Feel-good stories

Officials at housewares and pet product companies say their categories are looking up despite a weak economy and high gas prices.

Talk about optimism.

Maybe trade shows bring out the best in everyone. Or, at least, they get so many people in a good mood that they can only be optimistic about the immediate future of their respective categories and industries. Or could it simply be that spring is in the air and people just want to feel good again?

The annual Global Pet Show, held in early March in Orlando, and the International Home + Housewares Show, held in Chicago in mid-March, were two examples of rabid support for their respective industries among retailers and suppliers attending each event. This comes even in the face of a lingering recession, high unemployment and skyrocketing energy prices that could soon include $5 a gallon gasoline for much of the country.  Making this story more interesting is the fact that industry officials from both of these very important industries are targeting the grocery store for the bulk of increased sales during these difficult days. Even usually conservative grocery executives at the show seem to confirm that things look pretty good for their retail class.

Here are the stories.

At the Global Pet Show, industry experts were very confident that they can withstand any modest economic downturn or spike in energy prices. I experienced it firsthand while walking this annual event, with many suppliers in particular saying they are certain that the need to care for their pets with the proper pet foods and pet care items will easily overwhelm consumers’ fears of bad economic times or higher gas prices.

After all, as we have discussed so often in this space, consumers have long made it clear that their kids and their pets are off limits, no matter how bad it looks in the marketplace. Shoppers say they will even given up some necessities for themselves to make sure their pets’ needs are met. That is a special kind of loyalty.

Meanwhile at the Housewares Show, about a week later, the chatter was about the same. As consumers spend more time at home and less on the road, housewares suppliers say consumers will be eager to make improvements to their homes, if for nothing else than to make themselves feel better about their surroundings.

That trend, which has a proven track record during recent past recessions, bodes well for the less expensive end of the housewares industry. Sales of kitchen gadgets, for example, historically perform well during recessionary times. Lower-end appliances such as coffee makers and decorative items also manage to notch respectable performances during these times.

But executives from these two industries seem to understand that times are different. While most seem optimistic, many are quick to point out that consumer shopping patterns are changing as they look for more convenient (read: using less gas) and more affordable places to buy these products.

The supermarket stands head and shoulders above most retail formats as the winner in this game. With the possible and very large exceptions of Walmart and Target, the grocery store is best positioned to help consumers with convenience and affordability as they shop for their family needs. Suppliers are certain that consumers will turn to their local food store as a one-stop shopping center more often as things get rough.

Retailers, of course, must recognize this and do what they can to help consumers get through these tough days. Changing the assortment to include low-priced alternatives, whether store brands or not, can help give shoppers options that may allow them to make their purchases while still balancing their checkbooks.

This strategy applies way beyond housewares and pet products.Supermarket officials must take this approach across the board in their stores. Once they’ve done that, they have to start promoting this to their harried shoppers.

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