Why supermarkets will fail, and other nonsense predictions

I am sitting in a Leadership Conference in Beijing, China (details here), and listening to Dr Jenny Darroch, a Huffington Post columnist and Professor of Marketing at the Peter F Drucker School & Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management. She highlighted a really excellent quote from the 1930s about why supermarkets will fail (she also blogged it recently).

It’s from a 1960 article in the Harvard Business Review called “Marketing Myopia” by Theodore Levitt. In it he provided a quote from a 1936 National Wholesale Grocers’ Association Conference to describe the reaction of the Association towards supermarkets. Basically, the advice of the Association spokesperson was that there was nothing to fear – supermarkets would fail because all customers really wanted was a friendly neighborhood store:

… there [was] nothing to fear. …the supers’ narrow appeal to the price buyer limited the size of their market. They had to draw from miles around. When imitators came, there would be wholesale liquidations as volume fell. The current high sales of the supers was said to be partly due to their novelty. Basically people want convenient neighborhood grocers. If the neighborhood stores cooperate with their suppliers, pay attention to their costs, and improve their services, they would be able to weather the competition until it blew over.

Spurred on by this gem, I did a quick search for other great predictions that now seem very stupid and embarrassing. I’ve included a list of my favourites below.

But before you read it, the question must be asked: What things do you think are ‘givens’ in your industry – and what if you’re wrong? Or, to put it another way, in the words of Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”


15th-century monk Trithemius once wrote (by hand), “Printed books will never be the equivalent of handwritten codices.” I know people who are saying that printed books will never disappear, even with iPads, Kindles and eBooks selling faster than any other piece of technology right now.

“A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — New York Times, 1936.

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.” — Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895. Flying in the air must have been a dream to some and an impossibility to others back in the late 1800s.

“TV will never be a serious competitor for radio because people must sit and keep their eyes glued on a screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it.” — New York Times, 1939

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — A memo at Western Union, 1878 (or 1876).

“I am tired of all this sort of thing called science here… We have spent millions in that sort of thing for the last few years, and it is time it should be stopped.” — Simon Cameron, U.S. Senator, on the Smithsonian Institute, 1901. (OK, we could do a whole other blog on things US Senators have said that make no sense).

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” — H. M. Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers, 1927. Apparently quite a few. Take a look at a list of the highest-grossing films of all-time.

“The truth is, no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher, and no computer network will change the way government works.” — Clifford Stoll, Newsweek, 1995 Let’s see…

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” — The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), maker of big business mainframe computers, arguing against the PC in 1977.

One thought on “Why supermarkets will fail, and other nonsense predictions”

  1. How about this one….

    “Company conferences will always have speakers on the agenda” – Just another fool : )

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