Different, not dead: The future of brick & mortar retail

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” 

- Mark Twain*

Media reports highlight the dramatic shift of spending from traditional stores to e-commerce. Industry analysts and pundits predict the demise of brands with substantial investments in retail real estate. We live in an increasingly virtual world, they say, and those with deep roots in the physical realm are starting to look more and more like dinosaurs.

The transformation of shopping fueled by all things digital is profound with no signs of deceleration. The crazy little thing called the internet is changing virtually (pun intended) everything. But anyone who thinks that brick and mortar stores are going away has it wrong. Here’s why.

Brick and mortar retail can enhance the value proposition. Physical retail offers many important advantages–the ability to see and try on products, instant gratification, face-to-face customer service, social interaction and so on–that digital selling cannot readily replicate.

Purchase events matter. There is a reason that e-commerce penetration in many product categories remains low. Where the risk of buying online is perceived as high (apparel, many big ticket items), direct-to-consumer shares remain in the single digits. Brands like Zappo’s have innovated in customer service to overcome some of e-commerce’s limitations, but long-term growth potential is modest. In fact, e-commerce darlings like Bonobos, Nasty Gal and Warby Parker have begun to broaden their reach–and address flattening growth–by opening physical stores. Plenty of products–particularly perishables and low-priced items–also have underlying economic reasons why direct selling volume will remain constrained.

Consumer segments matter. Great customer intimate brands embrace the notion of treating different customers differently. When you do this, you understand the different needs, wants and behaviors of varied customer types. Depending on the product and the particular consumer, the purchase journey may begin and end at a physical store. For others, they will never set foot in a brick & mortar location. Others will research online and buy in store. You get the idea. Your mission is to understand the role your physical locations play in being intensely relevant and remarkable for the customers you need to attract, retain and grow. Then build out and customize the experience accordingly.

The blended channel is the only channel. Stop thinking channels and start thinking about a consistent, integrated customer experience for your brand. Other than products and experiences that can be delivered completely digitally, the majority of retail purchases are influenced by both the digital and physical realms. More and more data is emerging to confirm this. Your mileage will vary, but silo-ed thinking, organizations, incentives and metrics confuse, rather than illuminate.

Frictionless commerce is essential. Let’s be blunt: there’s more heat than light in the discussion of omni-channel capabilities. Strategically, the key is to hone in on how to be differentiated, relevant and remarkable for the customers you wish to serve. And then you must root out the sources of friction in your customer experience. With more consumers going back and forth between digital and physical channels in their decision journey, if you don’t make it easy to do business with you chances are there is a competitor who is ready to pounce.

Mobile adds value to physical retail. When e-commerce was either sitting at your home or office surfing the web, the distinction between digital and brick & mortar really meant something. Now with consumers untethered and having increasingly powerful devices with them 24/7, mobile becomes the great integrator–and makes the distinction between e-commerce and brick & mortar less relevant all the time.

Seismic changes ARE impacting retail. With the exception of companies in the early stages of maturity, most retailers need fewer stores and many of the stores they have will need to be smaller. But assuming that physical retail is going away any time soon is just plain wrong. The tendency to isolate e-commerce and brick & mortar performance is equally misguided.

Amazon and a handful of best-in-class e-commerce companies will continue to thrive. And new pure play digital models will undoubtedly emerge to captivate consumers and gobble up share.

But there is plenty of business to be done in physical stores. Less, but still plenty. And most of the growth in what is counted as e-commerce is not a shift to online-only brands, but rather to brands that have cohesive omni-channel strategies. Think Nordstrom and Macy’s so far. For them, stores are assets, not liabilities. But the way brick and mortar retail drives consumer engagement and loyalty is morphing quickly.

These emerging winners follow a simple but compelling formula:

More focused.

More differentiated.

More relevant.

More remarkable.

More personalized.

More integrated.

See you in the blur.

 

* This isn’t, apparently, the actual quotation, but one that has become part of his folklore.

