Covid Slashed Consumer Choices. This Is Why They Aren’t Coming Back. - Kanebridge News
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Covid Slashed Consumer Choices. This Is Why They Aren’t Coming Back.

Retailers and suppliers say it didn’t pay to offer products for everyone, and customers didn’t care that much when they stopped

By PAUL BERGER
Tue, Jan 2, 2024 9:32amGrey Clock 4 min

The furniture retailer Malouf sells beds and bedding in a fraction of the colours it did a few years ago. Newell Brands, the Sharpie maker, has retired 50 types of Yankee Candle. Coca-Cola offers half as many drinks.

Covid slashed consumer choices as companies pared their offerings to ease clogs in the supply chain. The logistical mess is behind them. But many of the choices aren’t coming back.

Retailers and suppliers across industries—from groceries to health, beauty and furniture—have said that it didn’t pay to offer products for everyone, and consumers didn’t care that much when they stopped.

“Today, people would rather lose a portion of consumer demand as opposed to spending extra on too much variety,” said Inna Kuznetsova, chief executive officer of ToolsGroup, a supply-chain planning and optimisation company.

Macy’s president and CEO-elect, Tony Spring, told analysts in November that “the customer today does not want an endless aisle.”

New items made up about 2% of products in stores in 2023 across categories such as beauty, footwear and toys, down from 5% of items in 2019, according to the market-research firm Circana. Shelf Engine, a technology company that automates ordering for grocery retailers, said large grocery stores have reduced fresh-food offerings such as fruit, dairy products and deli meats by 15% to 20%.

Large grocers cutting back on choice is a reversal from pre pandemic days, when they believed they had to carry everything to avoid losing customers to the store across the street, said Stefan Kalb, CEO of Shelf Engine.

Kalb said that grocers are now saving money because they have fewer items to manage and that the slimming of product options is reducing food waste.

Executives at consumer-product companies said the thinning of their product lines has been a relief for those struggling to improve profitability in the midst of higher interest rates and rising costs for raw materials and labor. They said many of the reductions have been in lines that consumers wouldn’t notice, such as items in special packaging and assortments for specific big-box retailers. The cutbacks are also to product lines that drown consumers in options.

“I don’t think any consumer would have noticed we went from 200 to 150” types of Yankee Candle, said Chris Peterson, chief executive of Newell Brands.

Some industry specialists said the new focus on bestselling items has reduced innovation and hurt smaller brands that rely on retailers’ desire to carry something for everyone.

“There has definitely been less innovation since the pandemic,” said Seth Goldman, a founder of the organic-beverage maker Honest Tea, which was bought by Coca-Cola in 2011 and discontinued in 2022.

Coca-Cola over the past few years reduced its brands to 200 from 400, cutting slow-growing as well as declining products, including small regional lines such as Northern Neck Ginger Ale and national brands such as its first diet cola, Tab.

“It was pruning the garden to let the better plants grow,” Coca-Cola Chief Executive James Quincey said in 2022.

Goldman said there was still demand for Honest Tea, even if it wasn’t big enough for Coca-Cola. In September 2022, four months after Coca-Cola’s announcement, he launched Just Ice Tea, a drink that he said is similar to Honest Tea and that is expected to have sales in 2023 of more than $16 million.

Companies began winnowing product lines in the years leading up to the pandemic as a corrective to previous decades when consumer choice ballooned. That was partly because of the internet, where online retailers weren’t constrained by the space limitations of physical stores, giving rise to the term “endless aisle.”

The cuts were turbocharged in 2020 and 2021, when product shortages and a surge in consumer spending led companies to give priority to the most in-demand items. They focused on products that ran fastest on production lines and, because of social distancing in factories, could be made with automated machinery.

Kimberly-Clark cut more than 70% of its toilet paper and facial-tissue products over a single weekend in 2020 as it rushed to satisfy a fourfold increase in demand, said Tamera Fenske, the company’s chief supply chain officer.

Fenske said the company jettisoned slow-selling items as well as many of the special counts and custom sizes it made for individual retailers. Fenske said that, as pandemic restrictions eased, Kimberly-Clark was able to be more thoughtful about the items it brought back. She said the company carries about 30% fewer product lines in North America than it had at the start of 2020.

PVH, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, embarked in 2020 on a plan to cut more than a fifth of its offerings to focus on what it calls “hero” products—those that make up an essential part of someone’s wardrobe.

Kimberly-Clark, maker of Scott paper towels, has brought back some, but not all, of the products it stopped offering during the pandemic. PHOTO: KRISTEN NORMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Some companies said the culling of less-popular products opened up space for new lines.

Georgia-Pacific stopped selling 164-sheet rolls of Quilted Northern toilet paper because its larger rolls were better for consumers who valued longer-lasting rolls, said Kim Burns, senior vice president of supply chain for Georgia-Pacific’s consumer products group. Burns said the company has subsequently invested more time and money in new product lines, such as toilet paper with a scented tube that acts as a bathroom air freshener.

