With falling profits, rising inflation and bloated overhead costs, the world of retail and eCommerce is experiencing one of its biggest challenges since the 2008 global recession. Wall Street reported that of the 79 large retailers that shared their financials during the period of 1 April - 23 May, 59% of them reported a decrease in consensus revenue for 2022 and 71% estimated a decrease in earnings for 2023. During the same period, the S&P Retail Composite Index fell 24.1%. Either directly or indirectly, inflation affects everyone and everything that involves monetary exchanges, but two of the most impacted arenas are production and consumption.
How are retailers feeling the pinch? Are consumers taking on the costs of retail corporations’ slacking profits? How does inflation affect consumer behaviour? And, amongst the fog, is there an opportunity for retail to shine through these difficult times? We’re answering these questions as we look at the impact of inflation on production and overconsumption.
The domino effect of increasing inflation
The Belgian food retail company Colruyt Group, reported in September that their profits for the most recent financial year have experienced a significant decline due to rising inflation. However, in a move unique to most food retailers, the group’s CEO Jef Colruyt has promised that the decrease in profits as a result of high inflation will not be a burden passed onto consumers and that they will continue with their low-price strategy into the new financial year. To offset the financial cost, the group is considering selling a part of its wind energy company Parkwind.
Other food retailers are experiencing empty shelves as relationships with manufacturers and farmers have soured due to tense conversations over energy, employee and transport costs. For Colruyt alone, these rising costs could amount to approximately €200 million. Luckily for loyal Colruyt buyers, their relationships with manufacturers and farmers remain steady, and food shortages are not expected to be an issue.
On the apparel side of retail, Nike is expanding its relationship with online marketplaces like Zalando, however, not without a cost. Although sales rose by 4% in the last quarter, the increase in manufacturing costs caused a 20% drop in earnings per share. In addition, gross margins fell to 44.3% due to higher transport costs including freight and logistics. However, the new relationship with Zalando is expected to be a successful one for both brand and retailer, as more Europeans will be able to access premium Nike products through Zalando if they are a Nike club member.
Returns is already a €111 billion issue for e-commerce players - and that’s just over the festive season. Couple that with 2022’s inflation shock-to-the-system, it is no wonder brands and retailers are reaching for ways to curb overhead costs. In an eyebrow-raising moment for most consumers, global clothing brands Zara and Boohoo have begun charging for returns for their online shopping customers due to rising delivery costs. Zara is charging €1.95 per return, or, a return is free if they drop it off at a branch. It is also a tactic to increase footfall and to lure in impulse shopping. However, the commute to a Zara branch still requires time and money from the consumer and may be considered an inconvenience for shoppers who choose online shopping for the reason of convenience.
From production to consumption, how are retailers and brands reacting?
A 2022 report by Unicef concluded that if every person in the world consumed resources at the rate of people in the EU and the OECD (which includes the US, the UK, parts of South America, Australia, Turkey and many European countries), we would need 3.3 Earths to sustain the level of consumption. An even worse statistic showed that if everyone consumed the way people in Luxembourg, Canada and the US did, we would need 5 Earths. In the long run, operating a sustainable company - and a sustainable world - with eco-friendly supply chains, manufacturing and delivery processes will be the most effective solution to overconsumption. It is a mammoth task that requires a years-long commitment, but companies like Apple, Google, Patagonia, Beyond Meat, Who Gives A Crap and more have made major moves to be more sustainable, to promote lower consumption, and to reuse.
After piloting a secondhand items program, luxury fashion brand Balenciaga is planning to implement it full time after it showed much support from Balenciaga customers wanting to sell their secondhand purchases as well as potential shoppers keen to have a piece of the brand at a more affordable price. The brand, owned by Kering, says the move is part of their goal to become “a fully sustainable company” with a focus on consuming less, recycling and reusing. Balenciaga has selected Reflaunt, an online service that sells second hand luxury items to “embrace circularity” as their chosen resale platform. In August, Michael Kors also launched its resale side of the business, saying the goal is to extend the life of MK products and to reduce waste. The very existence of any luxury brand goes against the ideals of minimalism and anti-materialism. In fact, a luxury brand generally embodies the opposite: Flashiness, opulence, excess. It will be interesting to see how well these resale strategies work in terms of interest, sales and impact on overconsumption.
