Some decisions, some transactions say more about the U.S. economy than all of the Labor Department, Commerce Department and Agriculture Department combined. The decision by ConAgra (CAG) to buy Ralcorp (RAH) for $5 billion is one of those decisions.
ConAgra is a pretty good food company with lots of different household brands cobbled together over time that take advantage of an excellent supply chain and good relations with both supermarkets and restaurants – read: McDonald's (MCD) -- alike. Its brands are known to you: Healthy Choice, Orville Redenbacher, Slim Jim, Hebrew National, Marie Callendar, Hunts, Wesson, Swiss Miss, Pam, Chef Boyardee. They are brands that were in your mom's cabinets, and they will be brands that are going to be in your kids' cabinets.
But something happened to brands in the Great Recession. Many of them have lost their cachet -- in part because the makers of the brands have taken price up year after year after year to please stockholders and in part because the big supermarket chains haven't been able to make as much selling them as they once did.
The combination of the endless jacking up of selling prices, and the smaller profit margins for the stores that sell them has led to a situation in which the consumer feels pinched and the supermarket feels priced out.
Enter private label.
At one point, private label came in black and white cans. The supermarkets tried to adopt the equivalent of the pipe and rack outlet store for a Filene's or a Loehmann's or maybe a Marshall's. The idea was to say, "Look at me, I am cheaper than the other stuff. Buy me."
Instead it had another connotation when it came to the register, "Look at me, I am out of work, and I am struggling." Further, when it came home, your family said, "This doesn't taste as good as the brands, but you get what you pay for."
Along the way, though, we got an evolution of thinking. First, the shopping club concept emerged, Costco (COST) being the prime example. The company, which announced a $7 special dividend today, has been at the vanguard of providing a private-label brand that is no longer questioned as being inferior to the branded product. In fact, I am sure that, judging by how few people balked at paying higher club member prices, the Kirkland brand might be considered superior to the big-time branded products. Plus, they are more lucrative to the store itself because the gross margins are gigantic vs. the heavily advertised packaged good product.
Then came a recognition that if the store bought product that just looked more like the heavily promoted product, a la Perrigo, in the drug store, it would become more popular given its reduced price tag.
The final evolution? Supermarkets now try to outdo the branded product in packaging not just price. When you get to the checkout counter, you now look smarter than the other guy, and very few believe there is a compromise in terms of quality.
Given a world where 47% of the people in this country are on food stamps, up dramatically from just a few years ago, a world where value-buying is now considered a necessity for many and clever by everyone else, having a private-label brand has become the most important way to grow your company if you are still in the consumer packaged goods business.
ConAgra's new hybrid model addresses this new world head on. You have some branded in the categories you are certain can't be knocked off easily. And you have superior quality private label in places as widespread as Wal-Mart (WMT), the dollar stores, Costco and Trader Joe's, because the gulf in this country between rich and poor demands it for survival's stake.
So ConAgra buys Ralcorp because it must buy Ralcorp. The trend's too powerful not to. Because the world we live in is more of a Tale of Two Cities than we realize, and both cities are fed up with paying more for the same exact product simply for well-known labels. It's an irreversible pattern and CEO Gary Rodkin, perhaps the most perceptive of the branded execs, knows all too well that you capitalize on it or you eventually fade away.