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.

When cheap rules

In case you haven’t noticed, the retail apparel market is kind of a hot mess. Sales are going nowhere. Profits are waning. Many store closings have occurred, with more on the horizon. And for two basic reasons.

First, we aren’t buying as many items. It turns out that we actually don’t need so much stuff. It also turns out that, more and more, we are starting to value experiences over things. As Millennials become more important contributors to the market–which, after all, is merely the passage of time–this likely only gets worse.

Second, the average unit price of what customers are buying is declining. Some of this is due to the frenzy of discounting that most retailers can’t seem to break out of. But mostly it’s a substitution effect: people trading down from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom, or from department stores to off-price stores, or from specialty stores to places like H&M, Zara and Primark.

In many cases, the consumer is saying “no” to excess, unwilling to pay a lot merely for status. Still others are reticent to support a high markup that goes to what they have come to see as needless frills and overhead.

As leaders of brands we are powerless over the first factor. But when it comes to the second we have choices. Many of us are trying to solve for this market shift by cutting expenses and closing stores. Others have launched discount versions of their core brand and are aggressively investing behind this cheaper version of themselves. Some of us are doing a combination of both.

When cheap rules it’s certainly fair game (and simply good management) to look at our cost structure, to consider rebalancing our assortments, to seek ways to become more effective and efficient.

But as leaders–as a matter of strategy–we face the proverbial fork in the road. Do we chase cheap or do we seek reasons other than price for consumers to choose us over the competition? Do we risk entering a race to the bottom or do we choose to become more personal, more relevant, more remarkable? Do we go with the flow (and what Wall St. seems to demand) or do we confidently embrace a stance of “yeah, we’re more expensive, here’s why and we’re worth it.”

Every brand is different, so the right answer must be situation specific. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a choice. We shouldn’t forget that once a brand trades-down there is usually no turning back. And we should always remember that the biggest problem with a race to the bottom is that we might win.

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.

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 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.




You can’t own ‘discount’

As we enter the holiday season, retailers are already guns ablazin’ with sales and promotions. Like all price wars, this will end badly for just about everybody. Spoiler alert: if you don’t have the lowest cost position you can’t win a price war.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get that promotional marketing is part and parcel of most retailers’ business models. I’ve been around the block a time or two (or three). You may recall that I was in that Johnson guy’s face big time for pulling the plug on discounts at JC Penney. Sales and promotions aren’t going away any time soon, nor should they.

And I certainly understand that retail competitive dynamics are such that if you aren’t aggressive early and often you risk losing out on market share, which is critical in a largely fixed cost business where slow-moving inventory may start to lose value rapidly.

Yet if you look at most retail marketing–particularly during the holidays–you’d think that % off was the entire basis for competition.

The simple fact is that very few players can successfully build their brand positioning around having the lowest prices or the most aggressive sales. Very few.

If you aren’t in this elite group, the bottom line is that you can’t own discount. And chance are you’re just chasing your tail when, instead, you should be laser focused on other dimensions where you have the potential be relevant and remarkable and to build a differentiated, defensible position.

No you can’t own discount. But discount can sure own you.

How about we start with ‘I’m sorry’?

During the last few weeks, I’ve had far more than my fair share of incredibly frustrating customer service issues to work though. I’ve also encountered quite a few dangerous–or at least annoying–driving situations. Whether caused by global warming, sun spots or, more likely, the universe simply balancing out my karma account, it’s led me to a few observations and conclusions.

In the case of the customer experience snafus, all four companies made stupid errors, some certainly more egregious than others. In all cases, it took quite a bit of time and back and forth–on the phone or via email–to get things straightened out.

Now I get that mistakes happen. I get that, in the big picture, these issues are comparatively minor (feel free to add #FirstWorldProblems if you retweet this). And having led customer service teams myself, I also get that–contrary to retail mythology–the customer isn’t always right. Nevertheless, in the scheme of my multi-year engagement with these companies, these were major fails that had the potential to diminish or destroy my relationship with the brand.

Ultimately, in all cases, the matters got resolved to my satisfaction. Yet how these interactions left me feeling about these brands is markedly different.

Based upon my horrendous experience, I will never do business with one company again. Two of the others, in the end, finally did the right thing. But it was way too hard and took way too long. Now I question whether they really value my business, despite my being a pretty significant, profitable customer. They’ve got plenty of good competition, so when my agreement is up I’m going to be shopping around. The fourth, I’m more or less locked into for a bit, but one of their employees really stepped up and solved a complicated issue.

So what made the difference?

Only 1 of the 4 said “we’re sorry.” When it’s obvious you screwed up, you need to take responsibility. Right away.

Only 1 of the 4 acknowledged how frustrating my experience was. Want to connect with customers? Demonstrate empathy.

Only 1 of the 4 really took on the problem. In all four cases it was immediately clear that the issue was on the company’s end. Yet 3 of the 4 tried to shift blame –and the work of figuring it out–back to me. When you become the customer’s trusted agent, you win.

Only 1 of the 4 had one person who stepped up to drive the matter–in all of its complexity–to resolution (way to go Megan at Cigna!). Own the customer’s problem completely and you have a better chance of owning the relationship.

Which brings me to my recent driving experiences. In one case, someone rolled through a stop sign. Had I not taken evasive action, I would have T-boned them going at least 30 mph. The other day, someone was darting in and out of the traffic going at least 70 and nearly collided with me. Yesterday, someone texting (on the Expressway, doing about 60!) started to drift into my lane, coming within inches of hitting me before they corrected their trajectory.

In all cases, I leaned on the horn; not in a rageful way, but definitely loudly and with a sense of urgency because, hey, high-speed collisions just ain’t my thing. In all cases, I got the same response. They gave me the finger. You know, the one Johnny Manziel likes so much.

Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but it seems to me that whether it’s dealing with customer service issues, engaging in basic human interaction or dealing with loved ones, if we’ve made a mistake–even if we’re embarrassed by our behavior and feel protected by the mothership brand or five thousand pounds of metal–the appropriate response is “I”m sorry.” And the sooner we say it, the better.

Nobody likes a victim. And, in my experience, a little contrition goes a long way, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

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?