Why retailers struggle to expand internationally

Global retail may be becoming more homogeneous due to international expansion by various chains, but the success of internalisation is patchy within and across retailers, and there have been failures on an industrial scale.

This made me curious as to why a retailer fails in some markets and not others. It turns out there are a few common themes. Here’s what I’ve been able to discern from some of the more notable and/or recent failures and market withdrawals.

Walmart loses the culture wars

The Arkansas-based behemoth closed 269 stores worldwide in 2016, just over half of which (154) were in the US. Its efforts in Germany and Korea were two examples of a lack of cultural understanding and demonstrate why cut-and-paste is ineffective.

Walmart pulled out of Germany in the late noughties, having learned that what is “customer service” in one country may be offensive in another. German customers, for example, were offended by greeters and Walmart’s 10-foot rule (greeting/interaction/eye contact if coming within 10 feet of a customer). Germans didn’t like having their groceries bagged or taken to their cars. Walmart was also using plastic bags in a country that’s very eco-conscious. Walmart’s employee policies and lack of understanding of German labour laws and unions resulted in it being considered anti-democratic, and its employee “no fraternisation” policy grated. To add insult to injury, EDLP pricing wasn’t a differentiator in a country with Aldi, Lidl and Kaufland.

Walmart also pulled out of South Korea in the late noughties. The retailer didn’t understand the cultural importance of Korea’s local fresh food markets and that Koreans understood the nature of supermarkets as having a dry-goods focus rather than food and beverage. Koreans are frequent shoppers doing top-up shops, not the stock-up trip nature of a Walmart format. And the company’s locations outside cities didn’t work because Koreans wouldn’t travel to shop.

In Japan (as Seiyu), it is struggling, with 100 stores closed over the past few years and there were reports in 2018 that Walmart was looking to sell, a rumour it currently denies. Not only are supermarkets and hypermarkets as a format struggling in Japan due to its aging population and daily shopping trips, Seiyu hasn’t really tailored its range to local areas. In Japan the mindset of “high price equals high quality” meant that low prices in Seiyu were unappealing.

In India, there is a different model. Entering in 2009, Walmart has 20+ membership-based Bestprice wholesale stores. In 2018, the company took a significant stake in one of the largest e-commerce players in India, Flipkart.

Carrefour fails in Asia

Carrefour has been struggling in Asia, closing all 31 Thailand stores in 2010. It pulled out of Malaysia and Taiwan in 2012. In Russia, two stores were only open four months, interesting in a market where Auchan has been reasonably successful. Carrefour closed its US operations in 1994 as it wasn’t able to compete with the local Walmart behemoth.

Tesco a mixed bag

The UK supermarket failed in Japan but has had some success in South Korea.

In Japan, Tesco did more research than Walmart had, but still failed. Despite the introduction of private-label products (2006) and an Express format (2007) they underestimated the tough established competition posed by 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart in one of the most convenience-store-heavy markets in the world.

In the US, Tesco’s small format supermarket, Fresh & Easy, failed for a number of reasons, not least because consumers weren’t clear on the name and what the store was. It didn’t offer coupons in one of the world’s most coupon-crazy markets. It targeted Trader Joe’s but was more downmarket and had less community feel and execution, and the produce quality didn’t live up to its (poorly understood) name. And it launched in 2007 at the beginning of the GFC, when consumers had battened down the hatches. It left in 2013. It may have had a better point of difference if it had traded on its British heritage and product lines.

Best Buy gets the timing wrong

In the UK, the US electronics chain bought Carphone Warehouse in 2010 and rebranded with a goal of 200 stores, only 11 of which were opened. The major reason cited for its failure was the lingering effects of the GFC.

In China, not only was Best Buy too expensive, it was trying to sell complex consumer electronics when the market was still at TVs and DVD players.

Target USA spurned in Canada

Target only lasted two years (2013-15) trying to sell to its neighbour in the north. It was an example of over-ambition and poor strategy, with 124 stores opening in 10 months in poor locations (rundown malls, suburbs) with small store footprints. Product prices were higher than in the US. (Canadians go over the border to shop so they know US prices). Worse, little staff training, a limited range, a new software system and subsequent ordering issues meant empty shelves. They couldn’t compete with Walmart.

Home Depot fails to sell DIY

The US retailer of home-improvement supplies opened 12 stores in China in 2006. But the China market is much bigger on DIFM (“do it for me”), because DIY there signifies poverty. Gone by 2012.

Bunnings forgets the weather

It appears Australian retailers are not immune to cut-and-paste hubris. Bunnings’ acquisition of Homebase, a homewares store with a high percentage of female customers, meant it had to compete with B&Q and Screwfix (41 per cent of market vs Homebase 13 per cent), whose customers skewed male.

It got rid of the Homebase local management team. Product stock like large BBQs and holding sausage sizzles in winter demonstrated a miscalculation of the role of climate.

And then there’s…
· Starbucks Australia: Too expensive but inferior product versus that produced by the local strong coffee culture, both chains and independents; 85 locations was seen as an “invasion”. They underestimated their competition in Israel also – in 2001, out 2003.

· eBay China: It didn’t understand guanxi (connection) and provided no mechanic for it (ie chat) vs Alibaba’s Taobao, which was fee free plus seller chat.

· Taco Bell China: Mexican cuisine always struggled there; Taco Bell was not seen as offering anything new.

· Marks & Spencer: It has also struggled internationally, as in Canada, despite being part of the national fabric in Britain.

Norrelle has 20 years’ experience in retail, category, channel and customer strategy, marketing and research, working in and with global retailers, manufacturers and consulting houses.


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