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Economic Warfare and Cognitive Warfare

Gagliano Giuseppe



Until not long ago, the Western world lived in the conviction that Liberalism was an end in itself, however, the new context of globalization suggests that political economics once again makes more sense, given that power relations in the economic sphere can no longer be ignored and  the idea that world trade is structured on supply and demand appears obsolete.

The world is changing. Situations change, and events and the ways of understanding politics change with them. Instruments change as well: if the aphorism of Clausewitz that war is politics conducted by other means once seemed valid, today we might say that politics (and economics) is war conducted by the means of information.

The threat is no longer limited to what we once thought and conceived in the geographical terms of one superpower attacking another. The threat today is asymmetrical, different, and changes continuously. It travels through the Internet, it is immediate, and above all, it threatens the entire system. It is not aimed at military or political targets but commercial, industrial, scientific, technological, and financial interests instead. This requires intelligence to structure itself around new duties: protect not only the entire system but also the weakest links in the chain of production.

All this requires changes in mentality and in operational processes, as well as continuous updating, especially at a business culture level. Most of all, it requires close interaction between intelligence and the private sector, despite the difficulties this entails.

The crisis we are currently undergoing, together with the industrial and commercial physiognomy characteristic of our era, requires us to consider the idea of “economic warfare” very closely.

It is essentially since the end of the Cold War that the balance of powers has been developed around economic issues: most governments today are no longer interested in occupying territory or dominating other peoples but rather building up technological, industrial and commercial power capable of bringing money and jobs to their own land.

Globalization has transformed competition from “gentle” and “limited” into authentic “economic warfare”.

Although this economic challenge reduces the areas available for military warfare, its ultimate goal of accumulating power and well-being is the same.

The national economic intelligence strategies recently adopted by numerous governments assign their private operatives central roles in maintaining security by providing them with information technology infrastructure and the primary asset in the digital age: data.

The step between protecting private economic activities and protecting national economic interests is a short one indeed.

Economic intelligence consists in coordinating a series of activities: collecting and processing information, monitoring competitors, keeping strategic information secret, and capitalizing knowledge for the purpose of controlling and influencing world economic environment. All this makes it a powerful weapon at the nation’s disposal.

The main players in economic warfare are:

First and foremost, the world’s nations, which remain the most influential regulators on the economic chessboard despite their relative decline in the life of nations and the various restrictions placed over them, such as those imposed by international organizations like the European Union. One important recent change is that now nations must take numerous stakeholders (NGO, international bodies, companies, mass media) into account. At any rate, they uphold the role of arbiter that all the other players only continue to emphasize by regularly imploring their intervention.

The world’s companies, which address the new hyper-competitive geo-economic scenario by using strategic information control as a weapon of competitiveness and economic security.

Civil society: the expansion of discussions on social issues regarding company activities (nutrition and well-being, technological progress and risks to public health industry, and the environment, transport and passenger safety, information technology and individual freedom), the mass use and democratization of Internet, and the growing involvement of the legal system in monitoring business operations, all increase the risks of hacking attacks against companies by hackers from civil society.  Including in the public discussion topics such as risks to the environment, sustainable development, socially responsible investment, and corporate social responsibility brings greater importance to the legitimacy of social questions.

The infosphere, which is not a category of physical persons or legal entities but instead a dynamic, that is the aggregate of interventions and messages spread through media and the worldwide web. The infosphere is a particularly insidious instrument similar to an amplifier that continuously jumbles and blends ideas, emotions, and impulses emitted by an infinite number of people without any real dominant subject and exerts a determinant influence – positive or negative as occurs – on individuals and organizations. When launched in the infosphere, a simple statement has the power to trigger ferocious argument, harsh political reaction, media crises, and damage to company reputations. The infosphere can become a particularly effective weapon of destabilization. We must never forget that a brand’s image and reputation are strategic components of the capital of a company that can affect its commercial and financial activities.

Which forms does economic warfare take?

Economic warfare is often confused with economic espionage, which despite being used as one of economic warfare’s weapons is hard to define both because the companies victimized are reluctant to publicize its incursion and because it is hard to circumscribe in juridical terms and therefore difficult to report.

