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A category killer is marketing industry jargon for a product, service, brand, or company that has such a distinct and sustainable competitive advantage over other firms in its market that competing firms find it almost impossible to operate profitably and almost all the competitors in the market, whether real "bricks and mortar" stores or virtual online stores, leave the industry, thereby increasing the dominant firm's concentration ratio.
Examples of category killers are big-box retail chains such as Home Depot, Best Buy or Toys "R" Us that dominate in the markets for home improvement supplies, consumer electronics and toys, respectively. These chains are focused on one or few categories of related merchandise and they all offer a wide selection of merchandise in these categories at relatively low prices. The emergence of such stores has taken a toll on specialised local stores in the same market (such as local hardware stores, stereo stores, and toy shops). Category killer big box chains have even had a serious impact on many larger department stores.
An example of a category killer business in the online marketplace is eBay. The online auction site has a near-monopoly because buyers and sellers naturally gravitate to the largest, most active and most liquid market. As a result, the site has almost no competition and has forced similar auction sites (like those run by Yahoo!) into a very small portion of the market. Jupiter Communications has estimated that eBay earned 90 percent of all revenues in the consumer-to-consumer auction market in the year 2000.
The category killer is a term used to define a broad range of merchandises concentrated in a single outlet which far exceeds that of smaller outlets who cannot supply such a range of products and services in such depth, with heavily discounted prices or with such efficiency and ability to attract large numbers of potential buyers. This kind of company can provide an extensive selection of merchandise at such low prices that smaller stores cannot compete. For instance, major discount toy chains, sporting goods chains, home improvement and office supply chains contain leading companies which can be considered category killers.
Since the advent of business, some firms have outperformed others within a sector. Companies that seem to dominate a retail or wholesale category are sometimes called category killers. An exceptionally aggressive off-price retailer can offer branded merchandise in clearly defined product categories at heavily discounted prices. The very low pricing strategy and ability to decimate much of the competition in their sector explains the name. The term is used in marketing to describe a product, brand, or company that seems to have a major competitive advantage that it seems to eliminate or come close to eliminating market competitors. These businesses mostly specialize in certain categories rather than try to dominate an entire spectrum like groceries or clothing.
Toys "R" Us
Toys "R" Us is a chain that mainly focuses toy-related merchandise for children and preteens and baby items. The company operates approximately 880 stores in the United States and 35 other countries. Toys "R" Us owns the FAO Schwarz brand and has a flagship store near Central Park in Manhattan. However, as the game and toy market is a competitive environment, Toys "R" Us maintains the edge by trying to be creative, innovative and working to be ready for future marketing scenarios. It opened up a strong online presence (see online presence management) in 1999 when it became a partner of Amazon. While that cooperative relationship ended in a lawsuit, Toys "R" Us recognized the value of combining a "bricks and mortar" (B&M) chain with a strong online store.
As one of the most famous and high-performing web search engines, Google has no serious competitors. However, advertising is the only revenue source for search engine functions. Google began as a small home business in a garage. By the 2010s, it had transformed itself into a multibillion-dollar multinational company with which no other firm can compete. They are trying to dominate the market share in many areas, such as web browsers, via Chrome, and the operating systems (OSs) of smartphones, where the Google-inspired Android is now dominant, with about 80 percent of that market.
Several category killers have learned how to bypass the majority of the wholesaler process and obtain the benefits of operating like a warehouse while operating a soft retail environment. PetSmart, a pet supply firm, is a good example of this type of company. The first PetSmart was opened in 1987 in the Phoenix, Arizona area and went public in 1994. The company stores carry just about everything that is needed for dogs, cats, birds, and other more exotic pets. Because the pet market is so specialized, most small pet stores and local stores close or go out of business when a PetSmart opens in an area.
Another online business example of a category killer is the online auction company eBay. The site has a near-monopoly because sellers and buyers will generally move toward the largest and most active market. Several online attempts have been made to compete, including Yahoo!, but none seems to have caused a problem for the auction giant. eBay survived the dot-com bubble bust in 2000 and became stronger in the subsequent decade. Over the years, the company has purchased Skype, PayPal, and several other companies that increased its profit margins and boosted customer convenience.
Originally a dedicated online book dealer, Amazon.com has become a mega giant retailer on the Internet. Marketing just about anything that is legal to sell, from toys to electronics to clothing, the company also holds about 30 percent of the eBook sales in the world. The company also has amassed a huge following because of its ability to ship quickly to just about any address. Recently, Amazon has been making forays into the delivery of fresh fruits, vegetables, and frozen goods to customers in urban areas. It has hub warehouses in multiple U.S. urban areas that speed up its delivery.
While it is not a hard and fast rule, those who go into business hope for market dominance. While that is rarely achieved, the desire for the owner to succeed includes selling more than competitors. Most category killers are chain stores that operate big box stores and/or maintain a significant online presence. Retail marketers have relationships with wholesalers that reduce costs or actually have their own supply pipelines.
Super automotive category killer
Over the last 20 years, category killers have become a major retailing force in a number of product categories. With their relatively narrow product mix, but deep selection, category killers have come to dominate many high‐profile retail markets. Until the early-1990s, one big ticket retailing segment remained category killer free: the retail used car market. In 1993, Circuit City Stores, then the USA's largest retailer of home electronics and appliances, entered this market on a test basis with its CarMax store in Richmond, Virginia. This store was the first "super automotive category killer" (SACK). Encouraged and/or threatened by the apparent success of this retailing format, in early 1996 a number of firms have announced their entry into this market with similar formats. While several mass‐circulation publications have focused national attention on the SACK format, little has appeared in the academic literature to date.
The SACK has many of the characteristics found in a typical category killer. Among them are:
- Deep selections: Smaller SACK locations stock 500 vehicles in inventory. Large locations can stock up to 1,000 vehicles.
