Walk into a Game store today on an average mid-month, mid-week day, and it’s striking how empty it feels. Gone are the buzzing aisles and the long waits at the tills. Gone is the struggle to find anyone to tell you where to find swimming-pool filters or tumblers in these cavernous, aircraft-hangar-sized shops. There is an echo in the air. Yet Massmart, Game’s owner, is holding the line, trying to find new avenues to the consumer, keeping its costs tight as always. This is the new context for retail in SA: flat is the new up. There is, however, a rumbling in the background: how long will Massmart’s owner, the US giant Walmart – the world’s largest retailer by revenue – put up with "flat"? "Flat" was surely not the reason Walmart bought half of Massmart in 2010; the purchase was intended to take part in the new African renaissance, a brand-new one-billion-person growth continent. Even among its peers, Massmart is gaining a reputation for being something of an underperformer from a sha...

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