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Data-Driven Analytics And Agile Supply Chains Are Transforming The U.S. Consumer Products Industry


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Data-Driven Analytics And Agile Supply Chains Are Transforming The U.S. Consumer Products Industry

The consumer products industry is changing at an even faster pace than before the pandemic.   Companies are responding by becoming even more agile and increasing the use of data analysis (see appendix 2). S&P Global Ratings expects companies' ongoing technology investment to respond better and more quickly to shifts in consumer behaviors and preferences, increase marketing effectiveness, reduce product-development cycles, and make supply chains even more flexible. Since the 2008 recession, the industry has done some heavy lifting to reshape product portfolios for faster growth. This included reformulating products to improve quality and decreasing the number of additives, focusing on value over volume, and by entering faster-growing categories. Companies also invested heavily in their supply chains to increase flexibility and efficiency, which paid off during the pandemic because they were able to increase existing customers penetration and attract new consumers. Appendix 1 highlights our revenues, margins, and credit metrics forecast by subsector.

Companies have also strengthened their relationships with retailers by optimizing stock-keeping unit (SKU) assortments and the flexibility of their supply chains.   Post pandemic, we expect companies to stick with these strategies and generate growth greater than before the pandemic hit, given consumers increased interest in trusted and familiar brands. Importantly, the industry has made inroads with millennials and Generation Z over the past year. These cohorts tend to be less brand-loyal than prior generations. We also expect consumer staples to benefit from a still-robust at-home economy this year and forecast packaged food manufacturers will grow between 2% and 3% organically compared to the decline they were facing before pandemic's onset. We believe extra growth will be driven by a combination of volume and favorable price/mix, and overall greater at-home food consumption. We expect the household products and personal care sector to grow at least 3%-4%, slightly higher than we previously anticipated, due to a permanent change in consumer habits and higher use-up rates of cleaning and wellness products.

We expect margin stability for consumer staples despite increasing pressure.  The industry's margins will be pressured over the next year or two as commodity costs such as packaging, corn, flour, and wheat are rising after years of stability. This will add to the strain of rising freight and labor costs. In addition, recovery in emerging markets will be uneven. With the exception of China, we expect recovery in emerging markets to be slower than developed markets; hence, multi-nationals could face additional margin headwinds if emerging markets foreign exchange depreciates against the U.S. dollar. We expect consumer staples companies' ongoing productivity programs and pricing to offset these stressors. The consumer discretionaries sector's margins will likely expand because of a better sales outlook and cost reduction measures they have already implemented.

Uncertainty Remains High, But We Have A More Optimistic Tilt For Consumer Discretionaries

Our negative ratings bias for discretionary subsectors is decreasing and should lessen throughout the year as we revise pandemic-led negative outlooks to stable.   The food service, cosmetics, and apparel subsectors were hurt most by the pandemic in the consumer products industry because of their sensitivity to social activity. Risks are moderating given the improving vaccination coverage, faster reopening schedule and the $1.9 trillion stimulus. Currently, 47% of issuers in discretionary subsectors maintain negative rating outlooks or their ratings are on CreditWatch with negative implications. This compares favorably with May 2020, when 59% of the companies we rate had negative rating outlooks or their ratings are on CreditWatch with negative implications (see charts 1 and 2). However, household-related consumer durables such as those by Whirlpool Corp. and Tempur Sealy International Inc. have fared well as consumers allocated more discretionary dollars to their home.

Credit Quality For Consumer Staples Has Been Strengthening Because Of The Surge In Demand

Consumer staples credit quality has improved during the pandemic because many issuers have applied higher levels of cash flow generated from stronger sales to debt.   We believe credit quality for investment-grade issuers will be stable for the next 12 to 24 months because we expect them to use their increased financial flexibility to invest in their business, undertake bolt-on acquisitions to enter or expand presence in faster-growing categories, such as healthier foods and snacks, and leverage their existing infrastructure, distribution network, and client and supplier relationships to create value for their stakeholders. In addition, we expect companies to resume at least previous levels of shareholder distributions. We also expect speculative-grade consumer staples issuers that have strengthened their financial profiles over the past year to engage in mergers and acquisitions (M&A). In absence of M&A opportunities, we expect sponsors to take dividends. M&A could be a key driver of rating actions as valuations remain high and pressure credit metrics if revenue and cost synergies aren't achieved. Currently, we have stable outlooks on 72% of the rated consumer staples issuers, which compares favorably to May 2020 when we had stable outlooks on 51% of the issuers.

