Take a look around the house and you're bound to see scores of products bought from a "category killer": the lawnmower in your garage, the paper...

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“Category Killers: The Retail Revolution and Its Impact on Consumer Culture”

by Robert Spector

Harvard Business School Press, 224 pp., $27.95

Take a look around the house and you’re bound to see scores of products bought from a “category killer”: the lawnmower in your garage, the paper clips on your desk, the dish your dog laps his water from.

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An onslaught of specialty mega-stores from Home Depot to Staples to Petco have redefined the American shopping landscape, bringing affordability to niche markets while also triggering a backlash from an army of critics. Seattle author Robert Spector evenhandedly charts this trajectory in his latest book on the retail industry, “Category Killers.”

In retail parlance, these ubiquitous stores are called “category killers” because they aim to dominate a particular merchandise category and, in so doing, kill off much of the competition. But they won’t be around for long unless they find ways to fend off general-merchandise titans like Wal-Mart and Costco Wholesale, argues Spector, whose past books have examined Nordstrom and Amazon.com.

The author credits both category killers and discounters with democratizing consumer culture to the point at which most material goods are now within the reach of ordinary Americans. These chains have lowered prices on goods ranging from printers to power saws, while allowing time-pressed shoppers to get in and out quickly rather than meandering through a mall or department store.

Coming Up

Robert Spector

The author of “Category Killers” will discuss his book at 4 p.m. Thursday

at the Quidnunc computer store, 4522 California Ave. S.W. in West Seattle; free (206-932-8795; www.quidnunc.net)

The book begins by spotlighting Tukwila’s Southcenter area and its transformation from cow pastures to big-box magnet, offering an up-close example of a pattern that continues to repeat itself in suburbs and exurbs across the country.

Spector then lays the groundwork for his analysis with a series of MBA-style case studies: Toys R Us (the original category killer); home-improvement chains Home Depot and Lowe’s; office-supply chains Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax; booksellers Borders and Barnes & Noble; consumer-electronics chains Best Buy and Circuit City; and pet-supply chains Petco and Petsmart.

Discounters Wal-Mart, Target and Costco also find their way into Spector’s overview of “big box stores with an emphasis on self-service, big selection, low prices and lots of parking.”

But Spector overreaches by trying to cram Starbucks into his otherwise sharp analysis of big-box retailing.

Starbucks doesn’t fit into the “category killer” narrative: It’s a chain of small, order-taking cafes with pricey drinks and sparse parking. The gourmet-coffee giant certainly has driven its share of mom-and-pops out of business, but it also unleashed legions of new coffeehouses by creating demand for a product that hardly existed before. Starbucks is more category creator than category killer — a point Spector sometimes acknowledges but mostly sidesteps throughout the book.

After dispensing with the case studies, Spector leads the reader on a journey through 20th-century retail history, chronicling the rise of department stores and enclosed malls and their subsequent loss of market share to big-box chains. Writing in an accessible style that largely avoids business jargon, he provides a glimpse of what shoppers may see more of in the future: scaled-down stores in mixed-use and open-air retail settings.

He also shrewdly points out the pitfalls of the big-box boom. Americans’ thirst for bargains has led to a meager wage structure for retail workers and bland uniformity in product offerings. Suburbs like Tukwila benefit from retail centers’ tax revenues but also shoulder the burden of maintaining the roads, utilities and police departments that serve them. Neighbors enjoy the convenience of having stores nearby but bemoan the added traffic and come to regret that they are living in “Anywhere, USA.” Retail chains rake in fat profits but increasingly tangle with activists who criticize their business practices.

Demanding the lowest price, Spector reminds us, inexorably leads to a loss of eclecticism and choice: “Everyone along the line pays for the costs of ‘everyday low prices.’ “

Jake Batsell, former retail reporter

for The Seattle Times, now teaches journalism at the University of North Texas. He can be reached at jbatsell@hotmail.com.