By  on January 6, 2005

NEW YORK — Could category killers go the way of department stores and become the next retail dinosaurs?

It’s a premise that seems premature, considering the viability of Best Buy and PetsMart. But Toys ’R’ Us is fading fast, Wal-Mart and warehouse clubs are stealing market share, and even the most successful of category killers, such as Home Depot and Barnes & Noble, are getting overgrown.

That’s the portrait painted by retail journalist Robert Spector in his latest book, “Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture” (Harvard Business School Press). “Ultimately, you will have only two big players in each category. It’s becoming a mano a mano game,” said Spector in an interview.

The book provides a comprehensive history from the rise of the category-killer phenomenon in the Seventies, to an outlook on a future rife with uncertainty, and the controversy, cultural implications and shopping innovations brought on by the sector, notably “the grand age” of everyday low pricing and self-checkouts, which are still experimental. “The theory is that it frees up [workers] to be able to give advice or help move things. It’s interesting to see how much consumers really respond to self-checkout. It isn’t any faster. It’s more of a psychological thing,” he said.

Category killers now blend into the retail landscape as much as malls and parking lots, though Spector chronicles much of the community backlash that dogged their ascension. He cites sources condemning category killers as “cut-rate competitors” ruled by “soulless corporations” and destroyers of mom-and-pop businesses and free enterprise. He also invokes the late Louisiana governor Huey Long, who once said he’d rather his state be inhabited by thieves and gangsters than chain-store operators.

Spector himself takes a “very agnostic view” on category killers. “If consumers didn’t like them, they wouldn’t shop them. I don’t see them as good or bad. I see them as a reflection of the marketplace,” he said in the interview.

Category killers are entrenched, though a robust future isn’t guaranteed. As Spector writes in the book: “How are category killers going to find and keep good people by paying them a living wage at the same time that they are selling products at low margin, everyday low prices?” 

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