."
Shoppers are further behind in holiday shopping compared with previous years, with just 15.7% of their holiday shopping completed as of the week ended Nov. 14, compared with 20.5% completed during the same period last year and 28.3% in 2008, according to trade group International Council of Shopping Centers.
"There's going to be a pause before purchase: Consumers will ask themselves, 'Do I really need this, can I really afford this?'" says Thom Blischok, president of global innovation and strategy for SymphonyIRI Group, a market research firm. He expects a U-shaped purchase cycle, with big sales at the start and the end of this holiday season. "If I shop on Black Friday, I'll get a helluva deal, and if I wait a couple of weeks, I'm going to get another helluva deal."

So far, the impact of just-in-time buying on the corporate bottom line is mixed. Smaller unit sizes, for example, generally mean higher prices—and therefore higher profit margins for manufacturers.
Still, the phenomenon is so new it hasn't shown up broadly in earnings. A Kimberly-Clark spokeswoman notes that potentially higher profits on smaller packages can be offset by higher manufacturing costs.
And companies are still reeling from lower sales volumes that began in 2008 with what some dub "pantry deloading." Over the past two years, the number of items kept in American pantries has fallen about 20%, according to a recent SymphonyIRI survey. Consumers are also cutting back on the range of goods they stock.The average household had 369 unique items in its medicine cabinets, pantries and cosmetics bags this year, compared with 404 in 2006, the survey found.
Procter & Gamble Co. has been tracking consumers' pantries since mid-2008, believing them to be a reliable gauge of how the recession has changed shoppers' behavior. About one-third of consumers are changing their pantry levels, P&G's research indicates, with about 75% of those cutting back on inventory.
P&G expects consumers' leaner, pickier shopping habits to last. "There's almost a confidence and pride in the ability to make tailored choices for themselves," says Joan Lewis, P&G's global consumer and market knowledge officer.

