Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2011

Barcode Empires: Politics, Digital Technology, and Comparative Retail Firm Strategies

Bartholomew C. Watson

February 2011

Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy


Like other service sectors, information technology has dramatically altered the growth and character of the retail trade sector in the affluent economies. Nevertheless, significant variation exists in the typical strategies of retail firms in different countries. This article explores this variation and proposes both an ideal type and an explanation. It argues that the problems of markets and hierarchies in retailing were set in motion by a series of political fights starting in the 1960s and 1970s. This demonstrates that once again that technical outcomes are not determined by the technology itself, but by social and political rules. Future technology platforms, such as e-commerce of mobile commerce, should be expected to follow similar political logics. As retailing firms spread around the globe, this has important implications for national competition policy.