Mass retailing has never been more prosperous — or exciting.

David Pinto, Mass retailing, Stater Bros., Safeway, H-E-B, Hy-Vee, Wegmans, Publix, Winn-Dixie, BI-LO, Kroger, Ralphs, QFC, Fry’s, CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, president Mark Cosby, ExpressScripts, Walmart, Target, Michael Francis, J.C. Penney, Sears Holdings, Sears, Kmart, wellness+ loyalty program, Eddie Lampert

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

Mass retailing is alive and well

February 20th, 2012
by David Pinto, Editor

Mass retailing has never been more prosperous — or exciting.

Consider the trade class — grocery, drug, discount — and compelling advancements and dynamic new formats are becoming the norm. The cumulative result is that the entire mass retailing segment is more enticing, more productive and more appealing than it’s been in some time. Consider the following:

• America’s regional supermarket retailers, far from disappearing or getting swallowed up by the national or multiregional chains against which they compete, are increasingly beating them. Travel to Southern California to see Stater Bros., to Texas to examine H-E-B. Visit Iowa to study Hy-Vee or take a trip to the northeastern corner of the United States to marvel at Wegmans or the Southeast to see Publix. Wherever you travel you’ll see supermarket retailing at its very best.

Even the laggards are improving. For example, Safeway, long viewed as a large grocery chain with little to offer besides size to attract consumers or challenge competitors, is finally focused on opening exciting new stores. Winn-Dixie, long a distant No. 2 to Publix in Florida and a non-starter elsewhere in the South, will get a new direction and new momentum as a result of its recently announced tie-up with BI-LO.

Finally, Kroger, a retailer long viewed as a company whose individual parts were greater than its sum, is also on firmer ground than it’s been in some time. Meanwhile, some of those individual parts — Ralphs, QFC, Fry’s — are solidifying their position as among the best regional grocery retailers in America.

• In chain drug retailing, the Big Three — CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid — are all on solid ground. At CVS, new president Mark Cosby has dazzled the drug chain’s employees both with his retailing knowledge and with his ability to quickly grasp the intricacies and nuances of chain drug retailing.

Walgreens is opening some of the most innovative drug stores this retailing segment has seen since CVS unveiled a dramatic new prototype more than a decade ago, and has attracted sincere if silent admiration for its willingness to challenge ExpressScripts and what the drug chain correctly views as the PBM’s unfair reimbursement levels. And Rite Aid, with its wellness stores and wellness+ loyalty program, is once again emerging as a viable competitor to its two bigger rivals. As for America’s regional drug chains, they continue to fill an important and very personal niche in the markets they serve.

• Turning to the discount segment, both Walmart and Target continue to operate some of the most compelling stores U.S. retailing has seen. The former, after a lethargic period characterized by sluggish U.S. same-store sales, is once again attracting those customers for whom price is paramount in importance. And Target’s irresistible value proposition remains a compelling attraction for the core Target shopper.

Certainly the departure of Michael Francis — the marketing magician behind much of what Target has come to stand for, who left the discounter late last year to join J.C. Penney as president — will hurt. But the retailer’s upcoming entry into Canada, scheduled for early next year, will, by any reckoning, be a huge success for this exceptional discount ­retailer.

Of course nothing’s perfect, even in mass retailing. Last month this column offered an opinion about the future of Sears Holdings and its two retail brands, Sears and Kmart. In doing so, we were critical of Eddie Lampert, the financier who insists on calling the shots at Sears Holdings despite the fact that he knows little about mass retailing. The column drew a huge, overwhelmingly positive response from the supplier community, an indication of how frustrating and unrewarding doing business with Sears and Kmart has become.

The days have dwindled down to a precious few for Sears Holdings — and unless Lampert does a dramatic about-face and admits that (1) he knows virtually nothing about retailing and (2) a retailing company is most effectively run and managed by retail executives, the days of both Sears and Kmart are numbered. Retailing, to be sure, is no longer about real estate, if indeed it ever was. It’s about how to get the most out of that real estate. And neither Sears nor Kmart under Lampert has yet figured out how to do so.

No matter. Mass retailing in America is alive and well, even if a handful of its practitioners have made an appearance on the critical list. After all, that’s the way it’s always been — and always will be.