JC Penney: Better isn’t the same as good

I bought some JC Penney shares on Thursday in advance of their earnings announcement.

I almost never buy individual stocks, but this was an easy decision. Penney’s execution has improved dramatically since Ron Johnson’s departure. Two major competitors–Sears and Kohl’s–are flailing. The year-over-year comparison is absurdly easy. Inventory seems to be tightly managed, which virtually guarantees a solid lift in gross margin. But mostly importantly, negative Wall Street sentiment has been fueled by much fundamental misunderstanding–as evidenced by the large amount of short interest.

My hunch was right. Penney’s reported better than expected performance. And the stock has popped some 15%.

Yet I am keenly aware that better is not the same as good. Penney’s has a huge amount of work to do just to get back to the performance level of the pre-Johnson era which, frankly, was solidly mediocre. The moderate department store sector has basically become a zero sum game where top-line growth must come from stealing share from the competition. And competition is, and will remain, intense.

I am, however, optimistic about the immediate-term. The self-inflicted wounds of the Johnson era are gone. Marketing and merchandising are moving in the right direction. Appropriate attention is now being placed on e-commerce and omni-channel capabilities. As Sears sinks into oblivion, JCP is poised to gain market share and leverage their real estate position. Mike Ullman’s back-to-basics strategy is appropriately conservative and should result in steadily improving gross margins.

It’s also important to note that a year ago Penney’s had done virtually everything one could think of to chase customers away. Importantly, a significant percentage of their stores were off-line in preparation for the home re-launch. Gross margins were getting pummeled by clearance markdowns. Lastly, retail remains a relatively high fixed cost business. As sales improve (both in-store and on-line) Penney’s will start to see tremendous operating leverage.

So for me, better is a virtual certainty for Penney’s–at least for the next few quarters. And those who see the brand at the brink and in need of massive store closings are going to be disappointed (and, as an aside, they also fail to understand the importance of physical stores in driving the online business and overall omni-channel strategy).

Better is easy.

Good? That’s a whole different question.

5 reasons Sears should liquidate ASAP

As a former Sears senior executive I’ve followed the once mighty brand’s journey from mediocrity to bad to just plain sad. What a long strange trip it’s been.

When I left in late 2003 we were gaining traction in our core full-line department store business and piloting several important growth initiatives. To be fair, whether we could pull off the necessary transformation was highly questionable. But one thing is now certain. The subsequent actions taken under a decade of Eddie Lampert’s leadership have assured the retailer’s demise.

For some time now, I’ve been referring to Sears as the world’s slowest liquidation sale. After yesterday’s annual shareholder meeting, it is time to stop the charade and embrace the inevitable. Here are the 5 reasons Sears needs to throw in the towel:

  • No value proposition. No reason for being. After all this time Lampert has still failed to articulate a vision of why and how Sears will fight and win in the intensively competitive mid-market sector. In fact, just about every action that has been taken over the last 10 years has weakened Sears competitive position. And the horrific results make this plain for all to see. The world does not need a place to buy a wrench and a blouse and a toaster oven.
  • The competitive gap continues to widen. In every major product category Sears has lost relevance (and market share) while key competitors continue to improve. In hard goods, Sears is fundamentally disadvantaged by their real estate and as a practical matter there is not enough time nor capital to fix this core issue. In soft lines, they have been given a great gift by the recent foibles of JC Penney and Kohl’s and yet still woefully under-performed. Both competitors have key advantages relative to Sears. As they start to execute better they will win back the share they lost.
  • Digging a deeper hole.  For Sears to be a successful omni-channel retailer their core physical stores have to be compelling. Sears has under-invested in their brick and mortar stores for years, so not only do they have a lot of catching up to do, they have to develop and roll-out a new store design and related technology support. One need only to look at the capital that successful retailers like Nordstrom and Macy’s are investing to get a sense for the magnitude of what will be required. There is simply no way for Sears to earn an adequate return on this level of investment. More practically, Sears can’t possibly fund this.
  • A leader who is either a liar or delusional. The results speak for themselves: Lampert doesn’t know what he is doing. After 28 straight quarters of declining sales–let THAT sink in for a minute–he has the chutzpah to assert, among other things, that Sears is investing in where retail will be in the future (huh?), that the “Shop My Way” member program is some huge differentiator, that having fewer, less convenient locations than the competition is a good thing and that Sears can compete effectively with Amazon. All of these hypotheses would be laughable if the implications were not so tragic. Whether he really believes any of this is, or is merely spinning the story to buy time, remains an open question. But regardless of whether he is being disingenuous or whether he is nuts, you’d be crazy to give him your money.
  • Valuable assets get less valuable every day. There are pockets of meaningful value within Sears Holdings. But proprietary brands like Craftsman, Kenmore and Diehard are not sold where the majority of customers wish to buy them. Ultimately the brands are only as good as their distribution channels. Simply stated, as Sears and Kmart continue to weaken, so do the value of these brands. Side deals with hardware stores and Costco barely move the dial. Sears real estate is also cited as a major source of value, yet the real estate portfolio is a very mixed bag: some great properties in A malls, but lots of locations that are mostly liabilities. Regardless of how this all nets out, it is becoming increasingly clear that, on balance, mall-based commercial real estate has lots of supply, but relatively little demand for new tenancy. As retailers continue to prune and down-size their locations it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a case for Sears real estate value increasing over time.

