[Authored by Jeremy Smith, MBA Candidate] As consumers, do we really have a choice when it comes to where and what we purchase? While most businesses have many competitors, there are quite a few that don’t. In many different business sectors, competition seems to be shrinking as large players grow and dominate the field.
A good example is the retail marketplace. Competition is high when it comes clothing retailers or restaurants. If you are looking for a place to buy some new shoes or a dinner for the evening, the choices are abundant. There are many cases where this isn’t true. Retailers like Wal-Mart and Target, Kroger and Publix, Lowes and Home Depot, Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million, and Best Buy and Circuit City may compete with each other, but not usually with anyone else. There are exceptions to this rule as retail giant Wal-Mart carries just about everything. However, they specialize in nothing. In addition, the competing products are usually of a lower quality.
For example, if I need to buy a kitchen sink on a Sunday afternoon, I basically have two options, Lowes or Home Depot. If I need a popular book to read, Books-a-Million or Barnes and Noble are my two choices. Other small local or online retailers are available, but sometimes the consumer needs something right away or it might want “to touch” the product to feel comfortable with it. These companies have essentially created local oligopolies and compete only with each other. As a result, the big-box stores who used to offer big savings are now only marginally cheaper than their local predecessors.
A bigger question might be what happens next? In many of cases, one player within each pair is starting to outshine the other. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Best Buy, the No. 1 consumer electronics retailer, posted an 18.5 percent jump in sales while Circuit City lost money. Lowes is continuing to gain substantial ground on Home Depot, and Barnes and Noble is the only national book retailer doing well financially. Will the market eventually support only a single competitor in each such space?
Wal-Mart has already gained this position in several small geographic areas and they are using this position to increase profits. In my hometown of Fayetteville, TN, Wal-Mart is the only major retailer. Grocery stores like Food Lion and Bi-Lo have left town. The market is too small for the addition of a store like Target and the prices reflect this lack of competition. Every item in the Fayetteville store is more expensive than the same item in the Murfreesboro Wal-Mart. Are the fates of larger markets the same? In retail, the rule is to grow or fail. However, should one company win, it is the consumer who would suffer.
--Jeremy Smith, MBA Candidate