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–and particularly the mall–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.

 

 

Push “blend”

It wasn’t very long ago that engaging with most brands meant dealing with their disparate pieces. One 800 number for order status, a different one for delivery. Websites and physical stores that often bore only a passing resemblance to each other. Getting bounced from one department to the next to resolve a customer service issue or get a question answered. And then needing to start over again with each person with whom we spoke.

Then–slowly at first–some companies began to realize that customers didn’t care how we were organized. Customers didn’t want to hear about the limitations of our “legacy systems.”  We may talk about channels, but customers don’t even know what that means. And they don’t care.

Upstart brands challenged the incumbents by attacking the friction in consumers’ path to purchase. Companies as diverse as Nordstrom, Amazon, Bonobos and Warby Parker made it their job to integrate the critical pieces of the shopping experience on behalf of the customer. They challenged the traditional verticality in retail and embraced the notion that brands are horizontal.

They assembled great ingredients and then they pushed “blend.”

As retailers we may be organized by the parts and the pieces. We may make decisions on discrete components. We may measure and tweak each variable in the equation.

But at the moment of truth, when the customer decides to enter our store, click on an ad, put another item in their cart or recommend us to a friend, she’s thinking about the whole blended concoction.

 

 

Where everybody knows your name. The “new shopkeepers.”

More and more the retail world is bifurcating.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the high-efficiency players. Great prices, endless assortments, super convenience, built for speed. Amazon, Walmart, iTunes, Home Depot. You get the picture.

While each go about it slightly differently, their world is mostly a mass market one. Customer segmentation means little. For all intents and purposes, you shop there anonymously.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I like to call the “new shopkeepers.” In the (good?) old days retail was characterized by owner-run, single location, small specialty shops. The butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker. No CRM system was needed because the shopkeeper knew you, knew what you liked and she tailored her assortment and experience to you and her other like-minded customers.

We know that very few of these old-timey shopkeepers are around any more. But the new shopkeepers embrace the fundamental principles of old. Deep customer insight. Remarkable experiences. Relationships, not transactions. They treat different customers differently. They know your name.

Your mission–if you choose to accept it–is to pick a lane. Too many retailers straddle the line, trying to be something for everyone and ultimately being totally unremarkable and eventually irrelevant.

If you can’t out-Amazon Amazon–I’m looking at you Best Buy!–you had better move strongly to the other end of the continuum. You had better embrace all things customer-centric.

I’d get started if I were you. You have a lot of names to learn.

The end of e-commerce

We’ve gotten pretty used to talking about e-commerce and brick & mortar retail as if they were two entirely separate things operating in parallel universes. In fact, industry commentators often treat the “on-line shopper” as some sort of new species.

Yet more and more the notion of e-commerce as a channel unto itself is collapsing. A distinction without a difference.

Yes, some on-line only businesses like Amazon will continue to thrive, and no doubt we will continue to see purely digital retailers launched. Some will carve out profitable niches.

But with few exceptions, the real action–and the biggest source of future growth–lies with omni-channel retailers, that is, those brands with a compelling presence in brick & mortar and on the web (and mobile, and social, etc.).

When the media quotes the rapid growth of e-commerce, don’t forget that much of that growth is fueled by the digital operations of traditional brick and mortar players such as Macy’s, Best Buy and Neiman Marcus.

The reasons for this are simple. Consumers think brand first, channel second. Consumers use multiple touch points on their purchase decision journey. More and more, consumers value the unique convenience of on-line shopping, but often will appreciate the unique benefits of a physical store.

Forward thinking omni-channel retailers like Nordstrom have stopped breaking out the sales of their e-commerce division and their brick and mortar stores because they accept the idea that the distinction is increasingly meaningless. More importantly, they act on this insight and have worked hard (and invested mightily) to eliminate shopping friction and make their brand available anytime, anywhere, anyway.

So forget e-commerce and brick & mortar. Stop with the separate P&L’s, non-sensical incentives and channel-centric customer analysis.

