The fault in our stores

As more and more retailers report strong growth online while their brick & mortar sales wane, it’s easy to conclude that physical retail is going the way of the horse-drawn carriage. In fact, plenty of pundits bang that particular drum every day.

But let’s not lose perspective.

Actual stores still account for about 94% of all retail sales. While this will continue to shrink, revenues from physical locations will garner the majority share for most retail categories for many years to come. Lest we forget, actual stores provide tangible customer value that is all but impossible to duplicate digitally. And plenty of research supports the notion that most consumers still prefer to shop in a physical store including…wait for it…Millennials. It shouldn’t surprise us that many of the fastest growing, most successful retail brands are investing in stores, not closing them.

Yet, there is plenty of fault in our stores.

Too many stores are drowning in a sea of sameness–in product, presentation and experience.

Too many stores still operate as independent entities, rather than an integral piece of a one brand, many channels customer strategy.

Too many stores remain laden with friction throughout the shopping experience.

Too many stores take a one-size-fits-all approach, rather than striving to treat different customers differently.

Too many stores are seen as liabilities to be optimized, leaving them as boring warehouses of only the best-selling, most average product.

Yes, there will be fewer stores in the future. Yes, the vast majority of stores will be smaller. Yes, it’s hard to paint any sort of growth scenario for all but a handful of retailers. But the reflexive answer cannot be to throw up our hands and automatically decide to disinvest in physical retail.

Brick & mortar retail is different, but not dead.

When we adopt an attitude that our stores are problems to be fixed–or eliminated–rather than assets to be leveraged, our fate is already sealed.

When cheap rules

In case you haven’t noticed, the retail apparel market is kind of a hot mess. Sales are going nowhere. Profits are waning. Many store closings have occurred, with more on the horizon. And for two basic reasons.

First, we aren’t buying as many items. It turns out that we actually don’t need so much stuff. It also turns out that, more and more, we are starting to value experiences over things. As Millennials become more important contributors to the market–which, after all, is merely the passage of time–this likely only gets worse.

Second, the average unit price of what customers are buying is declining. Some of this is due to the frenzy of discounting that most retailers can’t seem to break out of. But mostly it’s a substitution effect: people trading down from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom, or from department stores to off-price stores, or from specialty stores to places like H&M, Zara and Primark.

In many cases, the consumer is saying “no” to excess, unwilling to pay a lot merely for status. Still others are reticent to support a high markup that goes to what they have come to see as needless frills and overhead.

As leaders of brands we are powerless over the first factor. But when it comes to the second we have choices. Many of us are trying to solve for this market shift by cutting expenses and closing stores. Others have launched discount versions of their core brand and are aggressively investing behind this cheaper version of themselves. Some of us are doing a combination of both.

When cheap rules it’s certainly fair game (and simply good management) to look at our cost structure, to consider rebalancing our assortments, to seek ways to become more effective and efficient.

But as leaders–as a matter of strategy–we face the proverbial fork in the road. Do we chase cheap or do we seek reasons other than price for consumers to choose us over the competition? Do we risk entering a race to the bottom or do we choose to become more personal, more relevant, more remarkable? Do we go with the flow (and what Wall St. seems to demand) or do we confidently embrace a stance of “yeah, we’re more expensive, here’s why and we’re worth it.”

Every brand is different, so the right answer must be situation specific. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a choice. We shouldn’t forget that once a brand trades-down there is usually no turning back. And we should always remember that the biggest problem with a race to the bottom is that we might win.

Small is the new interesting

It’s been at least 20 years now that most value creation in retail has been driven by big. Big stores–both physical and digital. Big assortments. Big advertising.

Walmart and Target. Home Depot and Lowes. Amazon and eBay. Best Buy, Ikea, Office Depot and on and on. Superstores, category killers and the “endless aisle” online guys have won big (heh, heh) on scale, efficiency and low prices.

There’s a lot to be said for pushing the frontiers of big. When your goal is to be the “we have everything store” your marching orders are pretty clear. When you have to be the winner in a price war, your focus is obvious.

The problem is that big has its limits. And a closer examination of many “winning” retailers’ strategies reveals that big is losing momentum.

It turns out that a strategy of big eventually faces diminishing returns. It turns out that most of the winners of the past decade or so are running out of new stores to build. It turns out that many of the mass promotions that drive incremental business lose money. It turns out that for most of these brands e-commerce growth is unprofitable. But mostly it turns out that big is boring. And consumers are starting to notice.

There’s no question that big is here to stay. There’s little doubt that for many consumers–and a vast number of purchase occasions–the quest for dominant product selection, convenience and great prices will remain paramount. But that doesn’t mean that’s where the future opportunities lie or that your strategy shouldn’t shift.

Shift happens. And it’s a shift away from mass marketing to becoming more personalized. Away from overwhelming assortments to editing and curation. Away from products that everybody has to items and experiences that the consumer creates. Away from the seemingly inevitable regression towards the mean to a deliberate choice to eschew the obvious and explore the edges.

Many brands will have a hard time breaking out of the pursuit of big. They are too vested in building scale, too scared of Wall St.’s reaction to a strategy pivot, too addicted to mass advertising.

