retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Change is afoot.

Kevin captured it beautifully in his Eye-Opener last Friday, a day the news was filled with stories about retail. It was everywhere: store closing announcements from Staples, Radio Shack and Fresh Market, and, of course, the discussion of the Albertsons-Safeway mega-merger.

Inevitably it led to the usual conclusion that retail, as we know it, is dead and gone.

It reminded me of a moment from the 30-year-old movie Mask, when a doctor somberly tells Cher’s character that her chronically ill son is going to die. Cher replies, “If I had dug his grave every time you geniuses told me he would die, I’d be eating (expletive) chop suey in China by now.”

No doubt she’d buy it at a supermarket because somehow, despite the endless obituaries written for supermarkets, there are still an awful lot of them around.

The simple truth is that there is no simple truth. Yes, retail is under assault in every way possible. There’s the endless channel blurring, the on-going pressure on price and economizing, and the expected onslaught from on-line retail.

It would be foolish to ignore any of this. The challenges of the times (and the times to come) are as strong as ever.

But we also have to recognize that the reason stores and companies have survived is by changing with the times. With the exception of the rare conventional store that somehow has lived on in a piece of protected geography, the world has been constantly changing and, in virtually every case, improving.

Think about it. Supermarkets have been written off and eulogized constantly. It started with the price formats at the 1970s that were a response to the economic conditions of the times. When the economy improved, super warehouse stores with their blend of low prices and high service levels would end things as we knew it.

Then came supercenters, clubs, natural food stores, category killers, drug stores, dollar stores and, well you get the picture. (Keep in mind, that not long ago, Staples was a category killer, feared for the changes it made in its market and blamed for disrupting the status quo. Now Staples is scrambling.)

In the midst of all that, supermarkets as we knew them both survived and perished. Those that survived did so by getting stronger, more focused and better able to serve customers and beat competition than ever before. Those that perished somehow largely missed or misread the changes and fell by the wayside.

So yes, all these announcements tell us a lot. They tell us that some companies are in big trouble, having failed to make the changes. And they tell us that others are radically shifting course, hoping to find a better way to survive.

Which is exactly what should be happening.

As I’ve written before, back in my days at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), our food safety specialist, Dr. Jill Hollingsworth, once helped me compare competition to the endless array of bacteria and viruses that food scientists study endlessly. As Jill explained, the bugs always find a way to mutate, in the process surviving whatever challenges have been thrown their way.

Businesses might not like the comparison to bacteria, but it does work. You continue to survive by finding the right way to change.

It’s called survival of the fittest. It works in biology and it works in business. Plus it beats the daylights out of digging to China.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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