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The Non-Globalization of Retail

In a blog-post a few days ago, I’d expressed my long-held view that retail is not an easily globalized business. (Retail models are not global, and global certainly not inevitable)

Local nuances have a big part to play in the success of a retail business – they could be related to the customer, products, packaging, pricing, customer service norms, government regulation, or anything else from the hundreds of local flavours that retail success hinges on.

An example that I often use is that of Asda in the UK.

When Wal-Mart bought Asda back in the late-1990s, there were cries of doom and gloom, calls for government protection, etc. etc.  However, the reality was that Tesco clearly emerged as the leader, other UK retailers remained strong, even though Asda gained in stature and market share. Wal-Mart’s takeover of Asda may have pushed its competitors to rethink their business strategies and become more competitive. In the UK market, it’s Tesco that is seen as the 800-lb gorilla, not Wal-Mart.  While Asda is a smart retailer (to the extent that possibly even the parent company, Wal-Mart, has learned from it), it does not have the same advantages that Wal-Mart enjoys in the US.

And now comes this news item in the UK newspaper – The Telegraph. Provocatively titled, “Could Asda be kicked out of Wal-Mart?”, it talks about how Wal-Mart considered a partial or complete exit from Asda.

Wal-Mart, like many other retailers who expand internationally, have found that what works at home doesn’t always work overseas – among Wal-Mart’s burdens are Germany (exited) and Japan (underperforming). It is probably too early to tell whether Wal-Mart will achieve its objectives in China, and the Indian business is still to open its doors.

At this time, neither Wal-Mart nor Asda will give credence to the report, for obvious reasons. But the fact is that, like all smart management teams, Wal-Mart’s management evaluates its markets on an ongoing basis, and it has not let historical reasons or sentiments keep it from exiting underperforming subsidiaries (e.g. Germany).

Differences not just in the customers and the market conditions, but even different management styles among countries can throw a retailer’s global ambitions off the planned trajectory.

And these differences keep many a retailer from venturing out of their home market at all. 

Its a “big, bad world out there”, and sometimes it’s good to be just home! 😉

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