retail news in context, analysis with attitude

MNB reported yesterday that Brown & Cole, the Bellingham, Washington-based supermarket chain, announced that it will sell off eight of its 31 stores, or almost 25 percent of the company, because of an inability to compete effectively with an expanding Wal-Mart presence.

"This is in large part due to two things," company president Craig W. Cole said in a prepared statement, "health care costs and the deliberate saturation of the market by Wal-Mart." Cole, saying that the company plans to keep its remaining 23 stores open, also said that “the American worker and local businesses are becoming road kill in Wal-Mart's march toward the worldwide domination of commerce.”

In the last 24 hours, we’ve had a chance to think about the Brown & Cole situation. We sympathize. Feeling like road kill, or like you have a target on your back, can’t be pleasant.

These are incredible challenges that small, family-owned retailers face - the difficulties of competing with enormous entities such as Wal-Mart, especially for folks like Craig Cole, good and decent citizens who have always tried to do the right thing for their employees and communities, even when it might have been easier or more profitable to take another path.

Here’s what we think Craig Cole has to do now.

Look at his employees, and say, “Okay, we cut the chain by 25 percent. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t our preference. But to compete in 2005 and beyond, that’s what companies such as ours have to do, like it or not.”

Cole has to say: “But a far harder – and more important – decision is what we are going to do with the 23 stores that we’re keeping. Because we have to change these stores in significant ways if we are to survive and thrive.”

It won’t just be lowering prices, or spending more money on marketing or customer service. It’ll be something else – something radical and innovative and completely unexpected.

It will be that vision – and implementation of those changes – that will fuel Brown & Cole’s future.

It will, in fact, require vision. And imagination. Something that we’ve always believed that Craig Cole has. Something that he must have, and that all independent-minded retailers must have.
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