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. 

The big stall and your angle of attack

Many brands, particularly in retail, seem stuck in a persistent malaise. Earnings report after earning report detail tepid sales and mostly flat-lined profits. The accompanying press releases describe the consumer as “on the side-lines.” Others opine that shoppers have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward spending. The CEO of The Container Store recently concluded that we are experiencing a “retail funk.”

I freely admit I don’t know a lot about aerodynamics. But what I do remember about why planes stall mainly has to do with their speed and the “angle of attack” of the wings. The reasons we are seeing a big stall in retail are similar.

The lack of speed comes from little to no growth in discretionary income. Combine that with a consumer wariness toward spending after a brutal recession–and an uneven recovery–and we have little forward thrust. There is little reason to believe that this will change markedly anytime soon. And, of course, no brand can do anything to change these macro-economic factors.

The angle of attack is how you approach the market–and this is entirely within your control. Confronted with a lack of acceleration you can choose to follow the herd, taking a one-size fits all approach, making average products for average people, engaging in a race-to-the-bottom price war and so forth. Best case: you hold your ground and your results are in line with your industry segment–which is to say strikingly mediocre. Worst case: inadequate speed and an insufficient angle of attack cause you to plunge to the ground. Not very appealing.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that even in the worst of times there are still some clear winners. Perhaps you’ve noticed that somehow, even when the stock market goes through its gyrations or consumer confidence wanes or weather conditions are not conducive to seasonal apparel sales, somehow or other, a few brands manage to shine.

Maybe these brands are less concerned with the speed of the market and more focused on their angle or attack?

Maybe if you are losing lift, you might want to stop doing the same things over and over that got you there in the first place?

 

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.

 

Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion

Yesterday Radio Shack announced it’s closing 1,100 stores, nearly 20% of their total. Earlier this year, JC Penney took the axe to 33 units, amidst a rising call of analysts pushing for more aggressive real estate pruning. Sears has closed some 300 units across the last 3 years, including recent decisions to shutter its downtown Chicago and Seattle “flagships.”

For those pushing a shrinking to prosperity agenda, the rationale is that eliminating the weakest units in the portfolio improves overall productivity. Well, yes, that’s just math. Unfortunately you don’t make money on ratios.

They also claim that with the growth in e-commerce fewer stores are needed. While there is an element of truth to this, it ignores the vital inter-relationship between physical stores and digital channels. For the vast majority of multi-channel retailers the web drives store traffic and stores drive e-commerce. Close stores and you hurt your e-commerce business because your brand become less accessible, and therefore less relevant.

Now don’t get me wrong. If a company is hemorrhaging cash and the data show that a given location cannot be made cash positive quickly (including the effect on the digital business, net of closing costs), it needs to go. Marginal economics 101. And certainly with shifting populations, rapidly evolving consumer behaviors and changes in real estate conditions, there is always going to be a steady stream of real estate rationalization.

Yet the heart of the matter for all the retailers at the center of the store closing debate is this: their value proposition is not working. Unless you shift your business model to becoming more destination driven–or somehow more regionally focused–closing a bunch of stores is likely to make things worse in the aggregate. You lose economies of scale and scope. You become less convenient to your target consumers. Your brand visibility declines.

Brick and mortar retail is not dying. But it certainly is becoming different. Yet it’s not hard to find many examples of winning brands that continue to open plenty of stores (e.g. Walgreen’s, Michael Kors). In fact, in the face of all this talk about mass store closings, formerly e-commerce only players like Warby Parker and Bonobo’s are now opening physical locations. I guess they must be really stupid.

I cannot recall a single retailer that engaged in large-scale store closings in the last decade that is thriving today. Actually every one I can think of is either gone or gasping for breath.

For Radio Shack and Sears, the hacking of their store count signals that they don’t have a viable strategy to survive and that their store closings are more rooted in desperation and the desire to keep the wolf from their door. For Penney’s, if they are able to craft (and execute) a value proposition that fights and wins in the middle market–no easy task–chances are they can support more stores, not fewer. If they announce plans to cut more than 10% of their units, it’s likely the beginning of their slide into oblivion, not a sensible bit of financial engineering.