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Are We Split on Automation Bifurcation?

Sept. 22, 2020
The industry has to make a choice between intense automation vs. mostly manual operations – and for the top food companies, there’s only one.

“Market bifurcation” has been a factor in the food and beverage industry as long as I’ve been covering it, and I didn’t start yesterday. Briefly, it describes the tendency of consumers to cluster at either end of the quality-value continuum; either costlier items with higher quality, or items whose primary appeal is their low price. Think of an inverted bell curve.

The pandemic has disrupted this dynamic, as it has so many others. But it has left us with another, which I’m calling “automation bifurcation.” This describes the tendency of good fortune to come to companies at either end of another continuum: automation vs. manual labor. To understand this, we need to look at how sales have been going during the pandemic.

As most people know by now, center-store items, whose sales had been languishing in favor of fresher food, experienced a resurgence. There were several reasons: Shelf-stable items were ideal for stocking pantries during the first stages of panic buying; consumers were cooking, or at least preparing, more meals at home, and needed pantry staples to do it; many center-store products, like cookies or boxed macaroni and cheese, are perceived as comfort foods; many of them are familiar brands from large, well-known companies, and familiarity is another source of comfort during a crisis.

This situation has increased the fortunes of many of the companies in our Top 100, like Kellogg, General Mills, Kraft Heinz, Hostess Brands and Bimbo Bakeries. But it has also handed them some production problems. Several of them have had trouble meeting demand for their newly popular old staples, to the point where they’re cutting back on newer, less established SKUs or using more contract manufacturing. Even so, many have been plagued by out-of-stocks, especially during the pandemic’s early stages in March and April.

Now, one of the ongoing dynamics in the food industry is how Big Food has been gradually but steadily losing market share to smaller companies that are nimbler and faster to respond to consumer shifts. That’s why some of the biggest names in food, like General Mills, Tyson and Nestlé, have established funds to start up and, in some cases, buy up such companies.

When you look at IRI sales figures for large vs. small companies during the pandemic, you see a telling shift. When the pandemic was at its peak, the relative growth in market share reversed. Big Food, defined as companies with $5 billion or more in market capitalization, grew its market share by 0.4%, while companies with less than $1 billion in market cap lost 0.1%. But as the pandemic wore on, the sales shift reversed back, with larger companies losing 1.6% of market share between May and August, while smaller ones upped their share by 0.7%.

Does this mean that the old dynamic is back in place? Nope. Consumers still wanted familiar foods, but the giants couldn’t always deliver, leading to out-of-stocks. Smaller companies were only too happy to fill those holes on the shelves. Campbell Soup CEO Mark Clouse said as much to stock analysts: “When we are not able to fully meet demand, it does open the door to other businesses or other brands.”

This is where I think the degree of automation in the food industry comes into play. Much of the industry, even (or especially) the big players, automates gradually, one step at a time, to achieve just enough automation to do what’s needed in normal times. But in this decidedly abnormal time, “just enough automation” is not enough; it doesn’t confer the flexibility to meet sudden, massive shifts in demand.

Small processors’ operations (their own or contracted) are more likely to be labor-intensive; these can’t match the volume of the big boys, but they can switch between products on a dime. That’s part of the reason they were able to fill those gaps on the store shelves.

Going back to mostly manual operations, in changeovers and other aspects, isn’t really an option for the big players. Their only viable move is toward the other end – the high end – of automation bifurcation. As the cliché has it: The middle of the road is where you get run over.

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