Espacios. Espacios. Vol. 30 (3) 2009. Pág. 21

Food distribution retail technologies: a comparison between countries with different income levels

Tecnologías de distribución de ventas al detal: una comparación entre los países de diversos niveles de ingreso

Dario de Oliveira Lima-Filho* y Leidy Diana Souza de Oliveira**

Recibido: 20-04-2009 - Aprobado: 02-07-2009


The aim of this article is to describe and compare food retail distribution systems in different countries. For this purpose, a review was made of the available previous studies. The countries studied were: high income (the United States of America and the United Kingdom); with upper-middle income (South Africa and Brazil); lower-middle income (China and Venezuela); and low income (Vietnam and Madagascar). The results show there are important differences in the development of food retailing beteen the analyzed countries. Furthermore, they also indicate that the quality and variety of the products are important factors in the retailing strategy in high income and upper-middle income countries while in lower-middle and low income countries food prices are of particular importance.
Keywords: Internationalization of retailing, Food retailing, Retailing globalization, Supermarket

Este artículo tiene como objectivo describir y comparar los sistemas de distribuición detallista de alimentos en diferentes paises. Para tanto, fué efectuada una revisión en estudos prévios disponibles. Los paises estudiados fueron: renta alta (Estados Unidos y Reino Unido) con renta media–alta (Africa del Sur y Brasil); renta media-baja (China y Venezuela). Los resultados revelan que hay importantes diferencias en el desarollo de la venta detallista de los alimentos entre los paises analisados. Indican aún, que calidad y variedad de los productos són factores importantes en la estrategia de la venta al por menor en paises de renta alta y renta media-alta mientras en los paises de renta media-baja y baja destacase el precio de los alimentos.
Palabras claves: Internalización de la venta detallista, Venta detallista de alimentos, Globalización de la venta detallista, supermercado.

Este pretende descrever e comparar os sistemas de distribuição varejista de alimentos em diferentes países. Para tanto, foi efetuada uma revisão em estudos prévios disponíveis. Os países estudados foram: renda alta (Estados Unidos e Reino Unido); com renda média-alta (África do Sul e Brasil); renda média-baixa (China e Venezuela); e renda baixa (Vietnã e Madagascar). Os resultados revelam a existência de importantes diferenças no desenvolvimento do varejo de alimentos entre os países analisados. Apontam, ainda, que qualidade e variedade dos produtos são fatores importantes na estratégia de varejo em países de renda alta e renda média-alta e nos países de renda média-baixa e baixa destaca-se o preço dos alimentos.
Palavras-chave: Internacionalização do varejo, Varejo de alimentos, Globalização varejista, Supermercado.

1. Introduction

The internationalization of retailing is an increasingly rapid process which has turned this activity into global industry. International operations now account for a significant proportion of the sales of large retailers from the developed countries (DCs). A growing number of them are showing interest in countries with developing economies (CDEs), driven by the opportunities found in those nations, such as, high rates of growth, a growing middle class, the deficiencies of local firms and saturation of demand in their countries of origin (Popkin, 2006; Wilkinson, 2004; Goldman, 2001).

Of particular note among the retailing institutions are the supermarkets, which can supply cheaper and better quality food (Arda, 2006). The the international chains’ strategy of expanding (“supermarketization”) beyond their domestic markets - the United States of America (USA), European Union (EU) and Japan – focalizes the innovation centered on the middle and high income consumer (D’Haese et al., 2008). In 1990, the percentage of supermarkets in food retailing varied between 10 and 20% in most of the countries of South America, East Asia (except China) and South Africa. By the mid 2000s, this number reaches 50-60% (Reardon et al., 2003). However, the global retail institutions do not invest uniformly in all countries and some – especially the poor countries – are not participating in the retailing revolution (Minten, 2008).

According to Regmi and Gehlhar (2005), although the consumption of food is increasing globally, the consumption patterns vary between countries, based on income levels. The food industry is evolving in response to specific demands in individual markets, but the industry strategies adopted in the DCs and CDEs are significantly different. The less developed countries are registering rapid increase in the volume of sales in food retailing, while in other more developed countries there is a growing demand for product variety, safety and quality. To satisfy this ever more varied demand, global manufacturers and retailers are expanding their presence in CDEs and adding value and differentiating their products in the DCs.

Thomas and Gupta (2005) affirm that the businesses environment has undergone profound and continuous transformations, characterized by an unprecedented level of diversity, wealth of knowledge, macro-environmental change, technological innovation and globalization. Hence, changes in the environmental reality have impacted on the way firms act, encompassing the transformation from a view centered on physical goods to one centered on services and the shopping experience.

