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Weak US Sales Volumes Pressure Food Makers

By Paul Ziobro Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- Weak sales volumes in the U.S. are rattling food makers, as consumers shudder at higher prices, private-label food gains share and retailers act cautiously. Higher prices at supermarkets are forcing shoppers to spend more on food, even though they're buying fewer items per trip. That's creating tough choices when shoppers peruse the aisles--deciding whether a something's a "need" or a "want"--and making it harder for products to go from shelf to cart. The latest warning amid this environment came from General Mills Inc. (GIS), which on Friday said weak U.S. sales volume in December and January will prevent its fiscal third-quarter profit from growing. The Cheerios maker also cut its outlook for the year, pushing shares down 4% in recent trading to $38.21. General Mills has plenty of company in struggling in the U.S. Campbell Soup Co. (CPB) and H.J. Heinz Co. (HNZ) both on Friday also reported weak U.S. sales volumes as consumer balk at higher prices and show increased frugality in recent months, although results were ahead of expectations. On Thursday, J.M. Smucker Co. (SJM) posted a double-digit volume decline in its latest quarter, as retail prices on Folgers coffee and Jif peanut butter passed consumer comfort levels. The weak trends have been behind a broad pullback in share prices since the start of the year, after large packaged-food makers as a group outperformed the broader market last year. The S&P 500 Packaged Foods & Meats subindex is up just 0.5% in 2012, compared with an 8% rise in the S&P 500. Food makers have been put in a bind by a rise in commodity costs at a time when unemployment rates remain high and a big chunk of the population remains frugal. That's forced price increases across the board on consumers who have a hard time accepting them. "The consumers are speaking pretty loudly here that they can't take anymore," said Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo, who covers packaged-food companies. Food makers may get a break as costs ease. Smucker plans to use any pullback to get prices on some products back to more palatable levels. Shoppers are finding price increases at supermarkets have outpaced those at restaurants, making dining out an easier choice. On Friday, the Labor Department data showed food-at-home prices were up 5.3% over the last year, compared with a 3.1% increase at restaurants. Some companies hope the weakness is just a post-holiday letdown, with shoppers reassessing their budgets after a holiday season in which retail sales rose 4.1%, according to the National Retail Federation. "It's just post-holiday pressure," Campbell Soup President and Chief Executive Denise Morrison said Friday on an earnings call. "Consumers are making choices, and one of the biggest discretionary choices they have is their food budget." Heinz is relying on overseas sales to drive its growth. Sales in emerging markets rose nearly 20% in its latest quarter, as the company continues to reach further into China, India, Russia and Latin America. Global ketchup sales also gained strongly from the push into new markets, overcoming drab results closer to home, where volume fell as prices rose on Ore-Ida frozen potatoes and Classico pasta sauces. Heinz is resolute in sticking to its prices to keep margins in order. It is refraining from discounting and hoping to appeal to bargain seekers with smaller sizes at lower prices, like a 10-ounce ketchup pouch for 99-cents. "At the end of the day, we are not going to chase share," Heinz Chief Financial Officer Art Winkleblack said. "We could easily buy volume in this kind of market, but I think we're going to continue to try to do the right things, recognize the environment for what it is." -By Paul Ziobro, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2194;

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