cover image Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture

Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture

Robert Spector. Harvard Business School Press, $27.95 (224pp) ISBN 978-1-57851-960-6

Situated at the intersection of two Interstate highways, the small city of Tukwila, Wash., has been home to an upscale shopping mall since 1968. A few years ago, however, Tukwila began sprouting superstores. Now, thanks to Target, Barnes & Noble, PETsMART, Circuit City, Home Depot and many others, this former cow pasture is a sprawling, black-topped magnet for discount-minded shoppers. Spector's revealing book traces the history of discount selling, showing how innovative merchants laid the foundation for the big-box chain stores that are changing the retail landscape in places like Tukwila and elsewhere. Spector (Amazon.Com: Get Big Fast, etc.) is not a dramatic storyteller, but his is a solid account of the evolution of these ""category killers"" (so called because their goal is to ""dominate the category and kill the competition""), the first of which came into being in the early 1960s, when Charles Lazarus applied the principles developed by several generations of discounters to his family's business and created Toys ""R"" Us. Spector's strongest sections chronicle the rise of key players in various categories and describe the influence, both good and bad, of the ultimate discount superstore: Wal-Mart. At a time when Wal-Mart and other big retailers are being demonized for allegedly stifling competition and short-changing workers, Spector takes an evenhanded approach, reviewing the criticisms while noting that discount retailers have brought previously expensive goods within reach of average shoppers. Interestingly, Spector demonstrates that many of the arguments leveled today against Wal-Mart and other superstores resemble those used in the early 19th century against the first department stores and the earliest discounters. Anyone interested in the future of shopping, from both a business and cultural perspective, will find this book to be a useful primer.