Creating meaning at scale

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a whole lot of bifurcation going on. And in many markets, the middle is all but collapsing.

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At one end are the Walmart’s, the Home Depot’s, the Amazon’s–the low price, vast assortment guys. Their pitch is easy to understand. We have just about everything you could possibly want, virtually anytime you want it, at the low, low price. Operationally this is incredibly difficult to scale. But from the customer’s perspective, it couldn’t be more simple to grasp. Dominance and value (defined by price) creates meaning.

At the other end of the spectrum are the brands built around market niches, product differentiation and the somewhat intangible “brand personality.” What defines meaningfulness here is built on deep customer insight, emotional connection and, more and more, the ability to treat different customers differently.

Historically, luxury brands thrived by merchandising exclusive products in spectacular settings delivered face-to-face by well-trained sales associates. To the extent companies could replicate this model as they added stores, they could continue to create meaning and deliver it at scale. Yet, as all things digital become increasingly important, the notion of what constitutes a meaningful one-to-one “luxury” relationship is being challenged.

The best specialty stores have succeeded by curating merchandise for a particular “lifestyle” and presenting it in a distinctive environment that reinforced a unique brand image. These companies created a business model that was simple to replicate and led to the ubiquity of many of these brands in affluent malls and upscale shopping areas of most major cities. Now, with product choice and availability exploding and new micro-niche brands emerging online, the concept of “specialty” is being redefined.

The hyper-growth, venture-backed “pure-play” brands that have launched over the past few years–think Gilt, Bonobos, Warby Parker–found it comparatively easy to scale at first. They exploited many of the advantages of a direct-to-consumer model and employed low-cost acquisition techniques to build an initial base of customers–what I like to call the obsessive core.

But it turns out that creating meaning at the scale that will lead to profitability isn’t so easy (or economically viable). Too many newer customers of these high-flying brands have started to equate meaning with discounts. Others, it turns out rather predictably, need the meaning that comes from a physical presence to derive theirs. Many see this hybrid-model as an exciting new area of growth. Others see it as clear evidence that most e-commerce only brands are finding it very difficult to deliver meaning at scale.

In an anything, anytime, anywhere, anyway world, it’s getting harder and harder to break through the clutter, to win the battle for share of attention, to create the all essential meaning that matters for customers.

If you seem to be stuck in a sea of sameness, selling average products to average people, relentlessly promoting just to stay even, it’s time to get off the bridge. The collapse is near.

If your customer is choosing you mostly on price, you had better be the low-cost provider. Otherwise you will lose the inevitable race to the bottom.

If you believe you have the ability to be meaningful to a well-defined set of customers who choose you over the competition for specific, sustainable reasons, good on you.

Just remember, as Bernadette reminds us, it’s not so easy to create meaning at scale, particularly if you need that scale to stay in business.

Why go to the store?

There are some who think that most brick & mortar stores are eventually going away and that e-commerce can have a compound annual growth rate of 15% until the end of time. To which I answer, “don’t be silly” and “of course not.”

There are many powerful reasons for physical retail locations to exist. In fact, we are already witnessing the limits of pure-play models as online only players are opening more traditional store-fronts (Warby Parker, Bonobos, Amazon and many others). Well established direct-to-consumer brands like LL Bean are doubling down on a commitment to retail store expansion. And even with the explosion of online shopping, close to 95% of transactions still take place in a traditional store.

When you take out products that can be delivered digitally (books, movies, games and the like) in most cases, for most consumers, there is value in being able to go see, try on, or touch the actual product. Having a live conversation with a well-trained sales associate can be extremely helpful. Physical stores offer a social experience that can’t be readily duplicated via the web or smart phone. And, typically, you can take the product with you, rather than having to wait.

Having said this, digitally enabled business models ARE disrupting every category and chipping away at many historical advantages of bricks & mortar. Websites often have better information than in-store sales people. Assortments can be much wider and prices are often sharper. Next day delivery may be either good enough or simply more convenient than having to drive to a mall and deal with the crowds. And we can be certain that future innovation will further eat away at traditional store advantages.

The fact is, in most instances, the future winners will be retailers that blend digital and physical offerings. They will deeply understand customers wants and desires and build a tightly integrated, highly flexible hybrid model rooted in treating different customers differently. That means a transformation, but not the elimination, of physical stores.

By contrast, the losers will be those that blindly adopt all things omni-channel.

The losers will be those traditional retailers that continue to run a bolted on and siloed e-commerce channel.

The losers will be those who fail to see the interplay between digital and physical stores and close too many doors–and turn the remaining ones into boring museums of best-sellers and “me too” products.

The losers will be those who hold on to one-size-fits-all customer and marketing strategies.

Consumers will continue going to stores for many, many years to come. Whether they will come to your store is a different question.

When the land grab ends

There is no question that e-commerce has transformed the way virtually everyone shops today. And to say that digital marketing and online shopping has been disruptive would be an understatement.

Much of retail’s market value created over the past decade has been driven by Amazon and other pure-play brands. Dozens of once powerful retail names have been hammered or completely felled by the advent of e-commerce. Many are now closing stores and desperately seeking to re-invent themselves to stay relevant or merely survive.

