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How retailers can keep up with consumers

The North American retail landscape looks quite different today than it did even ten years ago. The way that consumers make purchasing decisions has dramatically altered: they stand in stores, using their smartphones to compare prices and product reviews; family and friends instantly weigh in on shopping decisions via social media; and when they’re ready to buy, an ever-growing list of online retailers deliver products directly to them, sometimes on the same day.

These shifts have led a number of industry observers to forecast the end of retail as we know it. Some predict that retail will change more in the next five years than it has over the past century and that the extinction of brick-and-mortar stores isn’t far off. Our view is less dramatic, but we do believe that big changes are inevitable and that retailers must act now to win in the long term.

There is historical precedent for this kind of upheaval, which recasts the industry’s winners and losers. Within the past century, local corner stores gave way to department stores and supermarkets, then to suburban shopping malls, then to discount chains and big-box retailers. Each of these shifts unfolded faster than the one that preceded it, and each elevated new companies over incumbents. Indeed, six of the ten largest US retailers in 1990 have since fallen from their positions as new winners, such as Amazon.com, Costco, and Walgreens, emerged in their place (Exhibit 1).


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