Food prices down? Fine, for now; But they’re market-driven, and winter’s coming

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Supermarkets across the U.S. continue reacting to deflationary market pressures by lowering prices on both commodities and packaged goods. Sometimes one chain or another – think of Walmart – doesn’t do reductions and price fluctuations as smoothly as they could, though.

Walmart, like a lot of major food retailers – it is, after all, America’s largest supermarket company – has been promoting store-wide ‘permanent’ roll-backs in prices for most or all of 2016. What they haven’t been talking about, with good reason, is the fact that the kinds and levels of price changes they institute will hardly negatively affect the company’s bottom line.

Example: Way earlier this year, a 20-oz. (567 g) loaf of their Great Value white bread could be had for $.88. Then, a couple of months later, the price was quietly upped to $.99. It’s since been upped again, to a bit more than one dollar.

(At one point in the late spring, the company seemed to have actually killed that bread brand, as shelves were devoid of it for a couple of weeks or more where I shop, in Central Virginia. But that could have been just another far-too-typical out-of-stock situation – a problem Walmart seemed to be struggling with a lot until recently, when they’ve actually brought back a few brands first appearing to be out-of-stock then totally disappearing.)

Example II: Generic large egg prices fell to an amazing $.88 a dozen in the early summer – in part due to an oversupply situation in the industry. That price held, at ‘my’ Walmart, for close to a month. Then, in an amazingly stupid more, the price was pushed up to $.99 behind promotional signs touting a ‘new low price’! Yep, they still were cheaper than the dollar-plus per dozen price at Food Lion, the only other chain retailer readily available to me. But how dumb do you think your customers are when you tout a higher price as a new ‘low’ one?

(Meanwhile, as consumer demand for ‘cage free’ eggs and chicken has grown, prices at that end of the hen fruit market have moved, and stayed, higher. But As this blog reported on Oct. 21, ‘Cage Free is Far From Trouble Free’, and this is an issue the chicken and egg industry is going to have to deal with.)

Rochester NY-based Wegmans announced a few days ago that it is cutting a bunch of prices across the store, with produce being among the most-positively-affected sections. Other supermarketers across the country have done the same or similar in recent months.

But consumers need to keep one thing in mind: In the 1980’s, a supermarket company named Grand Union – a venerable company with a colorful past – it was probably the first, and one of the few, supermarket operators to employ customer helpers who traversed a then-considered-huge 100,000 sq ft store in central New York state on roller skates – made a series of serious mistakes. One of them, the first or second in a sad series, was to declare that a round of price reductions it was introducing were ‘forever’. If you’re a believer, you may argue that God knows ‘forever’; whether you’re a believer or not, the smallest bit of common sense dictates that no supermarket company can afford to make promises like that.

Long story shortened: A year or so after one of its executives suffered what clearly appeared to be a ‘mob hit’ – his body was never found – this New Jersey-based company went bankrupt.

The ‘forever’ issue was only a symptom, as it turned out: The real cause of the company’s come-down/put-down was a succession of management companies’ desire to fatten their purses at the expense of the golden swan – the layer of the golden eggs.

As a shopper, you can count one thing, and only one thing, where supermarket prices are concerned: They are, and will continue to be, market-driven, both up and down.

While some of your best buys will always be found in your favorite store’s weekly flyer, the very best ones will always be found in your meat department, where items too close to a sell-buy date are marked down – sometimes way down.

But a word of caution: If you seek out that kind of savings, pay close attention to the ‘use or freeze by’ dates. While they are generally generous, in terms of absolute safety, don’t push your luck: Use, or freeze. (Or cook and freeze; The benefit is the roughly the same.)

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