A few inconvenient truths about e-commerce

It’s easy to feel like e-commerce is eating the world. It’s not.

While there can be no question of e-commerce’s continued growing importance and its often disruptive nature–particularly in categories like books and music–I’m both amused and amazed at the lack of perspective many in the industry often seem to have. So here are what I believe to be a few important, albeit at times inconvenient, truths.

Physical retail will continue to dominate. Estimates vary, but brick & mortar retail still accounts for over 90% of all sales. While e-commerce will continue to grow, physical stores will be different but not dead.

Pure-play retail is dying. Scott lays this out better than I can, but once you back Amazon out of the equation, it’s becoming ever more obvious that aside from (perhaps) a few niche exceptions, e-commerce only business models are unsustainable owing primarily to uneconomic customer acquisition costs and overly expensive logistics.

A great deal of e-commerce growth is channel shift among traditional brands. Overall growth of e-commerce will be greater than 10% for the foreseeable future, but much of this comes from major retail brands (e.g. Macy’s, Nordstrom, Walmart) transferring business from their physical stores to their improving digital channels.

Much of e-commerce remains unprofitable and economically unsustainable. Let’s remember that Amazon has never consistently demonstrated an ability to make money outside of its web service business. Let’s remember that virtually none of the massively funded pure-plays has ever turned a profit. Let’s remember that traditional brands are spending mightily to improve their omni-channel capabilities while being lucky to achieve flat overall sales. Let’s remember that many retailers experience such high returns and supply chain costs that a large percentage of e-commerce transactions are profit proof. Let’s remember that just about every omni-channel retailer has had to cut prices and offer free-shipping to try to keep pace with upstart competitors who are subsidized by often irrational investment.

Of course even while accepting these truths, many brands find themselves in a real bind. As long as investors are willing to irrationally fund certain companies, consumers are the big beneficiaries and traditionally funded brands are either forced to respond to remain competitive or get pummeled in the markets by not playing the game, however self-destructive.

The good news is that reality is slowly creeping into the market. Some bubbles have burst–witness the recent deflation of the once ridiculously hyped flash-sales market. Perhaps even today’s hammering of Amazon’s stock suggests investors’ patience is beginning to wane. But it’s difficult to predict and count on the vicissitudes of either the public or venture capital markets. But there are a few things to do right now.

First, don’t blindly pursue all things omni-channel. With consumer demands and expectations changing no brand can possibly remain idle. But a disciplined approach to investing is essential. Conducting a friction audit is a great way to uncover and to prioritize the areas of leverage and greatest near-term ROI.

Second, understand marginal unit economics. Averages aren’t very helpful, yet many companies rely on them for decision-making all the time.  At any kind of basic scale, e-commerce is mostly a variable cost business. Brick and mortar is mostly a fixed cost one. If you don’t understand the differences–and the interplay–you’re going to do something dumb. Don’t be that guy or gal.

Lastly, go deep on the customer insight and customer profitability analysis. It’s one thing to have a few unprofitable transactions within a mix of purchases for a customer that has overall great lifetime value. It’s another to have your customer portfolio laden with high cost-to-serve, low margin, low average transaction value customers who return stuff all the time. Do the math. Don’t chase your tail. Rinse and repeat.

 

My top ten posts of 2015

As has become a tradition, I present my most popular blog posts from this year.

  1.  Bleak Friday
  2.  Learning to surf
  3.  I see dead marketers
  4.  Omni-channel myths, distortions and, yeah, that’s just silly
  5.  What if omni-channel is too expensive?
  6.  An end to omni-channel?
  7.  It’s later than you think
  8.  Luxury retail’s big stall
  9.  Sears: The world’s slowest liquidation sale (redux)
  10.  The fault in our stores

And here are a few more that didn’t quite make the cut, but that I’m rather proud of….

  1. Retail’s new front door
  2. No new stores ever!
  3. A dim signal amidst the noise
  4. Everywhere and nowhere
  5. I fought the math and the math won

As I wrap up my sixth year writing this blog I am so grateful for your attention, support and feedback.

Best wishes for a safe, happy and prosperous New Year!