A more commonly practiced form of economic warfare is the purchasing of companies. This may lead to authentic forms of surrounding the industries in any given territory through operations that reflect motivations of financial, economic and technological nature all at the same time.

Yet another form of economic warfare, which is both particularly widespread and insidious, is lobbying; in other words, an influencing strategy aimed directly at public decision-makers assigned to the drafting of regulations. Our nations are particularly plagued by the proliferation of regulations and one strategically important aspect of lobbying is attending and altering the process of creating, interpreting and/or applying regulations and legislative measures and directly or indirectly influencing public powers in every intervention or decision. International trade is largely based on influence, and therefore gaining closer access to decision-making centers has become an obligatory part of commercial competition.

All the practices above are included in influence strategy: influential communication is also the hardest to identify and oppose because it is perfectly legal. “Information war” is based on the following few simple principles that can wreck havoc when marshaled together:

  • moral argument, that is the possibility to induce a crisis on the basis of an ethical reasoning;
  • offending political correctness by disrupting the day’s cultural and psychological patterns;
  • choosing targets, in the sense that the weaker the legitimacy of the adversary’s capital, the more the information attack will provoke escalation in the media;
  • the degree of celebrity of the players;
  • the criterion of appropriateness or resonance of the environment.

The upheaval of the Western economies’ competitive system is not just a passing thing. A growing number of powers (China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Iran, Russia) is conditioning the rapid shift in international competition. More often than not, the choice of winning dominance in foreign markets prevails over restructuring the nation’s own domestic markets. This demonstrates the extent to which a power strategy can make a decisive difference in the context of economic competition. These new players in international competition hold a different view of the dialectic between power and market, the latter being seen as the primary means to the increment of power. This vision revives the basic principles of political economics, according to which the market is the only path to power and not the other way around that has been demonstrated in numerous cases (such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin’s use of energy resources for coercive bargaining and blackmail in 2009) and illustrates the limits  of the interpretative models of liberal economists whose analyses were focused on the effects of deregulation, mergers, or financial speculation involving gas prices, but fell short of the possible use of gas trade as a weapon.

The process of globalization is irreversible and fairly independent of what governments do.  Globalization is one thing, but the ideology of a global free market that may produce a higher growth rate than any other system but gives no importance to how such growth is distributed is another. The argument that the highest capitalistic growth distributes resources in the best possible way, in fact, was never very convincing. Even Adam Smith thought that there were certain things the market could not do and should not do.

Historically speaking, the balanced evolution of world industry was created not by liberalism but by its opposite. The United States and Germany both became industrial powers in the 19th century because they protected their industries until they were able to compete against the dominant economy of the day: Great Britain. Neo-classical economic theories are now in disfavor because the system has come to be disrupted by scarce control over international financial flows and investment procedures.

Now more than ever, we are witnessing a struggle between the forces of capitalism, which tend to overcome every obstacle, and political forces that operate through nation states and are obliged to regulate these procedures. The laws of capitalist development are simple: maximize expansion, profit, and increase in capital. Governments by nature have different priorities instead, and this generates conflict. Furthermore, the dynamic of the global economy is one that does not ensure the stability of its protagonists.

The nation-state system and the economy system coexist in constant tension and must adapt, but if there were no relative stability among states, the instability of a world organized along the lines of transnational economy would only increase. The real problem is not whether governments can control the international corporations operating inside their borders, but whether they are able to exert global control: when companies and governments clash, the latter must negotiate as if there were another nation seated before them.

Like religions and cultures, globalization is only a simplified answer to today’s conflicts and the challenges to security. Globalization has most certainly reduced the importance of military power since the end of the 20th century, whereas security – internal security in particular – has become a global public asset. In the age of information technology, interdependence, and ”smart goods over heavy goods”, the military force offers less and costs more. Economic, technological, and especially communicative competition is more important and determinant than military strength.

The globalization of information has contributed to changing the nature of warfare by making public opinion decisive. In the short term, geo-information has become more important than geo-economy because its effects are immediate and not always governable. This is also a post-Cold War phenomenon.

