Retail Wire's BrainTrust Query: The Squeeze on Dollar Stores

Retail Wire published the following excerpt of our article, Retailers' Inflation Improvisation Part I: Perilous Parity, on July 12, 2011.  The article generated a terrific discussion among Retail Wire’s BrainTrust panelists and we’ve included those comments at the end of this post.

Both Walmart and Dollar General have recently made it clear that high-low price shenanigans are off the table and that building trust through price consistency is their highest value. In a presentation at last month's William Blair Growth Conference, Rick Dreiling, Dollar General's CEO, claimed that "price integrity is building loyalty" with its customers and that those customers "truly trust" the retailer's everyday low price positioning.

But dollar stores are facing new competition from big-boxers -- from Best Buy to J.C. Penney, Staples, Target and Walmart -- who are determined to downsize their way in by shoving small formats into previously unexplored urban and rural markets, many of which are already populated with the original small format specialists. At the same time, rising fuel and raw material prices are pressuring margins. Combining the inflationary dynamics with the encroachment by the big boxes, and dollar stores' inherently narrow wiggle-room on both price and physical space, dollar stores' sovereign reign over some urban and rural fiefdoms may be at risk. Yet they aren't betraying much vulnerability.

Dollar General's Mr. Dreiling, for instance, recently spoke of the company's "radical shift" to "proudly" selling national brands alongside private brands. However, the more Dollar General focuses on procuring the same national brands that Walmart and others carry, the more they will have to obsess over comparative value, especially since local price adjustments are standard operating procedure for both Target and Walmart.

Family Dollar's CEO, Howard Levine, noted in the company's Q3 2011 earnings call that "so far, our market and price checks are confirming that our competitiveness remains strong" and went on to say that Family Dollar is looking at the competitiveness of various markets and taking advantage of "higher pricing opportunities" in those that aren't as competitive. He added that Family Dollar is continuing "to learn more about these opportunities, particularly as we open up more and more stores in urban markets where that's a lever that we can pull to help the margin." In other words, Family Dollar is banking on localized pricing winning the day, even as others who have arguably had more practice at it head their way.

Dollar stores have a very defensible position as they are thousands of stores ahead of the interlopers, but the nagging exceptions (markets that the big boxers have taken a shine to) have the potential to upset their apple carts as everyone attempts to adjust pricing to increasingly complex local market dynamics. Throw in Walmart's Site-to-Store and Pick Up Today services, which have the potential to transform every Walmart Express location into an endless aisle delivery mechanism (the brands and products in the store may eventually represent only a fraction of the actual item transactions that occur in the store), and you have a multi-layered, localized moving target. So how will dollar stores be able to carry out a balancing act and live up to price consistency claims as others encroach and as the continuous upward crawl of commodity prices adds even more complexity to the picture?

BrainTrust Panel Comments

Three quick observations.

1.  The only big box that can mount a credible threat to dollar stores with small formats is Walmart. The other retailers mentioned might do OK with small formats, but it won't be Dollar General's sales they will be taking, it will be other local merchants.

2.  Dollar General is doing precisely the right thing by bringing in national brands that Walmart will be offering. They can't afford to let Walmart have the additional advantage of being the only low-price, local store that is offering "the good stuff."

3.  In general, dollar store format operating costs remain below those of big box retailers. And the purchasing power of 8,000 stores is leverageable no matter how small those stores are. Even Walmart will have to go a long way to beat the typical dollar store net cost structure.

Small format Walmarts are indeed a threat to dollar stores in general and to lesser chains and independents in particular. DG and FD can stand up to the challenge -- but not without taking some hits along the way.

Ben Ball, Senior Vice President, Dechert-Hampe

Every retailer is always subjected to being vulnerable when some new, changing or more powerful force enters their environment. In the case of today's dollar stores, their vulnerability lies in big box stores with reliable supply chains and strong balance sheets duplicating the dollar stores format in urban and rural areas.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

Read more comments from BrainTrust panelists