Cold Facts in Emerging Market Fridges

Tassos Stassopoulos

It’s not easy for investors to grasp the dynamics of consumer spending in diverse emerging markets. We think the best way is to look inside the refrigerators of people across the developing world.

Refrigerators are more than just iceboxes. Their contents speak volumes about their owners. And their proliferation signals a country’s economic progression. So the fridge and its contents can serve as a guide for investors seeking to tap emerging consumer spending, which is projected to grow eightfold to US$63 trillion by 2030, according to our forecasts, based on OECD data.

Devices Are Deceiving

Emerging consumers defy simple classifications. Some analysts look at income, assets or people per room as a framework. In our view, these indicators are flawed. For example, a Living Standard Measure counts the number of certain items in a home to determine a household’s socioeconomic status. So a person with a laptop, TV, mobile phone and stereo could be classified as rich. Yet in our field research, we’ve met people in countries like Ghana whose ramshackle homes are full of electronic devices but who are quite obviously poor.

Kitchens offer a more honest reflection. Behind the fridge door is an abundance of information that can help us understand who emerging consumers are and how they’re likely to spend money in the future. We’ve analyzed the contents of 70 refrigerators in rural and urban homes that we visited across 12 developing countries from Chile to China. While it may not be a statistical sample, the initial patterns we’ve seen suggest that the inside of a fridge mirrors the status of a home.

Food for Thought

In working-class homes, the fridge is used mainly for efficiency items (Display). It includes basic foods such as eggs, fruits and vegetables and some pre-cooked food. Middle-class fridges stock more indulgences, from alcoholic beverages to chocolate and cheese. And for affluent households, health is a primary concern. So expect to find foods like low-fat yoghurt or 100% fruit juices.

Why is this important? Because once we understand how people’s tastes change as their income levels increase, we can also figure out how to invest in the consumer evolution as the refrigeration revolution sweeps through a market.

The display below shows penetration of refrigerators in different countries as income levels increase, from 1980 through 2013. In developed markets, more than 99% of households have a fridge. Brazil isn’t far behind. In China, about 86% of homes had a fridge. But in India, by contrast, only about 27% of households were able to chill their food. This is likely to increase rapidly as annual per capita incomes reach US$3,000, which seems to be the tipping point for rapid adoption of refrigeration.

Indulgences in China

Our research suggests that China is in the indulgence phase. So companies that make products like beer, butter and chocolates should benefit from rising incomes. Indian families are still buying fridges, then filling them with efficiency items like milk, yogurt and ready-made sauces. Brazil has already shifted toward health mode, which should see higher-end food producers draw more spending.

Of course, specific investing conclusions differ in every country. Market environments and company fundamentals must also be studied to identify successful portfolio candidates. But by starting with refrigerator shelves, we think investors can gain vital intelligence to understand the people, lifestyles and spending scenarios that will unlock earnings growth in emerging consumer companies.

This blog was originally published on InstitutionalInvestor.com.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AllianceBernstein portfolio-management teams. AllianceBernstein Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom.

Tassos Stassopoulos manages the Emerging Consumer strategy, as well as Global Growth/Thematic strategies at AllianceBernstein (NYSE:AB).

 

 

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