One of the hallmarks of the industrial age was standardization of mass production/mass consumption. In the retail sector, this meant consolidation of stores into giant chains. Starting with the Sears stores and catalogs, shoppers anywhere in the nation had access to the same goods. Buying was centralized with the same fashions showing up in Boise as in Baltimore. With better inventory control systems, some variation was allowed — such as stocking more snow shovels in Buffalo and more sunscreen in Phoenix.
But the hallmark of the I-Cubed Economy is more customization. Some big retailers are attempting to move in that direction. As a story in Sunday’s New York Times relates — Macy’s Goes Local in Matching Goods to Customers
After decades of acquiring, consolidating and centralizing, the department store chain is rediscovering — and financially exploiting — its multiple local roots, advancing a trend that is quickly being adopted by other retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Best Buy.
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Macy’s tested its new local approach in a handful of stores in 2008, introducing it in all 810 stores last year. In essence, Macy’s requires sales clerks and store managers to examine the local population almost like anthropologists — studying, for example, what churchgoing black women here in Atlanta shop for compared with the shopping habits of Microsoft wives, as employees call one segment of shoppers in the store in Bellevue, Wash.
At the same time, the retailer doubled its staff overseeing store assortments and decreased the stores that staff members dealt with. It required the people responsible for merchandise assortment to visit stores daily, added log books at each register where sales clerks entered suggestions from shoppers, and introduced a review process so the staff visiting stores could make recommendations to buyers.
There are items that would fit in an olden-days department store. The old Marshall Field’s store in Chicago sells Frango chocolates, boxed as they were in the past. In the Northwest, at Bon Marché, Frangos come wrapped in cellophane and are packaged in an octagonal box, the traditional presentation in Seattle. In Minnesota this year, stores began carrying krumkake irons, a Scandinavian baking tool.
An interesting trend — but not a return to the pre-mass consumption days. Don’t expect the Wal-Mart to turn back into the mom-and-pop . Do expect to see retailers cater more to their local demographic — as “just-for-me” meets “just-in-time” retailing.