Chart 1


Chart 2


Table 1


Segment-Specific Trends

Food distributors

Foodservice distributors still face an uneven recovery and their profitability will likely take the longest to recover.   We assume the independent restaurant channel will likely suffer at least a 10% loss--though acknowledge the rate could be materially greater--and that distributor profitability won't likely return to 2019 levels until 2023. We expect rated distributors sales to be above that of 2019 next year. We see ratings stability for large players with significant scale and financial flexibility. The outlook for smaller, less diversified distributors that have less scale and financial flexibility remains negative.

We think the large distributors are gaining share at the expense of smaller rivals.   Sysco Corp. has disclosed that it won $1.5 billion net new business since the start of the pandemic, while US Foods Inc. claims $500 million since its onset. Currently, there are encouraging signs of stability stemming from the easing of COVID-19-related restrictions by several large U.S. states and municipalities. With the increasing availability of the vaccines and decreasing restrictions, we expect this will continue.

Although, credit metrics are weak on a trailing-12-month basis, we expect improvement.  The subsector had an extremely poor quarter ended June 2020 (marginally positive to negative EBITDA), which included dramatically lower demand, operational disruptions, inventory charge-offs, and excess receivable reserves. We think the subsequent two quarters (ended September 2020 and December 2020) are a better proxy for ongoing subpar conditions, especially because the September quarter was above expectations due to better weather months (outdoor dining) and increased carryout and delivery. We expect the sector to continue to recover as consumers become more mobile.

Financial policy and liquidity are key if the industry remains depressed.   We expect the subsector to maintain prudent financial policies and focus on maintaining strong liquidity to manage through the evolving demand environment, including rebuilding working capital.


The cosmetic segment will take longer than most other subsectors to recover because of home-seclusion trends and the discretionary nature of the products.   Color cosmetics and fragrances have been hit hard. The elevated numbers of consumers working and entertaining from home will likely solidify consumers' shift to wearing less make-up. Sales trends have improved sequentially and diversified companies such as The Estee Lauder Cos. Inc. generated sales growth in the recent quarter, which is attributable to its skin care business and large presence in China. Companies such as Coty Inc. and Revlon Inc. are rationalizing their portfolios and shifting to faster-growing categories such are skin care. In 2021, we expect to see consumers continuing to shift to local brands and that masstige offerings will take share from premium products, and the e-commerce channel will continue to accelerate.

U.S. e-commerce sales in the beauty and personal care segment increased to 18.8% in 2020, up from 16.8% in 2019, and should grow to 26.6% by 2025, according to Euromonitor.   Indeed, Estee Lauder generated more than 50% of its sales in North America in the e-commerce channel in its recent quarter. To capitalize on consumers' shift to e-commerce, companies are investing in livestreaming, digital forums and advisors, mobile messaging apps, and shoppable social media. Issuers' sales for this segment declined almost 18% last year and EBITDA plummeted more than 34%. We expect sales to be down 14% this year compared to 2019 and EBITDA will decline by 8% as cost-cutting will partially offset the impact of lost sales. We don't expect sales growth to be above 2019 levels until 2023 because most issuers in this segment have large exposures to color cosmetic and fragrance categories.

Apparel manufacturers

We think the apparel subsector will continue to suffer from the lack of consumer mobility outside of the home.   However, it hasn't declined as much as the cosmetics segment because of the replenishment nature of some of the products and consumer trends toward athleisure. The subsector has responded to weak demand and weak traffic at brick-and-mortar stores by pivoting to e-commerce and reducing costs and inventory levels. Many brands have developed sound e-commerce platforms and, in some cases, have focused on their own direct-to-consumer offerings, which has given them more full-price sales and direct access to customers. For example, NIKE Inc.'s digital sales accounted for 35% of its consolidated sales in its recent quarter and it plans to increase this to 50% within the next few years.

Recovery will vary by category and channel.   Companies that compete in fashion and trendy categories will likely take the longest to recovery. We expect weak traffic in brick-and-mortar stores and travel retail channel will persist for at least the next two years. Moreover, the pandemic also led to permanent retail store closures. We forecast the sector's average sales will be below those of 2019 by around 2% this year (2020 sales were 11% below 2019) as this year so far remains weak and will be above 2019 levels next year. We expect the sector will generate EBITDA above that of 2019 this year but issuers won't return to 2019 credit metrics until 2022 or 2023 because of higher debt levels.


