Two forces have combined over the last fifty years to cripple the retail sector’s once remarkably customer-responsive system. Consolidation has led to chains of hundreds, even thousands, of stores where merchandisers can rarely observe customers and glean the firsthand insights on their likes and dislikes that were available to the mom-and-pop operations that once populated Main Streets and city centers. On top of this, global sourcing has created supply chains that stretch across oceans and time zones. These chains save money, connecting stores to the cheapest suppliers, but those gains come at the expense of longer lead times—often half a year for products sourced in Asia. Having to wait so long precludes nimble reactions to customer ...

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