Sunday, September 21, 2008

The 21st century superstore: mini or mega?

Up until recently, “bigger is better” seemed to be the best retail mantra around. Walmart redefined our notions of shopping, and despite all the critiques of “big box” stores, they seem to be here to stay. But the Clash’s song “Lost in the Supermarket” rings truer as the aisles get longer and full of even more varieties of the same product. Recently I stood, like Robin Williams’ Soviet immigrant character in the old movie, Moscow on the Hudson, apoplectic at the variety of granola bars that take up one slice of the breakfast foods aisle. My new grocery store, Giant Eagle, certainly captures the first part of its name well.

So, imagine my surprise when a new little store (with gasoline pumps) opened just off the main highway, called Get Go – at first I thought it was Giant Eagle masquerading as a convenience store and refused to go in. But then my less cynical partner-in-crime stopped there on our way out of town, hoping we could stock up on decent travel food before we were trapped in rest stop fast food hell. Sure enough, there was a produce section, fresh fruit, a small but very lively deli, baked goods, and about four or five very short aisles full of an abbreviated version of what appears in my regular Giant Eagle (because, trust me, paper towels and zinc lozenges are also indispensable on a long drive…) The coffee section had a few tables and wireless connection, just enough space to sit for a bit if you need to check your email before heading out. Lo and behold, just last week the New York Times profiled that very same Get Go in a piece examining the trend towards mini stores.

Apparently, my Get Go is just one of many new minis planned across the US: Safeway, Tesco, Whole Foods, and yes, even Walmart are all testing the mini store concept. Tesco’s version, Fresh and Easy, is open in Southern California, while Walmart is getting ready to launch its Marketside store in Arizona and San Diego. Recognizing consumer needs (buying groceries quickly instead of gaping at thousands of brands) is not the only reason for this move: San Diego has been engaged in a long fight over supercenters within the city limits.

Lest you think it’s all about food, note that groceries are not the only shrinking retail outlet. Macy’s, which has been struggling to keep itself in the black, has done well with a “mini” Bloomingdales in New York’s SoHo neighborhood, and plans to expand the idea to California and Washington DC. Not that they’re the first: there’s Barney’s Co-op, which began as a concept-store-within-a-big-store and now has some freestanding outlets around the US; and Neiman Marcus’s Cusp stores which have been open in Georgetown, Tysons Corner, and Century City since 2006. In this case, the stores are marketing to a particular demographic (young hip women shoppers) rather than a general “shrink it down” spirit.

While I like the mini trend for a variety of reasons (accessibility, good products, less taxing on the environment, less emphasis on endless variety and more on a few good things), I also recognize that what makes the mini work is the mega parent behind it. Who can afford to take the risk and open a small retail business with such a mixed inventory? Only someone who's already safe in the land of large scale sales, and already knows what the most popular products are.

Of course, the real irony is that Walmart, Whole Foods, Giant Eagle and the like are essentially re-inventing the corner store that was originally displaced by the mega-super-centers that these companies started out with in the first place.

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