The changes underway are leading the agri-food supply chains to adopt coordination policies in order approximate producers and retailers so as to facilitate the customization of products, since, while the food industry has become ever more global, the consumption of food is directed increasingly towards specific demands from each market and preferences at a local level.

Regmi and Gehlhar (2005) analyze the distribution of foodstuffs from the place of production until the consumers' table and define this process as being complex, involving various regions and nations, and global agents and networks. The food market is constantly evolving, driven not only by changes in consumption preferences, but also by technology, connectivity among members of the supply chain and new businesses environments. Thus, sophisticated supply chains and distribution channels are being established in several countries.

Priem (1992) affirms that the marketing system can be explained by three vectors: market heterogeneity; organized behavior systems; and variety. Priem maintains that the economic models of industrial organization tend to focus on the heterogeneity of a single attribute or dimension, as, for example quality, price, production costs, in a particular context. For him, market heterogeneity is complex and deserves wider discussion, considering a set of dimensions – instead of taking only one focus of analysis - and in different contexts. Hence, this little explored universe emerged as the proposed topic for investigation of the present study.

The present study is important from the macro and microeconomic points of view, as the discussion contributes towards the formulation of more efficient public and private policies in the modernization of food distribution systems in countries with distinct levels of development.

The analysis of food retailing in various market environment and structures allows the formation of a comparative picture that aids in the development of company strategies and public policies. Knowledge of the market specificities has been defined by King and Venturini (2005) as essential for farmers, manufacturers and retailers to create value in their products. Goldman (2001) defines the capacity of international retailers to adapt their strategies to different environments as the key success factor in international operations.

As Trail (2006) and D’Haese et al. (2008) emphasize, the avialble studies about supermarkets in the world basically focus on their expansion and the implications for the supply chains. Nevertheless, comparison of the retail system of food distribution in countries with different levels of development has been neglected. Accordingly, this article proposes to answer the following research question: What are the strategic characteristics of food retailing in countries with different income levels?

The study aims to describe and compare the food retail distribution systems in high, upper-middle, lower-middle and low income countries. Specifically, the intention is to: i) identify demand patterns and analyze the characteristics of the market for food; ii) analyze the relations between the structure of the food retail systems and the economic, social, cultural and prevailing purchasing patterns; and iii) identify the strategies adopted by the retailers.

2. Methodology

According to Colman and Nixson (1981), development is a refining process concerning a conglomerate of values or, moreover, a comparative posture in relation to such values. Rigid numerical hierarchization is an option likely to be adopted in the classification of countries by their level of development, but the arbitrary classification in groups is the method most widely employed. Countries are usually classified into two groups: developed, consisting of countries that have higher per capita income; and the underdeveloped, less developed or developing countries (terms used synonymously), which encompasses those with low per capita income. Nevertheless, even those authors that use this method of classification recognize the existence of great heterogeneity within each group, mainly among the less developed countries (Reardon et al., 2001; Oliveira, Mony, 1997; Colman, Nixson, 1981).

The present study has adopted the methodology used by the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program-UNDP (Souza, 2005) which classifies countries as: low, lower middle, upper middle and high income.

The high income studied countries were the USA and the United Kingdom; with upper middle income, South Africa and Brazil; with lower middle income, China and Venezuela; and with low income, Vietnam and Madagascar. Data were obtained from international organizations, such as the World Bank, United Nations Organization (UNO) and United Nations Organization for Food and Agriculture (FAO) and local organizations, for example the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as scientific articles related to food retailing in those countries. It should be pointed out, however, that few articles make use of a comparative approach to analyze retail systems in countries with different income levels; most attempt to study nations in their individual contexts. Therefore, the present article is meant to fill this gap, by providing a wider general understanding of the topic.

The dimensions adopted in order to assess the characteristics of the food distribution retail systems from the supply and demand sides were extracted from Reardon et al. (2003), Regmi and Gehlhar (2001) and Goldman (2001) (Chart 1).

Chart 1: Dimensions and variables of the food distribution retail systems

Dimensions Variables
  • Life Cycle
  • Patterns of demand
  • Prevalent consumption patterns
  • Foreign direct investment (FDI)
  • Presence of supermarkets
  • Competition
  • Adopted strategies
  • Main difficulties found
  • Logistics and distribution

Source: Adapted from Reardon et al. (2003), Regmi and Gehlhar (2001) and Goldman (2001).

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* University of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, Email:
** University of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, Email:

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