Wall Street’s simple, surefire–and mostly wrong–strategy to fix retail

Show me a struggling retailer and I’ll tell you what many Wall Street analysts will say is that company’s quickest path to new-found prosperity. Close stores. Or better yet, close a whole bunch of stores.

This was supremely evident with the frenzy that erupted on Twitter prior to JC Penney’s Analyst Day last week. Here’s a paraphrased exchange I had with one “famous”–mostly for posting photos of crappy Sears stores–Wall St. type.  Note: this is highly edited and paraphrased for brevity (and perhaps levity).

HIM: Penney’s is about to announce a bunch of store closings.

ME: I doubt it.

HIM: But they must close stores, lots and lots of stores!

ME: No they don’t. (I proceed to tell him why).

HIM: You don’t understand. They must close stores, lots and lots of stores! They need to have the same number of stores as Macy’s!

ME: That’s dumb.

HIM: You’re dumb.

The Analyst Day presentation concludes. Penney’s announces no store closings.

ME: I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’ but…

HIM: Hey, want to see my photos of really crappy Sears stores?

Now don’t get me wrong. Overall, the retail industry is over-stored. And the growth of e-commerce is causing a fundamental re-think of the number of stores a retailer requires, the size (and configuration) of these stores and how these stores need to operate. A contraction and re-working of gross retail space is inevitable.

But the knee-jerk reaction in favor of wholesale store closings is focused on the wrong problem. Struggling chains like Radio Shack and Sears aren’t in dire trouble because they have too much retail space. They are struggling because their overall value proposition isn’t working. If Radio Shack and Sears had a business model that was fundamentally sound, their needed store count overtime wouldn’t necessarily be dramatically different from what they have today. Show me a nationally branded, omni-channel retailer that is closing a lot of stores and I’ll show you one that is likely on the way to extinction.

What many on Wall Street often don’t get is that the cost of real estate for many of these established retailers is really quite low, making it easy for even chronically low productivity stores to be cash positive. And while Wall Street likes to cite the growth in e-commerce as the reason why store counts need to shrink dramatically, the reality is that for any decently integrated retailer, stores help drive the online business–and vice versa. Total customer and cross-channel economics need to be taken into account when doing a store closing analysis. When you do this analysis, along with the cash flow calculations, it turns out that closing a lot of store often makes things worse.

As for JC Penney, they are certainly far from out of the woods. They have a ton of work to do to refine and execute a merchandising and customer experience strategy that can regain share in an intensely competitive sector of the market. They are rightly focused on honing a new brand positioning and strengthening their omni-channel capabilities. My educated guess–having done this sort of analysis for other department store retailers–is that with conservative sales growth assumptions, only around 5% of Penney’s stores would be sensible candidates for near-term closure. Penney’s management is likely watching this list closely as they see how new strategies take root and they better understand the omni-channel effect.

For me, if Penney’s were to announce a large number of stores closings in the next year–say 75 or more–it wouldn’t be evidence that they are smart managers, it would be a sign that their overall strategy isn’t working.

 

 

No customer wants to be average

It’s only when our experience is terrible that we’d settle for average treatment. But what customer truly wants to be average?

average person

Most of the time, we hope brands know us, show us they know us and show us they value us.

And to do that, companies need to break out of a one-size-fits-all paradigm.

It’s not easy. Which is why so many stores are still filled with average products for average people and our mailboxes–virtual and otherwise–are chock-a-bloc with largely irrelevant pitches and promotions.

It also feels safe, even though it’s anything but. Relying on newspaper circulars and big TV ad campaigns and “Super Saturdays” and the same promotional calendar we ran last year, may bathe us in the warm water of familiarity, but more and more mass marketing strategies are delivering less and less.

Getting closer to the customer–making the choice to treat different customers differently–needs to be more than a slogan. It means busting the silos that get in the way of a unified and seamless experience. It means investing in deeper customer insight and the tools and techniques to deliver progressively more personalized interactions. It means embracing a test and learn mentality.

Mostly, it means radical acceptance of the reality that, for most brands, the only way to grow faster than average is to eschew the average.

 

Valued or a value?

Most executives will tell you that, regardless of the price point of their product or service, their customer considers what they offer a good value.

At one level, that’s obvious. Both the Dollar Store shopper and the Ferrari buyer must believe that the sum total of the benefits they are receiving exceeds the total cost they are incurring–or why else would they each part with their time and money?

