Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which last month touted plans to cut prices for most items, has yet to “materially” change its food prices, BB&T Capital Markets analyst Andrew Wolf said.
So far, “it appears that Wal-Mart’s grocery pricing is benign,” Wolf said in a report today, citing a BB&T survey of stores in Virginia earlier this month. The survey results indicated Wal-Mart had not “materially altered” its food pricing, Wolf said.
Wal-Mart’s food sales have drawn increased attention since March, when the company said it would scale up “rollbacks,” or permanent price reductions. Last week, Wal-Mart said it was cutting prices on about 10,000 items, mostly food, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The BB&T survey results raise questions over just how much Wal-Mart will actually lower prices for fruits, vegetables, meat and other food, said Neil Stern, a principle with McMillan Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail industry consultant.
“It will be interesting to actually see the depths of their cuts,” Stern said. “Most importantly, how will the consumers perceive the change?”
Based on most price surveys, Wal-Mart is already “considerably cheaper” than other grocers, Stern said, “so, will the consumer notice something dramatic? Wal-Mart is looking to gain share, which means more customers through the door. The caution would be that they're not done yet. It's too early to tell exactly what they're going to do, yet.”
Wal-Mart representatives did not immediately response to requests for comment today.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, still has lower-priced food than many traditional supermarket chains, though Kroger Co. narrowed that gap this month, Wolf said.
As of April 14, Wal-Mart’s food prices were about 7.8 percent lower than Kroger’s, down from 10.4 percent at the end of March, according to Wolf’s survey, which was based on a basket of 56 food items.
Compared with Food Lion LLC stores, Wal-Mart food prices were about 15 percent lower, little changed from the end of March.
While Wal-Mart gained share in the grocery business in recent years, profit prospects are brightening for supermarkets such as Kroger and Safeway Inc. as the economy recovers and consumers spend more on food.
The retail food industry reached an “inflection point” near the end of 2009, signaling the end of a profit-draining deflationary period, Wolf said.
During the fourth quarter of 2009, U.S. inflation-adjusted food store sales rose 1.8 percent from the same period in 2008, the first year-over-year increase since the second quarter of 2008, Wolf said.
“With wholesale food-price inflation now firmly reestablished, we anticipate that retail food prices should begin to inflate” by the second quarter of 2010, Wolf said.
Based on government forecasts, “food-at-home” prices will rise 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent in 2010, which “implies a strong rebound in retail food inflation in the back half of 2010,” Wolf said.
Wolf said he’s “constructive” on the outlook for food merchandisers. He has “buy” ratings on Kroger and Safeway shares.
Still, Wal-Mart, which had 3,708 U.S. stores at the end of January, is expected to gain additional ground in groceries this year, other analysts have said recently
According to estimates from Citigroup Inc. analyst Deborah Weinswig, Wal-Mart’s share of the $816 billion U.S. retail food business will rise to 21.6% in 2010 from 20.5% in 2009, excluding Sam’s Club stores. Kroger ranked second at 10.2%.
In Wal-Mart’s fiscal 2010, groceries accounted for 51% of the $258.2 billion total U.S. sales, the first time the category garnered more than half the retailer’s revenue.
Groceries accounted for 49% of U.S. sales in 2009, Wal-Mart said in a government filing.