The uncomfortable and sad reality is this: Sears has zero chance of transforming itself into a viable retail entity. Any further investment in this sinking ship is throwing good money after bad. Stripping out the idiosyncratic technical reasons for gyrations in the Sears stock, the underlying true company economic value declines each and every day. There is no plausible scenario where this trajectory will change.

Frankly, it’s been game over for some time now. It’s only Sears legacy equity and Lampert’s ability to pick at the carcass that has propped up the corpse.

Let’s stop the insanity.

 

 

All in

There is no shortage of business bestsellers, insightful white-papers and Harvard Business Review articles regaling us with multi-point programs to drive successful growth strategies. Consultants abound–including this guy–pushing clever frameworks to guide your brand to the corporate promised land.

Best demonstrated practices. Core capabilities. Disruptive innovation. Business process re-engineering. We’ve heard it all.

Yet despite an abundance of knowing, there is a paucity of doing. The same companies with the same access to the same information–employing high quality, well-intentioned  executives–get widely (and sometimes wildly) different results.

Having spent more than a decade working in omni-channel retail driving customer-centric growth initiatives, I’m often asked which company is the leader in this space. I usually say Nordstrom.

I led strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus during the time Nordstrom began investing in customer-centricity and cross-channel integration. So I can spout chapter and verse about the differences between our approaches and all the opportunities we missed. But with Neiman’s announcement this week of their new customer-centric organization (better late than never!) there are a few key things to point out:

  • Neiman’s has a lot of catching up to do
  • We knew the same things Nordstrom knew when they aggressively committed to their strategy nearly a decade ago
  • Nordstrom acted, we (mostly) watched.

We can quibble about some of the facts and the differences in our relative situations, but when it comes down to why they are the leader and Neiman’s–and plenty of others–are playing catching up, it comes down to this:

  • Nordstrom had a CEO who fundamentally believed in the vision and who committed to going beyond short-term pressures and strict ROI calculations
  • They went all in.

In a world that moves faster and faster all the time, organizations are really left with two core strategic options: Wait and see or go all in. Most choose the former and end up going out of business or stuck in the muddling middle.

Going all in doesn’t mean investing with reckless abandon or rolling the dice. Most all in companies do plenty of testing and learning. But testing with a view toward scaling up or moving on is a sign of commitment and strength not uncertainty and weakness.

Going all in must start at the top, with an executive who is wired to say yes. An all in strategy is fraught with risk. Mistakes will be made. You need a boss who has your back.

Going all in necessarily requires a supportive culture, but without complete organizational commitment it’s not nearly enough.

Going all in doesn’t pre-suppose a journey without bumps in the road. All in companies know how to fail better.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast?

Commitment eats strategy for lunch, dinner and a late night snack.

 

The confidence of brands

There is plenty to ponder when the subject is branding. Lots of agencies, consultants, marketing gurus and academics have frameworks and models for assessing a brand’s strength. Varying definitions abound. I like Seth‘s:

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another. If the consumer (whether it’s a business, a buyer, a voter or a donor) doesn’t pay a premium, make a selection or spread the word, then no brand value exists for that consumer. 

Therefore a brand is a promise, a pledge of trust. Without the buyer’s willingness to believe in the delivery of that promise, the brand is irrelevant. So confidence in the minds of consumers is essential.

But so is confidence in the mind of the marketer.

Confident brands lead from a position of authority. They take risks. They don’t need to over-explain or hard-sell their customers. Options are abundant. This is a brand playing offense.

We can easily sense the brand that lacks confidence, that sadly has lost–or never had–its mojo.

Unconfident brands are defensive. They cast too wide a net for customers. They compete too heavily on price. Their advertising lacks focus and nuance and instead is characterized by shouting and bludgeoning. They default to one size fits all marketing.

The real tragedy is that what flailing brands need the most is precisely what they lack. Without the confidence to face the realities of their situation and to take the bold actions to get on a path to prosperity, their ultimate fate is sealed.

JC Penney: The way, way back (Part 1: The challenge)

Yesterday JC Penney reported its first quarterly same store sales increase in more than 2 years.

