The Internationalization of the Retail Supply Chain

John Fernie


The internationalization of retailing has attracted considerable academic attention in recent years. Although the retail industry is generally considered to be more ‘culturally grounded’ and therefore its foreign to total assets is lower than in manufacturing sectors, the last decade has witnessed a major restructuring of the retail marketplace. The meteoric rise of Wal-Mart to become the largest corporation in the world, with sales of around US $250 billion in 2003, has reshaped global competition in the food and general merchandise sectors. As Wal-Mart competes in Asia, Latin America and Europe with other mega groups (Wrigley, 2002; Fernie and Arnold, 2002), some retailers have scaled down or divested their international operations in order to compete more effectively in their domestic markets (Burt et al, 2002; Alexander and Quinn, 2002).

Despite all of the hype about international retailing, little has been written about the supply chain implications of the internationalization process. Sparks (1995) acknowledges that there are three main threads to understanding retail internationalization:

  • international sourcing;
  • international retail operations;
  • internationalization of management ideas.

Of these, most researchers have concentrated upon retail operations, but by that they mean store, not logistics operations. Nevertheless, with the internationalization of key logistics concepts such as Quick Response (QR) and Efficient Consumer Response (ECR), it quickly became apparent that countries were at very different stages of the adoption process of these concepts. Distribution cultures vary within and between countries; hence companies seeking to expand into new markets need to be cognisant of the macro-environmental factors they will face in these markets. This chapter seeks to explore how retail logistics has evolved in different market environments, and how companies are transferring world-class logistics practices from market to market. Prior to discussing these issues, however, it is appropriate to comment upon international sourcing.

International Sourcing

Although the current debate on global strategies of retailers takes the form of entry to new geographical markets, most retailers are already familiar with the internationalization process through their sourcing policies. In much the same way as manufacturers have sought offshore production to reduce the costs of the manufactured product, retailers have looked beyond their domestic markets to source products of acceptable quality at competitive prices. It has been the apparel sector that has led in international sourcing policies, with US, Japanese and European companies targeting low-cost labour areas in the Far East, north Africa, eastern Europe and Latin America for finished and semi-finished product. The lengthening of the supply chain clearly has given logistics managers of these companies a set of challenges in terms of the cost tradeoffs with regard to better buying terms but increased distribution costs. The US company, The Limited, revolutionized the fashion retail market in the United States through its global procurement strategy which is under- pinned by state of the art technology from computer-aided design to Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) links with suppliers. Those suppliers in south-east Asia have their goods consolidated in Hong Kong, from where chartered jumbo jets fly direct to their Columbus, Ohio distribution centre for onward distribution to their stores. This enabled the company to turn its inventory twice as quickly as the average for a US speciality store.

It was shown in the previous chapter that Quick Response (QR) initiatives were initially introduced to give domestic suppliers an opportunity to compete with low-cost offshore suppliers. The enormous labour cost advantages that many of these countries have over their ‘developed’ counterparts, however, have meant that offshore QR has been implemented, for example fashion retailers in Japan sourcing from the Dongdaemun Market in Seoul, Korea (Azuma, 2002).

In the UK the problem of making buying decisions too far in advance from Far East suppliers has been partially solved by using a combination of manufacturers from different sourcing locations. Thus basic lines from the Far East can be ordered three months in advance, seasonal lines are augmented by eastern European and north African suppliers in three weeks, and shorter runs of remakes are manufactured by British companies (Birtwhistle, Siddiqui and Fiorito, 2003).

It is not only the textile markets that have witnessed an increased globalization of sourcing: similar trends are evident in the grocery sector. As consumers acquire more cosmopolitan tastes and grocery retailers have developed their product ranges over the last 10 to 15 years, it is inevitable that many products cannot be sourced from the domestic market. Nonetheless grocery retailers in the UK invariably source some products from other parts of the EU outside the UK, not because of geographical or climatic reasons but because of the ability of non-UK suppliers to provide products in the volume, quality, variety and price to meet the demands of buyers.