In this context, the economy is no longer the mechanism of security as it was during Cold War, but on the contrary, security now serves the economy in creating better conditions for the expansion and protection of globalization. The nature of security depends on the situation prevailing in each nation and varies from one region to another, according to the respective level of globalization.

Consequently, it is the process of globalization that has restored political economics to importance and re-sparked a discussion formerly considered closed, according to which the market is the path to power and not the other way around, as it becomes an instrument of power politics in the globalization of exchange. The accumulation of power through economic expansion is the driving force behind the new emerging nations.

Yet today’s economic context must come to terms with new offensive strategies that undermine the industrial basis of the market economy and draw attention to the predatory policies of what may be defined as authentic economic warfare.

It is in this context that all companies, regardless of size, can be said to suffer damage from the absence of an economic security culture that only the use of intelligence, as a tool in analyzing predatory completion, can provide.

Interpreting the notion of national security including also the safeguarding of national interests requires information and security services to be ready to protect big companies or those of strategic significance, which the French refer to as “companies of national strategic importance” or “national champions”. These companies often – but not always – have their own information or security organizations that help them survive fiercer and fiercer competition.

In any case, in the field of economic intelligence the rules between the services of the various nations are more flexible, and it is easier to refer to others merely as competitors, neither friend nor enemy. This field is currently in the process of development, and European economic intelligence is still in embryonic phase.

The evolution of the information society has profoundly modified the frame of conflict. In the opinion of American analysts like John Arquilla and David Runfeldt, experts in netwar at Rand Corporation, the nation that wins tomorrow’s conflicts will not be the one with the biggest bomb, but the one that tells the best story.

In this sense, Americans have been referring to the key concept of information dominance since 1997. Defined as the control of anything that may be deemed information, this doctrine aspires at the moulding of the world by standardizing international practices and regulations to the American model, with the objective of placing decision-making bodies under control.

These experts note that it is sufficient to observe how American public opinion was mobilized during the invasion of Kuwait by a disinformation process planned at military level, or more precisely, at the level of psychological warfare. Information manipulation processes allow certain facts to be marginalized, and for this reason the domination of information has become a top priority in defining American strategy.

We may consider how the war in Iraq demonstrated the importance that manipulating information has assumed in international relations. The accusations made by G. W. Bush against Saddam Hussein regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction represent a textbook case in the history of disinformation.

On the other hand, we must be careful of jumping to conclusions about how cognitive warfare is waged: disinformation, or even worse, the manipulation and authentic distortion of information for the purpose of deceiving your adversary or ally is often mistakenly confused with the production of knowledge conceived to orient the rules of conduct.

In this regard, Harbulot emphasized the profoundly innovative role of information war in terms of strategy and its implications for companies.

It was naturally Harbulot’s intention to use cognitive warfare to protect the economic interests of French companies against their American competitors. If, in fact, conflicts ranging from the Gulf War to the War in Kosovo have demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of American military intelligence overseas, what room for maneuver remains open today for the managers of the intelligence service in Western Europe, who are responsible for defending the geo-economic interests of their nations against American interests? Harbulot’s answer is clear: this room for maneuver is constantly eroding, and a situation of near total paralysis has been reached in certain cases.

Closing this gap means modernizing the thought of Sun-Tzu, the Comintern, and Mao Zedong, and especially that of Winston Churchill, the first Western statesman to have orchestrated a plan for information warfare against Nazi Germany (Plan Jaël). In terms of disinformation, he represents British genius in deceiving the enemy on the dates and locations of invasion landings.

Naturally, the lack of legal provisions regarding the manipulation of knowledge raises serious concern for the economic security of European companies, which must consequently arm themselves with techniques capable of strategically managing economic information.

It is precisely in light of American political-military choices that French strategy discerned the need to define just what information war really is in the strictest terms. The expression used in French strategic context is “cognitive warfare”, which is defined as the capacity to utilize knowledge in circumstances of conflict.

In particular, the French School of Economic Warfare acknowledges in cognitive warfare the conflict between different capacities of obtaining, producing, and/or obstructing determined types of knowledge implicit in power relations that can be defined “weak against weak” or inversely, “weak against strong”.