Put the customer at the center of everything you do, and build from there. Rinse and repeat.

 

 

 

 

 

When the last 15 years happens to you

If you are in retail, the last 15 years or so have brought enormous change. Let me call out a few profound shifts:

  • Winning business model bifurcation: Price and dominant assortments at one end (Wal-mart, Amazon); remarkable experience and assortment curation/product differentiation on the other (Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton). The result is death in the middle.
  • Digital retail: What started as an electronic catalog is now not only a high growth channel approaching 10% of many categories’ sales–and much higher if the product can be delivered digitally–but an increasingly important medium for promotion, interaction, customer reviews, price checking, etc.
  • The constantly connected–and inter-connected–consumer.  As more and more consumers are armed with powerful mobile devices the notion of anytime, anywhere, anyway retail has become a reality–and expectation. Social networking, product review sites and pricing apps are creating greater and greater information transparency. The brand is no longer in charge. The consumer is.
  • The omni-channel blur. Most of your customers will engage with multiple touch points in their decision journeys. As mobile commerce grows–and it becomes easier for consumers to seamlessly move between various applications to gather product information, check prices, confirm inventory availability, get product reviews and the like–the notion of distinct channels breaks down. It’s a frictionless, compelling experience that matters, not making each of your channels better. New ways of consumer engagement, new ways of organizing your business, new ways of measuring and incentivizing become mandatory. Silos belong on farms.

While it is true that remarkable new business models sometimes emerge quickly and unexpectedly, most winning concepts that have gobbled up market share from industry incumbents did not come out of nowhere.

Amazon launched in 1995. The off-the mall and specialty formats that have made life difficult for the Sears’ and JC Penney’s of the world have been important competitors since the late 1990’s. Anybody paying any attention to customer data during the last 10 years has known that the so-called “multi-channel” customer outspends a single channel customer by a factor of 3-4 times.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s clear that many Boards and many retail executives were asleep at the wheel. They failed to gain sufficient awareness of the competition and seek truly actionable customer insight. They failed to accept what was happening. And of course they failed to act. And now it’s too late.

So here’s the new reality. While many of the companies I mentioned–and countless more I’m sure you can offer up–had some 15 years to see what was happening and make the necessary changes, chances are you will have less time. A lot less time.

So I guess the question is: what are you going to do to make sure the next 5 years don’t happen to you?

 

Let’s get digital…digital

The first wave of digital retail was either about brands with a history in catalog merchandising putting up a basic e-commerce site (Williams-Sonoma, Lands’ End) or pure-plays picking off products categories that early adopters could readily embrace (Amazon). The market dealt harshly with models that could not execute a basic direct-to-consumer formula, targeted a product category that wasn’t ready for digital prime time (RIP pets.com) or a combination of both.

As consumers became more comfortable with buying on-line–and retailers got better at deploying new technologies–other categories made sense for pure-plays (Blue Nile, Zappos) and traditional retailers ramped up their multiple channel strategies. For most, this second wave was largely a silo-ed approach with the e-commerce and the bricks and mortar divisions pursuing related, but mainly independent, strategies.

In the most recent third wave, a few retailers (I’m looking at you Nordstrom) understood that most of their customers were interacting with their brand across multiple channels and touch-points. They accepted that brand trumps channel, that digital was transforming their business forever. They declared that silos belong on farms and began investing in a more integrated, customer-centric experience, leading with digital more often than not.

In the next wave, the blended channel is the only channel. The distinctions between devices, channels, touch-points and media begin to blur. Differences with little distinction. Or differences that lead to extinction if your core value proposition can be delivered better, cheaper, faster digitally.

Clearly not every product category is going completely digital. Groceries looks pretty safe. Cars too.

But failure to understand how digital transforms the customer discovery, engagement, purchasing, retention and advocacy process is a prescription for your brand’s demise.

So let’s get digital. Let me hear your actions talk.