The durable subsector performed better than we expected because consumers cloistered at home have been spending more on items that elevate quality of life and safety.   In addition, stay-at-home orders increased usage of appliances and the housing market has been strong. Indeed, consumer spending this past January and February has been concentrated on durable goods, particularly home-related items, while service spending is still struggling (see chart 3). While mattresses, home décor, and appliances, among other household goods, recovered in the last half of 2020, we don't expect recovery until the latter half of this year and into 2022 for office and office-related companies such as Steelcase Inc. and ACCO Brands Corp., because many white-collar workers continue to work from home. We expect small appliance sales should slow because of high demand in 2020 and increasing consumer mobility.

We expect the overall sector to generate sales about 1% above 2019 levels this year and almost 3% next year, after being down 5.8% in 2020.   During the pandemic, companies in this segment focused on reducing cost and EBITDA was only down marginally. This also set them up for healthy growth. We expect EBITDA to be up almost 20% in 2021 and almost 25% 2022 due to a combination of recovery in office-related demand, continuing demand for home-based products, better capacity utilization, and cost-reduction measures.

Alcoholic beverages

Despite the impact of away-from-home dining restrictions have had on restaurants and bars, the alcoholic beverage sector has performed better than our initial expectations.   This is primarily because U.S.-based alcoholic beverage companies where the exposure to on-premise sales is much lower than in other regions (on-premise sales are about 20% in the U.S. compared with much higher rates from 50% to as much as 80% in other areas). Moreover, off-premise sales continue to grow at a healthy clip, underpinned by strong growth for seltzers, which have reversed share losses in the ready-to-drink category of alcoholic beverages. Premium prices also continue to support the healthy mid-single-digit sales growth for spirits and premium wines. The better-than-expected off-premise performance hasn't been able to fully offset lost on-premise sales, particularly for companies with more sales exposure outside the U.S.

The sector has been able to reduce advertising and promotional spending to preserve cash flow until the on-premise channels fully reopen, which could occur the second half of this year.   Given this background, we've been returning our rating outlooks for some U.S. issuers to stable after revising them to negative at the pandemic's onset. This was the case for Constellation Brands Inc., which maintained strong high-single-digit beer sales growth coupled with debt repayment from its wind divestitures. We forecast the subsector's sales and profits will be above 2019 levels in 2022.

Nonalcoholic beverages

The nonalcoholic drink segment has adapted to the substantial loss of sales in its high-margin on-premise subsector by raising prices, shifting channel and packaging mix, and strong cost controls.   Total global nonalcoholic beverages sales declined 10.8% last year, according to Euromonitor. With some recovery in the on-premise channel this year and further growth next year, we forecast U.S.-based issuers will generate 2021 sales more than 4% above those of 2019 and almost 8% higher in 2022. PepsiCo Inc. and Keurig Dr Pepper Inc. (KDP) have been enjoying solid demand because of their snacks and coffee portfolios; respectively, as well as retail demand for their beverages.

All the manufacturers have high leverage for their ratings.   PepsiCo recently said it would de-emphasize acquisitions since it has strengthened its brand portfolio and won't repurchase any more shares following the year-to-date $100 million buybacks to preserve its credit rating. We expect KDP to also strengthen credit metrics. The company is on-track to deliver $600 million of annual merger synergies by year-end and to achieve cost savings from optimizing its distribution network. Its topline should grow because of household penetration gains during the pandemic and the strength of its beverage portfolio. The Coca-Cola Co. (Coke) was hit much harder than PepsiCo and KDP because of its high market share in away-from-home products. Given our view for improving away-from-home demand, Coke's rationalization program and its strategic transformation to a more networked organization, we believe it can also de-lever by the end of 2021. However, resolution of Coke's long-standing dispute with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service over transfer pricing is a risk to the rating. We forecast the subsector's sales and profits will be above 2019 levels this year.


We expect relatively stable performance for the tobacco segment over the next two years.   As the economy reopens, it is likely that low- to mid-single digit volume deterioration will be largely offset by better pricing. The sector has demonstrated resiliency during the pandemic. Smokers have had more opportunities to consume tobacco while they're away from formal work environments and venues with smoking restrictions. Besides volume pressure, EBITDA margins could weaken modestly this year if consumers trade down to less expensive options, possibly because employment isn't rebounding, unemployment benefits are reduced, or excise taxes are increased. Thus far, we've not seen evidence that volume declines will accelerate significantly above pre-pandemic levels because of smokers' health concerns. Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently authorized the marketing of Philip Morris International Inc.'s IQOS tobacco heating system in the U.S. as a modified-risk tobacco product with a reduced-exposure claim. This could bode well for IQOS sales and other heat-not-burn (HNB) products, albeit at the expense of combustible cigarettes. Given current uncertainty (including negative regulatory developments affecting menthol cigarettes), tobacco companies are putting more emphasis on strengthening balance sheets and deleveraging.


