There is now “quite a challenging setup for grocers,” Rupesh Parikh, analyst at Oppenheimer, said in a note to clients Thursday.
The sales downturn dovetails with the widespread arrival of various vaccines, which makes it possible for consumers to shift back to eating more meals at restaurants and outside of their homes.
Overall, grocery sales grew 11% last year but will drop 5% this year, UBS analyst Michael Lasser estimated in a January research report. That would be the first annual decline in 20 years, he noted.
Such a drop will force changes across the industry, analysts predict.
In particular, independent and smaller chains got a boost from Covid-19 shopping changes, but store closures may be on the horizon for them once that trend ends.
“Smaller, less differentiated retailers remain at a disadvantage compared to retailers with scale and greater buying power,” such as Walmart, Costco and Aldi, Lasser said. “They also have fewer resources to invest in their online offerings.”
Many grocers went on a hiring spree in 2020, staffing up to keep up demand. But companies will readjust their staffing levels as sales decline, said Michael Baker, analyst at D.A. Davidson. This may mean fewer hours for some workers and even layoffs at some stores. And companies may speed up their investments in automation to curb labor costs.
Consumers may find more items on sale in stores, however.
“You’ll see aggressive promotions,” said Burt Flickinger, managing director at retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group.
Promotions on products largely disappeared last year as many consumers were more focused on snapping up goods than finding the lowest price. Flickinger believes the promotions may be most notable among big consumer brands, which are working to fend off cheaper store brands.