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.

 

As the channels evaporate . . .

By now, it should be readily apparent that a very large–and growing–percentage of customers bounce back and forth between digital and physical channels when shopping.

By now, it’s obvious that the exploding usage of mobile devices is blurring the distinction between e-commerce and bricks & mortar.

By now, we should understand that, in fact, it’s only retailers that talk about channels. You never hear customers speak in that way.

And yet…

And yet, we obsess over same-same stores sales, rather than same-market or same-customer segment performance.

We close under-performing stores in a quest to boost profitability, only to discover that we’ve often made matters worse.

We organize our teams, metrics and incentives around sales channels instead of customers, and wonder why we struggle with consumer relevance and engagement.

As the channels evaporate in the minds of our customers, the only two questions for us are: do we accept this reality and are we ready to act accordingly?

Oh, and one more: just what the heck are we waiting for?

 

 

Different, not dead: The future of brick & mortar retail

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” 

Mark Twain*

Media reports highlight the dramatic shift of spending from traditional stores to e-commerce. Industry analysts and pundits predict the demise of brands with substantial investments in retail real estate. We live in an increasingly virtual world, they say, and those with deep roots in the physical realm are starting to look more and more like dinosaurs.

The transformation of shopping fueled by all things digital is profound with no signs of deceleration. The crazy little thing called the internet is changing virtually (pun intended) everything. But anyone who thinks that brick and mortar stores are going away has it wrong. Here’s why.

Brick and mortar retail can enhance the value proposition. Physical retail offers many important advantages–the ability to see and try on products, instant gratification, face-to-face customer service, social interaction and so on–that digital selling cannot readily replicate.

Purchase events matter. There is a reason that e-commerce penetration in many product categories remains low. Where the risk of buying online is perceived as high (apparel, many big ticket items), direct-to-consumer shares remain in the single digits. Brands like Zappo’s have innovated in customer service to overcome some of e-commerce’s limitations, but long-term growth potential is modest. In fact, e-commerce darlings like Bonobos, Nasty Gal and Warby Parker have begun to broaden their reach–and address flattening growth–by opening physical stores. Plenty of products–particularly perishables and low-priced items–also have underlying economic reasons why direct selling volume will remain constrained.

Consumer segments matter. Great customer intimate brands embrace the notion of treating different customers differently. When you do this, you understand the different needs, wants and behaviors of varied customer types. Depending on the product and the particular consumer, the purchase journey may begin and end at a physical store. For others, they will never set foot in a brick & mortar location. Others will research online and buy in store. You get the idea. Your mission is to understand the role your physical locations play in being intensely relevant and remarkable for the customers you need to attract, retain and grow. Then build out and customize the experience accordingly.

The blended channel is the only channel. Stop thinking channels and start thinking about a consistent, integrated customer experience for your brand. Other than products and experiences that can be delivered completely digitally, the majority of retail purchases are influenced by both the digital and physical realms. More and more data is emerging to confirm this. Your mileage will vary, but silo-ed thinking, organizations, incentives and metrics confuse, rather than illuminate.

Frictionless commerce is essential. Let’s be blunt: there’s more heat than light in the discussion of omni-channel capabilities. Strategically, the key is to hone in on how to be differentiated, relevant and remarkable for the customers you wish to serve. And then you must root out the sources of friction in your customer experience. With more consumers going back and forth between digital and physical channels in their decision journey, if you don’t make it easy to do business with you chances are there is a competitor who is ready to pounce.

Mobile adds value to physical retail. When e-commerce was either sitting at your home or office surfing the web, the distinction between digital and brick & mortar really meant something. Now with consumers untethered and having increasingly powerful devices with them 24/7, mobile becomes the great integrator–and makes the distinction between e-commerce and brick & mortar less relevant all the time.

Seismic changes ARE impacting retail. With the exception of companies in the early stages of maturity, most retailers need fewer stores and many of the stores they have will need to be smaller. But assuming that physical retail is going away any time soon is just plain wrong. The tendency to isolate e-commerce and brick & mortar performance is equally misguided.

