There's a terrific moment in the quite wonderful 1984 movie "Moscow on the Hudson" when the Robin Williams character, Vladimir Ivanoff, hyperventilates over the assortment of coffee that he finds in a NY grocery. (You might recall this is the guy who defects in the middle of Bloomingdales.) Remember, this is the 80s, when the Soviets are still in power back home, and he's used to waiting in long lines for coffee, bread and most everything else. All of which comes to mind after reading this morning's WSJ story about U.S. retailers starting to cut back on their selection of products. We're still quite a ways off from standing in lines, but the streamlining is quite a contrast to the marketing strategies of the 80s and 90s.
Pharmacy chain Walgreen Co. is cutting the types of superglues it carries to 11 from 25. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has decided that 24 different tape measures is 20 too many. Kroger Co. has tested stripping out about 30% of its cereal varieties. In the next year or so, these and a few of the other largest retailers are expected to slice the assortment of products in their stores by at least 15%, industry executives and analysts say.
Retailers' drive to simplify is a big shift in the trillion-dollar consumer-products sector. Both retailers and manufacturers long agreed that bigger selections were better, especially when the economy was healthy and consumers were spreading their grocery-shopping trips around two or three stores. Now retailers are cleaning up the clutter. They are trying to cater to budget-conscious shoppers who want to simplify shopping trips and stick to familiar products. Retailers have found that eliminating certain products can lift sales and profits, in part by cutting excess inventory and making more room for house brands.
"All that go-go 1990s where we were adding items in and adding items in, and people wanted more, more, more, more choice... just didn't pay off," said Catherine Lindner, Walgreen's divisional vice president for marketing development, at a recent conference. Looking at store shelves, "People say, 'Whoa, you're bombarding me. Help me figure out what I need.'"