Attraction, not promotion (redux)

If you are familiar with 12-step recovery programs you know about the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which goes as follows: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.”

The obvious reason for this practice is that 12 Step programs have the anonymity of their attendees at their core. Moreover, AA–and its spin-off programs–reject self-seeking as a personal value. But it goes deeper.

Most people do not wish to sold to. If I have to hit you over the head again and again with my message, perhaps you are not open to receiving it. Or maybe what I’m selling just isn’t for you. Shouting louder and more often, or pitching all sorts of enticements, may be an intelligent, short-term way to drive a first visit, but all too often it’s a sign of desperation or lack of inspiration.

12 Step programs were among the first programs to go viral. They gained momentum through word of mouth and blossomed into powerful tribes as more and more struggling addicts learned about and came to embrace a recovery lifestyle. No TV. No radio. No sexy print campaigns. No gift cards. No ‘3 suits for the price of 1’. When it works it’s largely because those seeking relief want what others in the program have.

In the business world, it’s easy to see some parallels. Successful brands like Nordstrom, Apple and Neiman Marcus run very few promotional events and have little “on sale” most days of the year. And, it turns out, they sell a very large percentage of their products at full price and have low advertising to sales ratios. Customers are attracted to these brands because of the differentiated customer experience, well curated and unique merchandise and many, many stories of highly satisfied customers. Net Promoter Scores are high.

Contrast this with Macy’s, Sears and a veritable clown car of other retailers who inundate us with TV commercials, a mountain of circulars and endless promotions and discounts. Full-price selling is almost non-existent. How many of these brands’ shoppers go because it is truly their favorite place to shop? How many rave about their experience to their friends? Unsurprisingly, marketing costs are high, margins are low and revenues are stagnant or declining.

Migrating to a strategy rooted in attraction vs. promotion does not suit every brand, nor is it an easy, risk-free journey. Yet, I have to wonder how many brands even take the time to examine these fundamentally different approaches?

How many are intentional about their choices to go down one path vs. the other? How many want to win by authentically working to persuade their best prospects to say “I’ll have what she’s having” instead of beating the dead horse of relentless sales promotion and being stuck in a race to the bottom.

Maybe you can win on price for a little while. Maybe you can out shout the other guys for a bit. Maybe, just maybe, if you can coerce a few more suckers, er, I mean customers, to give you a try, you can make this quarter’s sales plan.

And sure we didn’t make any money, but we’re investing in the future, right?

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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.

No new stores ever!

What if your company could never open another store? I’m not talking about relocations. I mean a truly new unit that adds top-line growth for your brand.

That’s pretty much the case in the US department store sector. Macy’s, JC Penney, Dillard’s and Sears (obviously) are closing far more full-line stores than they will open.

The generally more resilient luxury sector isn’t exactly booming. Nordstrom will open only 3 new stores in the US over the next 3 years. Neiman Marcus will open 2 full-line stores over 4 years. Saks is probably done finding viable new locations. It’s hard to imagine how this current outlook will get better.

Major sectors like office supplies and specialty teen are going through wrenching consolidations and hemorrhaging sites. And for every Dollar General, Charming Charlies and Dick’s Sporting Goods that have decent opportunities for regional expansion and market back-fill, there are far more that have overshot the runway.

“But Steve”, you say, “we’re seeing great growth in our online business. That’s our future.” That may be true, but how much of that is actually incremental growth? For most “omni-channel” retailers–particularly those that aren’t playing catch up in basic capabilities (I’m looking at you JC Penney)–more and more of what gets reported as digital sales is merely channel shift.

In fact, you don’t have to be Einstein to understand what’s going on when brands report strong e-commerce growth, yet overall sales growth is barely positive. For a great discussion of this check out Kevin’s blog post on hiding the numbers.

The fact is we have too many stores and most consumers have too much stuff.

The fact is the retailers that operate the most stores and sell the most stuff are rapidly reaching the point where, for all practical purposes, they will never open a new store.

