retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Around this time each year, I get a flu shot. It’s no big deal, except something always bugs me. Why do I have to get a shot every year? Isn’t it possible that last year’s vaccine could actually help me this year?

For those of us who know little of nothing about science, we know the problem with that question. The flu virus somehow changes each and every year. Somehow it becomes a little different requiring breath-taking stories on television, fears of widespread illness and death and, of course, a whole new batch of flu shots.

You have to hand it to the bug. That’s a heck of a marketing campaign.

But organisms are that way. They mutate, they change and the challenges they create shift too. I remember getting a lesson on this one year from someone who knows a lot about science: FMI’s food safety expert Jill Hollingsworth. As Jill put it, the reason food safety issues never go away is because the bugs keep changing. They mutate and the response to them has to do the same.

It’s a good metaphor for the current economic mess. We keep hearing people talk about how this is the worst thing since the Great Depression or whatever. The bottom line is: we have never been here before. We’ve never had this combination of events all at the same time in an economy with all the attributes we have today.

So the response demanded by business and consumers has to be just like the flu shot. In other words, it needs to be different. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past, but we have to remember the future is the key. The difference ns this flu, this food safety outbreak and this economic downturn is what has mutated and how do we fight it.

There are signs of activity all around today. While the airwaves for weeks were full of political commercials talking about the economy, few, if any, actually provided a solution. Except for one set of ads—those coming from Walmart.

A few weeks back I wrote about Walmart’s ads touting the savings of cooking a pizza at home compared to ordering out. Now, the Bentonville gang is at it again, comparing the cost of eating breakfast at home or at a restaurant. Other ads talk up the fuel savings of shopping in a massive one-stop store…just the kind Walmart runs.

Will those guys stop at nothing?

The ads serve as a brilliant reminder of Walmart’s price positioning. Love them or hate them, you have to admit that Walmart talks about what concerns the consumer. It might be the environment or it might be prices. Either way, Walmart reminds customers that it cares.

Over the past decade, many retailers have found they could compete and co-exist with Walmart by doing things differently. And many have watched in amazement as Walmart, despite its size, shifted its focus, advertising a softer side instead of just price. But changing times call for changing measures and Walmart is shifting yet again. It’s hard to make any predictions in the current environment, but here’s one: Walmart’s market share will survive the economic downturn. In fact, watch it grow.

Is it fair? Obviously, no, but life rarely is. What it means is that the game has changed and the responses shoppers demand are changing with it. The question every company has to ask today is whether or not they can make the change to fight this bug too.

In all honesty we don’t know the answer this time. We don’t know if the big winner will be Walmart, Aldi, Dollar Tree, Fresh & Easy, CVS or Kroger, Safeway and Food Lion. It could be some format that barely registers these days.

The problem has mutated and the response must do the same.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .

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