Guess who's sold the most copies of Ray Charles' final album? Not music stores. Not an Internet distributor. The answer is Starbucks, the chain of 7,000 coffeehouses that has spread all across America in the past few years. As they paid for their grandes lattes, customers have snapped up more than 50,000 of the last compact disc recorded by the blind pop-music star, who died in June. Starbucks also sells pottery, African art and cookbooks.
Other U.S. retailers are also expanding their product lines in surprising ways. The same Home Depot hardware store where Americans buy hammers and paint now offers fondue cooking sets and roaster ovens. Whole Foods, a natural-products supermarket chain, is now selling organic clothing as well as veggies and free-range fowl. You can get pizza and soy sauce at more and more U.S. gasoline stations -- but not spark plugs or tires.
Super stores like Wal-Mart -- where you can pick up toilet paper and a television set in the same shopping trip -- started this trend. After years of narrowing their product selections into specialized niches, retailers are trying broad new product mixes. They haven't yet brought back the old general store -- which sold bolts of cloth, flour out of bins, and freshly killed chickens. You can't yet sit for a spell and play checkers like you could at the general store. But at Starbucks, people do lounge in overstuffed sofas and read the paper, send e-mails, and look over that Ray Charles CD. No plucked chickens…yet.