The internationalization of sourcing has been facilitated by the liberalization of markets in the EU in the 1990s. This has been replicated in North America with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the overall policies of the UN’s World Trade Organization for liberalizing trade on a global scale. In the EU, for example, a natural consequence of the harmonization of markets in Europe has been for more manufacturing companies to treat the EU as one, rather than a host of individual national markets. Thus the removal of trade barriers, the deregulation of transport, especially road transport, and the acceptance of uniform standards in information systems, have all promoted the re-engineering of manufacturers’ supply chains.

With the advent of factory gate pricing (FGP) by UK major grocery retailers, it is likely that the costs of product and transportation will be driven down as retailers exert more control further back down the supply chain. This is not to say that FGP is not being applied in the non-food sector. It is only that the non-food supply chain is longer and more complex than in the food sector. Thus both sectors are moving to the point of origin and therefore sourcing ‘ex-works’. In non-food, however, 80 per cent of product is sourced from a non-UK supplier base, 90 per cent is moved by sea and therefore product lead times are longer, with a larger margin of error in matching demand with supply than in the more ‘local’ food market (Jones, 2003).

In essence, the principles of logistics are the same. In food we have moved from direct deliveries from UK manufacturers’ factories to stores to FGP and the efficient transportation of product from factory through consolidation centre or retail distribution centre (RDC) to store. In non-food, the change has been from delivery directly paid to FOB, where the vendor was still responsible for shipping from country of origin, to exworks where the retailer controls the whole supply chain.

This approach is exemplified by Toys’R’Us’s relationship with Exel, the logistics service provider. Since 1996 Exel has been developing an end-toend value-based solution to Toys’R’Us sourcing and logistics in China. Exel deals with 800 suppliers across south China, collecting goods and consolidating them at its Yantian distribution facility. Labelling and packing is carried out there prior to maximizing container fill for onward distribution to customers’ distribution centres (DCs) (Jones, 2003). Complementing this physical flow is product visibility through the use of Log Net, which allows the transmission of orders and a tracking facility to monitor shipments throughout the supply chain cycle.

While it is accepted that a degree of internationalization is inevitable as trade barriers are removed, the international development of a retailer’s store network poses another set of problems pertaining to sourcing decisions. In the same way as Japanese automobile companies have reconfigured their supply chain by creating a new network of suppliers in Europe and North America, retailers going global have to decide whether to source from traditional suppliers or seek new suppliers. Much will depend on the nature of the entry strategy. If entry is through organic growth, it may be possible to supply from the existing network; if a joint venture or an acquisition occurs, the retailer has to decide whether to retain or change the supply base that it inherited. If we take the case of J Sainsbury, nearer home it entered the Northern Ireland market with an organic growth strategy, reassuring representatives of the Province that it will generate considerable business for Northern Irish suppliers. In the United States, its gradual takeover of the Shaws and Giant chains has led to a radical transformation of its supplier base (Wrigley, 1997a, 1997 b).

In a similar way, Tesco’s acquisition of ABF in Ireland led to a transformation of a distribution culture which was akin to the situation in Britain in the mid-1980s. Hence, it can be argued that foreign competition or even the threat of competition has produced changes in supply chain practices. Indeed, the advent of ECR and Quick Response can be attributed to traditional players in the US apparel and grocery sectors facing competition from new formats. Most of the success stories pertaining to the internationalization of the retail supply chain tend to relate to companies that have exerted strong control over their supply chain activities. This means the development of strong relationships with suppliers, the implementation of integrated technology systems and the willingness to be flexible in a changing market place. Zara, the Spanish fashion retailer, is renowned for its quick response to street fashion. With over 1,000 designers and a cost-effective production process it can take new products to stores within two to three weeks. This high product churn, ‘live fashion’ is fuelled by an integrated supply chain operated from its production hub at La Coruna and its networks of SMEs in Galicia and Northern Portugal.

