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Consumers are pushing back against higher prices

Changes in shopping habits have helped to ease inflation

By Christopher Rugaber, Associated Press
Published: February 25, 2024, 4:31pm
3 Photos
Stuart Dryden reaches for an item at a grocery store on Wednesday in Arlington, Va.
Stuart Dryden reaches for an item at a grocery store on Wednesday in Arlington, Va. (Chris Rugaber/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

WASHINGTON — Inflation has changed the way many Americans shop. Now, those changes in consumer habits are helping bring down inflation.

Fed up with prices that remain about 19 percent, on average, above where they were before the pandemic, consumers are fighting back. In grocery stores, they’re shifting away from name brands to store-brand items, switching to discount stores, or simply buying fewer items like snacks or gourmet foods.

More Americans are buying used cars, too, rather than new, forcing some dealers to provide discounts on new cars again. But the growing consumer pushback to what critics condemn as price-gouging has been most evident with food as well as with consumer goods like paper towels and napkins.

In recent months, consumer resistance has led large food companies to respond by sharply slowing their price increases from the peaks of the past three years. This doesn’t mean grocery prices will fall back to their levels of a few years ago, though with some items — including eggs, apples and milk — prices are below their peaks. But the milder increases in food prices should help further cool overall inflation, which is down sharply from a peak of 9.1 percent in 2022 to 3.1 percent.

Public frustration with prices has become a central issue in President Joe Biden’s bid for re-election. Polls show that despite the dramatic decline in inflation, many consumers are unhappy that prices remain so much higher than they were before inflation began accelerating in 2021.

Biden has echoed the criticism of many left-leaning economists that corporations jacked up their prices more than was needed to cover their own higher costs, allowing themselves to boost their profits. The White House has also attacked “shrinkflation,” whereby a company, rather than raising the price of a product, instead shrinks the amount inside the package. In a video released on Super Bowl Sunday, Biden denounced shrinkflation as a “rip-off.”

Consumer pushback against high prices suggests to many economists that inflation should further ease. That would make this bout of inflation markedly different from the debilitating price spikes of the 1970s and early 1980s, which took longer to defeat. When high inflation persists, consumers often develop an inflationary psychology: Ever-rising prices lead them to accelerate their purchases before costs rise further, a trend that can itself perpetuate inflation.

“That was the fear — that everybody would tolerate higher prices,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY, a consulting firm, who notes that it hasn’t happened.

Instead, this time many consumers have reacted like Stuart Dryden, a commercial underwriter at a bank who lives in Arlington, Va. On a recent trip to his regular grocery store, Dryden, 37, pointed out big price disparities between Kraft Heinz-branded products and their store-label competitors, which he now favors.

Dryden, for example, loves cream cheese and bagels. A 12-ounce tub of Kraft’s Philadelphia cream cheese costs $6.69. The store brand, he noted, is just $3.19.

A 24-pack of Kraft single cheese slices is $7.69; the store-label equivalent is $2.99. And a 32-ounce bottle of Heinz ketchup is $6.29, while the alternative is just $1.69. Similar gaps existed with mac-and-cheese and shredded-cheese products.

“Just those five products together already cost nearly $30,” Dryden said. The alternatives were about $13, he calculated.

“I’ve been trying private-label options, and the quality is the same, and it’s almost a no-brainer to switch from the products I used to buy a ton of to just the private label,” Dryden said.

Alex Abraham, a spokesman for Kraft Heinz, said that its costs rose 3 percent in the final three months of last year but that the company raised its own prices only 1 percent.

“We are doing everything possible to find efficiencies in our factories and other parts of our business to offset and mitigate further price increases,” Abraham said.

Last week, Kraft Heinz said sales fell in the final three months of last year as more consumers traded down to cheaper brands.

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Dryden has taken other steps to save money: A year ago, he moved into a new apartment after his previous landlord jacked up his rent by about 50 percent. His former apartment had been next to a relatively pricey grocery store, Whole Foods. Now, he shops at a nearby Amazon Fresh and has started visiting the discount grocer Aldi every couple of weeks.

Samuel Rines, an investment strategist at Corbu, says PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble, and many other consumer food and packaged goods companies exploited the rise in input costs stemming from supply chain disruptions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to dramatically raise their prices — and increase their profits — in 2021 and 2022.

A contributing factor was that millions of Americans enjoyed solid wage gains and received stimulus checks and other government aid, making it easier for them to pay the higher prices.

Still, some decried the phenomenon as “greedflation.” In a March 2023 research paper, economist Isabella Weber at the University of Massachusetts Amherst referred to it as “seller’s inflation.”

Yet beginning late last year, many of the same companies discovered that the strategy was no longer working. Most consumers have now long since spent the savings they built up during the pandemic.

Lower-income consumers, in particular, are running up credit card debt and falling behind on their payments. Americans overall are spending more cautiously. Daco notes that overall sales during the holiday shopping season were up just 4 percent — and most of it reflected higher prices rather than consumers buying more things.

As an example, Rines points to Unilever, which makes, among other items, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soaps. Unilever jacked up its prices 13.3 percent on average across its brands in 2022. Its sales volume fell 3.6 percent that year. In response, it raised prices just 2.8 percent last year; sales rose 1.8 percent.

“We’re beginning to see the consumer no longer willing to take the higher pricing,” Rines said. “So companies were beginning to get a little bit more skeptical of their ability to just have price be the driver of their revenues. They had to have those volumes come back, and the consumer wasn’t reacting in a way that they were pleased with.”

Unilever itself recently attributed poor sales performance in Europe to “share losses to private labels.”

Other businesses have noticed, too. After their sales fell in the final three months of last year, PepsiCo executives signaled that this year they would rein in price increases and focus more on boosting sales.

“In 2024, we see … normalization of the cost, normalization of inflation,” CEO Ramon Laguarta said. “So we see everything trending back to our long-term” pricing trends.

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