Retail’s great bifurcation

It’s not that malls are dying. In fact, many malls are not only surviving, quite a few are thriving.

Despite all the doomsayers, physical retail is not facing extinction. Not only are many retailers opening significant numbers of profitable locations, many of the most highly valued and rapidly growing pure-play online brands are opening brick & mortar locations. These new units are among the most productive of any specialty retail sites anywhere.

Department stores aren’t going away any time soon either, despite the constant buzz of consternation from Wall Street. Several major players are successfully reinventing themselves.

What IS happening is a great bifurcation. The proverbial fork in the road. The increasingly clear emergence of “have’s” and “have not’s. And the looming death in the middle.

“Class A” malls and the also-rans.

Retailers that have a well articulated target consumer and seamlessly meet those customers needs anytime, anywhere, anyway, versus stores drowning in a sea of sameness, offering disjointed service and peddling average products to average people.

Brands that either go big, efficient and cheap or intimate and remarkable, versus those that get stuck in the middle or are trapped in an inevitable race to the bottom.

There are obvious choices to be made. The chasm is widening. The poles are becoming more extreme.

Yet many of us remain stuck. Many brands keep straddling the line.We fail to choose because a bold commitment seems risky, when in fact it is our inaction that is the riskiest decision of all.

Pick a lane. Start driving.

And you might want to step on the gas.

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Omni-channel’s migration dilemma: Holiday edition

Last year I wrote a post about what I called retail’s “omni-channel migration dilemma” wherein I observed that while the deployment of so-called omni-channel strategies–i.e. making it easier for consumers to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway–improves the customer experience immensely, the outcomes for most retailers were, thus far, not quite so wonderful.

At the heart of this argument were three core points:

  • With few exceptions, omni-channel retailers’ total revenues remain essentially flat, meaning that robust growth online is mostly cannabilizing brick & mortar sales;
  • In many cases, the profitability of e-commerce is actually worse than a physical store sale. This is particularly true for lower transaction value players like Walmart and Target.
  • In their quest to become “all things omni-channel”, retailers are investing enormous sums–and in some cases–getting distracted from arguably higher value-added activities.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that spending a lot of money to end up–if you’re lucky–with basically the same total revenue at a lower margin is not exactly a genius strategy. But this is where we find Macy’s and many other retailers right now.

The omni-channel frenzy around the holiday shopping season only shines a harsher light on the issue. By launching sales earlier and earlier, by pushing deep discount events like Cyber Monday and by offering free shipping pretty much throughout the season, the tilt toward online sales is exacerbated and margins continue to shrink. Consumers win through great deals. And retailers lose, as overall sales are likely to go absolutely nowhere.

Now some have argued that omni-channel is ruining retail. They are wrong. They’re wrong not only because it is pointless to fight reality, but also because efforts that are fundamentally rooted in the desire to improve the customer experience are rarely misguided. The key is not to confuse necessary with sufficient, nor “the what” with “the how.”

So we should not get distracted by analysts who try to extrapolate one or two days of sales as part of some trend.

And we should bear in mind that online sales for most omni-channel retailers remain far less than 10% of their total business. So even healthy e-commerce growth is not likely to offset seemingly small declines in physical stores sales. You don’t have to trust me on this. Do the math.

But mostly we should remember that the story is not about all things omni-channel, nor what happens on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or the few weeks that comprise the holiday shopping season.

It IS about which retailers are breaking through the sea of sameness with remarkable product AND a remarkable experience. It is about which retailers are eliminating friction for the consumers that matter the most in the places that matter most. It is about which retailers are eschewing one-size-fits-all strategies in favor of a “treat different customers differently” philosophy. It is about retailers that know where to focus and how to properly sequence their omni-channel initiatives, not blindly chase everything some consultant has pitched them.

Clearly, the future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed.

Don’t be blinded by the hype.

An end to omni-channel?

I have a little confession to make.

Despite my including “omni-channel” liberally in speeches I give, in the hashtags of my tweets and in my often shameless self-promotion of my alleged retail strategy and marketing expertise, I kind of hate the term. Here’s why.

