Home economics, that lost art in which generations of students learned to keep a household going on a tight budget, is making a comeback. Only this time, lessons in pinching pennies are being taught not in the nation’s classrooms but in its stores.
While it might seem counterintuitive for stores to teach shoppers to cut their spending, several chains have concluded that providing such knowledge can spur loyalty and keep customers from trading down to cheaper competitors.
So the Stop & Shop grocery chain is offering “affordable food summits” where consumers are taught how to lower their grocery bills. Home Depot offers classes on how to cut energy bills. And Wal-Mart Stores hired a “family financial expert” who has used online chats to teach several thousand shoppers how to save money for college, whittle away debt and sell a house.
As the stores see it, they are filling a vacuum. Once upon a time, schools taught survival skills like how to feed a growing family cheaply and run a household on a tight budget. But in an era of prosperity, easy credit and changing social norms, many of those classes were revised to focus on more up-to-date topics.
“There’s an entire generation that’s never really had to know how to stretch the value of a dollar,” said Ellie Kay, who doles out financial advice for Wal-Mart.
Indeed, it has been a quarter-century since the nation suffered a severe recession. During the boom years, few people seemed interested in shopping on a shoestring. Even working-class families dined at restaurants. Many ordinary grocery stores inched their way upscale, aspiring to emulate places like Whole Foods Market and Dean & DeLuca.
Now, with the economy on the decline, families are being squeezed, prompting a return to basics. People are flocking to wholesale clubs and discount stores, trading down to cheaper products, buying store-brand items and making fewer shopping trips.
Some 71 percent of consumers are cooking at home more often and eating less often at restaurants, according to figures from the Food Marketing Institute, which conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 shoppers. The institute also found that 67 percent of consumers were buying fewer luxury foods and 58 percent were eating more leftovers.
As Ms. Kay put it: “Saving money is the new black.”
Unapologetically, retailers are tailoring their money-saving classes to women, saying they base their decision on surveys showing that women control the food budget in most families.
“We have to be interested in what moms are interested in,” said Stephen Quinn, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Wal-Mart, which recently introduced a television advertising campaign centered on mothers sharing savings advice.
Grocery chains see their role as teaching consumers how to whip up low-cost meals. The stores have long offered recipes and shopping tips, of course, but nowadays they are adopting a relentless focus on value.
On its Web site, Hy-Vee, a supermarket chain in the Midwest, offers ways to feed a family of four for $8 or less. To make pork chop dinner, Hy-Vee recommends four pork chops, one package of apple sauce, some frozen vegetables and “Hy-Vee 5 cheese Texas toast.” Total cost: less than $2 a person.
Stop & Shop has been holding food conferences in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Economists, educators and food bank executives are offering advice about surfing the Internet for coupons, sticking to a shopping list, cooking larger portions and freezing leftovers, unplugging appliances when they are not in use and driving more slowly to conserve gas.
“We’re educating people,” said Jim Dwyer, executive vice president of strategy and business development for Stop & Shop. “Even in a tough economic time, there’s an opportunity to still put the right food in front of your family.”
The retailers say their advice is neutral, not specific to any store — but they are always careful to point out money-saving items that their stores carry. The idea is to earn the gratitude of customers and ensure that when they do spend money, some of it will be with the store that sponsored the class.
Many grocery chains are nearly as in the dark as their customers about how to operate in a down economy. Unlike in past downturns, traditional grocers face new competitors that are peeling off some of their customers: dollar stores, huge discount retailers and drugstores that are adding grocery items.
“They are facing a different set of competitive and consumer dynamics,” said Willard Bishop, who runs a supermarket consulting firm that bears his name. “So what they are trying to do is provide value and get credit for the value they are providing.”
Neil Z. Stern, a retail consultant at McMillanDoolittle in Chicago, said smarter grocery stores were finally telling consumers how much cheaper it was to buy groceries than to eat at restaurants. Consumers need to be reminded that $150 in groceries may represent six or seven meals, he said.
“‘You mean I can put chicken cacciatore and potatoes on the table for $3.50 a person? Well, that’s cheaper,’” he said. “Things like that are implicit in going to a supermarket, but it’s never been explicit.”