Given the free fall the company found itself in during the Ron Johnson era, this news provides a measure of hope. After all, there can be no ascent from a dive without passing through stabilization. And even though the gain was paltry–about 2%–it came during a period of consumer ennui, crappy weather and intense sales promotion throughout the industry. Later this month, when Penney’s reports quarterly earnings, we’ll get a clearer picture of the toll aggressive discounting took on margins.

Unlike some doom-sayers on Wall Street, I am cautiously optimistic about Penney’s near-term. Product assortments are improving, which bodes well for continued top-line growth. While the company still has a bit more work to clear all of Johnson’s merchandise debacles, I expect improving margins as the company better matches inventory to consumer demand. A return to more typical promotional marketing has Penney’s back in the competitive mix. E-commerce improvements are starting to make meaningful contributions. 

But of course better is not the same as good.

First of all, we should not lose sight of the fact that even before Johnson’s messianic arrival, JCP was struggling. Despite many attempts to re-invent itself, they remained a middling performer at best, stuck in neutral, in a moderate department store sector that continues to shrink. A transformation was, in fact, needed. Just not the one Johnson and team inflicted upon them.

Second, during the past 2 years Penney’s has lost roughly 1/3 of its sales. That means they need to increase revenue by well over 40% just to get back to where they were in the pre-Johnson, more than a bit mediocre, days.

Retail is still largely a high fixed cost business, and even with some additional pruning in real estate and a shift to more e-commerce, there is simply no way to earn an adequate return without dramatically improved brick and mortar sales productivity. And of course they must accomplish this in an environment of lackluster consumer spending and intense battles for market share. Though, Sears’ slow slide into oblivion should be the gift that keeps on giving.

To be sure, there is much of the proverbial low hanging fruit to be picked. Basics of execution were lost during the past two years. The Johnson merchandise and marketing strategy showed a poisonous contempt for Penney’s core customer. New product concepts were rolled out that were dead on arrival, creating many pockets of incredibly low sales productivity (I’m looking at you Bodum!). The increasingly critical digital channel was left  twisting in the wind. 

Addressing many of these glaring gaps should come fairly easily and quickly. Crafting a winning, long-term strategy is a totally different challenge.

Coming in Part 2: The action plan

Untethered

In the first decade of e-commerce’s ascension, with rare exception, the consumer was sitting in their home or office using a desktop computer to do their online shopping. It was a completely virtual experience where the advantages were clear: 24/7 access, wider selection, often lower pricing and so on. So were the disadvantages: inability to try on the product, no instant gratification, no sales help, etc.

Even as e-commerce began to chip away at brick & mortar stores’ dominance, the physical retail experience stayed basically the same. To reap the advantages of in-store shopping you had to travel to the store. Once there, if you wanted product information you had to track down a sales associate and hope that he or she knew what they were talking about. What you could buy had to be in-stock in that particular location. And when you wanted to buy something, you went to a sales register at the front of the store or located in a merchandise department.

With the explosion in mobile devices and smart phones the consumer decision journey is rapidly becoming untethered. Previously a digital shopping experience by definition meant you weren’t in (or close to) a store. But, more and more, what we once counted as an e-commerce shopping trip or sale, versus one made in a physical store, is a distinction without a difference. It’s now a bricks and mobile world.

Increasingly, store sales associates are untethered from their POS registers, lending them the ability to work with a consumer at the real point of sale and arming them with the digital tools that can meaningfully enhance the customer experience.

Today’s omni-channel leaders are keenly aware of how the un-tethering of retail is profoundly altering the consumer and competitive landscape.

For others–the relentless defenders of the status quo–it’s their thinking and willingness to act decisively that needs to be untethered. Hopefully that occurs before their business model becomes unhinged.

 

 

Living la vida local

Until the end of the 19th century virtually all retail was local.

There was no such thing as a chain store or a catalog merchant. Most raw materials were locally or regionally sourced. The local shopkeeper predominated.

For centuries, the typical merchant specialized in a particular area of expertise–butcher, baker, cobbler and so on. He knew most customers by name and understood what they liked. With the ability to get instant feedback on his offering he could readily curate his offering to local tastes. He didn’t have to learn 1-to-1 marketing. It was his lifeblood.

In the 1880′s, Richard Sears and Aaron Montgomery Ward launched their catalog businesses, and in the decades that followed, consumers began to have greatly expanded choices. As the 20th century unfolded, the transportation infra-structure improved dramatically, creating greater opportunities for sourcing product from around the globe. Multi-unit retailers proliferated and eventually the bulk of retail shifted to regional malls, mass discount stores and dozens of national “big box” retailers and specialty chains.

In the last 15 years, the advent of e-commerce, along with incredibly efficient direct to consumer supply chains, have made it possible for the individual consumer to have virtually infinite choices available to them. The local shopkeeper model has become largely extinct.

Now it’s come full circle. Retail, like politics, has always been local. The winners have always been those that bring the most remarkable and relevant solutions to individual consumers. But over time what was possible shifted. Those that failed to keep pace lost out.