While this sort of left brain thinking is important, powerful, enduring brands deliver something more. Brands that offer a deeper, emotional connection are able to transcend the occasional misstep. They are able to drive their business without layering on endless discounts. Their loyalty is earned not bought. Their customers’ testimony is their best advertising.

When a brand is intrinsically valued by the consumer, the entire relationship operates on a different plane.

Alternatively, if the customer fundamentally sees your brand as “a value” you had better have the sharpest price or the most compelling promotion. You also better be the low-cost competitor. Otherwise,  the inevitable race to the bottom is likely to end badly.

Oh, and if you’re having a hard time figuring out which you are, that’s an even bigger problem.

 

 

 

The end of scarcity

For a long, long time, scarcity propped up and protected a lot of brands.

Scarcity of information. If I wanted to learn about your product or service I had to go to your store, meet with your salesperson or see what a neighbor or friend had to say. Other sources simply didn’t exist or required an unreasonable amount of time and effort on my part.

Scarcity of trust agents. If I needed objective data on product performance, customer service or whether your price was fair, there was Consumer Reports–which came out in print monthly–and not a whole lot more.

Scarcity of access. With consumer brands, the product was either carried in a store near me or it wasn’t. When it came to retail options, there was either a store convenient to me or not. And one could only buy things during “regular business hours.” Mail order catalogs mitigated some of this, but were never large factors in most categories.

Scarcity of competition for attention. Marketing messages were delivered mostly through a fairly limited set of broadcast media, print and direct marketing channels. And the brand got to control the composition, breadth and frequency of communication. The signal to noise ratio was favorable.

Scarcity of substitutes. Launching and growing a new product typically meant investing in large marketing budgets along with huge cash commitments to inventory and to build out physical locations. Few competitors could afford to play this game.

And so on.

Today, the sources for product and pricing information are nearly endless.

Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of digital sites provide virtually real-time data on brand performance and the best pricing.

Today, e-commerce has enabled an explosion of choice and, often,  the ability to access products around the world, 24/7. Products and services that can be delivered digitally have made physical access and store hours completely irrelevant.

Today, there is an overwhelming amount of competition for our time and attention. Share of attention is becoming the scarce commodity.

Today, many brands can be launched with minimal investment in marketing and/or physical capital, which has led to many flavors and varieties of alternative choices for consumers to choose from.

As scarcity has ebbed, the vulnerabilities of many brands have been exposed. And for some it has already ended badly.

When the scarcity that protected your brand goes away, you can no longer get away with selling average products for average people.

The only sensible choice is to build something truly relevant and remarkable.

I’d hurry if I were you.

 

The discount ring

I’m amazed that Wall Street analysts are “surprised” that as hot brands get bigger (think Michael Kors, kate spade), their level of discounting increases. Apparently they were all sleeping during their first year economics course when supply and demand was covered.

Target_market_bullseye

 

 

 

 

 

Whether it’s Walmart or Chanel, at the center of any brand’s customer bullseye will be customers who don’t need a discount (or any extra incentive) to buy. This is what I referred to in my recent obsessive core post. As we move out in the rings, away from the center, we encounter customer segments that are less and less intrinsically loyal and thus more in need of extra incentives to buy.

Since Walmart’s value proposition is largely about price–whereas Chanel’s rests on a high percentage of full-price selling–the composition and dynamics of these various customer segment rings will obviously be quite different. But the fact remains that as a brand grows by casting a wider net for customers it will, at some point, develop a discount ring.

As the name implies, customers in the discount ring don’t buy unless they get a deal. In fact, most brands will have multiple discount rings. There will be a ring that needs only minor or modest incentives to pull the trigger. Others only come off the sidelines when prices hit a much deeper level of markdown (or some other incentive).

Unless we are examining a brand that has decided strategically to shun price discounting completely–or assessing certain companies early in their life-cycle–the existence (and relative growth) of a discount ring should surprise no decent analyst.

The real question for anyone trying to understand the validity of a brand’s long-term customer growth strategy is whether the company has a firm grasp of the dynamics within each of these rings and is intelligently balancing the portfolio of these different customer segments.

Coach is a brand that in recent years lost its grip on its customer portfolio and pushed too far on the discount ring. They have paid a steep price and are now trying to rebalance.

In Michael Kors’ case, there are only so many customers willing to pay at or close to full-price for their core offering. Sustaining growth means appealing to more customers. And that means they will need to become more reliant on more price sensitive customers.

