Digital first retail

Many traditional retailers are already living in a “digital first” world. If your brand isn’t quite there yet, it’s likely only a matter of time–a short time.

Digital first means that even if the customer ultimately buys in a brick & mortar location, their journey starts online.

Digital first means that the primary way prospective customers learn about your brand is through your website, social media or online peer-to-peer reviews.

Digital first means whether the customer comes to your store for a particular transaction or not is determined by how well your online or mobile presence meets their needs in a highly relevant and compelling way.

Digital first means that holding on to the customer relationships that matter is largely determined by how well your digital tools eliminate customer experience friction and are rooted in a treat different customers differently philosophy.

Digital first means that the way your customers activate their passion for your company and become true brand ambassadors is primarily by sharing their remarkable experiences via their smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.

Digital first retail profoundly changes the way we engage customers, the way we deploy technology and the way we re-envision the physical store experience. It causes us to break down our silo-ed thinking and organizations to put the customer at the center of everything we do.

It’s not easy.

It’s not inexpensive.

It’s not without risk.

But frankly we have no other choice but to embrace it and get on with it.

And I’d hurry if I were you.

The problem with saying “no”

During the past 25 years Sears had at least three opportunities to transform itself by entering the home improvement warehouse business (I worked on two of them). This was probably the only way Sears was going to ultimately survive and unlock the value of its franchise Kenmore and Craftsman brands. Each time the answer was “no.”

When I headed up strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group (2004-08), we evaluated building a leadership position in omni-channel by consolidating our disparate inventory systems, we recommended moving from a channel centric marketing organization to a customer and brand focused one, we proposed aggressively expanding our off-price format and, having understood the share lost to competitors like Nordstrom, we analyzed improvements to our merchandising and service models to become a bit more accessible. Ultimately we said “no” to moving ahead on all of these. Years later, these strategies were ultimately resurrected. But the opportunity to establish and extend a leadership position may have been lost.

Obviously there are plenty of times when either the smart or moral thing to do is to say ‘no.” Obviously it’s easy to look back and say “I told you so.”

Yet systemically, most organizations are set up to reward the status quo (often cost containment and driving incremental improvement) and punish the well intended experiment. So it’s easy to say “yes” to the historically tried and true and “no” to just about everything else.

Of course we don’t have to look very hard to come up with brands that have been struggling for many, many years (Sears, JC Penney, Radio Shack) or have completely imploded (Borders, Blockbuster, etc.). All of these said “no’ to any number of potentially game-changing strategies along the way. Care to hazard a guess at how many long-term Board Members of these perennial laggards and outright losers got pushed out for saying grace over a series of crippling “no’s”? How many CEO’s had their compensation whacked for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

In a world where change is coming at us faster and faster, we need to be challenged just as much on what we are saying ‘no” to as we are on what gets a “yes.”

And If you think there is always time to fix the wrong “no” decision, you might want to think again.

Omni-channel: Myths, distortions and, yeah, that’s just silly

Let me be clear: I’m pretty into all things omni-channel. Get me started talking about creating a single view of the customer, silo-busting, frictionless commerce, creating a seamless experience, etc. you might want to order a pizza. We could be here for a while.

I was named the VP of Multi-channel Integration at Sears way back in 1999. I led multi-channel initiatives and enterprise customer analytics at the Neiman Marcus Group from 2004-2008. I’ve written dozens of related posts and given numerous speeches on the topic during the last few years. I’m a believer.

Yet much of what passes as inspired strategy on the part of brands extolling their new-found “omni-ness” is, well, let’s just say it ranges between being disingenuous and outright foolhardy. And then there are the legions of analysts, pundits, consultants and software providers peddling a guaranteed path to customer-centricity nirvana. Much is hype. Some is just plain dumb. Here’s an attempt to move toward more “truthiness.”

