PG's Real Problem: Why Consumers Should Buy Their Products
HOLDING FOR THE $60sIn early 2012, I was watching a clip off Mad Money - one in which Jim Cramer warned investors to stay away from consumer staples, specifically Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG). Over the years, consumer staples stocks have been the backbone of my portfolio and I was surprised at this assertion as I had recently been buying PG, Campbells (NYSE:CPB), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), General Mills (NYSE:GIS), Kelloggs (NYSE:K), and JM Smucker (NYSE:SJM) in DRIP accounts. His reasoning was that commodity prices for these companies were sky high, which makes some sense in the short-term, but not for the long investor. For me, it was like having an empty deep freezer and seeing my favorite cuts of meat on sale. People were scared of the consumer staples and being greedy made sense, especially when looking at the 3-4.5% yields these stocks provided - it far outweighed any bond or CD that I could find.In late 2011, I had signed up for the PG DRIP and bought twice a month aggressively for about 18 months; I slowed my purchases into 2013 as PG rose in price and stopped altogether in early 2014; I am dollar-cost-averaged (DCA) at about $67. However, since then, I have not added to my position outside of dividends and here is why: growth no longer supported the price as it sailed above $80 - support was coming from the sales of inefficient brands and cost cutting that could only go on for so long. Over the past few months, SA readers have seen multiple P&G articles about its sales of several brands and the impact on P&G's share price. While the simplification of the PG business model will likely help to streamline efficiency, the company's organic growth has gone stagnant. Now, like The Dividend Guy, I am holding and won't be a buyer unless it dips back down into my DCA range or below. And even then I would be buying it like a bond yielding nearly 4% - my hopes for growth will be far below that of Equity Watch. not buying until management can show how growth will again become viable. Vince Martin identified PG's strategy as not working, but I think it goes further - PG is unable to answer why consumers should be loyal to their brands in the long-term.WHY, NOT HOW OR WHATI am a big fan of Simon Sinek, and if you have never watched him present or read any of his work, he works off the idea that organizations produce something (what) in a way (how) and do it for a reason (why). In companies with resilient brand loyalty, the why is the first thing answered as consumers buy the idea of the brand, not just the product. In fact, with loyalty, consumers will experience a level of pain (price/time) to acquire the specific product. A modern example of this is the Harley Davidson (NYSE:HOG) Motorcycle - a company running into sales issues, but refusing to cut prices. PG had this pricing power in the past when it provided the best and most reliable household names - Tide for the cleanest clothes, Bounty and Charmin for the best paper products, and Dawn/Cascade for the cleanest dishes. But today, PG has a "why" problem - and their purpose statement is a prime example.PURPOSE THAT MISSES THE MARKPer PG's website, its purpose is:"We will provide branded products and services of superior quality and value that improve the lives of the world's consumers, now and for generations to come. As a result, consumers will reward us with leadership sales, profit and value creation, allowing our people, our shareholders and the communities in which we live and work to prosper."As a consumer, the first sentence matches what we expect of PG; but then the second sentence might as well say we will overcharge consumers to make us and our shareholders rich. It is not bad if you are a shareholder or PG employee, but likely does not resonate well with consumers. It is more of an outcome than a purpose statement. In addition, if PG says it will make superior quality products, then it must follow-through and this is where the company is also losing. A generation ago (or two or three), generic and cheaper brands generally could not compete with PG's quality. Those companies could not afford to mass produce the same class of product and sell those items at a substantial discount; usually quality suffered significantly and thus consumers remained with PG's known quality. But over the years, generic brands have risen in the ranks, especially as grocery and consumer staples have conducted M&As to become conglomerates, and thus developed the resources to mass produce near-equal products at a reduced price. Take shaving for exampleâ¦COMPETITION ON THEIR HEELSPG owns 70% of the shaving market; this percentage has not really changed for several years as the growth has slowed drastically for a number of reasons. The last conference call noted that the new Fusion razor Proglide sold well, but this is only going to last for so long and is likely a one time blip in earnings. PG can only develop a razor with so many blades, and one can assume that many of these sales were consumers upgrading from their normal Fusion or Mach 3 razors. Either way, the razor business (over 15% of their yearly profit) has slowed. Market saturation can definitely account for some of this stalled growth. But PG also knows that competition has entered this area. Harry's and Dollar Shave Club, while not as high in quality according to the vast majority of online reviews, have entered the market and converted a significant number of consumers. And why not? A Mach 3 blade runs about $3.50/cartridge and a Fusion nearly $5 according to Gillette subscription prices while Harry's is about $1.50 and Dollar Shave Club is self explanatory. Cash-strapped consumers are willing to reconsider the idea of "Gillette: the best a man can get," if they need to pinch pennies.What PG has really lost is not its ability to crank out new products with true innovative features. They have lost the capability to keep consumers hooked on their products as more blades are now seen as gimmicks rather than innovation. And PG knows that competition is catching up as PG's annual reports over the last several years have noted the following:"The consumer products industry is highly competitiveâ¦there are ongoing competitive pressures in the environments in which we operate, as well as challenges in maintaining profit margins. This includes, among other things, increasing competition from mid- and lower-tier value products in both developed and developing markets."MY ONLY HOPE: CUTTING DEAD WEIGHT MAY SPEED PG's ARRIVAL TO THE PARTYAs PG grew larger, another growth issues appeared: arriving to the party late and growing accustomed to just pumping out a product with a new gimmick every few years (new razor with another blade, toothpaste with more cleaning power, etc). They have let competitors either undercut them in price or arrive early and answer the consumer's "why" question, thus stealing away loyal customers. You can call this the Blackberry (BBRY) problem of innovation - as consumers' tastes have changed, PG has been failing to get ahead of those changes and after arriving late to the party, impersonates what its competitors are finding works (monthly razor clubs, energy efficient / safer detergents and soaps). Obviously this is a strategy that bleeds market share slowly; while "late are better than never solutions" can stop the bleeding and heal the wounds, a company can only take so many injuries before it enters a critical state. But with this cutting, I have a hope: that by shedding brands, PG can now rejuvenate its body with some fresh blood and not remain the laggard in these innovative products and ideas. With less to worry about, PG can now focus on the brands that are working to innovate and inspire customers to return and continue using its products.IF YOU BUY, BUY IT LIKE A BONDMy bottom line is that while PG's not going out of business and holds a strong market share, it will continue to face headwinds. Its strong market share is not the same as growth, but it does provide stability for the long-term with a solid dividend. Historically it faces macro-economic downfalls far better than the S&P and can give defensive strength to any portfolio. And thus, at a price in the $60s, it is the equivalent of buying a very long-term 3.5-4% yield bond that should be able to keep up that rate for years to come. While it is a stable holding in any portfolio in the $60s, don't expect it to return to the $80s or hit the $90 mark again in the near future.Disclosure: I am/we are long PG. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.