Is the Customer Really King?

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The marketing world, much like the financial world, has been in considerable flux. But one thing seems fairly clear, and it has to do with the shifting balance of power between the companies that produce the goods, the retailers that stock and distribute them, and the consumers who are counted on to buy what's provided.

For a good many years, the world largely belonged to the manufacturing and marketing powerhouses that dominated consumer demand through the twin powers of promotion and product development: They sold, you bought. But a few decades ago, there was a sea change in which power transitioned to the retailers. The major retailers controlled what was featured in the stores and what appeared on the shelves and thereby determined what was available for the shopper to buy. Marketplace control went from Procter & Gamble and Sony to Walmart and Best Buy.

But now we're told that we're in an entirely new age -- the "new normal" -- when neither the manufacturer nor the retailer is in charge. Today, the story goes, the customer finally runs the show.

There's a good deal of evidence in support of this. Not too long ago, mighty Walmart reportedly was forced to reinstate about 300 items that the company had eliminated from its shelves in an attempt to streamline its operations. Walmart shoppers apparently weren't pleased with the disappearance of some of their favorite brands, and they let the company know it. The lesson learned, in the words of former CEO Lee Scott: "Rule No. 1 in retail, don't aggravate your customer."

Of course, Walmart isn't alone in recognizing the need to pay closer attention to customers, whose loyal patronage can't simply be assumed. Other retailers are also responding to the emergence of the newly empowered consumer. For example, Walgreens announced a renewed emphasis on "customer centric retailing," redesigning up to 3,000 of its stores to make them easier to shop and more enjoyable for their shoppers. In the words of one...
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