Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Retail Revolution (2009)

TRRFirst God, then family, then Wal-Mart!”- The Retail Revolution: How Walmart created a brave new world of business (2009) by Professor Nelson Lichtenstein is an interesting book about Walmart, the lagest retailer worldwide.  Professor Lichtenstein is a professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California- Santa Barbara.    

The book is about 300 pages and covers a lot of ground. The (brief) first part of the book is about the creation of Walmart and how the idea of Walmart was rooted in Sam Walton’s earlier experiences. The second part of the book shifts towards discussing the ‘unethical-like’ practices at Walmart, especially with hiring and promotion of women, labor relations, and employee retention. The last part of the book is about Walmart’s relevance and ability to compete effectively in the new, 21st century, globalized world.

There is no dearth of books on Walmart, as one can imagine! The USP of Professor Lichtenstein’s book is that it is quite up-to-date (even provides some examples from after the current eceonomic crisis started), does a decent job discussing Walmart’s relationship with China, and describes events and stories in a reader-friendly fun style. It also spends only a little time discussing how Sam Walton created Walmart (a story that has been told many times before).   Students of business, particularly those who want to understand the retailing industry better, would benefit from reading this book.

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Category Killers (2005)

CKThe book Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and its Impact on Consumer Culture (2005) is by Robert Spector, a “a motivational keynote speaker and consultant on world class customer service”. The book discusses how many sleepy small towns in the US have become fertile grounds for large category killer stores. It also traces the rise of category killers when Charles Lazarus founded the first Toys R Us store in Washington DC. It concludes with an aptly-titled section “The winds of change for category killers” where he describes the forces of change that are threatening companies in this retailing niche.

Category killers, as Robert explains, “have dramatically altered our buying experience, becoming the most disruptive force in retailing- and everything else that retailing touches”. But, as a student asked me, what exactly are category killers? Robert provides a good description of these group of stores in his book- These stores have a “mammoth footprint- twenty thousand square feet to more than one hundred thousand square feet” and “specialize in a distinct classification of merchandise such as toys, office supplies, home improvement- while offering everyday low prices and wide and deep inventories”. They are called “category killers” because “their goal is to dominate the category and kill the competition- whether it be mom-and-pop stores, smaller regional chains, or general merchandise stores that can not compete on price and/or selection.”    

The book is certainly interesting to read! Almost everyone of us has shopped at one of the category killer stores at one point or another, but never really thought much about them. Robert’s writing style is entertaining and gentle as he takes the reader through a journey of this part of the retail industry. However, at some places I didn’t get why he said what he said. Consider the chapter title: “Paper clips in Portugal”. I don’t think the chapter ever explained the relevance of this title. But these are minor irritants in what is otherwise a book worth-reading.

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Inside Home Depot (1999)

IHDInside Home Depot: How one company revolutionized an industry through the relentless pursuit of growth (1999) is a book about, as the name suggests, Home Depot, the largest home improvement retailer in the country, and perhaps the world. The book is written by Chris Roush, a self-described “first-time author” and a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Professor Roush also mantains a regular blog that can be accessed by clicking here).

As Professor Roush describes on the first page of the first chapter, the book is “the story of Home Depot, the most succesful retailer to come along since Wal-Mart…, the story of a chain of stores that has arguably revolutionized its industry more than any other retailer…”. It is also a story “of two executives who made [Home Depot] happen”, … who “hit on a formula for success … never before tried in the hardware retail business.” It describes the history of Home Depot and how it became a leading player in its history.

The book is an unofficial version of the story of Home Depot, i.e., it is written without the cooperation of the founders of Home Depot- Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus. In essence, the story of Home Depot is the story of Arthur and Bernie, so the book is really about Arthur and Bernie. As an unofficial version, I expected it to take a more critical look at Home Depot’s strategy (relentlessly pursuing growth via increasing the number of stores) or ethical issues (gender discrimination lawsuit) or culture (the Home Depot cult-like cheer). However, in all, I was impressed by the pleasant writing style in the book and the way it kept me engaged in the story from start to finish.

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On Target: How the World’s Hottest Retailer Hit a Bull’s Eye

OnTargetOnTarget: How the world’s hottest retailer hit a bull’s-eye (2003) by Laura Rowley is a book about Target, one of the largest retailers in the country.  Ms. Rowley has an interesting background- she is a former seminary student and a producer for CNN business news. It is this background, her desire to understand the “external world and the internal one”, that motivates her to start the book by remembering her interview with Edward Yardeni (chief economist at Deutsche Bank”) who told her: “Other countries have discovered that the meaning of life is shopping” (emphasis mine).

The book is divided into 11 chapters, which together provide a good overview of the history of Target, its present position in the industry, and what makes Target a unique company in a business dominated by a 800-pound Gorrilla (read Walmart!).  It does a good job reviewing the early days of Target and “the legend of George Draper Dayton“, the founder of Dayton’s Dry Goods Company, the precursor to Target. George Dayton belonged to “a long line of pioneers” and counted among others “Jonathan Dayton, the youngest signor of the U.S. constitution and the namesake for Dayton, Ohio”.

Ms. Rowley’s book is written in an interesting style. After every chapter she has a “check out” aisle where she provides a brief summary of points that she thinks makes Target special. I can’t really say I particularly liked this “check out” section, and in a way I am not sure how it helps the reader, except in the sense of providing a sort of summary to the chapter. I did like, however, that the last chapter in Ms. Rowley’s book is about “challenges” that Target is likely to face in the first decade of the new century. Of course, the decade is now about over and the challenges Target faces are from over.

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