Strong global demand for livestock and feed and a rebound in biofuel demand underpin a healthy operating outlook for agribusiness.  However, grain originators and protein processors face a difficult comparison to last year, which benefitted from low commodity input costs and strong retail food demand. Meatpackers and other commodity food processors offset lost foodservice sales with higher retail sales and a rebound in quick-service-restaurant demand midway through last year. Hence, they face relatively better prospects this year despite an uneven recovery in away-from-home dining. Still, the sector remains exposed to commodity pricing and margin volatility. We believe the sector's operating margins face a difficult comparison to last year, which benefitted significantly from the supply chain dislocation that occurred at the pandemic's onset. Temporary plant shutdowns due to COVID-19 workforce outbreaks, coupled with strong livestock production in anticipation of better exports sales, led to significant livestock supplies at farms and historically low animal costs for the sector. As a result, beef and pork packing cut-out margins spiked to record highs last year, despite an unprecedented run-up in pandemic-related operating costs. Although these costs will be lower next year, cut-out margins too will likely trend toward historical averages because of higher feed costs. We expect companies to use cost-cutting measures to manage higher costs. We expect sales and profits to remain above 2019 and 2020 levels in this year and next.

Packaged foods

The packaged food sector has benefitted from the pandemic with increased at-home food consumption, consumers turning to brands that are familiar and trusted, and stronger disposable income.   We expect the sector's sales to materially decelerate and organic sales comparisons to turn negative in the second quarter of 2021 as they lap tough comparisons given strong sales beginning March 2020 driven by consumers pantry loading and pandemic led restrictions. However, we expect companies to retain some of the share they gained during the pandemic, with long-term growth for the sector increasing by about a point compared with pre-pandemic growth trends. Many companies have strengthened their balance sheets over the past year through a combination of EBITDA growth and debt paydown. To maintain some of the market share they gained during the pandemic, we believe companies will focus on innovation, reshaping their portfolios, and digital media. This includes using financial flexibility for internal investments and bolt-on acquisitions.

We believe the sector's growth rate over the next few years will be better than before the pandemic because more people are working from home, relying on home entertainment, and returning to travel and large events at a slow pace.   The sector will likely also benefit from the return of higher-margin small-package impulse-buying at convenience stores and in categories such as confectionaries and the recovery in the high-margin on-premise channel. We estimate average subsector revenues will increase in the mid-single–digit percentages this year compared to 2019 and EBITDA margins will expand as price, cost-containment strategies, and the rolling off of some pandemic-related expenses offset higher input costs. We believe this year's sales will be up almost 7% and EBITDA up to 9% compared to 2019 as companies benefit from higher-margin innovative products and benefit from using data analytics to improve marketing and reduce costs as well as ongoing cost-reduction programs.

Household personal products

Many consumers have increased their hygiene standards in the face of the pandemic.   We expect these new habits in health, hygiene, and at-home cleaning will stick well after the pandemic is contained as consumers seek to mitigate health risks. In addition, increased working-from-home trends support growth as dishes, surfaces, and toilets will need to be cleaned more frequently. We estimate average sector revenues will increase about 5% this year compared to 2019 because of the change in consumer habits as well as EBITDA jumps 16% because of less supply chain disruption, cost-containment strategies, and the rolling off of some pandemic-related expenses, all of which will offset the higher input costs. In 2022, we believe sales will be up 8% and EBITDA will be up more than 20% compared to 2019 because of higher-margin innovative products and improving cost structures.

Chart 3


Some Pandemic-Related Adaptations And Advances Will Remain

Channel shift

In the search of a new normal, some of the pandemic-driven shifts will stick around such as digitalization, working-from-home flexibility, greater at-home entertainment, a growing focus on health and wellness, and sustainability.   Hence, the ability to grow in the e-commerce channel has become a more critical part of industry competition. E-commerce grew exponentially in 2020 as stores were closed for part of last year and consumers used delivery and curbside pick-up to socially distance and for convenience. Food and beverage sectors had the most explosive growth in North America because of the availability of click-and-collect services (see chart 5). We believe manufactures' investments in logistics and grocery stores' investments in curbside pickup and seamless online capabilities should have a lasting impact on consumer shopping and dining habits after the pandemic is contained. We also maintain that the e-commerce channel will be the fastest growing channel for at least the next five years (see table 2).


