The problem with saying “no”

During the past 25 years Sears had at least three opportunities to transform itself by entering the home improvement warehouse business (I worked on two of them). This was probably the only way Sears was going to ultimately survive and unlock the value of its franchise Kenmore and Craftsman brands. Each time the answer was “no.”

When I headed up strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group (2004-08), we evaluated building a leadership position in omni-channel by consolidating our disparate inventory systems, we recommended moving from a channel centric marketing organization to a customer and brand focused one, we proposed aggressively expanding our off-price format and, having understood the share lost to competitors like Nordstrom, we analyzed improvements to our merchandising and service models to become a bit more accessible. Ultimately we said “no” to moving ahead on all of these. Years later, these strategies were ultimately resurrected. But the opportunity to establish and extend a leadership position may have been lost.

Obviously there are plenty of times when either the smart or moral thing to do is to say ‘no.” Obviously it’s easy to look back and say “I told you so.”

Yet systemically, most organizations are set up to reward the status quo (often cost containment and driving incremental improvement) and punish the well intended experiment. So it’s easy to say “yes” to the historically tried and true and “no” to just about everything else.

Of course we don’t have to look very hard to come up with brands that have been struggling for many, many years (Sears, JC Penney, Radio Shack) or have completely imploded (Borders, Blockbuster, etc.). All of these said “no’ to any number of potentially game-changing strategies along the way. Care to hazard a guess at how many long-term Board Members of these perennial laggards and outright losers got pushed out for saying grace over a series of crippling “no’s”? How many CEO’s had their compensation whacked for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

In a world where change is coming at us faster and faster, we need to be challenged just as much on what we are saying ‘no” to as we are on what gets a “yes.”

And If you think there is always time to fix the wrong “no” decision, you might want to think again.

Overplaying our hand

We’re told to hyper-focus on our core customers. After all, doesn’t most of our profit come from a small group of loyalists and “heavy-users”?

We’re admonished to double-down on our highest ROI marketing strategies. Surely if a moderate amount of email or direct mail or re-targeting is working, more must be even better, right?

And exhortations to find our strengths, exploit our core competencies and “stick to our knitting” are central to many best sellers and legendary Harvard Business Review articles

Lather, rinse and repeat.

And this all makes a lot of sense. Until it doesn’t.

The past few years have brought us dozens, if not hundreds, of brands that have gone away–think Blockbuster, Borders and, very shortly, Radio Shack–largely through adhering to these notions.  Still others sit on the brink of irrelevance–I’m looking at you Sears and Blackberry–because they pushed a singular way of thinking well past its expiration date and, sadly, the point of no return.

Even far stronger and far better managed brands fall into the trap of overplaying their hands. Neiman Marcus (my former employer)–along with many other luxury brands–have had to re-work their strategies because they became overly reliant on a narrow set of highly profitable customers and failed to acquire and retain other important and emerging cohorts.

It’s all too easy to become distracted by peripheral issues or to stray into areas where we have few useful capabilities. We always must be mindful of where the customer gives us–or where we can readily earn–permission to go.

But in a world that is changing ever faster, and where new competitors can often launch highly disruptive business models in short order, what got us to where we are isn’t likely to get us to where we need to be.

 

 

Oh, they’re not a competitor

Shortly after I became the head of strategy and multi-channel marketing at The Neiman Marcus Group I was asked to lead a strategic planning session for our senior executives. One of the exercises I suggested was a deep dive on our opportunities and vulnerabilities against each of our key competitors. As I reviewed my overall plan one of the top leaders responded, “I like the overall approach, but you need to take Nordstrom off your list. They’re not a competitor.”

Having come to Neiman’s after 12 years at Sears–which I affectionately call my journey from the outhouse to the penthouse–I will admit that my experience in the nuances of the luxury industry was pretty lacking at that point. I certainly understood that a substantial percentage of our customers were fabulously wealthy and preferred brands that you simply could not get at Nordstrom. But I had already learned that many of our shoppers were much less affluent and that we sold quite a few brands that overlapped. Nevertheless, being the new guy–and not especially confident in my hypotheses–I acquiesced. We didn’t talk about Nordstrom.

About a year later my team initiated an in-depth analysis of customer spending and activity trends. Ultimately what we found was pretty disturbing. While our very top spending group was growing in sales and margin rate, customers that represented about 2/3 of our sales had weakening stats.

As it turned out, virtually all our sales growth during the preceding 5 years was driven by raising our average unit prices and the growth of our e-commerce business. After much hemming and hawing about the value (and cost) of doing consumer research, we finally got approval to do a series of studies to understand the underlying drivers of these outcomes. We learned a lot, most of which Neiman’s failed to act upon until the financial crisis hit. But the overwhelming conclusion was that when we lost customers (or a portion of a customer’s spending) the majority of that leakage was to Nordstrom.

Oops.

The point of this story is not to point out the limitations of the Neiman’s culture at that time, nor the power of my intuition. The fact is you don’t have to do much digging to find similar examples of mis-reading the consumer and failing to respond adequately playing out, over and over again, in any and all parts of industry.

Sometimes competition is rather direct even when there is a major value proposition innovation. Flash-sale sites clearly competed for a certain segment of the fashion business. Digital books and music obviously challenged the underlying business models of Borders and Blockbuster.

Sometimes competition might be less direct and its game-changing impact may be harder to glean at first. I’m not sure what the brand management teams at Folger’s and Maxwell House were thinking during the initial growth of Starbucks, but it’s now clear that there was a dramatic consumer preference shift that those brands failed to address–and a huge value creation opportunity that they didn’t participate in.

Even harder to see is when consumers have a more macro-substitution effect. For example, with some consumer segments, we’ve seen a broad and long-term trend to greater interest in personal experiences. This shift has, in many cases, supplanted spending on certain physical goods.