It is also no coincidence that some companies such as Benetton have narrow product assortments. It should be noted that The Limited, although it is not an international firm in terms of store development, derived its name from its narrow range of high fashion sportswear. This streamlines and simplifies the logistical network. The success of Benetton can be attributed to all the factors listed above. The company has always been at the forefront of technological efficiency, from garment design, production and automated warehouses to the invoicing and transmission of orders by EDI. ‘Benetton’s long-term investment in logistics efficiency has been repaid with the fastest cycle times in the industry, no excess work in progress, little residual stock to be liquidated at the end of the season, and near perfect customer service’ (Christopher, 1997: 127–28).

More recently Benetton is beginning to transform its business by retaining its network structure but changing the nature of the network. Unlike most of its competitors, it is increasing vertical integration within the business (Camuffo, Romano and Vinelli, 2001). As volumes have increased, Benetton set up a production pole at Castrette near its headquarters. This large complex is responsible for producing around 120 million items per year. To take advantage of lower labour costs, Benetton has located foreign production poles, based on the Castrette model, in Spain, Portugal, Hungary, Croatia, Tunisia, Korea, Egypt and India. These foreign production centres focus on one type of product utilizing the skills of the region, so T-shirts are made in Spain, jackets in Eastern Europe.

In order to reduce time throughout the supply chain, Benetton has increased upstream vertical integration by consolidating its textile and thread supplies so that 85 per cent is controlled by the company. This means that Benetton can speed up the flow of materials from raw material suppliers through its production poles to ultimate distribution from Italy to its global retail network.

The retail network and the product on offer have also experienced changes. Benetton had offered a standard range in most markets but allowed for 20 per cent of its range to be customized for country markets. Now, to communicate a single global image, Benetton is only allowing 5–10 per cent of differentiation in each collection. Furthermore, it has streamlined its brand range to focus on the United Colors of Benetton and Sisley brands.

The company is also changing its store network to enable it to compete more effectively with its international competitors. It is enlarging its existing stores, where possible, to accommodate its full range of these key brands. Where this is not possible, it will focus on a specific segment or product. Finally, it is opening more than 100 megastores worldwide to sell the full range, focusing on garments with a high styling content. These stores are owned and managed solely by Benetton to ensure that the company can maintain control downstream and be able to respond quickly to market changes.

By contrast another vertically integrated company with a strong international brand name, Laura Ashley, has shown how a disastrous logistics operation can lead to the near demise of a company. In the early 1990s, the company began to incur losses, primarily because it could not deliver to its stores in time to meet a season’s collection. It developed a series of uncoordinated management information systems which meant that orders invariably were not met despite its five major warehouses with over 55,000 lines of inventory (of which 15,000 were current stock). In addition, relationships with clothing suppliers, freight forwarders and transport companies were piecemeal and transactional in nature (Peck and Christopher, 1994).

In 1992 Laura Ashley contracted out its entire logistics operation to Federal Express with a view to upgrading its systems and utilizing Federal Express’s global network to minimize stock levels. Although Laura Ashley’s logistics performance improved markedly in the following years, it terminated the contract in 1996, less than halfway through the 10- year deal. Laura Ashley’s continuing poor financial results in the late 1990s are perhaps a reflection on its having lost customer confidence in the 1990s. While logistics can give companies competitive advantage, in this case non-availability of product in stores and catalogues lost Laura Ashley goodwill and market share in what was becoming an increasingly competitive clothing market.

Differences in Distribution Culture in International Markets

It was shown in the last chapter how ECR principles have been adopted at different stages by different companies in international markets; also, in the previous section it was noted that new entrants to a market can change the distribution culture of that market. Differences in such markets are more likely to exist in the context of fast-moving consumer goods, especially groceries, because of the greater variations in tastes that occurs in not only national but regional markets. The catalyst for much of the interest in these international comparisons was the revealing statistic from the Kurt Salmon report in 1993 that it took 104 days for dry grocery products to pass through the US supply chain from the suppliers’ picking line to the checkout. With the advent of ECR, it was hoped to reduce this time to 61 days, a figure that was still behind the lead times encountered in Europe, especially in the UK where inventory in the supply chain averages around 25 days (see the GEA, 1994 report for further details).

