Discount clothing retailing in the UK.
Discounting was to a large extent overlooked in the affluent 1980s. Cheap and cheerful was out, quality was in...but after almost a decade out of favour discount retailers are back.
It could be suggested that the UK recession has been an influence on the growth of the humble discount retailer. With consumer spending on the decrease, the discount clothing retailer has weathered the effects far better than any other. As the Government raised interest rates in the late 1980s in order to combat rising inflation, consumer spending on clothing at current prices increased at a slow rate from 1988 onwards to reach [pounds]17.4 billion in 1991. Despite retail sales of clothing and footwear showing a similar trend a report by Verdict in 1991 estimated that retail sales in the discount sector for 1990 were [pounds]6 billion, and that sales in 1991 were expected to be 25 per cent higher.
The 1980s were a period characterized by affluence where British consumers demanded better quality merchandise and were prepared to pay for it. The 1990s, however, have brought a more price-conscious shopper and the return of the old retailers' maxim of piling it high and selling it cheap.
Very little research has been carried out on the UK discount sector. Most of the literature available is on the growth of low-price outlets in the USA. The apparent lack of research literature, and the recent attention received by the UK discount sector in the press, prompted us to explore the phenomenon in more detail.
There is a certain amount of confusion with the terminology of "discount" and at this point in the article it is desirable to define the term "discount retailer". The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a discount shop as "One that sells goods at less than normal retail price". This definition raises the question: what is meant by normal? We suggest that normal retail prices are those prices of comparable merchandise available in mainstream retail outlets. The Investors Chronicle describes genuine discounting as "Offering merchandise at lower prices than the competition".
These definitions encompass two types of operation: retailers who run year-round sales and have continuous special offers on selected lines of merchandise, and those where all merchandise is available at lower prices than elsewhere. However, many so-called discount retailers in the UK are outlets which provide cheap goods at cheap prices. This does not necessarily fit the above definitions of discounting. The purpose of this study is to investigate outlets in the UK known specifically as discount retailers. Therefore, in the absence of a suitable definition the following working definition describes discount retailers as: "Specific outlets which offer all merchandise at prices cheaper than the same or similar merchandise sold elsewhere".
In the UK there are various types of specific discount outlets which include food discounters, factory outlets and the high-street discount retailers. The study aims to examine the nature of discount clothing retailers on the high street. These retailers can be broadly segmented into three groups: retailers whose core business is discount retailing on a national basis, those whose core business is discount retailing on a regional basis and those used as clearance outlets for mail order or multiple retailers. In the context of this study, discount clothing retailers will include both outlets solely dedicated to the sale of clothing and mixed retail businesses which include clothing as part of their product lines. One of the objectives of the study is to define a discount clothing retailer, so it is expected that the working definition of a discount retailer will be refined as the results from the research emerge.
Much has been written over a period of some 30 years on the subject of cyclical theories of institutional change in retailing. Even as early as 1931, McNair put forward a model of retailing later named the "Wheel of Retailing" after Lewis concluded that the model of retail institutional change was more akin to a cycle than a series of stages. The wheel of retailing describes the process whereby retailers enter the market as low-cost, low-status operations and trade up in order to counter competitive actions. Other commentators attempt to explain the motivations that underlie the trading up activity of retailers[8-11]. McNair and May later replaced the cyclical metaphor with an environmental-cum-conflictual perspective; that is, innovations arose as an outcome of developments in economic, technological, social, consumer and marketing matters and managerial ability. Brown[13,14] synthesizes the previous work on retail institutional change with particular emphasis on environmental factors and inter-institutional conflict.
Much of what has been written to date on the activities of discounters has emanated from the USA where discounting has been a major part of the retail scene for many years in the form of so-called "off-price" retailing and more recently warehouse clubs. Warehouse clubs have enjoyed a rapid growth from the late 1970s to a $33 billion sector in 1992 from approximately 611 outlets with an estimated $70 billion by 1997 from 1,200 outlets[15,16]. The warehouse club made its UK debut in 1993 and is seen as a potential, new and powerful force in UK retailing.
