Evidence is showing that across the board, niche markets are appearing to do well in the slump. Bespoke tailoring, super-expensive Hermes bags, large yachts and Fair Trade chocolate are just some examples.

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While niches are often occupied by smaller businesses with a lot of time, experience and sweat invested in promoting and supporting that niche, it isn’t taking long for the bigger suppliers to realise that in this slump, carving up their market segments into smaller pieces and hypothecating their marketing at these, is one strategy for beating the recession into submission.

A great article by Damian Joseph in Business Week argues that “supermarkets may not be able to pull shoppers away from the competition by putting 2-liter sodas on sale, but convenience, green products, or a ready-to-eat meal just might do the trick……Differentiation works for the retailer who can truly master it.” Supermarkets may be able to capitalise on several trends – for example offering the high quality ready meal for those who want to ‘trade down’ and avoid the cost of eating out, whilst also offering greater variety in their ‘own brand’ budget lines for basic goods. Waitrose is a good example of offering its customers a new lower-price range of ‘essentials’ to prevent customers defecting to competitors and Sainsbury’s profit growth for the first quarter of 2009 has been attributed to the expansion of its budget line.

Within commodified goods supply chains, those goods with sustainable development (SD) criteria are often occupying niches – for example, ecotourism in SE Asia, Fairtrade flowers, green beans from Kenya, BEE wine from South Africa.

 Does a renewed focus on these niches by the bigger businesses spell boom or disaster for these SD poster-goods?

 Will profit motives crowd out good SD intentions within these supply chains by increasing competition and price pressures between retailers and ultimately reducing the price premium for producers?

 Or will good intentions that also turn a profit open these businesses eyes to the potential for business-led SD throughout their businesses?

For the niche product champions, it is clearly time to raise their game, look the Board in the eye and spell out the concessions that they are not willing to make. For the Board, they need to realise that profit isn’t everything [honest].

Indeed, the fugacious consumer is a persistent worry for retailers aiming to imbue brand loyalty “Grocery stores lose or gain about 10% of their customer base each year,” says Neil Stern, a senior partner at Chicago-based retail consultancy McMillan Doolittle. “So the question is: Can you grab your share of new customers?”

And it isn’t just the recession, the “global village” is also driving differentiation: As the purchasing power of minorities grows, grocers are increasingly attempting to accommodate their tastes. Wal-Mart’s Supermercado and Publix’s Sabor are examples of smaller, ethnic stores that cater to Latinos or immigrants from Asia and the Middle East.

It sounds like mid-Slump might be the right time to start marketing new niche products to the big players in your industry – assuming they are listening!

Either way, SustainableSlump will keep an eye on these emerging trends.

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