A specialized approach

Jeff Linville, Carole Sloan, December 10, 2001

Less is more.

That's the mantra for the coming years at retail. The flood of retailers streamlining vendor bases is intensifying. Wal-Mart's been doing that for a number of years. Kmart just this year has eliminated a quarter of its supplier base. JCPenney has been trimming, and the department store community has its own version of a vendor diet with matrix configurations. May Co. has its strict matrix system, and Dillard's a year or so ago announced a vendor streamlining to help it become more efficient.

And it's taking place across the board. Home textiles is but a drop in the bucket when compared with the stuff that's going on in other businesses.

The industry guffaw from a decade ago — although it seems like only a day or two ago — was that a year or two from that point, Dillard's and a certain supplier (now operating in a drastically different configuration) would be the dominant players in home textiles.

My, how times and players have changed.

Now back to the present and the immediate future.

There's no doubt that the big guys are going to continue on this vendor streamlining path. Logistics, not merchandise or innovation, appears to be the predominant retail marching order.

With reverse auctions becoming the norm for buying and new systems overwhelming a merchant's intuition, retailing in the big time is becoming more and more homogenous. Buyers are sitting in front of their computer screens looking at numbers — mostly a rear-view mirror — or looking at what is the new version of last season's hit.

When one of the few innovators among suppliers said he has his fingers crossed that a certain retailer survives "because they take a fashion risk," this business is in real trouble.

On the other hand, we're hearing a lot about smaller specialty stores that don't want to take on the giants and are willing to make a very fine living at the same time, and that are looking for newness, innovation and creativity.

That's the attitude that will keep this business from becoming a true commodity business. And then most of us will be unnecessary to keep it moving.

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