Kaikati[18,19] has suggested that the factors which favour the growth in popularity of off-price retailing in the USA are:
* economic conditions and in particular recession;
* demand for named brands;
* disenchantment with traditional retailers;
* repeal of legislation permitting manufacturer price control.
Furthermore he argues that the evolution of warehouse clubs and off-price retailing adheres well to the wheel of retailing theory and this is illustrated by the growth of private label usage by the discounters in order to facilitate continuity of merchandise supply. Lord endorses this view by contending that off-price retailers improve the quality of their merchandise leading to fewer "seconds" and "irregulars".
Richards puts the discount literature into a consumer perspective by suggesting that "off price appeals to the heart as well as the purse...[it is] a sport; a way of life; part treasure hunt and part adventure; thrilling; exciting; fun; addictive; unbelievable".
The broad aim of this research was to investigate the nature and extent of discount retailing in the clothing sector in the UK. The study has concentrated on the discount retailers who are located in "conventional" retail environments, namely high streets and retail parks. Thus such discount retail activities as factory shops fall outside the remit of this study.
From an identified population of 16 multiple discount clothing retailers, an examination was made of the performance data of ten retailers from that population using secondary data sources such as company reports augmented by online database searches. These data are presented under the heading of the discount clothing market. The six companies whose performance data could not be studied were those where data could not be disaggregated from the reports of holding companies. From the identified population of 16 multiple clothing retailers, a judgemental sample of nine retailers was selected for personal interview so as to study in greater depth those retailers' perceptions of their own businesses. These perceptions were examined under the following headings:
* perceived business environment;
* perceived competitors;
* product ranges;
* customer profile;
* in-store service mix;
* growth methods;
* logistics and use of information technology.
Although the financial data is presented in a named-company format, the data obtained from depth interviews with merchandise directors or their equivalent is presented by company number only in order to protect confidentiality, the company numbers having been randomly allocated.
The Discount Clothing Market
The high-street discount sector can be classified into two distinct types of retailer which consistently trade at low prices to undercut competitors: core business discount retailers operating on a national or regional basis; and clearance shops. Clearance shops are generally operated by mail order companies and by multiple retailers offering the means for disposing of merchandise which, for one reason or another, is classed as being unsaleable through the usual retail channels. The core business discount retailers vary from small independent chains to larger, sometimes quoted, companies operating on a wider scale. Core business discounters can be classified as those offering the same or similar merchandise as the competition but at lower prices and those offering cheap merchandise at cheap prices -- sometimes referred to as the "value for money" outlets.
There has been little research into the size of the retail discount clothing market in the UK. Verdict Research estimated that in 1990 the total retail discount market was valued at some [pounds]6 billion. This naturally includes substantial amounts of food discount retailing. Looked at in another way, the clothing and footwear retail market in 1991 was worth some [pounds]12.4 billion. The ten major discount clothing retailers listed in Table I which we believe represent the UK population of major clothing discount retailers, account for some 4 per cent of the total retail clothing and footwear market.
In addition to the above core business discounters, there are a number of clearance shops on the UK high street. Mail order clearance outlets include Grattan's Manorgrove, Empire's Bargain Street Shop, GUS's Beavens and Freemans' Stage 1. These mail order clearance outlets offer their operators a means of disposing of excesses and returned merchandise.
