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After months of gains, consumer sentiment fell to start the month of March.
According to the University of Michigan’s preliminary data for March, sentiment fell for the first time in four months. Currently, it is 5% below February, but is 7% higher than the same month of 2022.
Driving the declines were lower sentiment among lower-income, less-educated, and younger consumers, as well as some of the highest stockholders.
Higher prices resulting from stubborn inflation continue to be a big drag on sentiment across all categories. While the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other financial institutions figures to play a role, most of the interviews for UM’s data collection were completed prior to the SVB turmoil.
(Source: University of Michigan)
Looking ahead, consumers do see improvement on the horizon for prices. Year-ahead inflation expectations fell from 4.1% in February to 3.8% in March. That’s the lowest reading since April 2021. Long-run expectations also fell to 2.8%, which was below the range of 2.9%-3.1% for only the second time in 201 months.
The takeaway: While these readings are still well above pre-pandemic levis, they will likely be welcome news among economists at the Federal Reserve as a signal that inflation is not becoming implanted in the consumer psyche. But with the introduction of a banking crisis and inflation remaining stubborn, the Fed’s path is not clear, and that will extend to consumers.
“With ongoing turbulence in the financial sector and uncertainty over the Fed’s possible policy response, inflation expectations are likely to be volatile in the months ahead,” wrote UM Survey of Consumers Director Joanne Hsu.
Trending in Economy
Campbell Soup Company CEO Mark Clouse offered thoughts on messaging amid inflationary shifts in consumer behavior.
After months of elevated inflation and interest rate hikes that have the potential to cool demand, consumers are showing more signs of shifting behavior.
It’s showing up in retail sales data, but there’s also evidence in the observations of the brands responsible for grocery store staples.
The latest example came this week from Campbell Soup Company. CEO Mark Clouse told analysts that the consumer continues to be “resilient” despite continued price increases on food, but found that “consumers are beginning to feel that pressure” as time goes on.
This shows up in the categories they are buying. Overall, Clouse said Campbell sees a shift toward shelf-stable items, and away from more expensive prepared foods.
There is also change in when they make purchases. People are buying more at the beginning of the month. That’s because they are stretching paychecks as long as possible.
These shifts change how the company is communicating with consumers.
Clouse said the changes in behavior are an opportunity to “focus on value within our messaging without necessarily having to chase pricing all the way down.”
“No question that it's important that we protect affordability and that we make that relevant in the categories that we're in," Clouse said. "But I also think there's a lot of ways to frame value in different ways, right?”
A meal cooked with condensed soup may be cheaper than picking up a frozen item or ordering out. Consumers just need a reminder. Even within Campbell’s own portfolio, the company can elevate brands that have more value now, even if they may not always get the limelight.
The open question is whether the shift in behavior will begin to show up in the results of the companies that have raised prices. Campbell’s overall net sales grew 5% for the quarter ended April 30, while gross profit margins held steady around 30%. But the category-level results were more uneven. U.S. soup sales declined 11%, though the company said that was owed to comparisons with the quarter when supply chains reopened a year ago and expressed confidence that the category is seeing a longer-term resurgence as more people cook at home following the pandemic. Snacks, which includes Goldfish and Pepperidge Farm, were up 12% And while net sales increased overall, the amount of products people are buying is declining. Volumes were down 7%.
These are trends happening across the grocery store. Campbell is continuing to compete. It is leading with iconic brands, and a host of different ways to consume them. It is following that up with innovation that makes the products stand out. Then, it is driving home messaging that shows consumers how to fit the products into their lives, and even their tightening spending plans.
Campbell Soup is more than 150 years old, and has seen plenty of difficult economic environments. It is also a different business today, and will continue to evolve. At the end of the day, continued execution is what’s required.
“If it's good food, people are going to buy it, especially if it's a great value,” Clouse said.