Editor's note: The only constant

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Editor's note: The only constant

By Seth Mendelson - 04/20/2018
How are we doing? At the start of what is arguably the mass retail industry’s most important event, in Palm Beach, Fla., it also may be a great time to take a step back and see how retail is performing these days. The answer is, … well, it all depends on what chain you are talking to and what steps they are taking to stay ahead of the curve in an industry that is desperately trying to find itself and its footing.

Ask people who work for Toys “R” Us, Sears/Kmart or Southeastern Grocers, for example, and they would tell you that the sky is falling. Toys “R” Us is liquidating; Sears/Kmart is closing stores by the hundreds and remains on the brink; and Southeastern Grocers — operator of Winn-Dixie, Bi-Lo, Harveys and Fresco y Más — has just entered bankruptcy. Ask people at Walmart or one of the major drug store chains, and they would say things are look

ing pretty rosy — especially as they reach beyond the world of traditional retailing, embrace digital merchandising or develop unique strategies that attract more customers and broaden their respective chain’s horizons and profit potential.

Why are these the best of times for some and the worst of times for others? The answer, of course, is that retail has always been about change and making sure that the merchant has the right strategies, product assortment and pricing to satisfy the ever-increasing demands of their shoppers.

But these are not the good old days anymore. Intense competition from some heady online merchants — especially Amazon — has everyone else scurrying around for the right mixture of traditional, digital and service-related opportunities to not only successfully compete for the consumers’ attention and wallets, but also for the gurus on Wall Street.

Today, merchants must be savvier than ever if they want to survive this brutal retail environment. Toys “R” Us failed, in large part, because the company took on about $5 billion in debt when it was taken private more than a decade ago. There was no way the chain was going to dig out of that hole, and the arrival of Amazon only hastened its demise. Long ago, officials at Sears/Kmart failed to make the investments needed to keep their chain relevant. Winn-Dixie also failed to keep up with the times, never catching up with more cunning competitors in the Southeast.

On the other hand, one has to give a lot of credit to Walmart for taking bold chances to keep up with Amazon. The success of its $3 billion purchase of Jet.com may or may not pay off, but it was a necessary step to find a way to be a better online merchandiser. Even more so, CVS Health’s dramatic takeover of Aetna shows that company officials are thinking ahead as they try to figure out what retail — particularly as it relates to health care — will look like in the years and decades ahead.

Heck, one can even give credit to Amazon for realizing that it cannot win the battle for consumers’ hearts and minds when it comes to making dinner without a physical presence in the marketplace. Hence, its dramatic purchase of Whole Foods, a move that has everyone talking about what this really means for the retail market in years ahead.

The point here is that the good retailers understand that the marketplace is changing, and are taking the rational and realistic steps to stay ahead of the curve. In the end, that is all that is necessary to at least stay in the game, if not in front of your competition.

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