Companies are also increasing technology to spur sales.   The sector is increasingly using data analytics to understand consumer habits and attitudes to develop targeted marketing tactics. They're using machine learning to improve the effectiveness of paid searches and digital advertising, identify clusters to mass personalize at scale, for video campaigns, and to create plans for themselves and retail customers. For example, if there is a regional outbreak of the flu, a company will target coupons to consumers in that area for products such as over-the-counter flu medications to boost sales. Targeted campaigns are effectively driving on-line and physical store purchases leading to better return on investment for companies.

Chart 4


Table 2

E-commerce Is Expected To Be The Fastest Growing Channel Over The Next Five Years
YoY Chg (%) 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024 2025 CAGR '21-25
World E-Commerce 17.1 22.3 20.6 14.4 26.9 11.6 11.0 11.9 11.9 11.8 11.7
North America E-Commerce 16.5 17.5 14.0 15.1 36.0 8.8 7.7 12.3 13.2 14.3 11.2
World Store-based Retailing (0.4) 3.3 3.0 (0.2) (5.8) 6.3 5.4 4.8 4.9 5.2 5.3
North America Store-based Retailing 1.4 2.1 1.8 1.1 (3.7) 4.3 4.9 2.8 2.2 1.4 3.1
World Retailing 1.0 4.9 4.7 1.4 (1.6) 7.1 6.3 6.1 6.2 6.5 6.4
North America Retailing 3.0 3.8 3.3 3.0 2.6 5.2 5.4 4.8 4.7 4.6 5.0
Yoy--Year on year.
Environmental, social, and governance (ESG)

ESG, awareness and efforts have steadily become more important for today's shopper who is more likely to choose brands with positive social and environmental impacts than ever before.   The industry is focusing on responsible source, supporting farmers, lowering emissions, and best practices for safety. Below we highlight some of the notable risks environmental and social risks we see for the sector.


  • Waste management: waste left-over materials associated with a product's end of life and its packaging is likely to spur new regulations and result in substantial compliance costs.
  • Supply chains: The sector often sources raw materials from the agricultural, mining, forestry, chemicals, and oil and gas industries, which can significantly affect land, water, emissions, and pollution.
  • Product manufacturing, distribution, and use: Significant water consumption, pollution, and energy use pose problems for the sector. The nature and scale of the impact largely depends on the nature of the product sold. New regulations may motivate companies to reduce single-use products, switch to low-carbon freight, and develop energy- and water-efficient products and processes.


  • Fast-changing consumer preferences: Innovation and product development are critical factors to navigate changing consumer preferences, support brand value, and maintain high customer satisfaction and retention. In particular, we expect growing demand for sustainable products, transparent labelling, and responsible advertising to continue and to push the industry to transition toward purpose-led brands.
  • Product safety: The manufacturing and use of unsafe products stemming from harmful components or product malfunction can put employees' and users' health at risk, and result in substantial reputational and financial costs.
  • Working conditions: The manufacturing and distribution of consumer goods, as well as the sourcing of raw materials, rely on a complex and global value chain. This exposes consumer goods companies to human rights breaches and poor working conditions, especially if suppliers operate in regions with low labor standards.

Appendix 1

Industry forecasts

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Appendix 2

An agile business is one that:

  • Adapts quickly to market conditions
  • Has the flexibility to respond to customer demands rapidly
  • Adapts and leads product innovation in cost-effective ways without compromising quality
  • Stays ahead of the competition

A data-driven busines is one that:

  • Recognizes the need for better data management and develops innovative uses of data
  • Creates revenue from its data
  • Disrupts their markets by using data to substantially increase efficiencies and enhance their competitive advantage

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Diane M Shand, New York + 1 (212) 438 7860;
Secondary Contacts:Bea Y Chiem, San Francisco + 1 (415) 371 5070;
Chris Johnson, CFA, New York + 1 (212) 438 1433;
Gerald T Phelan, CFA, Chicago + 1 (312) 233 7031;
Amanda C O'Neill, New York + (212) 438-5450;
Shannon Slough, New York + 1 (212) 438-0971;

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