Thinking Beyond the Box

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\"250px-Incredible_Universe\"The Incredible Universe was…well, pretty incredible. There was no store like it ever before – and there’s not likely to be one like it ever again.

For those of you who have gone through retail remembrance reprogramming, a quick history lesson: During the 1990s, which in hindsight represented the full-tilt zenith of big box retailing, superstore chains were exploding. Be it home improvement, home furnishings, computers or consumer electronics, big boxes were multiplying at geometric proportions.

And the biggest box of them all was Incredible Universe, which was a dramatic new retail platform from the folks who ran some of the smallest boxes out there, Radio Shack. Current management at the time – who can remember back that far – decided to out-box everyone else out there and go for broke. The first Incredible Universe opened just off Old Country Road in Westbury on New York’s Long Island, which with the exception of Paramus, New Jersey and Schaumburg, Illinois, is about the most concentrated retail location in the country.

The store was well over 150,000-square feet, if memory serves me well, and featured just about every conceivable product with a plug that existed at the time. And considering this was well before iWhatevers, that was a whole lot of TVs, stereos and toasters. Every shopper got a personal identity card that promised all sorts of digital delights. There were salespeople in snappy uniforms as far as the eye could see. It truly was incredible.

It was also way, way too much. Shoppers were overwhelmed and they ended up underbuying. The Universe as we knew it soon failed to exist.

Fast forward a couple of retail generations to today’s reigning – by process of elimination, it has to be noted – big box player in consumer electronics retailing: Best Buy. We’re not here to go through all of Best Buy’s problems. Frankly, the Robin Report website doesn’t have that much bandwidth. But among the leading issues the retailer faces is that its physical stores are just too big. Talk to anybody who follows retailing and they’ll tell you that the problems of too many stores in the country is only matched by the problem of too-big stores.

And Best Buy has got it the worst. Unlike a Home Depot or a Lowes, which need those tens of thousands of square feet of space for tools and aluminum siding, Best Buy has more space than it knows what to do with. Let’s face it, nobody has bought a CD or DVD in a store since the Bush administration. So, as Best Buy was on the leading edge of the big box movement it may also be in the forefront of the next trend in superstore retailing: Not-So-Big Boxes.
Yes, the DIY twins need that floor space, but does Bed Bath & Beyond or Staples or Office Max require stores that large? What about giant furniture stores like Rooms To Go or Raymour & Flanigan? And does it end there? What about off-pricers like the MarMaxx group? What about supermarket? And ultimately, what about the biggest big boxes of them all, Walmart and Target?

If, as some people predict, anywhere from 30% to 50% of general merchandise sales will eventually be done online, does that mean we are in the final stages of Big Box retailing? Does it mean that, in the end, the big box will be outdone by the small carton?

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director for several Sandow Media home furnishings business publications and is glad he was there for the big box era.



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