Table I. Turnover and Profit Performance of Core Business Discount Retailers Growth Pre-tax Growth Turnover 1989-92 profit 1989-92 [pounds]m (%) [pounds]m (%) Poundstretcher Ltd 89.99 -16.1 (10.02) -227.8 What Everyone Wants Ltd 81.00 +8.0 13.04 +124.8 Mark One plc 53.78 +25.0 1.01 +1.0 Ethel Austin Ltd 51.71 +6.6 2.23 +120.8 Peacock's Stores Ltd(a) 41.30 +1.8 2.82 -19.7 Parker & Franks Ltd 28.05 +34.5 1.14 +9.6 Bewise Ltd 35.48 +4.0 -0.05 -102.9 Primark Stores Ltd 84.58 +83.9 1.11 -54.9 QS Holdings plc 45.55 +27.7 7.79 +51.6 TJ Hughes plc 28.36 +82.1 1.11 +35.4 Note: a Figures for year 1990-91
Multiple or high-street retailers' clearance outlets vary in size and number. Some of these retailers, e.g. Dash and Alexon, are apparent on a small scale on the high street, and some, e.g. Knickerbox and Laura Ashley, take up outlets in factory shop malls such as the Hornsea Retail and Leisure Park in North Yorkshire. Vertically integrated manufacturers such as C&J Clark, Lonrho Textiles and Coats Viyella also have high-street and retail-park outlets as well as "factory shop" outlets specializing in seconds or end-of-line goods. For example, Coats Viyella operates a chain of 40 high street clearance shops under the name of Thrifty.
As clearance shops are operated by mainstream retailers and manufacturers, financial data for their clearance operations is not reported separately in annual reports and accounts.
In order to ascertain the elements that are attributable to the relative success of the major discount clothing retailers, it is necessary to examine their respective performance ratios as compared with those of the total UK stores sector. Performance ratios have been calculated for the retailers from data obtained from annual reports and accounts, and performance ratios for the UK stores sector have been obtained from the market information system, Datastream.
Examination of Table II shows some apparent contradictions as well as results that would normally be expected. The profitability, revenue and credit ratios are consistent with the traditional view of discount retailers being low margin, "no frills" (and thus low fixed capital), lacking in premium sites and high stockturn businesses. What appears to defy explanation is the discounters' relatively low productivity in wages against turnover and turnover per employee terms, although the lower level of remuneration per employee is consistent with greater use of part-time labour. Furthermore, there are considerable disparities among the discounters themselves with, in some instances, wide variations existing between the sampled companies. This might be explained by the relative volatility of the Sector in terms of disposals and acquisitions, or the restructuring of companies and their equity bases. At this point a caveat must be introduced in so far as the financial data examined in some instances contain elements of non-retailing activities.
Of the nine retailers interviewed, seven were core business discounters with no connections with TABULAR DATA OMITTED any traditional retail operation. The remaining two were clearance outlets for a retailing and a manufacturing concern. All the retailers interviewed were involved in the sale of clothing, but clothing accounted for varying proportions of their total businesses. All the retailers interviewed can be classed as major operators in the discount market in that they controlled either over 200,000 square foot of selling space or a minimum of 40 stores.
All the retailers interviewed could be described as mature with one being in existence as long as 100 years and the youngest being ten years old. Not all the retailers studied have spent their life in a discount format but one has been a discount retailer for some 80 years, thus indicating that discount retailing is not a particularly new phenomenon.
Perceived Business Environment
As a result of the difficulties expressed earlier with the term "discount", it is important to establish what discounting really means to those retailers who perceive themselves as discounters. Thus, at the start of interviews, retailers were asked what line of business they considered themselves to be in. Table III shows the various responses.
All retailers agreed that they were in the business of selling value-for-money goods, with retailers 1, 2 and 6 choosing the value for money goods option first. Seven retailers claimed they were in the business of selling discount goods -- retailer 2 interestingly does not perceive itself as to be discount retailer at all stating instead that "it sells cheap merchandise at cheap prices made possible by a low overhead structure".
Table III. Perceived Business Environment Value for End Retailer Discount money Clearance of no. goods goods Seconds goods lines 1 * * * * 2 * * 3 * * * * 4 * * * * * 5 * * 6 * * * 7 * * * 8 * * * * 9 * *
Of the seven retailers which considered themselves to be in the business of selling discount goods, Table IV shows the various definitions given for the term "discount".
