Business·Analysis

Inflation's hit to consumer spending power means retailers may refocus on the low end

In economics, the concept of "inferior goods" tells us that when spending power shrinks, consumers are willing to accept ground beef instead of filet mignon. That may include forgoing high-end brands — and retailers must be ready to respond.

Besides nostalgia, trend to 'inferior goods' may have sparked Zellers relaunch

A retailer brought back from the dead: Is the Zellers revival due to nostalgia? Or an urge to profit from an inflation-era search for what economists call inferior goods? (Michael Wilson/CBC)

When the Hudson's Bay Co. announced last week that it was jolting Zellers back from the dead, many former shoppers were moved to share fond memories of the discount chain.

From old-fashioned Coke bottles to retro kitchen products, retailers know that nostalgia can sell. To the extent that some Canadians find themselves yearning for what they recall as those happy, joyous days when Zellers was part of their lives, the venerable Hudson's Bay Co. will be pleased to gratify them. 

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But according to Waterloo, Ont.-based economist Jean-Paul Lam, there may be something other than nostalgia at play — and it doesn't sound quite so warm and fuzzy.

May I interest you in something inferior?

The Bay's move to relaunch its lower-end brand represents a trend that Lam expects to see replicated, as inflation makes people feel poorer: Catering to the consumer demand for what economists call "inferior goods."

"I think this is what a lot of retailers are probably thinking about," Lam said on Friday, just after Statistics Canada released its latest data on retail sales.

As Lam explained, in its origin, the economic concept of inferior goods does not necessarily refer to products that are shoddily made or unattractive, although it may include products like that.

Instead, economists say the principle springs from the idea that with most goods — from food to fashion — people spend more on them as they get richer. But inferior goods are an exception; as people get richer, they buy less of them.

Lam offers the example of filet mignon and ground beef, or car brands BMW and Kia. 

"Individuals rank goods in terms of our desire," said Lam, helping to explain the principle, which is often discussed as part of behavioural economics.

"We tend to rank certain goods above other goods in our preference, and these preferences might be subjective."

As people get richer, those who eat meat tend to buy less ground beef and more fancy, expensive cuts, like steak. In such a case, economists would refer to ground beef as an 'inferior good.' But when incomes fall, the process reverses. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Lam, for example, said he doesn't like filet mignon, preferring the taste and texture of cheaper cuts of beef. And Kia may actually make a better car.

In fact, the difference between some goods may have nothing to do with quality, but rather have a lot to do with prestige and status. Inferior goods are cheaper, which may, perversely, reduce their appeal to rich people. 

Lam notes that around 2014, an economic recovery was kicking in — house prices were up and stocks had begun to rise. People were feeling rich. And it was then that the Bay incorporated Saks Fifth Avenue, a prestige brand, into its stores to take advantage of consumers' urge to shop for high-end goods. The premium retailer Nordstrom also came to Canada, while middle-class retailer Sears had crumbled.

But once incomes and wealth begin to fall, Lam said, everything can change. The demand profile suddenly switches and people who are falling behind seek out inferior goods instead.

Stripped of the fancy economic theory, the idea is a familiar one: When our wealth and incomes shrink, we start looking for bargains.

Canadian discount retailer Giant Tiger could also benefit from a shift to inferior goods, if wages continue to fall behind inflation. (CBC)

Dollarama rising

"I think this is what a lot of retailers are probably thinking about," he said. "With incomes lagging prices, maybe there will be a rise in demand for these inferior goods — and that's why it makes sense to revive a discount store like Zellers."

The way Statistics Canada collects retail data, a trend toward inferior goods is hard to tease out in the latest sales figures, said BMO economist Shelly Kaushik, even if that trend had already begun in June, when most of the numbers were collected.

However, other indicators, including a 12-per-cent increase in sales at Canada's Dollarama — what both economists described as the epitome of an inferior goods retailer — hint that a move toward the bargain-hunting part of the cycle may have already begun. Companies such as the Ottawa-based Giant Tiger could also benefit.

Kaushik is also quick to point out that Zellers was never in the same category as Dollarama. The HBC-owned retailer was traditionally a conventional goods retailer that carried many familiar brands, but without the prestigious shopping bag or experience.

June's retail sales figures were a demonstration of how much inflation affects how we shop and what we buy. Sales showed a healthy gain of just over one per cent in dollar terms, more than three times what economists had been predicting. But in volume terms, sales hardly budged.

"Say you wanted to buy two widgets, but now they cost twice as much. You're definitely spending twice as much as you used to, but you're still only buying two widgets. So the volume of what you are buying stays the same," explained Kaushik.

Aspiring to affluence

Like Lam and others, Kaushik recognizes that wages are falling behind inflation, but she said despite preliminary figures showing sales down in July, it is too early to pronounce the beginning of a retail recession.

One confusing factor is that while goods sales are expected to decline, a bigger share of incomes is going to purchases of services, such as travel, entertainment and meals out — none of which are usually considered inferior goods. 

"I think it is way too soon to say we are seeing a real shift in consumer psychology," said Kaushik. "I think that the idea of wanting to aspire to affluence or, you know, higher-end shopping is still very much something that we are still seeing."

WATCH | A look at the plan to bring back Zellers:

Hudson’s Bay to bring back discount retailer Zellers

4 months ago
Duration 1:56
A decade after closing its doors, Hudson’s Bay Company wants to revive the Zellers brand. The company says it plans to launch a new e-commerce website and sell products under the discount label in some Bay stores by early 2023.

That may be true for those whose income has been rising with inflation, but as many others have pointed out in the past, people whose after-inflation incomes have declined by about seven per cent this year may have paused their aspirations.

As someone who watches inflation closely, Lam worries that the current trend toward rising prices may be far from over. Rising global inflation and the rising costs of importing consumer products could indicate a consumer preference for inferior goods is no fad.

If wages continue to fall behind and your after-inflation income shrinks a little more, maybe you, too, will think about buying perfectly good Zellers-type jeans at a Zellers-type store and forgo the fancy shopping bag. Retailers will be watching.


Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.

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