“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” – Mark Twain

Today we read of the demise of some of those predictable middle ground retailers such as Man to Man, Brown Sugar and Burdines, to name some local examples and while regretting that this should occur, there are some clear factors becoming even more evident in this changing ‘cosmopolitan’ retail landscape.


  • If your scale is too small to be big and too big to be small – you need an even sharper point of difference than ever before. Some would describe this positioning as the business ‘story’. If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then retail has many flatterers as stories become copied and often enhanced. Consumers in such a complex and changing environment seek out new stories, more rapidly and objectively than ever before and so now, as a consequence, we see terms such as reinvention more firmly centred on the retail CEO’s agenda.
  • Reinvention, innovation, change management, whatever the buzz term – simply put, the capacity and environment to take perspective and constantly reinvent the core proposition is definitely a success factor and can’t be underestimated. Look closely at the businesses that are falling and it’s simple to understand the role that this factor alone did or didn’t play.
  • In more generous times, some retailers could simply get by with a largely undifferentiated offer. Copying the look was fairly common and having two or three poor seasons or ranges could be managed. Now we see that the margin for error has decreased substantially, such that one season or similar metric can be all it takes to topple over. A decrease in sales somewhere between five to 15 per cent over a period of longer than 12 months with a  percentage movement decrease in finished gross margin of between two and five per cent may be all it takes. Add to this the cyclical patterns of exchange rate fluctuations and the factors begin to aggregate.
  • Globalisation and online growth (principally as a research tool) are well documented and remain constant reminders that a sharply, sustainable, differentiated offer is simply an entry ticket into retail today. Competition is simply not looking down the road anymore.
  • Rising overheads in particular rental and staff costs, have upped the ante compelling a greater focus on maximising sales and operating returns. Regional markets, once the bastion of lower rentals and more local community positioning are being swept up in the growing tide of retail shopping centre developments. Shopping Centres housing large discount department operators whose need to grow their ranges vertically, has no real boundary other than their customer’s appetite to spend with them.
  • A model that is just not replicable above its current size showing a lack of clear systems and frameworks, processes, needing increased executive capability in retail (far too much reliance on the owner or too much dominance by the owner) and basically running a multiple of business units as single units and not an aggregate channel.
  • Possibly not spotting the sector or category trends with enough alacrity?
  • Just to be great at all the basics still escapes some retailers with variable customer service, out of stocks, and the like plaguing their performance.

So for those caught in the quicksand that is the middle ground, size can matter although perhaps the reality is that a sharply differentiated, sustainable story with a capacity for reinvention, supported by systematic and replicable frameworks and systems consistently delivered – matters more.

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of Retail Doctor Group. He can be contacted on (02) 9460 2882 or brian@retaildoctor.com.au.

First published on Inside Retail on the 4th of February 2015