• Jennifer Marks

Where's the Retailing Power in Power Retailing?

When the industry looks back on 2006, it may be remembered as a time of existential crisis for big box retailers. Each seems to want to be what the other is — that is, when they have an idea of what they want to be at all.

What, for example, is Mervyn's today? Not so long ago, it was one of the top 10 retail accounts for home textiles, and suppliers touted their Mervyn's appointments as a symbol that they had ascended to a certain rank. Is the contemporary Mervyn's a retail concept in turnaround — or is it a profit vehicle that will be steadily mined for returns by the investor consortium that now owns it?

Speaking of which: Sears Holding Company. Sears recently unveiled yet another new Sears Grand format in Summerville, S.C. The former Kmart store features room vignettes assorted with Sears product, as well as an Internet café and an area for electronic game playing.

This format supersedes last year's Sears Essentials format, which was supposed to supersede the previous year's Sears Grand format, the early promise of which superseded any further development of The Great Indoors.

The company's chief stakeholder/chairman/ceo/chief merchant has insisted that he's not going to follow the standard retail formula for prototypes, but will instead experiment with a variety of them. That may well be the smartest idea anybody has had in a long time, but after three years of off-the-mall prototype tinkering (more, if you count The Great Indoors), surely some ideas of merit have already emerged, no?

As to Wal-Mart's pursuit of higher-end customers, the company sets itself a mighty cultural challenge in trying to be all things to all economic classes. It was also interesting that just as Wal-Mart opened its upscale laboratory store in Plano, Texas (average household income: $140K), Target announced the roll-out of a department-store grade bath & body shop. You could almost hear the cry “En garde!” flying out of Minneapolis.

And the list goes on.

While retailers have become intent on demonstrating to the consumer that the box is the brand — and grappling with the ensuing identity crisis — what seems to be getting lost here is the concept of the product. Despite the lip service being paid to stocking great product, the true focus appears to be stocking GREAT PRICES. On the odd chance that something blows out the door, few seem to have a clue as to why.

With market at hand, here's a plea to senior retail execs: Empower each of your people to make one buy that's a total gut reaction — regardless of what the matrix or the trend book instructs. Presumably these folks became merchants because they love merchandise, not because they are stellar data processors.

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