  1. You don’t really mean “omni.” “Omni-channel” means “all” or “every” and typically refers to both channels for communications and for transactions. Do you really intend to sell on cruise ships? In airports? How about door-to-door sales? Are you going to do infomercials? I didn’t think so. What you really mean is expanding your marketing and sales channels to those essential for the acquisition, growth and retention of key consumer segments–and being really good at doing it. A rush to invest in omni-channel without an actionable segmentation–and without understanding which levers are really the most important to hone in on–is a license to lose money and waste precious time.
  2. Omni-channel customers are not your best customers. Chances are it’s the other way around. And causality matters. A lot. The customers that already trust your brand are often the early adopters of new media and new places to buy. There is a dangerous false narrative that suggests that simply by becoming omni-channel a world of new sales will open to you. As Kevin Hillstrom has pointed out, many companies that have gone omni-channel have failed to improve their business. This is usually because the brand’s core is weak and merely adding more places to research and buy does not fix the underlying issues (see Sears). The best multi-channel strategies are rooted in a deep understanding of current customer behavior–and prioritize opportunities to stem defection, address new customer acquisition barriers and build add-on sales. A sensible growth strategy has clear building blocks, not a mad rush into e-commerce or rolling-out the next bright and shiny mobile or social media application.
  3. You say you want a revolution. Yet, organizational and data silos abound. Yet, analysis of most promotions still have a single channel focus. Yet, much of your marketing remains mass, rather than personalized. The underlying move to omni-channel is about customer-centricity. As long as you hold on to traditional metrics, silo-ed organizational structures and rely on fragmented data and batch, blast and hope marketing programs, not much is really changing.
  4. Confusing necessary with sufficient. To be sure, more and more customers are becoming cross-channel shoppers and, particularly with the rapid growth of mobile devices, the distinction between e-commerce and physical retail is blurring. Certain “omni” capabilities like order online, pick up in the store are becoming base expectations. It’s hard to imagine that many retailers will survive, much less thrive, without robust integration capabilities and compelling web and mobile offerings. But far too many brands think that by adding these newish features they are doing enough. They’re not. Many of these capabilities are becoming table-stakes. In other cases, they are expensive and complicated “nice to have’s.” What you need to do to keep pace is not the same as what you need to do to become differentiated and remarkable. Confuse this at your own peril.
  5. New hybrid-models are genius. The press is eating up Warby Parker’s, Bonobos and many other e-tailers move into physical locations and raving about their productivity numbers. First, this isn’t new (see Williams-Sonoma). Second, the move into actual stores had to happen. Over 3 year ago I was sitting with the CEO of one of these companies and asked him when they would think about opening stores. He answered: “we will never have physical stores.” Now he’s on CNBC singing their praises. Did I have the gift of prophecy? Of course not; the move was totally foreseeable given the known economics and limitations of pure-play e-commerce. Lastly, what would be remarkable about these hybrid-models’ sale productivity in their initial forays into the physical realm is if they did NOT do huge numbers. Bear in mind, they have opened stores in trade areas where they already have a density of customers and are in very small locations. Comparing their initial results to more mature specialty stores is silly. Comparing them to say, the top 2 or 3 bays of Neiman Marcus’ beauty counters in the Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour and Michigan Avenue stores is more apt (hint: it would be well over $3,000/sf). I am a repeat customer of the two brands I mentioned and believe they have bright futures. But let’s be careful of false positives. There is much more of this story to play out.

Omni-channel is a nice catch phrase, and there can be no question that we are witnessing an incredible transformation in how consumers shop and how brands need to do business. The status quo is not an option, but neither is a blind rush into all things “omni.”

The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed. The path you choose is critical.

Learning to surf

There are a few different ways people approach the ocean.

Some dive right in.

Others inch in slowly, testing the temperature of the water until they feel comfortable to wade in all the way.

A few like to stand there and get pummeled by the water’s force.

And of course there are those that avoid going to the beach entirely.

The most daring and remarkable of all are the surfers.

The surfer harnesses the ocean’s power, gliding above the surface, zigzagging their way to the shore. Of course, sometimes they fall off their board. But the good ones understand this is just part of the process and hop right back on. They know that through practice they will navigate the inevitable ebbs and flows, the unexpected surge, the occasional fellow competitor that gets too close. Over time, they spend more time up on the board, reaching the shore faster with far more grace and power then when they started.

They understand and accept a few things we all should.

Avoiding turbulent water is impossible.

Fighting the power of the ocean is an exercise in futility.

Waves are inevitable.

We’re going to have to learn how to surf.

HT to Jack Kornfield for the inspiration

You know what’s hard?

Customers say they want a more seamless experience across all channels and touch-points. “Sure” you say, “but it’s very expensive and complicated to implement that level of integration.”

Silo-ed data, systems, organizations and metrics are keeping your brand from being more customer-centric and relevant. “I know” is your response, “but greater centralization would be very jarring to our culture.”

