NEW YORK -- Price increases on some consumer staples may be hitting their limit.
Clorox's chief executive said Friday that the company had rescinded most of its planned price increases and that further cuts were possible.
"I think you'll see the industry backing off," chief executive officer Don Knauss said. "I think there's very little appetite for increases."
As prices for oil, gas and plastics rose to unprecedented heights last year, most major consumer products companies raised prices for a range of staples, including pet food, toothpaste and toilet paper. Clorox, maker of its namesake bleach, sells a range of products from Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing to Brita water filters and Fresh Step kitty litter.
Now that commodity prices are easing up and consumers face a financial crisis, some companies are cutting prices to attract shoppers.
Clorox has rescinded a 10 percent price increase on Glad trash bags that took effect in October, for example, Knauss said. And many of the hikes Clorox had planned for the first half of 2009 have been abandoned.
"There could be some other price cuts," he said. "We'll monitor the situation to see how we're doing."
Jefferies & Co. analyst Douglas Lane said he expected other consumer products makers to join Clorox in cutting prices.
"Competitors will definitely do the same," he said. "I think we'll see that the people who took pricing aggressively are going to have to give it back aggressively. Companies that took more measured pricing will have less pressure."
Knauss said the company may offer more details when it announces its quarterly results Feb. 4. In part, he said Clorox and its rivals are waiting to see what consumer spending patterns will be like in the year ahead.
Products people use when they eat at home more often are selling better than others, Knauss said, offering the examples of the company's Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, which has moved into the No. 1 spot among dressings, as well as its KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce and Kingsford charcoal.
Consumer products companies are traditionally seen as defensive investments because their products sell even when consumers feel financially strapped.
"When you look at consumer packaged goods, I think they're still a good, competitive play," Knauss said. "People still clean their homes, they clean their bathrooms, and they eat at home more."
"We're not dependent on easy credit, like the automakers or electronics sellers, and we're not capital-intensive," he said.
"We're a little more recession-resistant than these other industries you could be in."
Citigroup analyst Wendy Nicholson expects large consumer products companies to report 7 percent revenue growth and 5 percent per-share profit growth when they report year-end results for 2008. She said Citi's portfolio of such companies outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500 by 13 percentage points during the year.
Clorox shares fell roughly 12 percent between Jan. 2, 2008, and Jan. 2 this year, while the S&P 500 fell 35 percent.
While trends in commodity costs may help in 2009, a strong dollar could hurt. The dollar's value relative to other currencies has risen 20 percent to 30 percent in recent months, and Nicholson believes a strong dollar could depress revenue at household and personal care companies, leading to a 1 percent drop, on average.
Other factors may provide a boost, though, including lower raw materials prices and advertising rates, she said.