The new shopping behavior is having a big effect on club stores, the ultimate pantry-filling destinations, which offer low prices but require bulk purchases. Some, including Costco Wholesale Corp. and BJ's, have reported increased shopping-trip frequency and decreased transaction sizes. To adjust, some discounters are rethinking their businesses.
BJ's, based in Natick, Mass., began courting new customers two years ago to expand its membership, including smaller households and empty-nesters. It began shrinking its package sizes, in part to lure shoppers more interested in weekly purchases than monthly stock-ups. Now, the chain of 191 stores sells cartons of 18 eggs, instead of only five-dozen egg packages. It offers two containers of margarine of nearly two pounds each instead of only five-pound buckets.
The margarine change alone resulted in 46% more members who bought margarine, the company says. BJ's credits the shift to smaller package sizes with driving an increase in membership fees of 6% in the quarter ended Oct. 30.
"This concept that club stores are only for the stock-up visit—I don't think that's true anymore," says Bruce Graham, BJ's senior vice president of food.
* Needing Black Friday More Than Most
BJ's is trying to make its stores more attractive and change promoted items to encourage more frequent visits. For example, it is including more seasonal products into its wall of featured items at the entrance of the store, including pumpkins, fresh flowers and amaryllis bulbs.
The changes at retail are often prompted by manufacturers. This summer, Del Monte began reducing the number of canned fruits and vegetables in multi-packs sold at club stores—and advising other retailers to reduce the number of cans required to qualify for a discount. The company realized consumers were more worried about overall cost, even if it meant a higher cost per can.
"There is a much lower incidence of pantry stock-up shopping trips and a much increased incidence of quick trips," says Del Monte's Mr. Wolford. Del Monte won't comment on whether smaller package sizes have boosted its bottom line. Analysts say profit margins could rise slightly over time. But the bigger advantage may be capturing a sale from an otherwise-wary consumer.
With the smaller package size, "you don't lose sales and you stem the profit erosion," says Bill Chappell, an analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. "But you don't necessarily recoup" the lost sales and profits.
Just-in-time consumption is also disrupting long-established purchase cycles, including the annual back-to-school shopping ritual. Normally, demand for school supplies begins in early July and runs through mid-August. But this year, the prime season shifted to late July through September, says Mark Ketchum, chief executive of Newell Rubbermaid Inc. He says the company's Paper Mate and Uni-ball pens and Sharpie markers sold well, albeit three to four weeks later than normal.
Delayed purchases affected the entire pen market. "The total market waited until later in the year and seemed to shift behind a shopper desire not to make a mistake," Mr. Ketchum says. He adds that the premium-pen category, thanks to new-product introductions, grew in sales at the expense of the low-end market.
As a result of delayed buying, Newell overhauled its manufacturing process and simplified its product portfolio. This will enable it to better handle last-minute surges in demand for popular Christmas gifts like its Irwin pliers and Calphalon cookware. "It's better for our inventory situation and our manufacturing to be able to produce and ship in a more even pattern, rather than all at once," Mr. Ketchum says.
Shoppers of high-end discretionary products are shifting to just-in-time buying as well.
Kathi Toll, a 49-year-old business consultant in Chicago, used to enjoy browsing beauty counters and indulging in new products as a pick-me-up. Last year she decided to use up what she already had—piles of La Mer, Clinique and Estée Lauder products—as a way to save cash while she pursues an advanced degree. "I have boatloads of this stuff, and it's time I used it up," she says.
Beauty brands are taking note. Before the economic downturn, loyal users of luxury skin-care line La Prairie used to buy multiple bottles of skin creams at a time, even though the products can top $500 apiece. But two years ago, "they started waiting until their jar was empty before they bought another, about every 90 to 120 days," says Lynne Florio, president at La Prairie, owned by Beiersdorf AG.
Noting that some consumers seemed to want to buy even less at a time, last year La Prairie began selling half-sizes of moisturizers, eye creams and serums. The smaller sizes, which cost about 20% less than full-size counterparts and are only sold for limited periods each year, help draw new and longtime users to the line when they're not ready to invest $1,000 or more on the complete regimen.
"Did we lose customers during the economic crisis? No," says Ms. Florio. "They're just coming more often and buying a little less replenishment at a time." La Prairie's business year-to-date is up compared with 2009, and the company says it expects to see a gain next year.
Shoppers have long groused that the clothing and shoes in stores are often out of step with the weather outside. Now, they're protesting with their wallets. "It was around April of this year when we really started to realize that consumers are willing to spend cautiously on things they need to have, but only when they need it," says Mike Berry, director of industry research for MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse, a unit of MasterCard Inc.
From 2003 to 2008, women's apparel sales tended to peak in September, Mr. Berry notes. "When the economy is sailing high...people buy new fashions as soon as they're on the shelf, rather than buying a sweater to stay warm," Mr. Berry says.
But this fall, that habit changed. In September, when new fall fashions hit stores, sales of women's apparel fell 0.2% compared with the year before, while footwear was up just 0.7% according to MasterCard. By October, when cooler weather hit, apparel and footwear sales rose 5.3% and 5.9%, respectively. Markdowns didn't play a role in the uptick, Mr. Berry says.
To better accommodate women who want to buy now, wear now, Net-a-Porter has changed tack: It stopped heavily discounting seasonal items like boots and coats a few months after they shipped—as many other retailers do—to make sure it has goods in stock to match the weather. "There's the challenge that other retailers are marking those items down, but it's a risk we're willing to take," says Holli Rogers, Net-a-Porter's buying director.
To maintain a steady supply of new fashions throughout each season, Net-a-Porter has been inking deals with designers for exclusive collections with later delivery dates. This summer, British label Issa will offer a line of bright, summery lace dresses on Net-a-Porter in April or May, instead of the typical delivery in February. "You want to make these purchases when you need it, not way in advance," Ms. Rogers says.
Write to Ellen Byron at

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