What Is The Retail Blue Ocean Sales Strategy?

By Ben Smith

Growth makes the world go round.  The market demands it, the CEO and CFO expect it, and the managers chase it.  To provide retail perspective on the old quote  – “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying” – we do believe you are growing in a less desirable sense – that is growing more reliant on your existing customers.

Being realistic, unless you are a start-up or regional player, your brands products are probably already in the expected channels for your category(s).  Of course you could and should be trying to grow in your existing channels – but you’re probably in trench warfare now, fighting over the same turf as your key competitors, not to mention your partner retailer’s private label products.

I don’t know if I’m suggesting something as radical as the authors of the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” would suggest – I’m merely advocating you change the channel by looking beyond your existing business.  That being said, pursuing new channels does have some similarities to the core philosophies shared in “Blue Ocean Strategy”.  Think about your existing retail channels in context of the Red Ocean Strategy below, and then look at the Blue Ocean Strategy.  It makes a Blue Ocean Strategy in retail seem worth a shot.


So a “Blue Ocean Strategy” in retail is what we are affectionately calling here “Alternative Channels”.  What exactly are “Alternative Channels?  I don’t mean alternative channels in the 1990’s or satellite radio sense.  The simplest definition I can offer is that “Alternative Channels” are means of distribution outside of those you’d traditionally expect for a given product / service to reach customers.  This means they probably require modifying how you go to market.  This impacts everything from the margins and programs you offer, to how you reach customers and present yourself at the point of purchase.

Agencies and vendors take note – pursuing sales via alternative channels often creates new growth opportunities for you too. Additional marketing budgets for somebody’s special initiative.  Targeted messaging.  Custom displays.  Special packaging.  New types of promotions.


P&G expansion at BabiesRUS

During 2009, P&G moved from Pampers & Dreft at Babies R US to a broader assortment of consumables.  Given that Babies R US tends to be a destination for parents on a mission for diapers or formula, they are providing convenience that perhaps reduces a separate trip to pick up these other essentials.

Nintendo Wii at Sports Authority

Nintendo’s Wii Fit has shown up in other places such as Babies R US, but the biggest example is their showcase in Sports Authority stores.  They have the opportunity to solution sell the wide range of fitness accessories that can go hand in hand with Wii Fit sales.

Dell’s Kiosks at over 140 Malls (RIP 2008)

Note – Dell’s mall kiosks served as a transitional tool for the direct marketer to dip its toes in the retail waters.  In 2008 Dell shuttered its mall kiosks and opened up retail distribution in leading computer retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Staples.

Taking OfficeMax Branded Products Outside Their Own Stores

Officemax has been selling branded products at Safeway since 1998 and announced recently they were expanding to Food Lion, as well as other unnamed mass and grocery retailers.


Ultimately, the purpose of growing outside of your existing book of business is to drive growth for your business.  You gain leverage with your existing customers, even if they don’t know it / acknowledge it, by having alternatives.

Key Benefits To Pursuing An “Alternative Channel” Strategy:

  1. If you successfully develop new customers, you lessen your dependance on existing customers
  2. Experience serves as a “Learning Lab” where you can test new ideas & apply learnings in your existing channels
  3. Opportunity to create new demand for your product by positioning it for specific applications / uses
  4. Growing sales in new channels may help lessen impact of seasonality in your existing channels
  5. Buyers / merchants tend to stay within the retail industry – your new friends may pop up in your existing channels down the road.


You always have to be aware of the potential impact to your existing business.  It is much easier to find alternative channel success stories than it is to find people willing to tell you how they got their hands slapped by existing customers, or even worse, lost business as a result.  While your management probably won’t accept a printed copy of this article as a get out of jail free card, you are welcome to try.Take heart though – as the retail market has consolidated, ironically we believe there is less threat to pursuing sales via alternative channels than ever before.  In the past retailers used to obsess that someone else was getting a better deal than they were.  If you were living on the edge, every Sunday you held your breath knowing your buyer was ready to play a game of gotcha / you’re busted with the circulars as evidence.

Perhaps the abundance of price comparison websites/services means that nobody is really going to be able to offer a significantly better deal, so that threat has passed.  Perhaps retailers feel guilty about increasing competing against the brands they built their businesses on with their own private label goods.  The net is we believe the coast is clear as long as you are fair in your offerings.  If there isn’t anything you’d be ashamed of your existing customers to see, no worries.


Note –  resources on alternative channels are few and far between.

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2 Responses so far.

  1. Doug Garnett says:

    Ben – Very stimulating thinking. So I thought I’d jump in as the first to comment.

    What struck me is the value of complementing your mass distribution with targeted niche distribution (like offering Wii-Fit in Babies-R-Us). With a narrow market, imagine the added marketing power from tailoring your in-store message and product offerings to reach a more tightly chosen target. Sweet.

    Also interesting that this offers one type of response to the threat of private labels – that you note may be part of the reason we aren’t hearing too much about buyers being threatened by this.

    …Doug Garnett

  2. Ben Smith says:

    Doug – thanks for commenting. I believe the exercise of even considering your product for alternative channels is helpful.

    One angle I didn’t explore that would be interesting and insightful is what the retailer’s perspective is on bringing in goods that aren’t core to their business.

    I believe there are tons of alternative channel opportunities out there but the key hurdle is often margin/terms.

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