Amazon and a handful of best-in-class e-commerce companies will continue to thrive. And new pure play digital models will undoubtedly emerge to captivate consumers and gobble up share.

But there is plenty of business to be done in physical stores. Less, but still plenty. And most of the growth in what is counted as e-commerce is not a shift to online-only brands, but rather to brands that have cohesive omni-channel strategies. Think Nordstrom and Macy’s so far. For them, stores are assets, not liabilities. But the way brick and mortar retail drives consumer engagement and loyalty is morphing quickly.

These emerging winners follow a simple but compelling formula:

More focused.

More differentiated.

More relevant.

More remarkable.

More personalized.

More integrated.

See you in the blur.

 

* This isn’t, apparently, the actual quotation, but one that has become part of his folklore.

Omni-channel: Fix it in the mix

I’m just back from the intimate little affair known as the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show.” Of course if you’ve ever been, you know that it is, in fact, far from intimate. The multi-day extravaganza in New York’s Javits–from the Hebrew, meaning “non-existent mobile connectivity”–Center features thousands of attendees, hundreds of exhibitors and buzz-words aplenty.

In many sessions, barely a minute could go by without a speaker uttering “omni-channel” this or “omni-channel” that. Yet the attentive listener would quickly conclude that not only was there often more heat emitted than light shed, there was also a fair amount of out-and-out hooey and semantic mumbo-jumbo.

Let’s get a few things straight, shall we?

First, omni-channel is no different from what many leading retailers have been investing in for years: the vision of a customer-centric, anytime, anywhere, anyway, seamless experience across channels and touch-points. Call it “channel-agnosticity”, “frictionless commerce” or “multi-channel integration”, it’s all more or less the same. Customers don’t care what you call it, they care what you do with it.

Second, the point is not to simply add more channels. The “omni” part of “omni-channel” is about being intensely relevant in all the channels your customers care about and making the experience frictionless for her as goes through her decision journey. I heard one executive say they were the best omni-channel retailer because they sold in more channels than anyone else. That’s very misguided thinking.

Third, participating in, or being pretty good within, all the channels that your customers employ is not enough, nor is having a decent experience across all channels for your average customer.

Winning in omni-channel is all about the mix. The mix of customers you serve. The mix of products and services you offer. The mix of media employed to drive engagement and loyalty. The mix of channels where consumers can learn and transact. And so on.

To be sure, there are some foundational ingredients of winning in this evolving omni-channel world. Possessing a single view of the customer and the ability to uniquely identify, track and reach individual customers regardless of where and how they engage with you is critical. Without breaking down organizational silos (and the culture, incentives and metrics associated with them) you won’t get very far on your transformation. Making your entire brand’s inventory available to the customer at all points of sale (supported by easy, channel of choice returns) is rapidly becoming the price of entry.

Yet without the capabilities and commitment to treat different customer differently, your omni-channel strategy risks being an also-ran.

Many of the NRF’s Big Show presenters and vendors were pushing ingredients. Ingredients are essential, as is a good recipe. But the customer wants the finished product. And it’s the mix, that perfect blend, that really makes something special.

Fix it in the mix.

My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2013

As I take a break until the end of the year, here’s a recap of my top 2013 blog posts, in order of popularity.

1.   Neiman Marcus & Target: A glorious failure.

2.   JC Penney: Trouble on the home front.

3.   Math is hard, for JC Penney.

4.   Sears: The world’s slowest liquidation sale.

5.   JC Penney: Gloat edition.

6.   The multi-channel customer is your best customer. Duh.

7.   No pottery, no barn, no crates, no barrels.

8.   The world’s first omni-channel executive.

9.   Blaming the hole.

10. Silos belong on farms (redux). 

On a special note, my most viewed post of the year was actually from 2010. Fail better got a huge boost from being featured in Seth Godin’s Krypton course. Thanks Seth!

Thanks as well to everyone for reading my blog, challenging it, promoting it and just simply paying attention to my ramblings. It means a lot.

May you and those closest to you enjoy a wonderful holiday season.  Namaste.

 

 

 

 

Mr. CEO, tear down this wall!

