To everything turn, turn, turn

Jennifer Negley, March 26, 2001

I spent this afternoon in a new showroom looking at a first-time product line for a new finished products business. It's not the only company that's shifting its traditional business strategy these days, and I expect there will be several more to follow.

The gentleman captaining the enterprise talked about the venture's sales potential should it secure placement at one of the top six retail companies, and the even greater sales potential should it get into one of the top three.

I also had a call this afternoon from the head of a company that has been plumbing a niche business for something akin to four decades-long before the concept of a niche strategy was born. He'd decided to hang up his spurs and had already begun to liquidate his inventory. He wanted to get a little something into the paper to thank the industry for 40 years of trade.

A new entity is born; an old entity fades from the scene.

There's a great deal of talk right now about how significantly the industry has changed, is changing and will continue to change. When manufacturers talk about "the retail industry" they're often referring to a handful of companies (although, contrary to popular belief, many more exist). And when retailers talk about manufacturers, they, too, tend to focus their conversation on the more prominent companies in the industry.

Furthermore, when we talk about how the industry once was structured and how it is transforming itself today, we again concentrate most often on the big names.

But there are reminders now and again that the industry has facets beyond the scope of the Top 50 retailers and the Top 15 vendors. Mine came in the form of an e-mail. It read:

"Where can a small town independent merchant turn for domestics inventory?

"Years ago, our little store in southern Minnesota had a choice of three wholesalers of sheets, towels and tablecloths in the Twin Cities. Now those are gone, and nobody tells me of any replacement.

"After those, Brody of Des Moines served our needs. From there we turned to Troy of Chicago. Then Jack Gell of Detroit. But, alas, they are now gone.

"Shipping costs concern us. But transportation service allows us to use sources from most any place in the country.

"Co-op buying groups like Variety Supply (Clara City, MN) and Midwest Stores (Minneapolis) have closed, leaving us in need of sources for more than irregulars and close-outs.

"Mills aren't the answer for us little guys. Minimums and far out deliveries make it hard to maintain an in-stock status.

"I'm hoping you can tell us about wholesalers or suppliers from other regions of the country. Perhaps a bit of publicity could get them some business-and make their operations more profitable."

Is this a potential super-niche? I have no idea, and I can think of quite a number of people who would argue that such is simply the way of the world.

On the other hand, with so much changing so profoundly, who's to say that some bright mind out there won't come up with a solution. I've a feeling we're going to see a lot of ideas being tried on before the evolution completes its cycle.

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