Numerous examples that come from the world of industry testify that innovation in this field is not always necessarily made by the strongest. Naturally, the United States is the primary artifice of “strong against weak” cognitive thinking, such as, for example, in defense of its position as superpower at both military and informational level. This nation’s way of orienting its own and the other nation’s conduct implies its complete acquisition of the importance of cognitive warfare as the ability to have the images of single powers perceived by the world public opinion, a strong argument in the search for legitimacy that every democracy must acquire in national and international context. The United States has always – but especially after September 11 – stoked the legitimacy of its policies by emphasizing the defense of democracy and the need for global security as reasons to combat anti-democratic forces.

In today’s context of intense competition, destabilization plays a fundamental role. Harbulot suggests considering the example, that has become common practice in economic warfare, of a multinational company that decides to stop a competitor from developing a project in an emerging nation.

A cognitive warfare operation might take the following form:

Identification of the competitor’s weak points in the area in question (weaknesses may vary in nature: bribes paid to authorities, environmental pollution, failures to respect human rights). All the information collected must be verifiable and not give rise to fallacious interpretation.

The choice of the information attack procedure: if the cognitive aspect is considered, the following scenario may be imagined. The director assigned orders funds to be paid into a private foundation supported by the company. A trusted person at such foundation then channels this money to a NGO that has posed itself the objective of protecting the environment. The maneuver consists in then making the NGO aware of this dossier by indirectly providing it with verifiable (and therefore non-manipulated) information on the misdeeds of the competitor multinational. Through its Internet site, the NGO then sends negative messages against the competitor’s project. This is how the chain of knowledge is created. The next step required is knowing how to consciously activate it for the purpose of destabilizing the target.

The chief strength of the information attack lies not in deceiving or misinforming but instead in fomenting a pertinent dispute that has been demonstrated by objective facts. The level of conspiracy is limited to setting up and activating the information chain. The more “grounded” the diatribe is, the harder it will be for the adversary to demonstrate conspiracy, even if only in theory.

It is clear that the spread of new information technologies has brought competition exasperated levels and facilitated cognitive warfare, in such way triggering an unprecedented conflict that, in the opinion of the French analysts, exceeds even that of the Cold War.

Information has become another weapon in the art of war capable of making the difference between winning and losing, regardless of whether the conflict is military or economic.

Changes of such degree impose cultural revolution.

Then there is psychological warfare, one of the principal forms of information war. It is the most sophisticated because it relies essentially on human intelligence, in its capacity to understand possible actions for success by controlling the means of communication.

Little known and scarcely practiced in France, psychological warfare has never received much attention from the military establishment, which has often succumbed to the pressure of events or adversaries, as happened in Indochina and Algeria.

Psychological warfare employs every means available, from disinformation to deceit, from propaganda to interdiction, in clashes of various nature (from the battle against terrorism to conventional warfare and the subsidization of peace) and is moreover directed to public opinion for the purpose of conditioning or manipulating it.

The use of psychological weapons cannot be improvised and is based on an organized operative structure and conducted by specialized personnel and organizations.

Civil communication systems have by now reached levels of performance previously attained only by armed forces and governments. This has led to the accumulation of a critical mass such to enable a lowering of costs. For this reason, even if the conservation of certain autonomous military capacities is foreseen, the development of information systems for defense and intervention depends more and more on civil systems. This creates a vulnerability that might be underestimated in times of crisis or conflict.

The infosphere’s framework has become highly conflictual; information war has become inevitable and is waged with the function of appropriation (intelligence), interdiction (limitation of access to information) and manipulation (intoxication).

Economic intelligence provides a necessary response to a world with no more borders of time or space, where information is immediate and reaction time is zero. A re-organization of structures around the new dimension assumed by the relationship between information and intelligence leads to changes in both the decision-making system and the management of human resources. First and foremost of all, the revolution must be cultural in nature: perceiving information as a weapon to be incorporated into national defense strategy.

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A Sustainable Recovery In Gaza Is Not Foreseen Without Trade

MD Staff



Gaza has seen conditions steadily deteriorate over the last two decades, leading to collapsing of the economy and basic social services. While additional cash inflows are urgently needed to bring relief to the difficult living conditions, a lasting recovery depends on a concerted strategy to revive the Gaza economy through access to external markets and expansion of commercial activities.