First, it’s hardly a new concept or a revelatory insight. I was leading the “anytime, anywhere, anyway” initiative at Sears in 2001 (not a typo). Companies like Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma, REI and Neiman Marcus, among others, have been working in earnest on the essence of cross-channel integration and customer-centricity for more than a decade. If a brand has started throwing out the term in their annual priority statements and investor presentations more recently–or injecting it into the titles of staff members–it only means that company was late to the realization that it mattered, not that they are some kind of innovator or industry savant.

Second, it’s vague. As it’s applied relentlessly in retail do we ever actually mean “all”? Home shopping? Cruise ships? Military bases? University book stores? Of course not. Good strategy is rooted in choice, not trying to do it all. It’s not enough to say we’ve embraced all things omni-channel. In fact that’s quite sloppy and unhelpful. We need to lay out the customer relationships that are essential to our brand, the channels that matter for them and what we are doing specifically to eliminate the friction–and amplify the intensely relevant and remarkable–in their experience.

Third, it’s over-used. At conferences, in white papers and among industry observers it’s a virtual hype-fest. It often seems as if certain brands think that if they say “omni-channel” enough their needed (or hoped for) capabilities will magically appear. In my experience if a company is throwing around jargon a lot there is a pretty good chance it’s to obfuscate their lack of strategic clarity and/or executional progress.

Lastly, and most importantly, by itself becoming “omni-channel” is simply not good enough. Regardless of exactly what a brand means when they extol their omni-channel strategy, capabilities like cross-channel inventory availability, order-online-pick-up-in-store, and a host of other functionality that add up to the much vaunted “seamlessly integrated” experience, are rapidly becoming table-stakes, not differentiators.

Certainly retailers must root out the friction in their customer-facing processes and strive for a one brand, many channels experience. But they also need to accept that the power has shifted to the consumer and it’s become much harder to get a brand’s signal to command attention amidst all the noise. The reality is that in a slow growth world, more and more, sales increases must come from stealing share from the competition and mass, one-size-fits-all strategies are rapidly dying. Without making customer insight a core capability–and adopting a treat different customers differently commitment–market share losses and shrinking margins are almost certain.

Ultimately, I don’t care if you use the term “omni-channel” so long as you are clear about exactly what you are doing, how it benefits your efforts to retain, grow and acquire your core customers and why, when successful, it will be truly remarkable. But I’d also like to hear an acknowledgement that those efforts are simply necessary, not sufficient, to win in an ever noisier, customer empowered, slow growth world.

Your mileage will vary

We’re told to pray to the god of omni-channel retail and all will be well. Yet after diving into a world of complexity and huge cash outlays, sales and profits remain lackluster.

We’re advised to study best practices and creatively “steal” the ones that resonate the most. Yet, despite reading all the books and hiring the leading consultants, our customer experience remains far from Apple’s and our culture feels like the anti-Zappos. And nobody’s working a 4 hour work week, I can tell you that!

We’ve built a sexy app. We’ve started an Innovation Lab. We go to all the best conferences. We even know to call it “South By” like the cool kids. We’re on every imaginable social media channel. We chant “seamless customer experience” at our staff meetings, for crying out loud! Why aren’t things going better?

Sadly, even if you do a great job importing what’s working for others, chances are you’re merely keeping pace. Necessary, not sufficient.

Assuming that what works for one brand and their unique customer set is readily transferable to your situation is not almost always wrong, it can be incredibly dangerous.

As the power shifts irretrievably to consumers, as their options for information, access and choice compound exponentially, as it gets harder and harder to command share of attention, your job is not to simply import what’s worked elsewhere and propagate “me-too” solutions.

No, your job is to deeply understand your unique situation, to embrace a treat different customers differently philosophy and to craft an intensely relevant and powerfully remarkable experience.

As tempting as it is to buy the sexiest car in the lot, equipped with the latest technology and anticipate the rush of exhilaration as you step on the gas, the fact is your mileage will vary–perhaps, a lot. The sooner we accept that the better.

And then it’s time to begin the hard, uncomfortable work.