Mitchell (1997: 14) explains the differences between the United States and Europe in terms of trading conditions. For example, he states that:

  • The US grocery retail trade is fragmented, not concentrated as in parts of Europe.
  • US private label development is primitive compared with many European countries.
  • The balance of power in the manufacturer–retailer relationship is very different in the United States compared with Europe.
  • The trade structure is different in that wholesalers play a more important role in the United States.
  • Trade practices such as forward buying are more deeply rooted in the United States than Europe.
  • Trade promotional deals and the use of coupons in consumer promotions are unique to the United States.
  • Legislation, especially anti-trust legislation, can inhibit supply chain collaboration.

Fernie (1994, 1995) cites the following factors to explain these variations in supply chain networks:

  • the extent of retail power;
  • the penetration of store brands in the market;
  • the degree of supply chain control;
  • types of trading format;
  • geographical spread of stores;
  • relative logistics costs;
  • level of IT development;
  • relative sophistication of the distribution industry.

These eight factors can be classified into those of a relationship nature (the first three) and operational factors. Clearly there has been a significant shift in the balance of power between manufacturer and retailer during the last 20 to 30 years as retailers increasingly take over responsibility for aspects of the value-added chain, namely product development, branding, packaging and marketing. As merger activity continues in Europe, retailers have grown in economic power to dominate their international branded manufacturer suppliers. While there are different levels of retail concentration at the country level, the trend is for increased concentration even in the southern European nations, which are experiencing an influx of French, German and Dutch retailers.

By contrast, Ohbora, Parsons and Riesenbeck (1992) maintain that this power struggle is more evenly poised in the United States, where the grocery market is more regional in character, enabling manufacturers to wield their power in the marketplace. This, however, is changing as Wal- Mart develops its supercenters and acted as a catalyst for the ‘consolidation wave’ throughout the 1990s and early 21st century (Wrigley, 2001). Nevertheless, the immense size of the United States has meant that there has never been a true national grocery retailer.

Commensurate with the growth of these powerful retailers has been the development of distributor labels. This is particularly relevant in Britain, where supermarket chains have followed the Marks and Spencer strategy of strong value-added brands that can compete with manufacturers’ brands. British retailers dominate the list of top 25 own-label retailers in Europe. In the United States, own-label products did account for 15 per cent of sales in US supermarkets in the 1990s (Fiddis, 1997). This will change, however, with the drive by Wal-Mart to link its supercenter format and own-label strategy, in addition to the expansion by European retailers such as Ahold and J Sainsbury which have high own-label penetration in their domestic markets.

The net result of this shift to retail power and own-label development is that manufacturers have been either abdicating or losing their responsibility for controlling the supply chain. In the UK the transition from a supplier-driven system to one of retail control is complete compared with some parts of Europe and the United States.

Of the operational factors identified by Fernie (1994), the nature of trading format has been a key driver in shaping the type of logistics support to stores. For example, in the UK the predominant trading format has been the superstore in both food and specialist household products and appliances. This has led to the development of large regional distribution centres (RDCs) for the centralization of stock from suppliers. In the grocery sector, supermarket operations have introduced composite ware- housing and trucking, whereby products of various temperature ranges can be stored in one warehouse and transported in one vehicle. This has been possible because of the scale of the logistics operation, namely large RDCs supplying large superstores. Further upstream primary consolidation centres have been created to minimize inventory held between factory and store. The implementation of factory gate pricing further reinforces the trend to retail supply chain control.

The size and spread of stores will therefore determine the form of logistical support to retail outlets. Geography also is an important consideration in terms of the physical distances products have to be moved in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium compared with the United States and to a lesser extent, France and Spain. Centralization of distribution into RDCs was more appropriate to urbanized environments where stores could be replenished regularly. By contrast, in France and Spain some hypermarket operators have few widely dispersed stores, often making it more cost-effective to hold stock in store rather than at an RDC.