For other companies, the supply-chain shock provided a real-life experiment in how trimming product lines could improve productivity without hurting customer satisfaction. “It was quite shocking as we parsed it out to see we were using a lot of our buying power to really not get much of a return on investment,” said Nick Jensen, vice president of product at Malouf.

The Logan, Utah-based furniture company has reduced its lines to about 3,500 product choices, down from almost 11,000 items before the pandemic. Jensen said the company is adding new items more carefully these days.

“If we have 15 different colours and three shades of grey, it’s a paralysing choice,” Jensen said. “It’s kind of forced us to be much more intentional versus throwing a lot of things at the wall and hoping that they stick.”

—Suzanne Kapner contributed to this article.



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These stocks are getting hit for a reason. Instead, focus on stocks that show ‘relative strength.’ Here’s how.

By KEN SHREVE
Wed, Jun 12, 2024 4 min

A lot of investors get stock-picking wrong before they even get started: Instead of targeting the top-performing stocks in the market, they focus on the laggards—widely known companies that look as if they are on sale after a period of stock-price weakness.

But these weak performers usually are going down for good reasons, such as for deteriorating sales and earnings, market-share losses or mutual-fund managers who are unwinding positions.

Decades of Investor’s Business Daily research shows these aren’t the stocks that tend to become stock-market leaders. The stocks that reward investors with handsome gains for months or years are more often  already  the strongest price performers, usually because of outstanding earnings and sales growth and increasing fund ownership.

Of course, many investors already chase performance and pour money into winning stocks. So how can a discerning investor find the winning stocks that have more room to run?

Enter “relative strength”—the notion that strength begets more strength. Relative strength measures stocks’ recent performance relative to the overall market. Investing in stocks with high relative strength means going with the winners, rather than picking stocks in hopes of a rebound. Why bet on a last-place team when you can wager on the leader?

One of the easiest ways to identify the strongest price performers is with IBD’s Relative Strength Rating. Ranked on a scale of 1-99, a stock with an RS rating of 99 has outperformed 99% of all stocks based on 12-month price performance.

How to use the metric

To capitalise on relative strength, an investor’s search should be focused on stocks with RS ratings of at least 80.

But beware: While the goal is to buy stocks that are performing better than the overall market, stocks with the highest RS ratings aren’t  always  the best to buy. No doubt, some stocks extend rallies for years. But others will be too far into their price run-up and ready to start a longer-term price decline.

Thus, there is a limit to chasing performance. To avoid this pitfall, investors should focus on stocks that have strong relative strength but have seen a moderate price decline and are just coming out of weeks or months of trading within a limited range. This range will vary by stock, but IBD research shows that most good trading patterns can show declines of up to one-third.

Here, a relative strength line on a chart may be helpful for confirming an RS rating’s buy signal. Offered on some stock-charting tools, including IBD’s, the line is a way to visualise relative strength by comparing a stock’s price performance relative to the movement of the S&P 500 or other benchmark.

When the line is sloping upward, it means the stock is outperforming the benchmark. When it is sloping downward, the stock is lagging behind the benchmark. One reason the RS line is helpful is that the line can rise even when a stock price is falling, meaning its value is falling at a slower pace than the benchmark.

A case study

The value of relative strength could be seen in Google parent Alphabet in January 2020, when its RS rating was 89 before it started a 10-month run when the stock rose 64%. Meta Platforms ’ RS rating was 96 before the Facebook parent hit new highs in March 2023 and ran up 65% in four months. Abercrombie & Fitch , one of 2023’s best-performing stocks, had a 94 rating before it soared 342% in nine months starting in June 2023.

Those stocks weren’t flukes. In a study of the biggest stock-market winners from the early 1950s through 2008, the average RS rating of the best performers before they began their major price runs was 87.

To see relative strength in action, consider Nvidia . The chip stock was an established leader, having shot up 365% from its October 2022 low to its high of $504.48 in late August 2023.

But then it spent the next four months rangebound—giving up some ground, then gaining some back. Through this period, shares held between $392.30 and the August peak, declining no more than 22% from top to bottom.

On Jan. 8, Nvidia broke out of its trading range to new highs. The previous session, Nvidia’s RS rating was 97. And that week, the stock’s relative strength line hit new highs. The catalyst: Investors cheered the company’s update on its latest advancements in artificial intelligence.

Nvidia then rose 16% on Feb. 22 after the company said earnings for the January-ended quarter soared 486% year over year to $5.16 a share. Revenue more than tripled to $22.1 billion. It also significantly raised its earnings and revenue guidance for the quarter that was to end in April. In all, Nvidia climbed 89% from Jan. 5 to its March 7 close.

And the stock has continued to run up, surging past $1,000 a share in late May after the company exceeded that guidance for the April-ended quarter and delivered record revenue of $26 billion and record net profit of $14.88 billion.

Ken Shreve  is a senior markets writer at Investor’s Business Daily. Follow him on X  @IBD_KShreve  for more stock-market analysis and insights, or contact him at  ken.shreve@investors.com .