CEOs once touted how they could charge higher prices. Customers are now pushing back

Business Insider US
Kelly Hayes looks at produce that is on sale as she shops at Whole Foods Market in the Tenleytown neighborhood on Thursday April 28, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images
  • Target and Walmart each missed recent earnings estimates, due in part to softer sales.
  • Each attributed part of the slowdown to rising prices — within and outside their stores' walls.
  • After months of CEOs and CFOs bragging about pricing power, it seems that customers have had enough.
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Until somewhat recently, CEOs and CFOs had been touting their ability to boost prices for consumers above and beyond the amount needed to offset growing labor and supply chain expenses.

"What we are very good at is pricing," Colgate-Palmolive CEO Noel Wallace told investors back in October. "Whether it's foreign exchange inflation or raw and packing material inflation, we have found ways over time to recover that in our margin line."

Wallace was far from alone: Similar statements from executives soon became a political argument that attempted to pin the blame for record high inflation squarely on corporate greed.

Of course, companies fundamentally exist to make money, and maximising profits is not necessarily the same as price gouging, but recent earnings calls from major US retailers Target and Walmart suggest that companies boosting their margins may have overplayed their hands.

It should be noted that while Target and Walmart themselves resist this trend (Target CEO Brian Cornell calls consumer pricing "always the last lever we pull"), they have to sell products on behalf of other companies who have been more eager to charge customers more.

In Walmart's earnings calls, executives said they saw inflation shaping customer choices more in the previous quarter than they had seen before. That meant increasingly spending less on merchandise and more on food, and choosing store brands over name brands.

Target also saw sales of its in-house brands grow faster than overall sales, continuing a years-long trend. The company was also more willing to take a hit to profits with discounts and deals, bucking a retail industry trend of offering fewer promotions.

"While these were difficult decisions, we believe they'll pay off in the long term, given that building long-term loyalty remains our top priority," Chief Growth Officer Christina Hennington said.

Meanwhile Amazon, which is dealing with its own inflation headaches, told investors last month that consumer demand has remained strong even with prices climbing faster than they have in a generation.

"But we're wary of it, as probably all companies are, because household budgets are tightened when fuel costs are doubling," Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky said. "It ripples through food. It ripples through everything else."

Both Target and Walmart indicated there would likely be price increases in coming months, but Cornell said they would be done "surgically" at Target.

"Not all of [our customers] can afford to absorb this and they need our help," Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said.

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