Can't find your favorite toothpaste? Retailers are choosing for you

Just because your favorite shampoo or toothpaste disappears from the store shelf, doesn't mean it's discontinued. It might have been booted by your favorite store.

Retailers all over the country are reducing the number of products they carry, eliminating brands and in general being much more selective thanks to some pretty sophisticated software and the science behind it.

It's all based on the concept of "bounded rationality." That too much choice inhibits our ability to make a decision. In other words, 20 different kinds of jam is no better than six. In fact, it's worse. When faced with 20, a lot of people will just walk away empty handed. I did this recently when faced with what seemed like a bazillion types of caulk at a home improvement center. Just walked away. I'll take care of that problem another time.
There's also a finite amount of shelf space, even in a supercenter. How they allocate that space is tricky business.

Stores can carry anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 thousand SKUs. There might be 12,000 new product introductions this year, but where to put them? And really, how many kinds of Oreo's do we actually need?

This story in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required), details how stores have been trimming the total number of items (SKUs) they stock, like Walgreens cutting types of glue, Wal-Mart cutting tape measures and Kroger cutting cereal. There is a ton of science behind it including register totals, frequent shopper or loyalty card data, and inventory lists. The problem being, eliminating certain items may also eliminate some shoppers.


"The problem is, that no matter what SKU is on that shelf, someone is buying it," says retail consultant Neil Stern of McMillan/Doolittle. "Eliminating it is going to anger that customer. You have to be really careful. Is that SKU going to be the tipping point that makes them shop elsewhere?"

It was for me. I'm devoted to a particular variety of Colgate toothpaste, nothing else will do. When Target suddenly stopped carrying it, I panicked, then went online. I now order my toothpaste, and a lot of other things, from Drugstore.com. I still shop at Target but go less often and save a good amount on sales tax, but that's another topic for another post. For this customer, toothpaste was the tipping point.

Of course you can also appeal to the powers that be. Write an email to corporate or make a request to the store manager. Or shop elsewhere.

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