Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How private labels are lulling us into higher prices

There has been quite a bit of press lately about the rise of private labels (house brands) in Australian supermarkets like Coles and Woolworths, and speculation about what this means for brand manufacturers.  An IBISWorld prediction cited in The Age has house brands growing from 23 to 30 per cent share of the $70 billion grocery market in the next five years, and companies like Heinz, De Bortoli and Goodman Fielder are publicly lamenting the dominance of house brands.  As most of us visit a supermarket every week, I thought it was worth examining private labels from a behavioural perspective to understand why we are shifting our consumption to house brands. 

How do private labels work from a behavioural perspective?
Private labels are behaviourally persuasive for a few reasons;

  • Rules of thumb - in order to deal with the level of stimulation and choices available to us, we operate on auto pilot a lot of the time, using rules of thumb to guide our decision making. Private labels simplify our shopping experience because they create one simple rule - "buy this brand because it is good value".
  • Self-herding - private label branding stretches across multiple product categories. The effect is that if I purchase and am satisfied with one category, I will be more prone to repeat my decision for that and extended categories rather than having to trial an alternative brand.  It's worth noting the risk for the private labels here - a poor experience of one category can poison all others. 
  • Relativity - to understand whether something is good value, we compare it with similar items.  Our tendency is to stay away from the extremities - too expensive or too cheap - and settle for something that is somewhere closer to the middle.  Amongst others Woolworths have "Woolworths Select" and "Homebrand" and Coles have "Coles" and "Smartbuy"house brands.  This enables them to use one of their brands as their loss leader, leave the supplier's brand as the most expensive and their second brand as the attractive option in the middle. 

How our behaviour is changing the supermarket industry
By influencing individuals, private labels are changing the market in a couple of ways;

  • Short-term bias - we are strongly swayed by the immediate rather than long term, and this has significant consequences for the supermarket industry and why brand suppliers are so worried.  We shoppers are buying for now - selecting items that meet our requirements in terms of utility and budget, and house brands are more than ever meeting this brief.  The risk with this behaviour is that through our actions, in this case buying house brands, we are slowly driving brand suppliers out of the market.  We are being lulled into a future of diminished choice, diminished competition and ultimately, higher prices.
  • Drop in the bucket effect - along with our short-term bias, it is hard for us to contemplate how our individual purchase decisions can impact the whole supermarket industry.  We think that our actions are simply drops in the bucket that cannot have a broader implication, and this plays right into the hands of the supermarkets who know that engaging an individual is their path to engaging the mass.  

Lessons for other businesses
The rise of private labels clearly shows that shopper behaviour can be changed and new habits formed.  House brands have gone from being a dirty little secret in your pantry to a sign of 'smart' buying.  For all businesses it means that there are opportunities for growth by understanding how to influence consumer behaviour, and what better rule book than the field of behavioural economics to change the game?  See you at the check out.

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