It’s not hard to find literally hundreds of articles imploring brands to adopt a multi-channel–or as is fast becoming de rigueur, “omni-channel”–strategy.  I’ve written my fair share of them.

Typically these articles provide helpful hints or highlight core capabilities one must embrace to achieve this recommended state of retail nirvana. In fact, at last week’s CRMC conference in Chicago, speaker after speaker delineated the usual suspects.

We must have a 360-degree view of the customer. We need to become channel-agnostic. We must leverage actionable customer insight to drive personalized interactions. Our customer experience should be seamless across touch-points. And so on.

All good stuff to be sure. Yet the cold hard truth is that while these components are all quite necessary, they are simply not sufficient.

The unfortunate reality is that all the Vice Presidents of Customer Insight and all the Directors of CRM and, for that matter, all the whatever you want to call your new leader of cross-channel initiatives, can do an exemplary job and it won’t get you there as long as a few other conditions exist.

If your brand is still fundamentally organized by channel rather than customer, you will only get so far.

If your company’s senior leadership is rewarded by channel performance, more than brand and customer-driven metrics, you face an insurmountable challenge.

Without the walls between channels being torn down–without the Board and Mr. or Ms. CEO making customer-centricity THE driving force of your customer growth strategy–all the well-intentioned efforts of an enlightened few will fail to gain essential traction.

So Ms. CEO tear down those walls!  What are you waiting for?

 

 

 

The world’s first omni-channel executive

The world’s first omni-channel retail executive was probably me.

In 1999 (not a typo), in a shockingly rare moment of forward thinking and risk taking, Sears’ senior leadership decided to launch an enterprise-wide initiative to glean how e-commerce and digital technology would alter our business model and to design a strategy to meet customer needs “anytime, anywhere, anyway.”

Millions of dollars were allocated, full and part-time resources were assigned from various business and support functions, a big name consulting firm was hired to help with systems integration, governance structures were created, and yours truly was plucked from the relative obscurity of running a small division to become the Vice President of Multi-channel Development & Integration.

Over a 15 month period, our renegade bunch of retail futurists executed a ton of analysis, unearthed scary findings (we had over 200 different 1-800 numbers!), delivered PowerPoint presentations bursting with jargon and coined memorable catch-phrases (my favorite: “silos belong on farms”). We also gained a deep appreciation for the barriers erected by organizations steeped in product and channel-centric thinking and behavior.

Once we wrapped up our work–and having blown through something like $7 million– we couldn’t point to many immediate high ROI recommendations. But our work did lead to an acceleration of investment in sears.com, building systems to create a single view of the customer and the formation of a central CRM group that yielded a lot of actionable customer insight.  We also developed the confidence to make pioneering investments in critical cross-channel capabilities such as ordering on-line and picking up in-store.

Personally I gained a very firm understanding of what is required to design a customer-centric strategy and implement a frictionless, channel-agnostic experience–which I was able to leverage once I moved on to the Neiman Marcus Group and in the years since I’ve been a consultant.

The purpose of this story, however, is not to regale you with my multi-channel bona fides.

The real point is that despite all the recent fervor around omni-channel this and omni-channel that, if you were really paying attention at any time during the past ten years or so, it has been blindingly obvious that digital technology was going to dramatically change the retail customer experience.

If you were really paying attention, you would know that Sears (and others) were publicly discussing the higher spend and engagement rates of multiple channels shoppers as early as 2003.

If you were really paying attention, you would know that companies like Nordstrom have been investing heavily in channel integration technology and processes for nearly a decade.

So if you are just starting to take customer-centricity seriously now–if you are peppering your earnings reports, industry conference presentations and investor meetings with little anecdotes about cross-channel customer behavior and the omni-channel blur as if this all just started happening–all this proves is that you were not paying enough attention years ago.  One has to wonder what other game-changing stuff you are years behind on.

Of course as Seth reminds us: “The best time to start was a while ago. The second best time to start is today.”

Leading through innovation starts first with awareness. Which needs to be followed with acceptance.

It’s a choice what you decide to pay attention to. And it’s a choice to act and to act boldly. Ultimately nothing matters without action.

It’s later than you think.