As a general rule, one with several exceptions but not so many that they refute the main point, catering to rich people won’t make you rich. By definition, there just aren’t enough of them to go around. To quote author Roy H. Williams, “Sell to the masses, live with the classes,” and vice versa. Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) founder Sam Walton’s heirs are among the wealthiest people on Earth, and they didn’t get there by doing a brisk business in yachts and luxury sedans. Meanwhile, it’s safe to assume that Alice Walton’s landscapers live in a vastly different part of town than she does.
In a recession, or a post-recessionary economy, or however you’d choose to style the current situation of chronic low employment and stagnant wages that is now entering its seventh year or so, there’s more of a need than ever to supply the ranks of low-income customers. They number in the millions, and their spending patterns are fairly predictable. Some of America’s largest corporations have capitalized on the economic doldrums, not merely thriving but flourishing by selling to the masses.
Walmart itself became the world’s largest retailer through an efficient strategy of selling as much as possible for as little as possible. A mainstay of the Dow Jones Industrial Average for the last 17 years, Walmart boasts 130 million weekly shoppers in the United States alone. That’s a majority of the nation’s adult population and includes plenty of middle-class and wealthy people, too. The company’s low prices and attractiveness to budget-minded shoppers is no coincidence, but the result of design and engineering. Walmart serves them with a logistical operation that makes its peers envious. It includes 158 distribution centers each covering at least 23 acres and a team of drivers that travels the equivalent of a round trip to Jupiter every year.
Stretching Those Dollars
But Walmart is a leviathan, as hard for the average retail shopper to avoid as Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT) is for the average computer user to not patronize. Walmart’s clientele runs the socioeconomic gamut, while other retailers actively cater to a poorer or at least more frugal constituency. Take Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based Dollar General Corp. (NYSE:DG), America’s largest chain in the growing sector of what’s politely styled “value-oriented retail.” Over the last five years Dollar General’s stock has been the picture of a steadily increasing opportunity, its graph resembling the hypotenuse in a high-school geometry textbook illustration of a right triangle. Dollar General boasts 10,500 locations in the United States, which is impressive enough on its own until one steps back and realizes how large the market sector is. Dollar General’s largest competitor has 8,000 stores, the next competitor around 5,000. Dollar General itself operates as efficiently as any company looking to thwart corporate raiders, its same-store sales currently in their 24th consecutive year of growth. Management bought back millions of shares in the past year, indicating how desirable the stock is to own. The 21st-century descendant of the old five-and-dime variety store is burgeoning in a way that F.W. Woolworth himself never could have envisioned.
Overwhelming medical evidence might prove that putting tobacco smoke where air ought to go is a foolish idea, but try telling that to the 29% of people below the poverty level who can’t hear you through the grey clouds of rich and mild satisfaction. One would think that cigarettes would be among the first expenses to be jettisoned among people needing to economize, but Henrico County, Va.-based Altria Group, Inc.'s (NYSE:MO) recent sales figures would indicate otherwise. All told, the company sold 135 billion cigarettes in the U.S. alone last year. And even with cigarettes costing upwards of $10 a pack in some states the company’s stock price has risen steadily since its 2008 nadir. Altria revenue may have remained stagnant for years but its operations are still extremely profitable.
Sweet (And Salty) Profits
It barely counts as research to point out that there’s a correlation between tobacco use and snack food consumption, or that both go hand-in-hand with poverty and near-poverty. Deerfield, Ill.-based Mondelēz International, Inc. (Nasdaq:MDLZ) is the world’s largest publicly held snack food company/confectionery, the qualifier needed to distinguish it from privately held Mars, Inc. If the name sounds unfamiliar, Mondelēz is the lineal successor to Kraft Foods, which split into distinct international snack and North American grocery businesses in 2012 (the latter of those was the smaller, yet it retained the Kraft name. The manufacturer of Oreo, Ritz, Toblerone, Triscuit, Nabisco products and dozens of other famous brand names, Mondelēz enjoys high profit margins in an industry known for small ones. The company has averaged a consistent $35 billion in revenue since the spin-off, and embraces its low-income customer base via such simple but effective strategies as selling fewer units per package.
No treatise on corporations with a modestly compensated clientele would be complete without a reference to Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. (NYSE:MCD), which despite its recent forays into premium coffee is still the company synonymous with the phrase “Dollar Menu.” Even given a recent leadership change and such external concerns as an effort to increase the federal minimum wage, McDonald’s continues to provide its 69 million daily customers with quick-service food of such quality that legendary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià admits that he “and the 100 best chefs in the world cannot do better for the price.” With stock currently trading at about 17 times earnings, McDonald’s remains one of the few companies holding ground in a rudderless economy, averaging profits of $5.5 billion on revenue of $28 billion in each of the last two years.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of how far humanity progresses and how rich we all are compared to our ancestors of a century ago, there must always be a lowest income quintile. The companies that most efficiently serve those who make the least money, year in and year out, regardless of the strength of the underlying economy, will never have difficulty being profitable.