Sales of mass market products falling as new trends in consumption emerge..
For the first time in 10 years, says the newspaper Le Monde©, sales of mass-market consumer goods are currently falling, reversing a trend which had previously seen them rise by average annual rates of 3 to 4% over recent years.
Among the reasons for this fall, says Le Monde©, is a growing rejection of such products and consumption patterns by a certain part of the population.
Major manufacturers and retailers may not yet be in a state of panic, writes Stéphane Lauer, but there is a certain amount of uneasiness.
According to figures produced by the retail audit company IRI-France, sales through super- and hypermarkets have fallen by between 0.8% and 1% since the beginning of the year. “There's clearly been a reverse”, says Jean-Pierre Gaucher, assistant managing director of the company.
On the one hand, Le Monde© says, strong increases in the price of leading brands may have had its effect. But that, in itself, seems insufficient to explain what is going on, given the extent of the decreases observed. The big, “industrial” camembert brands, for example, have seen sales fall by 40% over the past 3 years. Sales of pre-prepared meals have fallen by 6% since 2000. Some brands of toothpaste, the newspaper says, are plumbing new depths in terms of sales returns. The lower the figures, the greater the concern among market leaders and more frequent and plausible the explanatory comments of market observers and analysts.
“Consumers are expressing their disappointment in these big brands, which have failed to fulfil their promise of 'democratising' consumption”, says psycho-sociologist Danielle Rapoport. “These companies have gone all out for innovation but consumers don't perceive the result as a real benefit. So the effect has become the opposite of what was intended – brands have become less desirable.”
As a result, consumer 'rebellion' is becoming more and more evident, Le Monde© says. “In meetings, we have been seeing new topics raised since 2002 which have really taken off”, says Eric Foulquier, head of the research firm Théma. “For example, people are rejecting useless packaging, asking questions about novelty for novelty's sake, about the ethics of companies.” Foulquier describes this new behaviour as 'alter-consumption'.
This new way of consuming is highlighted further in a study conducted by Universal Comcord, part of the McCann group. By analysing a number of criteria as evidenced among a sample of 10,000 Frenchmen and women, representative of the population, the study's authors conclude that as many as 15% to 25% of them could be termed as 'alter-consumers'. That's a significant number, especially given that fact that such consumers tend to come from the upper socio-professional levels of society, with significant purchasing power.
“Contrary to what many people think, 'alters' are not the kind of people who just give up consuming. In fact, they are above-average consumers of around 250 products covered by the study”, adds Eric Fouquier. “This trend should not be interpreted as a rejection of consumption per se”, agrees Danielle Rapoport. “Not consuming equates to marginalising yourself and possibly being excluded from society.”
What we are seeing, Le Monde© says, has more to do with differentiation. People are seeking to detach themselves from mass-market ways of thinking, by creating their own universe which allows them to escape a world that appears too pre-packaged. “Given the amount of products on offer and the extremely sophisticated way in which they are presented, some consumers want to reclaim control by selecting products according to their own criteria. This leads to the act of consumption itself becoming even more complex”, says Danielle Rapoport.
These 'alter-consumers', it seems, are not rebelling against society. They don't want to pull the whole system down, they simply want to make it more acceptable to them. Their aspiration lies in not being seen as simple consumers, but as individuals. This leads to their making purchase decisions driven by certain ethical and environmental considerations, for example. Similarly, it leads to them placing a greater distance between themselves, brands and advertising.
They are therefore a clearly different beast from the 'hyper consumer', Le Monde© says, who tends to be permanently driven by an impulsion to buy and a systematic search for novelty. For these, brands are indispensable as they allow them to construct an identity. “The problem right now”, says Eric Fouquier, “is that advertising supposes that hyper-consumers are the ideal consumers. In truth, they account for no more than 11% of the population.”
The challenge for brands and retailers lies in adapting their approach to better take into account the demands of these 'alters'. “The one-size-fits-all approach of globalisation frightens these consumers. Increasingly, as a result, they seek reassurance by looking back to their roots”, says Olivier Geradon de Vera, an expert on consumer patterns and vice-president of IRI-France. This translates into a desire for products which promise more in terms of taste, pleasure and authenticity – the exact opposite of what global brands can offer. Consumers want to be able to identify with products whose notional value is greater than their intrinsic value. If major brands and hypermarkets can't offer them this, the consequence is immediate: if it means buying something which does not exactly meet their needs, they will seek to do so at the lowest price possible, which helps to explain the growth in France of 'hard' discounters.
Adapting to this new behaviour is not going to be straightforward for major brands and retailers. “The movement brings into question the very foundations of the current business model which, as a result of centralisation, no longer has the necessary flexibility to allow it to adapt”, Olivier Geradon de Vera believes. “We are reaching the limits of globalisation. At the same time, we are seeing the myth of the global brand crumble away. If the system is catching a cold at the moment, it's because levels of creativity in the introduction of new products have never been lower.” Meaning, Le Monde© concludes, that ther recipe for bringing these 'alter consumers' back within the fold has yet to be written.
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