As in most elements of good strategy development the keys are pretty simple:

  • Clearly articulate a data-supported and trackable customer segmentation scheme
  • Stay current on the wants, needs and long-term value of each of those segments
  • Monitor direct competitors and emerging competitors for EACH segment
  • Model impact scenarios for nascent opportunities and threats
  • Develop potential responses and testing plans under each of those scenarios
  • When the time is right test those responses
  • Assume the time is right much earlier than seems comfortable
  • Be prepared to compete with yourself.

And one more thing. If someone tells you “Oh, they’re not a competitor” you might not want to take their word on it.

In God we trust, all others must bring data.

 

Maybe it’s a fact

“If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem.  Maybe it’s a fact.”

-Yitzhak Rabin

“Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to”

Talking Heads, “Cross-eyed and Painless”

I’d wager that the vast majority of business failures are rooted in a profound denial of reality.  The demise or persistent flailing of Borders, Blockbuster, Sears–and many other current or future residents of the retail graveyard–stems largely from a lack of awareness and acceptance of the unassailable facts of shifting consumer behavior.

It’s far too easy to dismiss an industry upstart or new technology as a fad or hype, until it’s too late.  It’s common to worry more about protecting your turf rather than embracing a product or service for yourself that you fear “cannabilizes” your core.

Of course this is commonplace in interpersonal relations and communications as well.  I know I can be quick to defend my behavior when I know deep down I’m the one who made the mistake, I’m the one who needs to change.

The next time someone challenges your business or your point of view, maybe your first reaction shouldn’t be to dismiss or defend.

Facts may not do what you want them to.  But that doesn’t make them untrue.  Ignore them at your own peril.

 

Honey, I shrunk the store

Until Amazon–and a handful of other pure-play concepts–emerged as power-house brands, a retail growth strategy largely consisted of two major components: build bigger stores and create a bigger retail footprint.

Whether you were Walmart, Office Depot, Coach or Lowe’s, your strategy was mostly about pushing the limits of market dominance: expanding your assortments to cover every related purchase occasion and expanding locations to cover every trade area perceived to be viable.

Then digital happened, and if a large part of your product offering could be delivered without the need of a physical location (think Best Buy, Blockbuster or Borders–and that’s just the “B’s”) this has proved to be a big problem indeed.

And show-rooming happened, and if you were in categories where the consumer likes the research service found in a brick and mortar location, but ultimately buys on price, you were losing a lot of business to direct-to-consumer players not burdened by your overhead structure.

Then there’s the emergence of omni-channel retailing, and if you aren’t making it frictionless for your customer to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway, you were losing share to those who have truly embraced customer-centric retailing.

Last, but not least, the recession happened, and many of the consumers you were counting on–you know, the ones that had become weapons of massive consumption fueled by easy credit–suddenly pulled back big time, and many of the locations you opened in the last five years or so are dead in the water.

So for most, it’s time to shrink.

Fewer, more productive stores. New, smaller formats that resonate more strongly with today’s blended channel realities and that can work in different kinds of trade areas.

But if you think getting smaller is just about physical space, think again.

When you think smaller, think more intimate. Become more personalized, more intensely relevant. Treat different customers differently.

In the future the customer shouldn’t walk away from interacting with your brand thinking that you have down-sized. They should feel that you know them, you get them and that your brand was built with them at the center of all that you do.

The showroom of death

Maybe you have noticed that e-commerce has been growing far faster than brick and mortar retail. That’s been true for years and it’s not changing any time soon.

Maybe you have noticed the explosion in comparison shopping sites that allow customers to easily search for the merchant with the best price. The number and quality of these sites will continue to grow, with powerful mobile applications right around the corner.

Maybe you have noticed that as more retailers cut back on sales associates–or fail to train them so that they become merely order takers, baggers or direction providers–the “value proposition” of actually buying something in a physical store becomes less and less attractive.

So I have to ask you, is your store a relevant, differentiated and remarkable experience for your target customer?  Or is it slowly, but inexorably, becoming a showroom; a place for the customer to see, touch and feel your product, but less and less a place to actually buy stuff.

The economics of leasing a store, fixturing it, filling it with inventory and staffing it are untenable if an increasing percentage of your customers are only there for research and will ultimately buy elsewhere because the experience or price is better.

Blockbuster and Borders may well be on the way to insolvency because they botched this transition. Best Buy is doing far better, but faces significant risks of their physical stores becoming more and more a showroom every day. And this is just the “B’s.”

Becoming a showroom is death.

Do you know what percent of your traffic uses your physical stores mostly for research purposes, only to buy elsewhere?  I bet it’s higher than you think.

 

 

 

Taking Pitches

In baseball we often see a batter “take a pitch.”  In other words, before the ball is thrown the batter decides he’s not going to swing regardless of how good the pitch is.  Sometimes this is a tactic to tire his competition–the pitcher–out.  Sometimes it’s an attempt to draw a walk because that’s the best the batter can hope for under the circumstances.  Sometimes it’s a strategy to wait things out, figuring a better opportunity will present itself later.

Lots of businesses take pitches.

When Sears allows discounters and category killers to erode their core customer base and chip away at their dominant market share, they are taking pitches.

When Blockbuster fails to mount a compelling response to NetFlix and Redbox, they are taking pitches.

When Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom allow flash-sales sites like Gilt and RueLaLa to build brands with significant market value, they are taking pitches.

When dozens of companies deny the future of social networking and location-based marketing, they are taking pitches.

Of course there are times when it makes sense to wait things out–to study and analyze before placing a big bet.    Customer-centric companies know who their most important customers and prospects are, and when the metrics on those customers deteriorate, they dig in to understand the drivers and take action.

You don’t always need to swing for the fences, but it’s hard to win without a few hits.