In an increasingly noisy world, mass marketing and one-size-fits-all approaches fail to gain share of attention, becoming less effective by the day. You respond, “you’re right, but treating different customers differently is difficult to scale.”

Relentless price promotions and layering of discounts and reward points deteriorate profit margins, teach customers to only buy on sale and accelerate an inevitable race to the bottom. Your defense is to say “well that’s what moves the top line” and to point out how hard it is to justify full price.

In the inevitable battle between denial, defending the status quo and rationalization vs. acceptance, leaping and innovation, we tend to choose the former. And our fate is sealed.

Many of the things we avoid as too risky are, in fact, often just the opposite. The risk is in the failure to change, in the lack of passion to become intensely relevant, in being stuck in “me too” instead of choosing to become remarkably different.

What’s hard is to move where the customer is headed after the competition has already established a beach head.

What’s hard is to break through the clutter with undifferentiated products and tired messaging.

What’s hard is to acquire, grow and retain the right customers with average products for average people.

What’s hard is to catch up when you’ve fallen behind.

Mass or built for me?

All about price, or all about unique value?

Average or remarkable?

My guess is that every brand that’s gone through the work of closing stores, firing people and liquidating inventory might have a different view of what’s hard.

Some customers

One of the more amusing moments of my time at Sears was when our newish CEO insisted that we stop referring to our customers as “him” and instead say “her.” This was meant to underscore the need to reinvigorate our apparel business and identify women as the most frequent decision-makers for our softline categories.

While there was merit to this strategy–and Sears testosterone-driven, male dominated culture absolutely deserved a swift kick in the, uh, pants–it ignored the complexity of Sears myriad businesses and the attendant diverse consumer segments we needed to attract, grow and retain.

Of course, Sears wasn’t alone. It’s common for business leaders and analysts to make global pronouncements about what “she wants” or how “our customer” is responding. While these statements may have an air of profundity, they’re just glib soundbites.

Today there is no everyone. There is no monolithic him or her or them.

Today the idea of being a little bit of everything to everybody is irrelevant. The era of mass is giving way to the era of us.

Today one-size-fits all strategies are running out of gas. We must treat different customers differently.

Today it’s not about “the customer” or any notion of all customers.

It’s about some customers; the right customers, carefully selected, deeply understood and served in unique and remarkable ways.

Small is the new stupid

With e-commerce continuing to grow far faster than brick & mortar sales–and already comprising more than 10% of many brands’ total revenues–the implication seems to be that retailers need far fewer stores and that future locations should be considerably smaller. After all, simple math tells us that with shrinking physical store sales, average productivity will decline, thereby making each remaining store less profitable. Moreover, the logic goes, it is much smarter to offer a wider range of products via the web owing to the efficiencies of centralized inventory and the like.

In fact, the folks on Wall Street seem to think that this is not only obvious, but it is the only way for retailers to be successful in this brave new omni-channel world. Be careful what you wish for.

While it is quite apparent that, in aggregate, most North American and Western European markets are over-stored, it is dangerous for an individual retailer to assume that aggressively shrinking their physical footprint is the pathway to success. For one thing, for most brands, physical stores help drive the web business–and vice versa. Closing stores and editing assortments too ruthlessly can drive down brand preference and market share, which ultimately is likely to reflect negatively on total profitability.

But the biggest challenge for most retailers and their brick & mortar strategy is how to remain relevant and remarkable in a blended channel world and how to create compelling reasons for customers to traffic their stores when so much of everything is readily available on the web, often at a lower price.

The quest to get small through the relentless pursuit of store productivity tends to drive brands to carry only their known best sellers. The victims of this strategy are the new, the interesting, the differentiated. If stores are reduced to selling only the safe bets–only average products for the average customer–then the internet becomes the best way to discover the remarkable. Alternatively, specialty stores may emerge to attack the market opportunity vacated by the bigger chains, who keep planing the edges of what they carry to “optimize the box”.

Either way, a get smaller strategy may only serve to make a brand’s brick & mortar stores all that much less interesting and accelerate an already precarious position into a downward spiral.

Surely, for some retailers, a rationalization of their store portfolio is overdue and a radical re-think of their physical store model is an urgent and important need. Sadly, for others, getting small will only turn out to be incredibly stupid.