What seems like a dream come true for the shopper—an abundance of information, near-perfect price transparency, a parade of special deals—is already feeling more like a nightmare for many retailers.
Companies such as Tower Records, Circuit City, Linens 'n Things, and Borders are early victims—and there will be more. Every 50 years or so, retailing undergoes this kind of disruption. A century and a half ago, the growth of big cities and the rise of railroad networks made possible the modern department store. Mass-produced automobiles came along 50 years later, and soon shopping malls lined with specialty retailers were dotting the newly forming suburbs and challenging the city-based department stores.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the spread of discount chains—Walmart, Kmart, and the like—and, soon after, big-box 'category killers' such as Circuit City and Home Depot, all of them undermining or transforming the oldstyle mall. Each wave of change doesn't eliminate what came before it, but it reshapes the landscape and redefines consumer expectations, often beyond recognition.
Retailers relying on earlier formats either adapt or die out as the new ones pull volume from their stores and make the remaining volume less profitable.
And like most disruptions, digital retail technology got off to a shaky start…