The question of a trade-off of costs within the logistics mix is therefore appropriate at a country level. Labour costs permeate most aspects of the logistics mix – transport, warehousing, inventory and administration costs. Not surprisingly dependence on automation and mechanization increases as labour costs rise (the Scandinavian countries have been in the vanguard of innovation here because of high labour costs). Similarly, it can be argued that UK retailers, especially grocery retailers, have been innovators in ECR principles because of high inventory costs, the result of high interest rates in the 1970s and 1980s. This also is true of land and property costs. In Japan, the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries the high cost of retail property acts as an incentive to maximize sales space and minimize the carrying of stock in store. In France and the United States the relatively lower land costs lead to the development of rudimentary warehousing to house forward buy and promotional stock.

In order to achieve cost savings throughout the retail supply chain, it will be necessary for collaboration between parties to implement the ECR principles discussed in the previous chapter. The ‘enabling technologies’ identified by Coopers and Lybrand (1996) are available, but their implementation is patchy both within and between organizations. For example, McLaughlin, Perosio and Park (1997) in their study of US retail logistics comment that 40 per cent of order fulfilment problems are a result of miscommunications between retail buyers and their own distribution centre personnel. In Europe, Walker (1994) showed that EDI usage was much greater in the UK than other European countries, notably Italy where the cost of telecommunications, a lack of management commitment and an insufficient critical mass of participants left the Italians at the beginning of the adoption curve. Since then ECR initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic have led to greater use of enabling technologies, including Web-based technologies, to enhance collaboration between supply chain partners.

As mentioned in the previous chapter, one area of collaboration that is often overlooked is that between retailer and professional logistics contractors. The provision of third-party services to retailers varies markedly by country according to the regulatory environment, the competitiveness of the sector and other distribution cultural factors. For example, in the UK the deregulation of transport markets occurred in 1968, and many of the companies that provide dedicated distribution of RDCs today were the same companies that acted on behalf of suppliers when they controlled the supply chain 20 years ago. Retailers contracted out because of the opportunity cost of opening stores rather than RDCs, the cost was ‘off balance sheet’ and there was a cluster of well established professional companies available to offer the service. The situation is different in other geographical markets. In the United States, in particular, third-party logistics is much less developed and warehousing is primarily run by the retailer, while transportation is invariably contracted out to local haulers. Deregulation of transport markets happened relatively late in the United States, leading to more competitive pricing. Similarly the progressive deregulation of EU markets is breaking down some nationally protected markets. Nevertheless, most European retailers, like their US counterparts, tend only to contract out the transport function. Compared with the UK, the economics of outsourcing is less attractive. Indeed, in some markets a strong balance sheet and the investment in distribution assets is viewed more positively than in the UK.

The Internationalization of Logistics Practices

The transfer of ‘know how’, originally proposed by Kacker (1988) in reference to trading formats and concepts, can be applied to logistics practices. Indeed, we have shown already that Tesco and Sainsbury’s acquisition strategy has led to a transformation of the logistics culture in their host markets. Alternatively, companies can pursue an organic growth strategy by building up a retail presence in target markets before rolling out an RDC support function. For example, Marks and Spencer ’s European retail strategy initially was supported from distribution centres in southern Britain. As French and Spanish markets were developed, warehouses were built to support the stores in Paris and Madrid. Another dimension to the internationalization of retail logistics is the internationalization of logistics service providers, many of which were commissioned to operate sites on the basis of their relationship with retailers in the UK. In the Marks and Spencer example, Exel was the contractor operating the DCs in France and Spain.

The expansion of the retail giants with their ‘big box’ formats into new geographical markets is leading to internationalization of logistics practice. The approach to knowledge transfer is largely dependent on the different models of globalized retail operations utilized by these mega groups. Wrigley (2002) classified these retailers into two groups, one following the ‘aggressively industrial’ model, the other the ‘intelligently federal’ model (Table 3.1).

