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Consumer Confidential: Wal-Mart eyes inflation, Prius' are scarce, Subway is tops

March 31, 2011 | 10:17 am

Walmartpic Here's your don't-give-it-another-thought Thursday roundup of consumer news from around the Web:

--You know times are tough when even Wal-Mart expects prices to rise. Bill Simon, the head of U.S. operations for the world's biggest retailer, says consumers face "serious" inflation in the months ahead for clothing, food and other products. He says Wal-Mart is working with suppliers to minimize the effects of cost increases and believes its low-cost business model will position it better than its competitors. Still, inflation is "going to be serious," Simon tells USA Today. "We're seeing cost increases starting to come through at a pretty rapid rate." Consumer prices rose 0.5% in February, the most since mid-2009, largely because of surging food and gasoline prices. Core inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy costs, rose a more modest 0.2%.

--Rising gas prices mean more demand for fuel-stingy hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius. This happened in 2008 and it's happening again now. But apparently there's never a Prius around when you need one. Some Prius dealers don't have any in their showrooms for shoppers to drive home. Others say their stock is dwindling quickly. Continuing disruptions caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan are rippling across the globe. Toyota restarted its Prius factory early this week but closed it down again Wednesday to reassess its parts supply. The combination of rising gasoline prices and consumers worrying they won't be able to get their car of choice is prompting some to start shopping now. But don't expect any bargains if you find that last Prius on the lot.

--So who's top dog when it comes to fast food? You'd think no one could dethrone Mickey D's, but apparently there's a new king. Subway has been named the 2011 Quick Serve Restaurant Brand of the Year by our friends at Harris Poll, followed by Dairy Queen, Wendy's and McDonalds. However, the brands whose brand equity increased the most over last year include Domino's Pizza, KFC and Taco Bell. M&M's plain is the Sweet Treat Brand of the Year, with Hershey's milk chocolate bars ranking second and last year's highest ranked treat, Hershey's Kisses, third. The takeaway: There's no accounting for taste.

-- David Lazarus

Photo: Oh say can you see ... higher prices? Wal-Mart can. Credit: April L. Brown / Associated Press

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