From Slumber to Awakening

By
Mitch Morrison, Vice President & Group Editor

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It is often said that from the depths of desperation emerges the height of inspiration. It is from the bowels of Egyptian incarceration where the biblical Joseph ascends to govern the world’s greatest ancient empire out of an unyielding famine.

It is from the scabs of squalor that Job learns the ways of the Lord.

And so it is today, albeit less dramatic and without biblical flair, that we encounter challenges; and though we may not wish for them, our success as humans is dictated by our ability to grow through them, not to be defeated or depressed by them.

Perhaps with less fanfare, this truism may be applied to the retail world we live in and the approach we summon, both as leaders and as strategists. Today’s headlines are dominated by gloom: increasing unemployment, rapidly rising fuel prices, declining confidence in America’s ability to sustain the glory of its founding. Increasingly, a yearning is heard for the “good old days,” whether it’s hearkening back to the mellifluous reassurance of Ronald Reagan or the fiscal balancing skills of Bill Clinton.

Many of you also are seeing your finest plans stifled by onerous lending conditions, tightened consumer wallets, a more restrictive regulatory environment, double-barreled competition from bricks-and-mortar retailers, the rapidly changing world of wireless and online, and, perhaps most frightening, a serious dose of self-doubt.

It would be foolhardy to sugarcoat what are very real challenges. At the same time, I am heartened by some of what I see and even more by what I hear.

In preparing for this issue’s cover feature, we met with the executive team at The Pantry. We also talked to store clerks, managers and regional supervisors.

The Pantry is a story of remarkable transformation and transition. Shifting from a corporate-minded to storecentered model, The Pantry resembles a sleepy hamlet in an extended slumber awakening to find itself changed into a college town celebrating a collective spirit. There is the young single mother who is putting herself through college while entertaining loyal customers with an effusive energy. There is the coffee hostess who treats morning Joes like friends and family, knowing not only their tastes but also their hobbies and interests. So when one hears about corporate throwing a pep rally, the surprise is only that it didn’t happen sooner.

The Pantry is ready to break out into a party. If Pete Sodini deserves credit for assembling the parts, his successor, Terry Marks, seems on the verge of breathing life into a formidable chain that could finally become the beast of the Southeast.

The transformation is refreshing as much as it is strategic, and it will be interesting to see if this expensive facelift will make its way through the company’s disparate 1,700-store network. On a more modest scale is the outcome reported in last month’s annual CSP Outlook Survey, when we ask retailers about the outgoing year and to speculate about the coming year. There was little humbug despite an accurate read of the economic temperature. Flat is the new good, one retailer chimed in. Another added, “I would rate national business conditions as flat, but these conditions are creating opportunities for continued growth for us.”

Some are looking to pad their portfolios through acquisition and ground-ups; others are retooling their plan-o-grams, weeding out underperforming SKUs, expanding core categories and investing in better software analytics to optimize assets already at their disposal. These operators are not standing still or reminiscing about a better time. They are living in today to make for a better tomorrow.

Finding hope within despair, seizing opportunity within the obstacles: May you all have a prosperous 2011.

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