A new World Bank report explores the nature of the rapid decline of the socio-economic conditions in Gaza and identifies what is needed to unlock sustainable growth. The report will be presented to the Ad Hoc Liaison committee (AHLC) on March 20, 2018 in Brussels, a policy-level meeting for development assistance to the Palestinian people.

While additional aid is needed to provide humanitarian relief in the short term and ease the fiscal stress, it cannot continue to substitute for long term measures,” said Marina Wes, World Bank Country Director for West Bank and Gaza. “Serious commitments by all parties are needed to spur growth and jobs by putting in place the right conditions for a dynamic private sector. Without addressing the constraints, Gaza will continue to suffer with a heavy toll on its population,” she added.

Donor aid is urgently needed in the short-term to address the recent liquidity squeeze and improve dire humanitarian conditions.

Recent economic data revealed a drop in Gaza growth from 8 percent in 2016 to a mere 0.5 percent in 2017 with almost half of the labor force unemployed. The drop is attributed to a decline in inflows that has weakened reconstruction activity and led to a sharp decline in the income of a quarter of Gazans.

Access and quality of basic services such as electricity, water and sewerage is rapidly deteriorating and posing grave health risks. An additional destabilizing factor is the possible cuts to UNRWA funding – one of the main providers of jobs and services in Gaza. In fact, the cuts could risk income loss to 18,000 staff, and even more when counting their dependents.

Additional aid will be needed to avoid financial exacerbations. The potential reconciliation with Gaza, a positive for the territories overall, could increase the expected financing gap for 2018 from USD440 million to USD1 billion. Measures proposed by the Palestinian Authority will not be enough to close the gap and it will resort to domestic sources of financing including debt from local banks and arrears to the private sector and the pension fund. This could eventually choke the economies of both the West Bank and Gaza with negative consequences on suppliers, banks and ultimately growth and tax generation.

In the long term, aid will not be able to provide the impetus for growth, nor can it reverse Gaza’s de-development. The current market in Gaza is not able to offer jobs and incomes leaving a large population in despair, particularly the youth. Gaza’s exports are a fraction of their pre-blockade level and the manufacturing sector has shrunk by as much as 60 percent over the last twenty years. The economy cannot survive without being connected to the outside world.

Any effort at economic recovery and development must address the impacts of the current closure regime. Minor changes to the restrictive system currently in place will not be sufficient. Proposed projects to increase the supply of water and electricity are extremely welcome, but unless there is an opportunity to boost incomes through expanding trade, the sustainability of these investments will be in doubt.

The report highlights necessary preconditions for a sustained economic recovery in Gaza. They include a private sector that can compete in regional and global markets and increase its exports of goods and services. Required actions include relaxing the dual use restrictions, streamlining trade procedures at Gaza’s commercial crossing and rebuilding trade links with the West Bank and Israel.  Effective governance systems and institutional strengthening under the Palestinian Authority’s leadership are also key for a sustainable recovery.

Donors can also help by offering innovative financing instruments that can mitigate risks holding back transformative investments by the private sector in Gaza.

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Brazil Must Strengthen Structural Reforms to Drive Growth and Productivity

MD Staff



A sustainable economic recovery in Brazil can only be achieved through a programme of structural reforms aimed at driving growth and productivity. This is the finding of a report, Brazil Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth Lab, published by the World Economic Forum, which summarizes recommendations from a multistakeholder group comprising key actors and experts from the public and private sectors and academia. The report identified the main priorities for achieving higher growth and a more inclusive economy in Brazil with a view to informing the country’s economic strategy. The process was facilitated by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Ministry of Industry.

While Brazil’s economy is on a path to recovery, the Brazil Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth Lab report finds that over-reliance on its large domestic market and commodities exports has led to it falling behind other large emerging markets in productivity growth. Data from the Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 suggests that important reasons for this are the high costs of doing business, the challenges for effective innovation and the relatively poor integration into global value chains of Brazil’s economy, which imports and exports considerably less than regional peers Mexico and Colombia and all the other BRICS economies.