With one exception, all the retailers defined discounting in terms of setting prices lower than high-street multiples. Retailer 6 was the only retailer to put forward a fairly concise definition of discount, stating that "this part of its business accounts for approximately 20 per cent with the remaining 80 per cent taken up by value for money items, and under this definition is a main reason why it prefers not to be classed as a discount retailer".
Most of the retailers interviewed sell clothing merchandise at 20-40 per cent below high-street multiple retail prices which accounts for the low profit margin ratios identified earlier. In quality terms, discounters described their clothing as being no higher in quality than "good" and in value terms representing good-to-excellent value for money.
Closely allied to the issue of the discounters' perceived environments is the discounters' perceptions of their immediate competitors. These are outlined in Table V.
Four of the discount retailers mentioned Littlewoods, C&A and/or Burton Group as their main competitors with respect to high-street multiples. Many of the retailers regularly "comparison shop" and when setting prices take into account prices prevalent at both discount and multiple retailers.
Table IV. "Discount" Defined Retailer no. Definition 1 "Goods sold at a price below competitors" 3 "Goods that sell for less than the normal selling price" 4 "twenty-five per cent at least below high street/ mainstream retail prices" 5 "Lower average selling prices than high street multiples, but still offering value for money" 6 "Buying end of lines, frustrated export orders, merchandise that is not required and bought at a lower cost than normal" 9 "Goods on sale at a price cheaper than the competition" Table V. Main Competitors Retailer Discount High-street no. retailers multiples 1 * * 2 * 3 * 4 ** * 5 ** * 6 * * 7 ** * 8 * * 9 * Note: ** = greater importance
Discounters are often portrayed as ad hoc purchasers of clearance merchandise and lacking in consistent merchandise policies. Thus it is important to examine the nature and extent of the product mix of the nine discounters studied. The first element in this examination, the sales area breakdown, is shown in Table VI, and the second element, proportion of clearance versus regular merchandise, in Table VII.
As can be seen from Table VI, most of the retailers studied are significantly involved in the sale of clothing, with only retailers 1 and 4 having a higher proportion of other merchandise. Ladieswear takes a greater proportion of salesfloor allocation than menswear or childrenswear for six out of the nine retailers and in some cases takes as much as half the total clothing and footwear space allocation.
Table VI. Sales Floor Allocation Retailer Percentage of floorspace no. 1(a) 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Ladieswear 12.5 40 50 10 30 30 30 30 53 Menswear 13.6 20 24 10 15 16 20 20 20 Childrenswear 3.5 40 15 12 15 15 10 20 18 Footwear 10.2 -(b) 0 4 6 5 -(b) 5 7 Total 39.8 100 89 36 66 66 60 75 98 Total other merchandise 60.2 0 11 64 34 34 40 25 2 Notes: a Breakdown by turnover b Included in the three categories above Table VII. Proportion of Clothing Sales (%) Retailer Clothing sales (%) no. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Regular lines 49 90 100 90 70 85 100 80 30 Irregular/ one-off lines 21 10 10 30 15 20 70 Concessions 30
Five out of the nine retailers have concessionaires present in their stores generally on a small scale in non-clothing areas, e.g. shoes.
In Table VII, irregular/one-off lines represent end of lines, overruns, cancelled orders, bankrupt stock and excess stocks that are available to discounters on an irregular basis. Occasionally, this type of merchandise is supplied on a regular basis to the discounters through long-standing relationships with suppliers. Richards describes these irregular purchases as the off-price element of retailing. For the most part, one-offs represent a small percentage of total clothing sales, except in the case of retailer 9. This indicates that most of the retailers questioned prefer to purchase regular lines since it means they can ensure continuity of merchandise and plan ahead -- evidence of McNair's trading-up phase of the wheel of retailing and extension of Lord's contentions into the UK context.
The wheel of retailing theory has suggested to us that the entry phase consists of a low-status retail operation with the inherent implication that this type of operation is targeted at the lower end of the customer status range. Table VIII presents the discount retailers' perceptions of their target customers.
