Categorizing Retailers

Categorizing retailers helps in understanding the competition and the frequent changes that occur in retailing. There is no universally accepted method of classifying a retail outlet, although many categorization schemes have been proposed. Some of these include classifying on the basis of

  • Number of outlets
  • Margin Vs Turnover
  • Location
  • Size.

The number of outlets operated by a retailer can have a significant impact on the competitiveness of a retail firm. Generally, a greater number of outlets add strength to the firm because it is able to spread fixed costs, such as advertising and managers’ salaries, over a greater number of stores in addition to acquiring economies of purchase. While any retailer operating more than one store can be technically classified as a chain owner, for practical purposes a chain store refers to a retail firm which has more than 11 units. In the United States, for example, chain stores account for nearly 95% of general merchandise stores.

Small chains can use economies of scale while tailoring merchandise to local needs. Big chains operating on a national scale can save costs by a centralized system of buying and accounting. A chain store could have either a standard stock list ensuring that the same merchandise is stocked in every retail outlet or an optional stock list giving the outlets the advantage of changing the merchandise according to customer needs in the area. Because of their size, chain stores are often channel captains of the marketing channel—captains can influence other channel partners, such as wholesalers, to carry out activities they might not otherwise engage in, such as extended payment terms and special package sizes.

Big stores focus on large markets where their customers live and work. They use technology to learn more about their customers and target them with point-of-sale machines interactive kiosks, and sophisticated forecasting and inventory systems. They tend to stock a narrow range of inventory that sells well and maintain an extensive inventory of the fast selling products. Branding is important to them. Pricing is often a key area of focus for these retailers. Big stores have many strengths, including regional or national reputation, huge buying power, vast inventory and hassle-free return and exchange policies. Their prime locations, the consistency in their products and services, the fact that they are open when people can and want to shop and the clear consistent image and identity they develop and maintain challenge the abilities and resources of many small retailers. Perhaps their biggest advantage is their knowledge in every aspect of their business, from inventory selection to store layout.

However, large retailers are not perfect. They have competitive weaknesses that small retailers can exploit. Most offer the same standardized assortments of products nationally. Local managers have little say in inventory selection. Often, sales staff has minimal product knowledge. Staff turnover is extremely high. Most large retailers have little connection with the community they serve. They usually do not offer special services. Larger companies are often slow to recognize and react to changes in their local markets.

Independent retailers can co-exist and flourish in the shadow of the big chains by developing a niche within the diverse market. The niche should be developed on the basis of new or unusual product offerings, superior service and overall quality. While value is important, price may be less important. Efficient operations, including precise buying practices, are a must. Customer contact within the niche market must be characterized by ‘high-touch’ service. The key factor is innovation: stores that do not change will perish. The road to success for the independent retailer lies in doing all the things those big chain stores cannot or will not do. The successful independent retailers embrace the following principles:

  • Be prepared for change.
  • Move to a narrower niche market and stop competing directly with the big retailers.
  • Learn more about customers and include best customers in a database.
  • Invest appropriately in advertising and promotion.
  • Charge regular prices and avoid discounting (ensure requisite mark-up).
  • Buy with precision and search out specialty suppliers.
  • Maintain essential inventory.
  • Focus on profit instead of volume (be ready to lose an occasional sale).
  • Provide extraordinary service.
  • Employ the best possible staff.
  • Understand the significance of the Internet.

Gross margin and inventory turnover is another means of classifying retailers. Gross margin is net sales minus the cost of goods sold and gross margin percentage is the return on sales. A 30% margin implies that a retailer generates Rs 30 for every Rs 100 sales that can be used to pay operating expenses. Inventory turnover refers to the number of times per year, on average, a retailer sells his inventory.

On the basis of this, retailers are classified as low margin low turnover—those that cannot survive the competition—and low margin high turnover, exemplified by Jewellery stores and appliance stores are examples of high margin low turnover stores and only a few retailers achieve high margin high turnover. These retailers are in the best position to combat competition because their high turnover allows them to withstand price wars. The drawback of the classification by this method is that service retailers who have no inventory turnover cannot be encompassed.

One of the old means of classification of retailers is by location, generally within a metropolitan area. Retailers are no longer satisfied with traditional locations within a city’s business district but are on the constant lookout for alternate locations to reach customers. Besides renovating old stores, retailers are testing unorthodox locations to expand their clientele. With the advent of the Internet, this area of retailing is likely to undergo tremendous changes in the coming years.

Size is often used as a yardstick to classify retailers because costs often differ on the basis of size, with big retailers having lower operational costs per dollar than smaller players. However, in this sphere too, the Internet may make size an obsolete method of comparison.

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