The digital darlings have a huge advantage over traditional retailers. As they seek to scale their claimed game changing model and to build a brand, profitability is not only a secondary consideration it is often eschewed entirely. For most, there is a land grab mentality, a semi-blind quest to acquire customers at almost any cost for fear that a more measured approach will allow new entrants to emerge or established competitors to respond more effectively–or, more cynically, will cause investors to wise up to the limitations of the underlying business model.

The number of times investors have been seduced into a growth at any cost scenario that stalls are beginning to mount. Many piled into flash-sale deals when the shake-out in that sector was totally foreseeable. Fab.com’s recent collapse won’t be only major e-tail meltdown. A shake-out is starting to happen as it’s becoming more and more clear that too many customers are being acquired at costs well above their potential life-time value. And while many are lauding the move of Warby Parker, Bonobos and others into physical stores, this evolution is borne less of brilliant insight and more of the realization that their land grab marketing efforts were rapidly losing altitude and new customer acquisition strategies were needed to maintain expected growth.

This is not to say that some of the highly valued and increasingly respected e-commerce brands don’t deserve our accolades and won’t turn out to be fantastic investments. But three things need to kept in mind as we move forward:

  1. Virtually no e-commerce only retail brands of any size have consistently made any money, including Amazon
  2. Most digital retailers will need a physical store presence to optimize their brand potential
  3. It’s comparatively easy to cost effectively acquire and retain early adopters in a digital-only model. It’s the marginal cost vs. the lifetime value of the next tranche of customers that provides real insight into the ultimate validity of the concept.

Adopting a land grab mentality is not inherently bad. In some situations it clearly is warranted. The problem comes when we don’t have a clear view of how far to push it and what we’re left with when it ends.

 

 

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.

E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem

Online-only retailers have attracted huge amounts of investment capital during the past decade. Flash-sales sites such as Gilt and RueLaLa have collectively raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Rather small, but rapidly growing, specialty players like Bonobo’s, Warby Parker, One Kings Lane and Birchbox have all recently raised tens of millions of dollars and now have valuations approaching $1 billion or more. Net-a-porter, perhaps the strongest global fashion e-tailer, was purchased by luxury powerhouse Richemont for more than $500 million in 2010 and is reportedly being shopped for a multi-billion dollar price tag.

And on and on.

The pesky little problem–the seriously nagging and increasingly pressing issue, is that the vast majority of even the most established players don’t make any money and few have any prospect of doing so any time soon.

The bulls say that all trends point to the eventual dominance of e-commerce and that these brands must invest heavily in critical infra-structure, acquiring new customers and building their brands. Today’s heavy losses will yield category dominance and ungodly riches just a few years down the road. While I’m fairly certain that this will be true for a handful of today’s industry darlings, for most it’s likely to end badly.

Aside from consumer preference shifting toward online shopping, e-commerce seems to have important economic advantages, most notably avoidance of capital investment in physical real estate. In addition, by centralizing inventory in a few locations–or having a “buy it only when you sell it” model–the potential to streamline logistics costs and generate very high inventory productivity is significant. Digital-only marketing strategies also create the opportunity to serve customers more cost effectively than traditional sales and marketing tactics.

But here’s where reality starts to set in and why many e-commerce only models are profit-proof at any kind of reasonable scale.

While fixed costs are lower for pure-plays, marginal costs can be very high. Most hyper-growth companies find it initially fairly easy and cost-effective to acquire their “best fit”and most loyal customers. Consumers that are prone to gravitate to a disruptive business model often “get it” quickly and are great at spreading the word. They tend to return fewer items and aren’t as likely to need a deep discount to spur a purchase.

Unfortunately, growing beyond what I call the obsessive core, tends to be much more expensive and difficult. Acquisition costs rise dramatically. Big discounts are needed to drive conversion. Return rates are much higher. Assortments need to expand to create greater interest. Cost and complexity follows. Many of the new customers that contribute to higher sales, never have the potential to be profitable.

In fact, one of the reasons we are seeing many of these high growth brands now aggressively investing in physical stores is that they are finding it too difficult and expensive to acquire and serve new customers purely online.

So while it’s true that fixed costs are favorable in a pure-play model, it’s the dynamics of marginal profitability (and the associated variable costs) that ultimately determine the long-term viability of an e-commerce brand. And this will prove to be the Achilles Heel for many of today’s highly valued players.

It’s easy to extol the wonderful customer service delivered by Zappos, the incredible marketing and design from Bonobos or the overall awesomeness of Amazon. But lest we forget, it’s not that hard to be awesome if you aren’t required to make any money. It’s one thing to love these brands for the experience they deliver (which I do). It’s an entirely different thing to earn a return for the risk you are taking as an investor.

So far, the only winners from the advent and rapid growth of pure-play online shopping have been consumers and a small group of investors and entrepreneurs lucky enough to cash out at the right time.

Certainly Amazon could be profitable tomorrow if they wanted to (well, more accurately, if they could deal with a collapsing multiple). And a few e-commerce only companies ARE building strong brands and appeal to enough target consumers to eventually make real money. For this short list it is, in fact, just a matter of time.

But for the rest, don’t believe the hype. And proceed with caution.

 

 

 

 

 

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.