Most of the discount retailers studied target the lower end of the consumer market of C1s and below, with the notable exceptions of retailer 3 which targets the C1s and above and retailer 8 which targets B, C1, and C2 customers.
Table VIII. Target Customers by Socio-economic Grouping Socio-economic Retailer group 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 A * B * * C1 * * * * * C2 * * * * * * * D * * * * * * E * *
Table IX shows the percentage of actual customers that retailers consider visit their stores annually, which, except for retailers 3, 4 and 7, compares with their targets.
In-store Service Mix
Kaikati stated that discount operations are characterized by an abundance of inelegant functional displays and, a dearth of sales help and service which all helps to keep operating costs down. There is evidence from staffing levels of the retailers interviewed which suggests that there is only marginally less sales help at discount stores than in the conventional retail outlet. The discount retailers were found to prefer employing part-time staff and claimed that fairly low numbers of staff were employed per store. Although not all retailers provided data on staff wages, most of the retailers were keen to keep remuneration down. Buying infrastructures are also smaller than those of the high-street multiples, all the retailers studied were ostensibly very careful with costs overall, and all mentioned that running a lean operation was important to their businesses. There appears to be a disparity here between this view and the turnover per employee and wages: turnover ratios shown earlier.
With regard to inelegant displays and image, however, the discount retailers questioned seem to be at different levels. In four out of the nine retailers studied, fittings are not perceived as a means of improving store image, with most of their fittings being basic chrome tubular racks and gondolas. Retailer 2 claims to have attractive fittings used in all stores which facilitate an attractive image. Point-of-sale advertising is used by most retailers, all stating that their use is generally restricted in order to give a more subtle appearance to the store. All but two retailers supply a sales staff uniform, generally matching the overall look of the store. Retailers 1 and 5 do not supply a uniform, instead encouraging staff to wear conventional dress. All but three of the retailers intend to improve the current store image. Retailer 2 has a very strong in-store image making use of company colours throughout, i.e. front fascia, staff uniforms and fittings. Most of the other retailers studied are updating their image in some way, for example by incorporating new logos and fascias. All retailers have guidelines for store layout, in particular for merchandise positioning and positioning of point-of-sale material.
Table IX. Actual Customers (average percentage annually) Socio-economic group A/B C1 C2 D E Retailer (%) (%) (%) (%) (%) 1 [-------70/80-------] 2 [10/15] [------------75/80-----------] 3    [----23----] 4    [----40----] 5      6 [20/25] [----60----] [few] 7   [----20----]  8 [--------------not available------------] 9  [---------70--------]
Hirschman stated that, in most cases, sales are made on a cash basis at discount outlets. However, all the retailers Studied, with the exception of retailer 2, offer additional payment methods to the traditional cash and cheque transactions. Most of the retailers offer at least two different methods of payment other than cash and cheque, Visa and Access credit cards being the most popular. Installation of facilities to accept payments by debit cards, e.g. Switch, is also increasing. Indeed, retailer 6 suggests that a considerable and increasing number of its transactions are made by debit card.
Seven out of the nine retailers have, or are introducing, changing rooms in stores with enough space. One retailer does not have changing rooms because of the amount of space they take up, theft problems, and because they require an extra member of staff.
Finally, all the retailers questioned generally offer agreeable, and in some cases generous, exchange policies and only one retailer offers an alterations service.
For many of the retailers, expansion occurs organically through the opening of new stores either into new geographical areas or increasing the concentration of stores located in present geographic areas. Between two and ten new stores a year are common but much depends on the existence of favourable terms for potential sites. Rent and rates issues are a common determinant and relate to the reason why many are located in and seek prime and secondary. high-street sites in minor cities and towns, and locate few stores in major cities and towns. This is the prime reason for discount retailers having relatively low fixed assets. These preferred locations fit in with Seelye's observation that discount stores are situated in low-rent locations.