On the consumer end, can inflation cause a decrease in overconsumption? French economist Jean-Pierre Malrieu says that “in these times of overconsumption, inflation is a gift from heaven” and adds that high inflation tends to “restore balance” when it comes to materialism and over spending. Sharing in this trend are many US consumers who, as reported by the New York Times, are changing their consumption habits. Some families have stopped using a house cleaning service and have opted to clean their homes themselves. Others have stopped taking their pets to professional groomers. Holidays include camping at local spots instead of cross country trips. Audible and Kindle subscriptions are being cancelled and replaced by books, walking and board games. Others have grown a vegetable garden and have learnt to make treat meals like pizza so that they don’t have to spend money on takeout. Some are updating old clothes instead of throwing them out and replacing them.
How can retailers offset the impact of inflation without layoffs or passing the cost down to the consumer?
- Focusing on affordability. In retail, there are always ways to cut costs. Looking for suppliers that are less expensive or materials that are cheaper is a good starting point.
- Introduce exciting incentives. It’s been proven that team morale and productivity can be ignited when incentives are introduced. Whether it is bonuses, extra paid leave, or half days on Fridays, employees react well to incentives, with organisations using incentive programs achieving 27% higher profits and 50% higher customer loyalty levels.
- Implementing robotics and AI technology into supply chains. A study by Berkshire Grey found that processing time could decrease by 25% and processing costs by 35% if automation and robots are used in manufacturing and distribution.
- Take a granulated approach to price increases. Instead of applying widespread, top-to-bottom price increases to every product to offset inflation that will likely infuriate customers and erode loyalty, segment the products into categories that can withstand a price increase based on a customer’s eagerness to pay.
Only the robust survive
We have seen, with concrete data, how retailers who have a quick and confident response to high inflation not only survive but thrive in the years to follow, in comparison to those who stumble around wondering what to do. “The most resilient retailers were able to drive 11% annual growth in total return to shareholders”, McKinsey reports, between the years of the Great Recession of 2007 - 2009. This number was five times higher than their peers through to 2018.
It’s numbers like these that prove how much power a brand, retailer or marketplace may have in times when they think they are powerless. The current inflationary period is not expected to disappear any time soon, and it certainly won’t be the last time retail experiences increasing freight and logistics costs, high demand and fractured supply chains. As stressful and as slow-moving as it is to trudge through the mud of inflation, one could almost develop a copy-and-paste strategy to sail through these seas each time they come round again. It’s all about making bold, forward-thinking decisions to turn challenges into opportunities.
- Which countries have the highest overconsumption levels?
UNICEF concluded in a 2022 report that if every person in the world consumed resources at the rate of people in the EU and the OECD (which includes the US, the UK, parts of South America, Australia, Turkey and many European countries), we would need 3.3 Earths to sustain the level of consumption. An even worse statistic showed that if everyone consumed the way people in Luxembourg, Canada and the US did, we would need 5 Earths.
- Tips to save money at home
- Choose to clean your own home instead of a house cleaning service
- Skip taking their pets to professional groomers and bathe them at home.
- Vacation locally instead of cross country trips.
- Cancel streaming subscriptions or podcasts that aren’t being used.
- Grow a vegetable garden or learn to make your favourite meals so that you don't have to spend money on takeout.
- Tailor old clothes instead of replacing them.
An awarded strategic marketing and business professional who has assisted in leading businesses through developing and implementing strategic insights and campaigns across marketing, strategy, and business development for over 15 years across an international landscape in retail, SaaS and financial sectors.