retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

On its own, the news of Gregg Steinhafel’s ouster as CEO of Target in the wake of the company’s unprecedented data breach is one big story. Yet it may only be a piece of an even bigger one.

Stop for a moment and consider how many large retailers have changed CEOs in say, just the past two years. The list would start with Walmart, Kroger, Safeway, JC Penney, Supervalu, Delhaize (global and America, including Food Lion and Hannaford) and now, of course, Target.

Now there’s two obvious points to make. First, that list is hardly complete, rather it’s just top of mind. Many other retailers of all stripes have also changed leadership in the past two years.

Second, and more importantly, there is very little or nothing in common in the leadership shifts at all these companies. In some cases (think Kroger) the change was quiet, planned and orderly. At other companies the skies were darkening, storm clouds were gathering or, in the case of Target, it was raining like crazy.

Yet the reality is that an incredible amount of leadership talent just moved around at the top of US retailing. That’s something that has to matter.

For instance, all of the new people in place all share a similar goal and desire: to improve the performance of the companies they are now running, no matter the circumstances that caused their elevation. That alone means throughout the industry there will be pressure on all parties for improved sales and profit performance.

In many of these companies there will be new initiatives to revive stagnant fortunes, which in turn means there simply has to be a ratcheting up of pressure. It means new optimism, new competitiveness and possibly new growth goals that include mergers and acquisitions. There is also new uncertainty at companies that taken together account for hundreds of billions in annual retail sales.

While all this change may be coincidental, it also happens at a very interesting moment, when all of retail is increasingly aware of how economics is changing the basic demands and habits of shoppers; how demographics are changing those very shoppers themselves; and how technology is shifting everything from how we buy to how we form communities.

In other words, the to-do list is something special and that means all this change should be on your mind.

• If you do business with any of these companies you should be thinking about how their demands on you might be changing. That could be really good or bad news, depending on how effective you are. Either way, you have a terrific topic for the next staff meeting.

• If you compete with one of these companies, you need to think about how that could change. The future could hold greater pressure on price, a better focus on localization of marketing or some other shift impossible to foresee. The companies you compete with today could be very different in a year or two and you need to plan for that.

• We all have to believe that the new leaders at each of these companies are spending significant time thinking about how to deal with the problems at hand and the problems soon to come. That means expect experiments and examination of web-based shopping. If these new CEOs plan to keep the job for any length of time they have to be acutely aware that the battle with is coming on their watch.• That in turn has to make you wonder how they’ll compete with a company that quite publicly talks about forgoing immediate gains at the expense of long-term success. Fighting Amazon won’t be a conventional marketplace war.

One final question…

What kinds of plans do you and your company have for succession?If this run of executive movement tells us anything, it’s that change is constant and in most cases, you can only plan to a point.

And to think, there are those who believe that "Game of Thrones" is fictional.

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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