The UK retail industry is in turmoil. With problems at Morrisons and the Coop threatening their survival; Phil Clarke's speech at retail week seeking to make a virtue of freneticism. Change is in the air; a retail revolution even
The revolution is structural, multi-dimensional and polarised. It's not just mobile internet access transforming the way we "search and purch". There is a revolutionary dynamic stretching across Amazon, Groupon, Aldi right through to Poundland and Boohoo.com. Not forgetting B&M coming to market soon with Sir Terry Leahy on board. Discounting is front and centre
Talking of revolutions, last week marked the 127th anniversary of Karl Marx' death. Some of his ideas illuminate the challenges facing established retailers facing the discount onslaught. No really, they do.
Marx saw economics as the prime mover of change. As economic power disperses, the dominant forces (thesis) are challenged by new participants (antithesis) and the outcome of the clash would be a new, higher order economic status quo (synthesis), with communism the end of history. Historical Materialism 101, got it?
Successful discounters are anti-establishment value re-setters and all about economics. They combine high quality with unmatched value chains. Whether it was M&S putting shirts and shorts on Britain's backs and bums (by building direct relationships with suppliers and cutting out wholesalers); Jack Cohen's "pile it high, sell it cheap" mantra in 1960s Tesco or Walmart's EDLP philosophy: these were all discounting models. Their success put a good many competitors out of business, creating a new retail establishment.
Discounters also thrive on the structural disadvantage others impose on themselves. In mass retail focus and simplicity are the partners of unmatched value chains.
When advantage is lost, death is inevitable. Kwiksave UK built a business selling a limited number of major branded SKUs, from small basic outlets at cut prices sustained on one advantage: centralised distribution. While Tesco, Sainsbury and Asda were still had suppliers making minimum drops to individual outlets, Kwiksave were securing full-truck efficiencies, within a lower cost model and passing the savings on. Once everyone else could match them, all Kwiksave had left were small untidy stores, a limited range of brands and no price advantage. Game over.
Retail value resetting has severe ramifications. The centralised distribution revolution, the first big data enabled shift, saw suppliers remove sales force organisations and focus on national accounts, outsourcing merchandising services to field force agencies. Expect the impact this time to be no less profound, with services like category management being outsourced to specialist providers.
Karl's theories were always more appealing than his solutions. It's probably why ordinary people connected with Marks & Spencer ahead of Marx & Engels. He was wrong about communism and never foresaw consumerism. If he had, he might have reworked his manifesto, urging: "Shoppers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your (retail) chains". He shouldn't be discounted.