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.

 

Everywhere. And nowhere.

You’ve probably read the admonishments. You must be everywhere your customer is: online, bricks & mortar, mobile, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and on and on.

You’re told the future is now and that future is all about allowing the consumer to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway.

You’re urged to create a seamless experience across all channels and touch-points.

And much of this is valid. If you don’t meet your customer where she is (and is headed), you’re very likely to be yesterday’s news (RIP Radio Shack). More and more, the consumer IS everywhere and channel hop is becoming the norm.

But for those who think that all they need is a little omni-channel pixie dust and a side order of frictionless commerce, think again.

In the rush to embrace all things digital, integrated and omni-channel, far too many brands have lost sight of the need to be relevant and remarkable. Most of the capabilities that industry white papers wax eloquent about–and consultants relentlessly peddle–are merely the new table-stakes. And, quite frankly, your mileage will vary. Perhaps a lot.

Sears has made huge investments to create powerful digital and integrated commerce capabilities. In fact, they are regularly recognized for their leadership position in many aspects of what industry pundits describe as the holy grail of everywhere commerce. So how’s that working out? Oh yeah, they forgot to sell stuff people want in the way people want it. This is certain to end badly.

On the other hand, Amazon has managed to become a retail industry behemoth, crushing competitors in its wake and continuing to gobble up market share, all without physical stores and, in many cases, putting forth a pretty lackluster mobile and social presence. Their lack of “omni” doesn’t seem to be slowing them down too much.

As I’ve pointed out before, the future of omni-channel will not be even distributed. For those brands that rush eagerly into the “everywhere retail” world without a clear view of the customers they wish to serve and how they wish to serve them in a relevant and remarkable way, don’t be surprised when you don’t get the ROI you hoped for.

It’s quite possible to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Overplaying our hand

We’re told to hyper-focus on our core customers. After all, doesn’t most of our profit come from a small group of loyalists and “heavy-users”?

We’re admonished to double-down on our highest ROI marketing strategies. Surely if a moderate amount of email or direct mail or re-targeting is working, more must be even better, right?

And exhortations to find our strengths, exploit our core competencies and “stick to our knitting” are central to many best sellers and legendary Harvard Business Review articles

Lather, rinse and repeat.

And this all makes a lot of sense. Until it doesn’t.

The past few years have brought us dozens, if not hundreds, of brands that have gone away–think Blockbuster, Borders and, very shortly, Radio Shack–largely through adhering to these notions.  Still others sit on the brink of irrelevance–I’m looking at you Sears and Blackberry–because they pushed a singular way of thinking well past its expiration date and, sadly, the point of no return.

Even far stronger and far better managed brands fall into the trap of overplaying their hands. Neiman Marcus (my former employer)–along with many other luxury brands–have had to re-work their strategies because they became overly reliant on a narrow set of highly profitable customers and failed to acquire and retain other important and emerging cohorts.

It’s all too easy to become distracted by peripheral issues or to stray into areas where we have few useful capabilities. We always must be mindful of where the customer gives us–or where we can readily earn–permission to go.

But in a world that is changing ever faster, and where new competitors can often launch highly disruptive business models in short order, what got us to where we are isn’t likely to get us to where we need to be.

 

 

Zombie retailers

As we enter the home-stretch of the holiday shopping season, the winners and losers grow more obvious by the day.

Also increasingly obvious is a sub-category of retail brands that can best be labeled “zombies.”  This sad lot includes brands that may appear to be alive, but for all intents and purposes are already dead. Radio Shack and Sears find themselves at the top of this list, but they are hardly alone.

The retail graveyard is filled with well-known and formerly sizable brands that once had customers beating a path to their doors. Borders, Linens & Things, Blockbuster, CompUSA, just to name a few, have all disappeared in recent years. Coldwater Creek and Delia’s are two once successful companies that have initiated liquidation procedures just in the last six months. The new year will surely bring a raft of store closings and bankruptcy filings.

Much more recently founded pure-play e-commerce sites aren’t immune from this phenomenon either. Many once seemingly promising ventures have gone under or seen their valuations pummeled (I’m looking at you Fab.com and Ideel). Many more are struggling mightily to find a pathway to profitability and are starting to see their venture capital sugar daddies lose patience. As it turns out, selling at a loss and trying to make it up on volume doesn’t work on the internet either. Their “zombie-ness” may not yet be apparent, but it’s there.

The seismic changes affecting the entire retail world are so profound and, in many cases, have come on so quickly, that it has been impossible for even the leaders to respond effectively. Yet, the brands that have gone under, and those that are not far behind, have all made a few common mistakes:

  • They either lacked deep customer insight or were unwilling to act on what that insight told them
  • They were afraid to compete with themselves by aggressively embracing (organically or through acquisitions) new formats and concepts that were gobbling up market share
  • They became overly focused on cost-cutting and store closings as the path to prosperity rather than doubling-down on customer engagement and growth
  • They protected their older, core customers while failing to acquire a sufficient number of new customers
  • They often chased revenue without an eye on profitability
  • They didn’t realize that customers buy experiences and solutions, not just the products that comprise them.

I suspect that when the post-mortem is done on next year’s zombies that transcend to the great beyond our autopsy will reveal similar patterns.

Clearly–and sadly–many retail brands are now beyond repair. For those that are struggling but still have hope, the real question is how many of these very familiar mistakes they will keep making.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Omni-channel’s migration dilemma

The shift in retail to a more omni-channel world is dramatic and profound. And since the term “omni-channel” gets thrown around a lot–often vaguely or carelessly–let me be clear about what I mean: more and more customers are becoming engaged in utilizing multiple channels–stores, mobile, online, social networks and the like–to explore, research and transact.