Of course, therein lies our opportunity. Maybe it’s time to embrace small while the rest of those guys continue to flog big.


When the music stops

Somehow we seem to forget that in business the good times don’t last forever.

When the economy is strong, most decently run mature businesses thrive. For an earlier stage company, once it starts to gain traction, new customers come relatively easily and competitive forces are minimal.

But there will come a time when the music stops. A time when a booming economy can no longer mask our weaknesses, when emerging competition becomes a serious issue, when what worked so well for so long suddenly doesn’t.

Eventually, we can’t raise prices so easily. Inevitably we have challenges driving traffic or closing sales. The cost of acquiring a new customer (or maintaining frequency with an existing one) begins to rise. The once strong growth rates from new stores or our e-commerce business start to moderate.

The only surprising thing in all of this is that we seem surprised when it happens.

When things are good is precisely the time to invest in the future–a future that is very likely to include the need to drive virtually all growth from stealing market share, not merely riding a rising tide or passing on inflationary price increases.

For many businesses that time is right now or just around the corner. In that world good enough isn’t. Good enough doesn’t get you noticed. Good enough doesn’t cause customers to switch. Good enough rarely leads to loyalty or the ability to charge a premium price.

Stealing market share requires being more intensely relevant, more remarkable and, perhaps, more idiosyncratic than the competition. Unfortunately most organizations don’t worry about this stuff until they have to. And by then it’s usually too late.

Fix the roof when the sun is shining. Or something like that.

I see dead marketers

I see dead marketers. Walking around like regular people. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.

Marketers who behave as if customers care about channels.

Marketers who continue to push average products for average people.

Marketers who value efficiency over effectiveness.

Marketers who think they can price cut their way to prosperity.

Marketers who don’t get that today’s battle is for share of attention.

Marketers who believe that the same irrelevant and unremarkable promotions will work if they just shout them louder and more often.

Marketers who relentlessly flog one-size-fits-all programs instead of embracing a treat different customers differently strategy.

Marketers who believe they are ultimately in control.

Mass marketing is dying, as are its stubborn adherents.

It’s the end of mass and the beginning of us.


n = 1

I see dead marketing.

Strategies deeply rooted in average products for average people. Campaigns that haven’t answered the fundamental question: “who’s this for?” Promotions desperately (and pointlessly) trying to out-Amazon Amazon. Programs that reek of me-too-ness.

It’s never been a good idea to promulgate the undifferentiated, the uninteresting, the irrelevant. But today that nonsense will get you killed.

When the power has shifted to the consumer, when there is little scarcity of product, information and access, when top-line growth must increasingly come from stealing market share, tried and true, one-size-fits all approaches are dying.

“N = everybody marketing”–i.e. the mass marketing that is the centerpiece of most marketers plans and the overwhelming consumer of their budgets–has the advantage of being efficient and comparatively easy to execute. It also has the pesky little problem of not working very well, if at all.

If you have not embraced a treat different customers differently philosophy, the odds are pretty good that you are falling behind. And every day that you procrastinate it only gets worse.

“But investing in mass-customization and personalization is really hard” you say. Perhaps. But what’s hardest of all–what’s really going to suck–is getting fired or having your company go out of business completely because you fail to change.

True “n = 1 marketing” may be unachievable any time soon for many brands, in every circumstance. But in a world where mass is ending and the power of the individual and the tribe is rising, where being intensely relevant and remarkable is the ONLY thing that creates a signal amidst the noise, for me, it’s pretty clear in which direction you should be heading.

Oh, and I’d hurry if I were you.

What’s the frequency Kenneth?

Every retailer can tell you about same-store sales. Most can readily quote their online conversion rates. Some can even dissect the composition of physical store visits (conversion rate, average transaction value, # of items per transaction and so forth). And, more and more, we’re hearing about metrics such as the growing percentage of digital engagement done on a mobile device. Much of this can be pretty useful.

Yet, we don’t hear much about frequency. When we do, it’s rarely broken down by key customer segments. That’s a mistake. And, all too often, a big one.

In my experience, one of the earliest signs of trouble is a decline in frequency–both in terms of shopping behavior and willingness to recommend. Low frequency, even when it’s comparatively stable, can be a sign of trouble as well. Conversely, growing frequency among core customer cohorts suggests strong forward momentum.

One of the reasons I knew the flash-sales category would hit the wall was the preponderance of low-frequency customers across the customer base of several well-known (and, as it turns out, ridiculously over-funded) brands. This fact, combined with declining frequency among the highest spending segments, spelled impending doom.

Similarly, it was increasingly obvious that a certain luxury department store was headed for trouble when frequency across all but one of the core customer segments we tracked was ebbing. Moreover, the remaining (and most profitable) segment’s revenue was only positive because of significant increases in average unit selling price, not through adding more customers or greater shopping frequency.

Understanding frequency is hardly the be-all and end-all of customer analysis. Yet you don’t have to be a Ph.D in statistics to dissect the data, nor do you need to be some sort of analytics savant to draw the requisite conclusions. You merely need to be willing to ask the question and dig deep into the root causes.

Oh, and it’s important that you be willing to act on the implications.