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New retail world takes shape

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The holiday selling season remains, just weeks before it kicks off, a mystery, at least in terms of what’s going to happen. Even now, Christmas merchandise is in the stores, awaiting set-up. Holiday promotions have long since been planned, and advertising is locked in. All that waits is for the customer to choose her preferences.

MMR OpinionYet even now, industry people are increasingly wondering aloud which products — indeed, which categories and which stores — customers will turn to once Thanksgiving arrives. Most retailers remain committed to the tried and true — products and categories that have sold well during past holiday selling seasons. With the presidential election over, consumers will once again turn their attention to the holidays — and focus on family, friends and the holiday events that have traditionally transformed December into the most exciting time of the year.

But this year will be different as well. One difference is that no mainstream retailer has thus far differentiated itself from the throng. Indeed, retailing in 2016 has been a time of correcting past errors and oversights, arranging new priorities, overcoming inertia and false starts, and integrating new faces and personalities into existing corporate climates.

So it is that retailers that, in the past, rose to the top of the tree during the Christmas selling season remain mired in efforts to rearrange and overcome recent performance, which, by their standards, can best be described as lackluster.

The list of such retailers includes Walmart and Target, Walgreens, the leading grocery retailers, a group of dollar chains, and various other significant retail entities.

Perhaps the retailers that will produce the best results are those with a relatively short history. Amazon comes most readily to mind, simply because online retailing has become mainstream retailing, and Amazon is the unquestioned leader here. Such grocery newcomers as Aldi and Trader Joe’s are also a good bet this Christmas, because each has enjoyed a record year in America. The membership club retailers, especially Costco, are expected to perform well, again because they have been performing well and, equally important, consumers have come to trust them, and especially their ­pricing.

That leaves many other retailers unaccounted for. Surely, online retailers will perform acceptably, continuing a trend that has seen online sales rise continually in recent years. Consumers have become increasingly comfortable buying merchandise online — and this year should see no interruption in that skein.

That brings us full circle. Or does it? Surely the nation’s major retailers are approaching Christmas with more optimism than the year-to-date performance warrants. Of particular interest is the status of Walmart, a retailer that appears to have fixed its problems, and one whose emphasis on price and assortment seems back on track. Target, too, seems to have righted its ship, though many industry people remain ­unconvinced.

Works in progress remain Walgreens and CVS, particularly the former in view of the recent announcement that its proposed acquisition of Rite Aid has been postponed yet again, to early next year. Most people who follow Walgreens had expected sharper performance following the completion of its merger with Alliance Boots. And speaking of CVS, these same people believe, largely, that the New England-based drug chain’s impressive performance to date in 2016 is not totally reflected in its stock price.

That mass retailing in America is changing there can be little doubt. The old order of things simply is not in place any longer. The situation of Walmart leading the pack while all others seek to catch up is no longer the reality. In the new world, there are no clear retail leaders, and a consumer population that once looked forward to shopping and spending money no longer does so.

Much of the problem remains with the economy. To be specific, it remains sluggish. And retailing, as always, is the first casualty. Perhaps deciding who will be the new president will calm things down a bit. Perhaps the unusually antagonistic presidential campaign was an anomaly, something the nation had to get through, however painful.

At any rate, 2016, however painful, is almost over. And more peaceful, more predictable days are here. Perhaps.


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