One important implication of this phenomenon is that many consumers are becoming what I call “blended channel” customers; sometimes choosing to transact in physical stores, sometimes buying online. And they commonly use multiple sources to aid in the decision journey, regardless of where their ultimate transaction may be recorded.

Their loyalty is to the brand, not a channel.The pressure, therefore, is on retailers to become more channel-agnostic, break down their operational silos and create a frictionless experience across channels if they hope to win over this growing cohort.

So, at one level, it’s easy to understand the retail industry’s frantic quest for so-called omni-channel excellence. But the success from omni-channel will not be evenly distributed–and for reasons that go beyond a given company’s willingness to invest or their capability to execute well.

What many leaders and analysts fail to appreciate is that as customers migrate even a small portion of their purchasing from physical stores to digital channels, a number of important dynamics come into play, and a huge dilemma may emerge.

It’s important to understand that the transaction economics of physical stores and direct-to-consumer (D2C) are quite different. Brick and mortar is mostly a fixed cost business characterized by lots of capital tied up in real estate and the supply chain, married with some relatively high costs just to stay open and staff the store during typical open hours. By contrast, above a basic scale, D2C is highly variable. In most cases, it costs more or less the same to take an order, process it, pick it out of central inventory, pack it up and ship it, regardless of whether the item is priced at $15 or $150. Generally speaking, the higher the average order size, the greater the profitability. If you sell cheap stuff on-line–particularly if you can’t recover your shipping costs from the consumer–good luck making any money.

So if the variable economics of the digital channel are superior to brick and mortar–everything else being equal–the more customers become omni-channel in their behavior, the better a brand’s economics become. This is one of the reasons you’ve seen brands with higher average order sizes (e.g. Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus) investing aggressively in building out their e-commerce capabilities for over a decade.

If the marginal economics of the digital channel are worse than bricks & mortar AND the brand is growing slowly or not all, a real dilemma emerges. On the one hand, changing consumer preferences essentially demand investments in omni-channel capabilities. And this is no cheap date. Yet as customers migrate from stores to online, the overall economics deteriorate in the aggregate. Worse still, a dramatic shift away from physical stores to e-commerce will make many stores questionable economic propositions. Yet, closing those stores may cause the loss of some or all of a blended channel customer’s business. It’s easy to see this as the start of a downward spiral (I’m looking at you RadioShack).

From a consumer’s point of view, the deployment and improvement of omni-channel capabilities is a bonanza. From a retailer’s point of view, the rush to all things omni-channel–without a clear understanding of the underlying economics, the different behaviors by different customer segments and how physical channels interact with digital channels to deliver a remarkable total customer experience –can lead to some very serious mistakes.

 

Note: For an insightful and data rich discussion of many of these issues, I wholeheartedly recommend Kevin Hillstrom’s blog: http://blog.minethatdata.com/

Sears: It’s even worse than you think

The only thing worse than witnessing someone fail, is hearing the denial that pervades their explanations of why things are going to be so much better in the future.

With Sears Holding’s most recent earnings announcement we get yet another quarter of abysmal results and yet another  round of “trust me honey, I can change” assertions from management. Don’t buy it.

Sears was struggling mightily with relevance and profitability when I was still in senior management there more than a decade ago. In the intervening years–despite a merger with Kmart and numerous revitalization experiments–the company has moved from mediocre to bad to just plain sad. Unfortunately, we must now conclude that Sears has zero chance of surviving in anything resembling its current state and size. Given this tragic reality, I recently called for the company to stop the insanity and liquidate ASAP.

While my post was deliberately provocative–and more than a bit hyperbolic–it illustrated two fundamental and important points. The first, that Sears cannot and will not be turned around and therefore the highest value for shareholders is through an orderly liquidation. The second, more urgently, is that the underlying assets continue to decline in value and the sooner their break-up value can be realized, the better.

Last week’s earnings announcement only amplifies my argument–and suggests that things are even worse than most people think. Here are a few points to ponder.

  • Traffic continues to wane at malls and department stores as shoppers increasingly favor online shopping. This trend is sure to continue in the aggregate and bodes poorly for the underlying value of Sears real estate.
  • While they are still far from turned around, JC Penney is on a strong trajectory and beginning to win back customers lost during the Ron Johnson era. A resurgent Penney’s is a growing problem for Sears efforts to improve its soft-lines business.
  • Sears’ much vaunted “Shop Your Way” is clearly making things worse. Sears has flogged this very mediocre rewards program as a transformative strategy. While it’s theoretically helpful in building a customer data asset and enhanced personalization capabilities, all it’s done in practice is give a growing majority of customers an extra layer of discount, without moving the dial on retention or share of wallet. The more people who join, the worse margins get. With its cash balances dwindling, Sears simply cannot afford to keep buying sales.
  • The value of Sears major private brand assets (Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard) is intrinsically linked to their channel performance, which continues to deteriorate. These brands are also much stronger with an older customer. Here too, Sears does not have time on its side.
  • Lack of investment and a shrinking store base is making things worse. Sears abject failure to invest in their stores to retain any measure of competitiveness has accelerated Sears decline. While some store closings and realignment of space is necessary for virtually any retailer, Sears aggressive down-sizing points to a value proposition problem, not a fundamental real estate issue. Dramatic further shrinking risks de-leveraging the expense structure, losing the support of key vendors and ultimately makes it harder to be top-of-mind with consumers.
  • They’ve yet to find a buyer for Sears Canada. Why? Potential investors see it as a real estate play, not as a going-concern. Bottom line, Sears is very unlikely to get close to their asking price.

Dead brand walking.

 

 

Full disclosure: I have a long, albeit modest, position in JC Penney.