Ultimately the point at which the discount ring becomes meaningful is mostly a matter of brand maturity and math. If you get shocked by that it just means you’re not paying attention.

The starting point–the pivotal matter of strategy and intelligent customer development–is to build a level of deep insight about each relevant customer segment. Then we must become intentional about how each plays into the brand’s long-term growth. Having a discount ring emerge is not automatically a matter of good or bad. How it plays out over time is a strategic choice.

Choose wisely.

The obsessive core

Every great brand has an obsessive core. The person who camps out for hours before the next iPhone is released. The Harley Davidson fanatic who sports the logo tattoo and is dressed head to toe in Harley gear. The frequent shopper who willingly pays full price and is an incredible source of great word of mouth. The raving fan. You get the picture.

The great thing about most obsessive core customers is that they are highly profitable and help acquire new customers at a low-cost. If you lack such a passionate group, chances are you are making average products for average people. Good luck with that.

Yet brands blessed with an obsessive core–or even a bit less enthusiastic but significant group of “heavy-users”–are often led astray.

Many luxury brands–including my former employer Neiman Marcus–tilted too heavily towards their obsessive core shopper and neglected other important, profitable customer segments. When the recession hit, the day of reckoning was harsh indeed.

Most high-flying e-commerce companies gain their initial traction with an obsessive core. By focusing on an underserved niche that loves to shop online, these brands can often quickly and cost effectively acquire thousands of profitable customers. Alas, as we’re starting to see with many companies that have attracted millions in venture capital funding, growing profitably beyond that initial core is not so easy.

Unfortunately, the factors that create the obsessive core, the raving fan, the incredibly passionate brand advocate, often cannot be scaled.

Unfortunately, in our quest to exploit the seductive virtues of the obsessive core, we can lose sight of the big picture.

The key, I think, is to not let ourselves become obsessed with this group, but to place them in the appropriate context.

 

Let’s get physical

Amidst all the breathless pronouncements about the inexorable decline of brick and mortar retail emerges an interesting phenomenon: some of the fastest growing and most exciting internet-only brands are opening stores.

Recently, Bonobos raised $55MM largely to accelerate its foray into “Guideshops.” Other e-commerce innovators such as Warby Parker, Trunk Club, Nasty Gal and Bauble Bar are all expanding into physical store fronts. Expect more announcements soon, not only from earlier stage companies, but from larger direct-to-consumer brands as well. This seemingly counter-intuitive trend reflects a few realities.

First, most of these venture capital funded darlings have thrived in their first few years by exploiting a highly specific customer niche and leveraging the heck out of the advantages of a direct-to-consumer model. Alas, the number of customers who are willing to buy product sight unseen, without working directly with a sales person and lacking the instant gratification that physical stores provide, is comparatively small when it comes to product categories where fit, material quality and fabrication are important. For these brands to continue to grow–and have a chance for material profitability–physical locations aren’t a nice-to-do, they are a necessity.

Second, brick and mortar retail is different, not dead. In most product categories, for many, many years to come, the overwhelming majority of sales and profits will continue to come from, or be influenced directly by, physical locations. Regardless of whether a brand started as an actual store or as a virtual entity, the ones that will ultimately win will offer a tightly integrated experience across their various channels and touch-points. They will eschew traditional mass, one-size fits all strategies and embrace more personalized missions. There remains plenty of business to be done in brick and mortar locations–if you have something remarkable and meaningfully customer relevant.

Finally, when we think about the market or the customer we inevitably get it wrong. Global pronouncements about industry dynamics or the “typical” consumer are rarely particularly illuminating and almost never sufficiently actionable. The brands that are winning–the ones that are stealing share from you–go beyond the averages and the mega-trends. They understand how to apply technology to create frictionless commerce. They delve into data and apply customer insights that inform stronger acquisition, growth and retention tactics. They are committed to experimentation. They treat different customers differently. And on and on. None of this is fundamentally rooted in how a brand started or whether trends tend to favor its success.

Of course it’s far from certain that these previously web-only brands will successfully transition to an omni-channel world. Some will stumble mightily. A few will fail completely. Others will see their growth stall at only a handful of profitable locations.

The one thing for certain is that for quite a lot of customers, the benefits of physical shopping are here to stay. For traditional players the rush to close and down-size their store base may have some merit. But it’s equally likely the problem isn’t just the real estate portfolio.