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Challenges galvanize retailers

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There’s been a pickup in retail activity and energy, perhaps a result of the optimistic performance reports a few leading retailers have posted of late. Suddenly, major companies that appeared to be daunted by even minor challenges are responding more positively — and more aggressively — to the stresses of doing business.

Leading the way is Walmart, a retailer that, of late, had appeared to be stymied by the simple retailer challenges of getting shoppers into its stores. Walmart’s summer, though it’s still early days, seems to be more robust, and the retailer’s performance is reflecting that dynamic.

Target Corp., too, is experiencing a rebirth of confidence and a more positive approach to doing business. Though the retailer faces a rockier climb than its Bentonville, Ark.-rival, it, too, is experiencing a new dynamism as it seeks to recapture traffic and sales volume.

Elsewhere, mass retailers continue to experience the stop-and-start mentality that has characterized their performance to date in 2017. Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. (WBA) is still working to integrate its various businesses and blend its various working staffs into an integrated whole. The bigger issues here remain the unsettled atmosphere surrounding its impending acquisition of Rite Aid Corp., and the still unsettled direction regarding its future retail ­emphasis: merchandise orientation or service provider. The retailer has apparently determined that it cannot, or will not, be both.

As for CVS Health, its struggles revolve around its future emphasis: retail powerhouse or health care provider. At the moment, the health care emphasis appears to be winning, but at the expense of the retail identity. According to reports, CVS’ front-end business is soft, though its prescription drug and health care-related businesses remain healthy.

But even here, WBA and CVS appear to be on healthier ground these days, more assured about their direction and more confident in their ability to execute their current plans.

The remainder of the mass retail community is finding its way. As has previously been stated on these pages, the retail grocery business remains relatively healthy, and the leading retailers are confidently testing and rolling out programs designed to appeal to the shopper’s current fixation on healthy eating and living. The struggles currently facing some of the industry leaders have more to do with the industry’s new emphasis on healthy living than on any shortcomings of their own.

As for the chain drug segment, it, too, appears healthier than it had been, with the pharmacy business carrying front-store sales. Indeed, several of the regional entries are enjoying record years, most notably Lewis Drug, the South Dakota-based drug chain currently celebrating its 75th birthday.

But the fly in the ointment remains the emergence of specialty retailers, who continue to impact individual categories, reducing store visits at the mass retail level, impacting time spent in these stores and negatively impacting sales. If the specialty store emergence signals the beginning of a breakdown in traditional shopping patterns, mass retailing might be facing considerable challenges going forward, challenges that may cause a rethinking of traditional approaches to the market — and the consumer.

For now, however, the challenge mass retailers must address is one they have traditionally faced: getting through a difficult year that features difficulties they never believed they would encounter. Facing off against newly robust competition will have to wait for another day.


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