In spite of the growth in recent years in cross-frontier activity by retailers and the entry into the UK market by overseas-domiciled grocery discount retailers such as Aldi and Netto, none of the clothing discount retailers studied has any plans to move outside the UK.
Logistics and Information Technology
The traditional view of discount retailing has been that of an unsophisticated, ad hoc operation with minimal investment in operating infrastructure. It is therefore necessary to explore the UK clothing discounters to establish whether they fit this description. The following proxy measures have been used in this respect:
(1) the existence of electronic point of sale systems;
(2) the existence of central warehouses;
(3) the existence of systemized merchandise call-off methods.
Of the nine retailers studied, eight operate with central warehouses and seven currently operate EPoS systems in most of their stores. The main reason for the non-usage of EPoS is that the discounters concerned were essentially operating on a clearance-line basis for the majority of their range. The two current non-EPoS users, however, plan to introduce it in the short-to-medium term. It is, however, the existence of a call off systems, either from central warehouses or directly from manufacturers, that is of the most interest in that it suggests that merchandise ranges are pre-planned and remain relatively constant thus suggesting a degree of maturity in that retailer. Four of the discounters studied operated such systems for at least part of their range.
In light of the various responses to defining the term "discount", a fairy consistent definition emerges which encompasses the activities of all retailers interviewed: "Goods selling at prices below mainstream (normal) retail prices, i.e. those of the high-street multiples". Thus the initial working definition seems to have proved adequate.
Richards stated that off-price retailing is concerned with the purchasing of end of lines, overruns, etc. and offers medium-to-high quality branded merchandise at discounted prices. In addition, though, there is evidence of the purchasing of manufacturer brands on a regular basis as part of the discounters' normal business.
The UK discount clothing market retailers bear resemblance to the US market in that both off-price and conventional forms of discount outlet exist. However, off-price outlets are likely to be present on a smaller scale in the UK due to a smaller supply base for branded merchandise. Also, retailer brands dominate the UK and retailers are thus able to exercise power over manufacturers of their own labelled merchandise. Furthermore, the British shopper is said to be less brand aware than the American shopper. In the USA, both manufacturers' and retailers' brands receive equal recognition and the advertising of both brand types serves to increase the demand for branded merchandise. Off-price retailing, therefore, is unlikely to grow at the same rate in the UK as it has done in the USA since much of the control is in the hands of the retailers who dominate the market with their own clearance outlets. However, conventional discounters should prosper as they have done in the USA, since there will always be a "bottom end of the market" and the economic recession in both countries has facilitated the growth of the discounters.
Planned purchasing appears to be of increasing importance to the discount retailers as a result of developments in information technology and the increasing use of own labels. This suggests that the discounters are "maturing" in classic cyclical terms. The question arises therefore: will these retailers always be discounters? Five of the discount clothing retailers studied are characterized by having over 70 per cent of their business procured by planned purchasing. Merchandise is mainly own label or unbranded with some of the retailers planning to increase the use of own labels, perhaps in an attempt to secure their supply base. (However, purchases are still used one-off as they are seen to provide a better bargain for the customer. Some of these retailers are moving away from one-off purchases since planned or regular purchasing offers them more control over the running of their operations.)
Also, the discount clothing store does not appeal only to consumers at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, which would be expected. There appears to be some attraction for what is called the "shrewd" shopper which transcends the socio-economic spectrum.
Furthermore, the growth of the discount clothing retailer does not appear to be a recession phenomenon. Clearly, the recession in the UK has boosted the coverage of discount clothing retailers, which might indicate that they are only a recession phenomena. However, it has been seen that many of the retailers studied have been around for over ten years, operating at the bottom end of the market. Discount retailers merely attract more attention and take on a higher profile in times of recession: while other retailers are having a hard time, the discounters continue to flourish. In that respect, discount clothing retailers are less of a recession phenomenon and more a long-term feature on the UK retailing scene.
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|Author:||Robinson, Terry M.; Bailey, Jayne|
|Publication:||International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1994|
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