- Efficient merchandise arrangements: Vehicles that are functionally similar, such as luxury sedans, are displayed together on the lot.
- Use of technology: Computer kiosks display standard reports on each vehicle, including a picture and the vehicle’s location. The same information on the computer printout also appears on the car window. In the 2010s, most SACKs provide photos and detailed information on each vehicle on their online store website. Many SACKs provide numerous photos of the car.
- Fixed prices: There is no price negotiation, which decreases the time it takes to complete a car sale.
- Volume sales:  In fiscal year 1995‐96, on an annualized basis, each CarMax location generated retail sales of approximately $100 million  Estimates indicate that CarMax has garnered 10 percent of the dealer unit volume in the Richmond, Virginia market.
In the 1990s, many of the well-paid manufacturing jobs in the US and Canada that enabled a single worker to provide for a spouse and family in the 1950s have been moved to lower wage countries or replaced by industrial robots. In many families, both adults have to work full-time to realize an equivalent standard of living to that of previous generations. To make enough money to support their families, some workers take additional part-time work on top of a full-time job. As well, commuting times are increasing in many urban and suburban areas. The combined result of all of these trends is that many people in the US and Canada feel that they do not have enough time, or feel that they have a "poverty of time". As a result, consumers are spending less time on shopping and related activities.
This poverty of time phenomenon is particularly applicable to shopping for automobiles. The buying process takes a long time, because it is one of the most expensive consumer items that most people will buy. Moreover, the leasing and financing terms and warranties can be very complicated. Prior to the introduction of SACKs, another challenge was that few dealers carried a broad inventory of makes and models. The product is complex and requires detailed feature‐by‐feature comparisons. Thus, the consumer needs more time for information search and evaluation of alternatives. In addition, there is a high degree of financial risk. Therefore, buying a vehicle is an example of "extended consumer decision making", even if the consumer is not a first‐time buyer. Like other category killers, the SACK permits shoppers to use their time more efficiently. The deep selection alleviates the need to shop several dealers. The computerized information available for each car and the functional groupings of similar vehicles facilitate comparison shopping.
Automotive industry factors
The recent convergence of two factors largely accounts for the recent application of the category killer concept to used vehicle retailing. First, and most importantly, the SACK concept requires a large, stable supply of "non‐lemon" vehicles ("lemon" is automotive industry slang for a vehicle with serious, costly problems). The supply problem was instrumental in Ford's failure at this retailing concept in the early-1990s. Few, if any, national retailers have ever sold used durable goods, primarily because of the "Market for lemons" phenomena in economics. Several researchers have found the used vehicle market to be a lemons market.
That is, on average the purchaser of a used vehicle incurs more problems than owners of the same vehicle who keep theirs. People tend to sell vehicles when they expect problems. Despite buyers' efforts to detect these problems, neither the wholesale (dealer) nor retail buyer is able to ascertain all of the vehicle’s defects before purchase, even with a professional mechanical inspection, because some problems can only be detected after driving the car for some time (e.g., a transmission that overheats on steep hills). The presence of so many "lemons" in the used car market means that most sellers of used cars will get a "lemon" price for their car, even if it is a well-maintained, reliable "cherry". As a result, owners of "cherry" used cars do not put their cars on the used car market, since they will not get a fair value for their car. As a result, most cars sold on the used car market are "lemons". Hence, used car buyers have traditionally purchased, on average, a lemon.
Facing this scenario, few retailers with brand name equity to protect would rationally enter this market. However, with the Big Three purchase of daily rental car companies in the late-1980s, auto manufacturers began to place over one million vehicles a year into short‐term fleets. Based on mileage and time‐in‐service formulae, these vehicles were "programmed" to return to the traditional used‐vehicle retail distribution system.
By the mid‐1990s, the leasing market provided even a larger source of program cars. With new car affordability an issue, new car dealers and auto manufacturers pushed leasing to reduce monthly payments. Fuelling the growth in leasing was the proclivity of luxury car marketers to offer leasing factory incentives instead of dealer or retail cash rebates. Japanese manufacturers, who were establishing their luxury nameplates in the US market, embraced leasing as an alternative to the "fire sale" atmosphere that traditionally accompanies cash rebates. By the mid‐1990s, these two sources were supplying over three million non‐lemon used vehicles annually. Hence, stores could retail these vehicles, confident they were not lemons.
The second factor was the changing nature of the standard new vehicle warranty in the US market. Over the last 30 years, manufacturer new car warranty terms have been as short as three months, (4,000 miles) and as long as 24 months, (24,000 miles) bumper‐to‐bumper with 60‐month (50,000 miles) powertrain coverage. By the early-1990s, the industry essentially had adopted a common 36‐month (36,000 miles) bumper‐to‐bumper, fully transferable warranty. Hence, a used car dealer could sell most program cars with a full new car warranty, honored nationally.
This warranty is critical to the success of the SACK concept. A program car retailer can place its brand name equity on the line by selling vehicles backed by the manufacturer’s nationwide warranty and serviced by its franchised dealers. Should the vehicle not perform to the customer’s expectation, the consumer will hold the vehicle manufacturer and its franchised dealer responsible. This nationwide warranty widens the trade area of the SACK, since service is independent of the purchase locale.
Since the SACK will service only a small fraction of the vehicles it sells, its service and parts departments are small, and are used primarily to condition cars and prepare them for retail. Manufacturers reimburse their franchised dealers for warranty work at market labor rates (but at a lower than retail parts markup). Thus, new car dealers stand to benefit from increased service department revenues on the SACK sale of a program car.
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- Types of retail outlets
- Killer app
- Market failure
- Network effect
- Unfair competition
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