Pay Cycles: When Month Outlasts Money

I WAS STRUCK to read comments a couple of months ago by Walmart CEO Mike Duke who stated that the chain’s shoppers seemed lately to be running out of money in the waning days of the month. He cited the shrinking size of market baskets as evidence. Tough times leading to tough choices.

Separate recent reports about the worrisome state of our consumer economy observe that budget-conscious shoppers tend lately to purchase smaller package sizes near the end of their pay. This, of course, is a key contributing factor to smaller baskets. William Simon, Walmart U.S. stores chief, made reference to this “paycheck cycle” at a recent analyst meeting.

This morning a report in Bloomberg News described shoppers upping their use of credit cards for purchase of household necessities and gasoline. This is a confounding signal that looks on the surface like a rebound in consumer confidence. In fact, it seems to be concentrated at the end of the calendar month. This may be a sobering sign that many households’ flat and declining paychecks can’t keep pace with price increases.

I’ll leave the economic and social import of this behavioral trend to the true experts. But I would like to offer a few thoughts about the time-based shopper insights that allow analysts to detect and measure the trend. Looking at detailed market basket trends day by day, it seems, can reveal a great deal about short-term household economics.

Not Card-Sharp? Then Be a Basket Case
This is interesting because we hear a different tune about insights from the many advocates of frequent shopper programs, a.k.a., loyalty cards. The detailed segmentation data these programs can deliver offer a wealth of target marketing opportunities for retailers and their suppliers, along with behavioral insights so detailed and profound that we don’t always know how to apply them in practice.

This is very cool stuff and it is credited with upping sales and profits at some pretty sharp retailers, like Kroger. Card-linked data allows marketers to put together a picture of a whole customer relationship over time, evaluate it, and group customers into target-able groups. Walmart and the so-called “dollar” stores, however, do not go in for those card marketing schemes. They stick deliberately to their EDLP guns instead, and resign themselves to data-poverty.

Or so it may seem. Actually, there is a great deal that may be learned just by looking at basket trends, especially at those retailers who enjoy very large footprints and shopper penetration. Card-free chains like Walmart, Publix and Dollar General can track the transaction logs by day and by local geography to extract very meaningful insights. Even if the shoppers are not individually identified, their collective behavior reveals much about pay cycle trends on a store-by-store basis.

Here is where even “data impoverished” retailers can find basis for some global and targeted merchandising tactics. Carrying sufficient smaller pack sizes in key categories every day is one obvious response Walmart says it has pursued. Sales and events may be scheduled to coincide with payday for local large employers. Managers’ specials may be timed to hit key mid-month and end-of-month dates.

Well there you have it. It’s still a share-of-wallet game, even when wallets are growing slimmer. Walmart knows, there’s much of tactical value embedded within store transaction-logs, even where there’s no loyalty data in sight. It’s not just dollar size of baskets that may influence action, it’s also item counts, categories included/avoided, package sizes and purchase influences from outside factors.

When the month runs long, wise retailers jump on their cycles.

© Copyright 2011 James Tenser

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