According to the report, Brazil needs to put in place a new generation of reforms and public policies capable of addressing the high production costs, weak competence within industries, higher prices to consumers and low overall competitiveness, as all these factors lead to loss of potential wealth the country needs to raise living standards.

“The Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth Lab initiative in Brazil provides a successful example of using a multistakeholder approach to elaborate concrete and meaningful policy solutions to complex challenges. We hope the present experience will guide and promote future collaboration between the public and private sectors in Brazil,” said Børge Brende, President, Member of the Managing Board, World Economic Forum.

“Improving the business environment, deepening the integration of our economy with the rest of the world and creating a robust innovation ecosystem are the main building blocks of a more productive and competitive Brazil. This report presents a consensus roadmap to untap the potential of Brazilian economy,” said Marcos Jorge de Lima, Minister of Industry, Foreign Trade and Services of Brazil.

The recommendations of the multistakeholder group include:

Integration to global value chains: Recommendations in the report focus on improving market access, implementing trade and investment facilitation policies and improving the tax environment for trade, including a comprehensive analysis and review of Mercosur’s common external tariff (CET).

Innovation: Brazil still lags behind other leading economies in innovation. Better integration of policies and coordination between currently fragmented innovation centres would help to address this.

Public sector efficiency: In the Global Competitiveness Index, Brazil’s public sector underperforms the Latin America average, which in turn lags far behind the OECD average. Recommendations to improve efficiency centre on systematic integration of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, allowing greater facility to reallocate investments in more productive sectors. This would also generate greater accountability and trust.

Reforming the business environment: A heavy regulatory burden, infrastructure deficit and tax system have all taken a toll on Brazil’s productivity. Delivering institutional and judicial reforms to reinvigorate domestic and foreign competition are needed to address this. To this end, the report examines a number of promising initiatives already being implemented by the Brazilian government.

The Forum’s Competitiveness and Inclusive Growth Lab Brazil is an ongoing multistakeholder initiative to support the design, launch and implementation of an actionable agenda to increase competitiveness. Like previous country experiences in Colombia and Mexico, its aim is to facilitate this by helping to build multistakeholder coalitions that comprise leaders from government, business and civil society.

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Consumer Economics Are Driving Retail Industry Bifurcation

MD Staff



With retail sales increasing 3.5 percent in 2017, compared to a gross domestic product growth rate of 2.3 percent the same year, the retail sector is showing signs of healthy growth thus the so-called ‘retail apocalypse’ is a myth, according to a new study from Deloitte. The study, “The great retail bifurcation: Why the retail “apocalypse” is really a renaissance,” found that the retail sector is healthy and shows strong signs of growth. Rather than a battle of online against brick-and mortar, Deloitte found that retail is changing in line with consumer income bifurcation, with both high-end and price-conscious retailers seeing revenues soar, growing 81 percent and 37 percent, respectively, while those in the middle realized a mere 2 percent increase in sales over the past five years.

“Despite the popular narrative, the ‘retail apocalypse’ is far from reality,” said Kasey Lobaugh, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP and the report’s lead author. “Brick-and-mortar retail is not on or near its deathbed. In fact, we’re seeing retailers open new stores at an astounding pace, and physical retail is growing alongside digital. Rather than witnessing the demise of retail, our study shows a dramatic change in line with the impact of consumer bifurcation along economic lines. While specific retailers may see an apocalypse, others see opportunity.”

Based on a survey of more than 2,000 consumers and an analysis of a large collection of US-based publicly traded retailers, the study examines a growing disparity between consumer income cohorts and highlights the impact of this economic bifurcation on retailers.

Consumer income bifurcation defies traditional economic metrics
While strong economic indicators paint a promising portrait on the surface, the study looked deeper and found massive gaps in consumers’ discretionary spending power. Incremental income generated since the recession has disproportionately gone to high-income households, with virtually all income growth between 2007 and 2015 going to the top 20 percent.

