Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about how many supermarkets have learned to compete more effectively with Wal-Mart. The answer is straightforward: don't try to imitate Wal-Mart's low cost strategy. Instead, supermarkets have tried to create some differentiation by offering unique upscale products and high quality prepared meals along with the usual staples. They also have redesigned their stores to create an enhanced shopping experience for the consumer. Not all supermarkets took this path. Some tried to imitate Wal-Mart's low costs and low prices, and many of them found their way to bankruptcy.
The competitive dynamics in the supermarket industry remind me of what took place in the mass merchandising sector. Many chains went bankrupt trying to match Wal-Mart's low costs and low prices. Target took a different path. It chose a differentiation strategy, with higher quality products, better service, and a bright, clean store with easy-to-navigate aisles in which consumers love to shop. It didn't go head-to-head with the behemoth. Instead, it chose a form of indirect competition, moving slightly upmarket. In so doing, Target has prospered while many chains became extinct.
Firms in all industries would be well-served to consider the fate of those that have competed with Wal-Mart. Imitating the market leader often does not lead to bountiful profits. Finding a different path proves much more economically rewarding.