The Retailing Constant

By Barry J. Nathanson

Looking at this industry in the simplest terms, one sees that it involves just a few constants. There will always be product innovation, in concept and formulation. There will always be distribution. There will always be packaging, and there will always be retailers.

I want to focus on retailers this time, because lately I see how much they define the industry. They don’t just control what comes in and how it goes out, they also set the pricing, the shelf allocation and the merchandising opportunities. They determine if a new category will see the light of day, and which will be quashed before their time. I have always admired their innovation, and their power to dictate the terms. While there are issues at retail that I strongly disagree with – slotting being most obvious – I still look to them as the biggest link in the chain. So I would like to banner some of the players that set the tone and direction for the marketplace.

There have been arbiters that define the best of beverage retailers. As the industry has evolved, so have the ones that have been the pacesetters. Early on I learned to follow Wegmans, HEB/Central Market, Schnucks, Quick Trip, WAWA, Sheetz, Store 24, Dominicks, Duane Reade, Big Y and a myriad of smaller boutique retailers.  They created excitement, took the lead in sampling and displays, on-shelf, in the aisle and outside the doors. If you wanted to know what new products to take on, you simply walked their floors. They created categories.

I also need to cite the big players that thought like the little guys in creativity and innovation. Instituting new product strategies, revisiting the frequency of shelf sets, working with their communities and many other programs were the provenance of 7-Eleven, Safeway, Walgreens, Stop & Shop, Target, Ralphs, CVS and Walmart. Their scale was large, but their sense of the market was insightful and personal. They understood the consumer proposition.

Those were the retailers I looked at early on, but now there is a new generation that has joined the pantheon, and leads retailing today. I can think of no retailer more important to the marketplace than Whole Foods. They come to mind in every conversation  about the industry. Costco is also a leading face of the industry today, with BJ’s And Sam’s Clubs in the equation too. Their value proposition has been enhanced with their great selection. The big box guys get it and consumers are flocking to their locations. Add GNC and other non-traditional beverage retailers and you have a spectrum of retail to choose from.

Walking the aisles at retail is still an important component of my job. I’m glad these aisles give me the excitement today, as they did so many years ago.