retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It’s entirely reasonable to consider the range of competitive, demographic and economic news surrounding us and conclude that a retail bloodbath is coming.  For some companies, it already has arrived.

At last week’s National Grocers Association (NGA) convention in San Diego, there were moments that touched on both the optimistic and pessimistic outlook for the industry. Fortunately, there were also some signposts that offer direction, if not hope, for how to end up on the sunnier side of these predictions.

Three particular presentations stuck with me on these themes and luckily for you, I only made one of those speeches.

The first was the opening keynote by famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose stories of individual past presidents reminded us that tough times have always been upon us.  And yet, as a people, we have found the unity and strength to grow especially when motivated by great leaders.

The second was far more germane to the industry. Neil Stern of McMillan Doolittle and one of my regular favorites, outlined the elements of the current competitive storm from Amazon to Aldi, Lidl, dollar stores and more.  But Stern also offered the line that businesses should focus upon today, tomorrow and endlessly. After detailing the retail carnage of recent years right up to the start of 2020, Stern said he doesn’t believe it’s a time a gloom and doom for retail. “Just for bad retail.”

It’s a simple, yet incredibly profound statement - and one that we've used, in various iterations and forms, over the years here on MNB.  Yes, numerous retailers have been falling for a number of years now and there’s no reason to think those numbers won’t grow. But it’s worth pondering whether each of those business failures was a case of homicide by competitive or suicide thanks to complacency and mediocrity. I’d argue for the latter.

Yes, the competitive situation is incredibly challenging, but that isn’t a brand new phenomenon. I recall with clarity the carnage and predictions of doom just a few decades ago when Walmart decided to add food to its wide array of general merchandise products. Countless retailers fell in the face of Walmart’s rise to the top of the food chain, but many others survived.

They did so by improving efficiencies, operations, experiences and more. In other words, many retailers did die, but the best did not. That’s a piece of history that no business should ignore now that the feared, relentless competitor is Amazon, not Walmart or any of those powerhouses of the past back to Sears and A&P.

My feelings of optimism were enhanced by the session I ran at NGA, the annual salute of outstanding merchandising and marketing. The essence of that session is a celebration of how smaller retailers have found ways to build businesses, brand and customer excitement by creating special moments in unexpected and sometimes stunning ways.

That kind of creative thinking and activities won’t guarantee success, but promotions such as shooting a donut 18 miles over Utah or giving shoppers in-store passports to try a range of international foods might be the simple, yet brilliant steps that help individual companies rise above the pack and survive or possibly thrive despite the times.

But just remember. It won’t happen easily and as historian Goodwin reminded us, it won’t happen without leadership.

To paraphrase John Donne’s famous poem, Ask not for whom the bell tolls … just make sure it doesn't toll for you!

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com.

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.