Deloitte found that the household economic health correlates to consumer spending behavior. Key economic findings from the study include:

  • Economic well-being: Just one-in-five surveyed consumers (20 percent) are better off in 2017 than they were in 2007 in terms of disposable income, with little to spend on discretionary retail categories. Overall, four in five consumers (80 percent) have fewer funds for traditional retail segments such as apparel. Alongside this trend, high-income consumers are 10 percent more likely to report spending more over the last year.
  • Rising costs: Faced with stagnant levels of income, lower-earning consumers have seen the costs of nondiscretionary items skyrocket: health care expenditures have risen 62 percent, education 41 percent, food 17 percent and housing 12 percent, according to Deloitte’s analysis of reports from Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • New expenses: Modern consumer essentials like mobile phones and data plans now take up an increased portion of discretionary spending, stealing share from traditional retail categories. Low-income consumers feel the brunt of the impact, spending 3.6 percent of their income on digital devices and data, compared to just 0.71 percent for high earners.

“Households have diverged along economic lines and now people’s respective income levels are steering their behaviors and dictating the success of retail segments,” said Robert Stephens, senior manager, Deloitte Consulting LLP and co-author of the study. “More affluent shoppers have fueled high-end retail as their income and net worth have grown, while lower-earning consumers, faced with growing expenses and dramatically less disposable income, have turned toward price-conscious stores. Retailers that try to court all consumers will likely be challenged as income bifurcation leaves different shoppers with differing motivations.”

Retail isn’t dying, and premier and low-price are thriving
In line with consumer bifurcation by income level, Deloitte found the retail market is also bifurcating along economically-driven divides. Through an analysis of publicly traded retailers, Deloitte defined three retail cohorts: premier retailers that deliver value via premier product and experience offerings; price-based retailers that deliver value by selling at the lowest possible prices and clearly communicating that proposition to customers and balanced retailers that deliver value via a balance of price and/or promotion.

Examined side by side, these three groups offer differing narratives that align with income-driven changes in consumer behavior:

  • More stores are opening than closing: From 2015 to 2017, price-based retailers gained 2.5 stores for every store balanced retailers closed.
  • Revenues have grown: Premier retailers have seen 40x more revenue growth than that of balanced retailers over the last five years, with revenues soaring 81 percent versus a mere 2 percent increase for balanced retailers. Price-based retailers, meanwhile, have seen their revenues steadily increase 37 percent over the same period.
  • Sales climb overall: Premium (8 percent) and price-based (7 percent) retailers’ sales rose in the past year, while sales of balanced retailers declined by 2 percent.

Income bifurcation Impacts consumers’ category, channel and spend decisions
Income bifurcation has triggered differences in consumer shopping behavior between economic groups. Beyond their actual spending levels, these two groups also differ in how and where they make purchases:

  • Preferred formats: Low-income consumers are 44 percent more likely to shop at discount retailers than other groups. These consumers are also more likely than others to shop at supermarkets, convenience stores and department stores.
  • Channel choices: The majority (58 percent) of low-income consumers are choosing to shop in store, while 52 percent of high-income consumers prefer to shop online. High-income consumers were also 42 percent more likely to report an increased propensity to shop online over the prior three months.
  • Shopping around: In-store spending fragmentation – or the number of retailers a consumer regularly shops – is 17 percent higher amongst high-income consumers. Fragmentation is even more exaggerated online, as affluent consumers are 40 percent more fragmented for online retailers than consumers in the lowest income cohort.

The millennial money myth
While millennials are often lumped together and portrayed as the source of disruption, Deloitte found that for the most part, millennial behavior (by income group) is virtually indistinguishable from other generations. Low-income millennials track closely with all other generations when it comes to whether they have spent in stores recently (79 percent and 81 percent, respectively), and in the middle-income cohort, there’s no difference between millennials and other generations, with 81 percent of each group having made purchases in-store.

However, high-income millennials, who make up less than one-fifth (19 percent) of the total millennial generation and just 6 percent of the population overall, skew perceptions of Gen Y as a whole. High-income millennials are 24 percent less likely than all non-millennial shoppers to shop in a store, and may be the source of the idea that millennials are the end of brick-and-mortar retail. When averaged together, the high-income shopper’s behaviors skew the averages for the entire millennial group.

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