Today the retail world is becoming increasingly bifurcated. A few players are winning by riding the long tail and by offering low prices and efficient shopping. For everyone else, the world is a lot more complicated. Right now the challenge is to differentiate your brand in a sea of sameness. Right now the goal is to curate your offering–or make it incredibly easy for the customer to do it for herself–to a specific set of consumer needs and wants. Right now your mission is to know your customer better than the competition and to leverage that insight to craft more unique and personalized solutions.

Sounds familiar right?

Advances in technology make it possible for your brand to provide value in much the way the shopkeepers of yesterday did. To know me, to understand my individual preferences and to use that information to tailor your offering to my specific requirements is the formula for winning.

You can keep chasing price and remain wed to mass approaches to marketing, customer service and operations. And you can hope to beat Amazon and Walmart at their own game. Let me know how that works out. Or…

Or you can commit to treating different customers differently and invest in a strategy steeped in localization and personalization.

The choices are increasingly clear. The commitment to one path or the other is becoming more urgent. You need to choose.

Ultimately it’s death in the middle.

 

 

 

 

Dead brand walking

The business graveyard is filled with brands that have gone from the lofty heights of recognition, stature and profitability to flagging relevance and, ultimately, complete extinction. For every long-standing, legacy brand that continues to thrive (think Kraft or Coca-Cola) there is a former high flier that is now gone (think Borders or Oldsmobile).

Sometimes companies are hit by a largely unexpected exogenous force that sends them reeling. More often than not, the company’s ultimate demise surprises no one.

For some of us–investors or potential employees, for example–the key is to separate out the walking dead from the exciting turnaround story or the metaphorical Phoenix.

For business leaders, the obvious implication is to become aware of the early warning signs of decreasing brand relevance, accept the need to change and take the requisite actions. The obvious question, of course, is why are there so very many strategy meltdowns?

In my experience, brands go from healthy to critical in one or more of three ways.

First, you can’t fix a problem you aren’t aware you have. Many dead or dying brands lacked a fundamental level of customer insight. So not only did they not appreciate their vulnerability early enough, they didn’t focus on the important things quickly enough.

Second, just because you know something, doesn’t mean you accept it as the new reality. When I was a senior executive at Sears–the poster child for dead brands walking–we had tons of evidence that clearly showed our weakening relevance and declining profitability in our core home improvement and appliance businesses. Did those that could have changed Sears’ destiny truly accept that without aggressively attacking these issues it would eventually be game over? Sadly, then, as it is now, the answer is “no.”

More recently, when I ran strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus, we had plenty of customer research and analytics that our strategy of narrowing our assortments and pushing prices ever higher was losing us valuable customers to Nordstrom (among others). Did we accept that it constrained our growth and made us increasingly vulnerable in an economic downturn? Fortunately the harsh lesson of the recent recession–and a new CEO–”forced” Neiman’s to address these problems before they became crippling.

Lastly, even with keen awareness and complete acceptance of new realities, we regularly fail to take the (often radical) action needed. This is mostly about fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of getting fired. Fear of risking one’s legacy or resume value.

In fact, history teaches us that it’s far more common to see executives holding on to a mediocre status quo rather than risk competing with one’s self or making a big bet on that new technology or innovative business model that is ultimately used against them by an upstart competitor.

Frankly, if your inability or unwillingness to act on saving your brand is rooted in fear, don’t hire McKinsey or Bain (or me for that matter) to help you with your strategy. My advice would be to get yourself a new management team and/or go see a therapist. It’s far cheaper and more likely to work. And do this before your Board figures it out.

Dead brands almost never die by accident. They die by leaders failing to see the signs of terminal illness while there’s still time to save them. And they die by management teams’ inability or unwillingness to take the necessary and decisive action before it’s too late.

Hopefully dead brands walking can be a lesson to us all.

 

 

Easy or good?

It’s far easier to run your business with a paint-by-numbers operating model.  Why risk the vagaries of human interaction?

It’s far easier to craft a one-size fits all marketing plan. Why invest in complicated customer analytics and the complexities of managing vast numbers of different campaigns?

It’s far easier to focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness. Doesn’t Wall Street reward brands that run a tight ship?

It’s far easier to remain product or channel focused. Organizing your business around customers–and the realities of the omni-channel blur–means blowing up many existing processes, metrics, incentives systems and management structures.

It’s far easier to focus on the certain short-term fix, rather than commit to a long-term program of testing and learning and building foundational capabilities. After all, how can we be sure we will ultimately generate sufficient ROI?

The problem is that easy is not the same as good.

And good enough is rarely good enough anymore.

Remarkable. Relevant. And built for me, rather than built for everyone, is what it will take for just about any business that cannot win by price alone.

And like it or not, easy is not going to cut it.

 

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.