Table 3.1: Alternative Corporate Models of Globalized Retail Operation

‘Aggressively industrial’


‘Intelligently federal’

Low format adaptation


Multiple/flexible formats

Lack of partnerships/alliances in emerging markets


Parnerships/alliances in emerging markets

Focus on economies of scale in purchasing, marketing, logistics


Focus on back-end integration, accessing economies of skills as much as scale, and best practice knowledge transfer

Centralized bureaucracy, export of key management and corporate culture from core


Absorb, utilize/transfer, best management acquired local

The global ‘category killer’ model


The umbrella organization/corporate parent model

Source: Wrigley, 2002

In the former model, to which Wal-Mart and to a lesser extent Tesco can be classified, the focus is on economies of scale in purchasing and strong implementation of the corporate culture and management practices. Hence Tesco’s implementation of centralized distribution in Ireland, the incorporation of a chilled ‘composite’ facility and the use of best practice ECR principles developed in the UK to Ireland. Wal-Mart, however, is the best example of the aggressively industrial model. In Europe, for example, it has integrated buying across the acquired chains in Germany and the UK. In Germany, supply chain systems were upgraded in stores and two new depots were developed as the logistics network was transformed from a direct store to a centralized distribution model. Tibbett and Britten, the UK logistics service provider, was entrusted with the task of improving efficiency in distribution operations, having previously worked with Wal-Mart in the aftermath of its Woolco acquisition in Canada.

In the UK, Wal-Mart’s impact on Asda’s logistics has been mainly in enhancing IT infrastructure and reconfiguring its distribution network to supply the increase in non-food lines. By 2005, 20 supercentres will have been opened with 50 per cent of their space devoted to non-food (general merchandise, clothing, electricals, and so on). Furthermore, existing stores will release more space for such lines with the release of space because of enhanced IT systems. Wal-Mart has revolutionized Asda’s EPOS and stock data systems in Project Breakthrough which commenced in 2000 and was rolled out to stores, depots and finally Asda House by late 2002.

The incorporation of Wal-Mart’s Retail Link system has allowed greater coordination of information from till to supplier, reducing costs and enhancing product availability (IGD, 2003).

Ahold, by contrast, adheres to the intelligently federal model. It has transformed logistics practices through its relationships in retail alliances (see below) and through synergies developed with its web of subsidiaries. In the United States, for example, it has retained the local store names post-acquisition and adopted best practice across subsidiaries. Furthermore, it shares distribution facilities for its own label and non- grocery lines.

Another method of transferring know-how is through retail alliances. Throughout Europe, a large number of alliances exist, most of which are buying groups (Robinson and Clarke-Hill, 1995). However, some of these alliances have been promoting a cross-fertilization of logistics ideas and practices. In the case of the European Retail Alliance, Safeway in the UK has partnered with Ahold of the Netherlands and Casino in France. In 1994 a ‘composite’ distribution centre was an UK phenomenon; now, composites have been developed by Safeway’s European partners. These logistics practices have not only been applied in France and the Netherlands but in the parent companies’ subsidiaries in the United States, Portugal and Czechoslovakia. John Harvey, Chairman of Tibbett and Britten, comments that ‘in the space of three years they caught up seven’ (1997: 6).

Not surprisingly, the exploitation of UK retail logistics expertise has enabled distribution contractors to penetrate foreign retail markets, not only in support of British retail companies’ entry strategies but also for other international retailers. In 1997 Harvey argued that the success of his company and other UK logistics specialists could be derived from the success of the FMCG sector but like UK retailers, the success for the future lies with global opportunities. By the early 2000s he could report that over one-third of Tibbett and Britten’s sales were in North America, where major structural changes were taking place in the grocery market.


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Logistics and Retail Management
Logistics and Retail Management: Emerging Issues and New Challenges in the Retail Supply Chain
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Year: 2003
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