Chain Stores in Chains

Chain stores have a lot of advantages over mom and pop. By purchasing in enormous quantities, they can obtain volume discounts from manufacturers. By signing contracts to ship thousands of containers, they pay far less for freight than a retailer that ships only a handful. By maintaining strong credit ratings, they can lease better locations, at lower rents, than smaller competitors. All of this can help the chains keep customers coming through the door.

Yet chains face some disadvantages, too. Sheer size is foremost among them. When a chain does something wrong–which is to say, something that fails to satisfy customers–the problem can be very hard to fix, because it affects hundreds or even thousands of stores and may have irritated millions of shoppers.

There have been many recent examples of this challenge. Tesco, which only a few years ago fancied itself a challenger to Walmart for global retail leadership, still can’t figure out how to respond to British shoppers’ unexpected attraction to discount grocery stores. Wet Seal, which sells clothes to teenage girls, couldn’t cope with the fact that shopping malls are out of fashion; it has filed for bankruptcy and closed 338 stores. Target Stores, which marched noisily into Canada two years ago, is abruptly leaving with the admission that it failed to please Canadian shoppers. And then there is Walmart itself, which is struggling with U.S. consumers’ newfound preference for shopping close to home rather than in gigantic outlets miles away–a change of taste that presents an obvious problem for a company that has 606 million square feet of space tied up in “supercenters” across the United States.

Last week, at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board, a Walmart distribution executive, Douglas Estrada, provided some interesting color about how Walmart is trying to adjust to this trend. The company is opening smaller supercenters to fit in reviving urban neighborhoods, he said, but the company’s growth in the United States is likely to involve opening traditional grocery stores, small grocery stores with limited stock, and even convenience stores with gas pumps out front. Kiosks, now being tested, may compete with e-commerce, allowing a shopper to order anything available in a nearby supercenter and have it delivered to the small neighborhood store the same day.

This sort of innovation is a nightmare for Walmart’s distribution department. Walmart has more than 170 distribution centers across the United States. They are extraordinarily efficient at what they are designed to do: take in containers by the trainload, sort the contents, and pack merchandise into the 53-foot trucks that deliver full truckloads to each supercenter three or four times a day. But they are far less efficient when it comes to loading 28-foot trucks to deliver to urban grocery stores, and even less so in loading 16-foot trucks to replenish inventory at convenience stores. Walmart is trying to cope with this challenge, Mr. Estrada said, by using its supercenters for the purpose. The small-format stores will receive deliveries from a distribution center only once or twice a week; the rest of the time, they will be resupplied by vans coming from the nearest supercenter, often with merchandise picked directly from the supercenter’s shelves.

This means, of course, that goods headed for a smaller store will be handled more than goods going to a supercenter. Can Walmart do this and still offer the low prices its customers expect? Or will the small stores come to be treated as an inferior sort of Walmart, with higher prices and less selection than the real thing? Its distribution costs may determine whether the company succeeds in loosening the chains that bind its chains.

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