The recession has changed the way consumers shop and there will be no return to normal after the slump is over, according to a recent retail study.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers and Kantar study states that while consumers may not cling to the same deal-seeking mode they operated in during the recession, they will be more thoughtful and pragmatic about purchases.

“The shopping behavior data coupled with the demographic trends suggest that an enduring shift has taken place as a result of the Great Recession,” according to the report said.

The U.S. endured a similar recession in 1980 to 1982, said Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash.

“Consumers reduced their expenditures on fruits and vegetables and they were much more savvy than before,” he said. “It took about two to three years to forget about that frugality and move back to more normal behavior.”

O’Rourke said today’s recession runs even deeper.

“So many people have lost their job, they have lost their credit and they have lost their home,” he said.
O’Rourke said that segment of the population may be “scarred” much as Americans who lived through the Great Depression. “They will carry that frugality for quite some time.”

Financially stressed consumers are shopping more at discounters like Aldi and less at a Kroger or even a Wal-Mart supercenter, O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke said he believes prices consumers are willing to pay for produce have been dropping because of the recession.

“We need to find more efficient ways to get product on the shelves for lower cost,’ he said. “The industry has got to adapt to this more frugal consumer.”

Changed behavior is especially true for consumers hardest hit by the recession, said Steve Lutz, executive vice president of the West Dundee, Ill.-based Perishables Group,

“There is certainly a segment of the population — at least 15% based on underemployment numbers — that have been severely impacted and the time horizon on when they can return to normal is pretty unclear,” Lutz said.

Lutz said retailers will make inventory decisions based on shopper demographics. That means even higher-priced items can be sold if they are considered a value.

“Consumers are still attuned to what represents value and if they believe there is good value they will pick products across the price spectrum” he said.

 Baby Boomer consumers in the post-recession era will become less important to marketers as they near retirement and spend less savings, the study said.

Lutz said it is too early to tell if Generation X and Generation Y consumers will consume less produce than the Baby Boomers.

“When households begin to have children and as individuals age, the role of food as a way to achieve better health increases,” he said.

Younger consumers are likely to focus more on the importance of organic produce, sustainability and locally grown issues.

Demographic shifts

Baby Boomers and older consumers will be most likely to continue to be in bargain-hunting mode even after the recovery gains momentum, the study said.

Even with some easing of consumer attitudes about purchases, the study said that nearly a third of shoppers will only buy things they truly need and about one-fourth will buy fewer things and shop less often.

At the same time, consumers may be ready to reward themselves after being tight-fisted throughout the recession.

“Shoppers are beginning to show signs of being sick and tired of sacrificing, even if not yet exhibiting a full blown case of frugal fatigue,” according to the study.

One way to catch consumers’ attention is to offer restaurant quality meals that replace dining out.

In addition, the report said that the recession has raised the profile of private label brands.