Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • May 14, 2024

Lessons from Retail Success Stories


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Simeon Gutman, Morgan Stanley’s Hardlines, Broadlines & Food Retail Analyst. Along with my colleagues bringing you a variety of perspectives, today I’ll discuss how some retail businesses are responding to daunting consumer challenges. 

It’s Tuesday, May 14th at 10am in New York.

There have been dramatic shifts within the consumer sector over the past three years. During the pandemic, we all had to redirect our spending away from services, such as travel and leisure, to various goods, which we were able to purchase online and have delivered at home. Consumer packaged goods, for example, experienced two years of outsized growth during the pandemic. But since 2022, consumption has been declining across the value chain. 

For some categories, this dynamic may not be a temporary, post-Covid phenomenon, but rather a continuation of a longer-standing secular trend that had started prior to the pandemic. For example, non-durable goods – such as clothing, footwear and food at home – were already losing wallet share pre-COVID. Grocery spend was losing to dining out, as consumers placed more value on convenience. And although some sectors experienced unprecedented pricing power between 2020 and 2023, they’re now seeing this pricing power decline as inflation moderates. 

Against this backdrop, Consumer Packaged Goods companies and retailers are attempting to find new growth levers in the face of stagnating – or even declining – sales and decreasing pricing power. A select few companies in US consumer retail, automotive, communication services and IT hardware have been able to navigate the current consumer environment of slowing growth. We believe there’s a powerful lesson in the combination of strategies these successful outliers have deployed to reposition themselves in the face of tepid demand. 

For example, these companies are shifting their value proposition by focusing on products in faster-growing markets. They are also exiting underperforming areas to optimize their core brand and product portfolios. They’re streamlining their internal operations by changing organizational structures, revamping their supply chains, and using AI to automate processes. All of this helps to reduce costs and enhance productivity. Successful retail companies are also looking to alternative revenue sources and profit pools to grow their businesses, focusing on higher growth areas within their industries. Discount retail is a prime example as it focuses on high margin digital media, which has the potential to lift operating profit margins for the entire sector. Furthermore, a shift to omni-channel has revolutionized Retail, by capturing greater consumer wallet share and reducing delivery costs. And finally, successful companies have prioritized free cash flow by divesting non-core assets in less profitable areas. 

Businesses that have been able to deploy these strategies have been rewarded by the market. They have seen their average 12-month price to earnings multiples expand more than 35 percent over the past five years, meaning that the market's outlook for these companies is considerably better than it was previously. Several of these strategies have also led to stronger top-line growth and margin expansion, which our US equity strategists identify as the two major drivers of shareholder value across consumer staples and consumer discretionary.

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Our Retail Analyst discusses the key strategies that have propelled a select few companies in U.S. consumer retail amid a challenging demand backdrop.