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.

 

Bailing doesn’t fix the hole

So often it seems that when we find ourselves or our organization in trouble, we pounce on the safe, the familiar, the obvious, while ignoring the root cause.

When I was an executive at Sears I remember how senior management spent the better part of a year working on ways to close stores, slash expenses and prune unproductive product lines. Much of this needed to be done–and we had been through this sort of exercise before–but the overwhelming reason that we were sinking was not because our expenses were too high, but rather because our sales productivity was abysmal and our growth potential was non-existent. Bailing doesn’t fix the hole.

Today, driven primarily by the growing influence of e-commerce, leadership at just about every retail brand is struggling with “right-sizing” their overall store count and determining how big–or more accurately, how small–their stores should be.

Again, this can be a worthwhile endeavor. Yet for many retailers the reason they feel compelled to take an axe to their retail footprint has more to do with a weak value proposition than it does with having fundamentally too many stores or because individual locations can’t be productive at their current square footage. For some, closing certain locations and scaling back the size of existing units will only serve to accelerate their decline. Bailing doesn’t fix the hole.

Eating better and getting regular exercise beats any binge diet.

A customer lost is almost impossible to win back.

Brands can rarely can cost cut their way to prosperity.

As it turns out, prevention is better than remediation.

Eventually we need to address the root cause of our lack of buoyancy.

Of course that presumes we don’t run out of time.

 

 

 

 

 

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 new front door

In a “brick & mortar first” world, retailer’s embraced the old adage: location, location, location.

Once the site was determined, a lot of time and money went into the design of the store–with a particular emphasis on making it as strong a magnet for consumer traffic as budget and inspiration would allow. Then the visual and marketing teams went to work, creating attractive window displays and generating eye-catching promotional signage, all with the goal of capturing the customer’s attention as she walked or drove by. If these marketing strategies worked, they would lure her across the threshold and the retailer would have a chance at a sale.

Today, it’s rapidly becoming a “digital first” retail world. More retailers are reporting that the majority of customers start their consumer decision journey online. More and more brands are discovering that a very high (and growing) percentage of new customer acquisition is occurring through a digital channel, not a physical one. And when we say “digital”, it’s increasingly likely we mean some sort of smart mobile device. The power of the traditional store front is waning.

In the vast majority of categories, brick & mortar is not going away. As I like to say, physical retail will be different, not dead. In many cases, stores will remain critical to generating sales, but their role in acquiring a new customer, generating repeat business or building on-going customer engagement and loyalty is diminishing–and, in many cases, quite rapidly.

Right now, for many brands, for many consumers, for many shopping occasions, retail’s new front door is a smart mobile device.

So if your brand’s mobile experience isn’t compelling, the odds of capturing a new customer aren’t that great. If the mobile experience doesn’t help reduce friction for an existing customer (in or out of a store), good luck getting that repeat business. If the mobile experience doesn’t position your brand well in those key decision points that my friends at Google call “micro-moments”,  there’s a pretty good chance you aren’t making that sale.

Embracing the notion that mobile is becoming your brand’s new front door can be profound.

It forces process redesign and budget re-allocation. It requires breaking down the silos that exist in the channel-centric thinking, organization and metrics that persist in so many retailers. It causes us to admit that if we don’t win in a digital channel it barely matters where our stores are located, how good they look, what products we carry or whether we’ve got great salespeople. Heresy, some might say.

It’s apparent that there are quite a few retailers that get this new reality and are acting accordingly–and often boldly. For them, the precise end-game is anything but clear, the path is hardly smooth, but they are in the arena, taking risks, investing where they need to be.

Yet far too many others are merely treading water or paying lip service to this new world order. Sadly they are crippled by legacy thinking and systems, burdened by a store-first culture, unwilling to let go of the past, even when it’s obvious it’s not working. Unless they pivot soon and decisively it’s fairly certain that this will end badly.

 

 

Bleak Friday

Get ready. The stories about Black Friday will start ramping up today. And by the time you awaken from a tryptophan induced haze on Friday morning,  you can expect your TV to be chock-a-block with shots of reporters standing outside Walmarts and Best Buys and Apple stores and within some big fancy mall opining on what it all means.

Spoiler alert: it means nothing. Absolutely nothing.

As the hype grows I thought I’d weigh in with a few facts.

Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year. In recent history the Saturday before Christmas and the day after are the biggest. In fact, several other days right before Christmas will likely rival Black Friday’s sales volume this year.

It’s declining in importance. As online sales continue to grow, while brick & mortar sales are at best flat, the relative share of total holiday sales done in stores on Black Friday is decreasing. When you marry that with a trend toward early release of Black Friday deals, Thanksgiving Day store openings and growing terrorism fears, more and more Black Friday matters less and less.

Black Friday success (or failure) is mostly meaningless. Many folks have tried to determine the correlation between the industry–and individual retailer performance–on Black Friday and how the total holiday season will turn out. There is none. So move along. Nothing to see here.

For consumers, it’s mostly a con. Study after study shows that, with few exceptions–mostly the heavily promoted, limited quantity “door busters”–the savings just aren’t that good. In fact, prices tend to be better in December. With many retailers sitting on higher than anticipated inventory levels going into the holiday, I’d predict the best deals will come late in the season, including during the week after Christmas.

The customer experience is terrible. With over-flowing parking lots, teeming throngs, long checkout lines and, in some cases, a need to camp out hours before the doors open to have a chance of scoring an actual great deal, shopping on Black Friday is the ultimate  soul-crushing hassle. Apparently some people thrive on this sort of thing. I hope they get the help they need.

Now about Cyber Monday….

 

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.

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.