The fact is very few large retailers are experiencing much incremental growth from e-commerce and, either way, that growth is small relative to their base and beginning to slow substantially.

The fact is, going forward, most brands will only grow the top-line above the rate of inflation by developing strategies that steal market share. And the me-too tactics and one-size-fits all customer strategies that currently account for the bulk of most brands time and money simply won’t cut it.

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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.

 

 

JC Penney swings for the fences (Part 1)

New CEO Ron Johnson’s first big move to re-invent JC Penney was to eliminate their intensely promotional high/low pricing strategy. The key elements are:

  • Moving most products to “fair and square” every day pricing
  • Establishing month-long themed value pricing for certain key items
  • Simplifying and creating regular break dates for permanent markdowns.

To break-through the sea of sameness that envelops the slow growth moderate department stores space, Penney’s clearly needs to take bold action. And any student of retail knows that other needed changes to product assortments, in-store experience and digital strategy will take multiple years to fully implement. So what should we make of this “radical” new pricing initiative?

First, anyone who knows retail knows how foolish a high/low pricing strategy seems. The amount of money spent advertising events in weekly circulars and various broadcast media is enormous (and increasingly ineffective). The payroll and collateral costs of constantly changing in-store signing is a major line item. And “forcing” consumers to wait for a sale or have a coupon or get your store credit card to obtain the best price is seemingly a big customer dissatisfier.

So going to “fair and square” everyday pricing would seem to be a win for the consumer and a major improvement to any retailer’s earnings. Why not emulate Nordstrom and get both great Net Promoter scores and have an advertising to sales ratio that is the envy of the competition? It’s a slam dunk, right?

Well, not so fast Skippy.

First of all, unlike Nordstrom, every promotional retailer like Penney’s (and Sears and Macy’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond, etc.) has taught their customers–over many, many years–that their “regular” price is a sucker price. Reversing this perception will not happen quickly, no matter how creative your new ad campaign is and no matter how much money you throw at it in the first few months.

Second, every retailer has a customer segment that is intensely deal driven. This group refuses to buy unless they are convinced they have gotten the best possible price. And they believe they can ferret that out. They love the thrill of the hunt. Buying something without some special incentive is an anathema to them.

History shows–whether you are Sears, Macy’s or Saks–that when you pull back on promotions this segment’s business drops like a rock. If they are a tiny fraction (or an unprofitable piece) of your sales, it’s not a big issue. If, as I suspect is the case at JCP, they are a meaningful profit contributor, the short-term hit is significant and they will be hard to win back.

Third, like it or not, promotional marketing creates urgency to buy. Major events with limited time offers drive traffic. In-store messages that shout a great deal increase conversion. Over time hopefully Penney’s can teach their consumers that every day is a good day to check out their store and that there is no reason to shop around for a better deal. In the immediate term sales will suffer.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the math on everyday pricing is tough. While it is true that most consumers buy at the lowest promotional price, it is also true that there are plenty of customers who pay full price (or receive a lesser discount). To achieve the same gross margin percentage would mean setting an everyday “fair and square” price that is above the lowest historical promotional price. But by doing that, you will be uncompetitive with your direct competitors.

An informal price check I did yesterday (at the mall closest to Penney’s corporate headquarters) revealed that Penney’s price on several key national brands was several dollars higher than Macy’s and Sears. For consumers that pay attention to such things, this will undermine JCP’s pricing integrity and cost them business. This also creates an opportunity for Penney’s competitors to attack them directly on the one major initial plank of their new strategy.

The other alternative is to set prices to be consistently competitive day in and day out. Doing so will drive Penney’s gross margin rates down, which will require a very significant increase in sales just to maintain the gross margin dollar productivity at last year’s levels–which weren’t at all impressive.

Penney’s has acknowledged that they expect to take a near-term sales hit as they implement their new pricing strategy. And everyone recognizes that pricing is just one piece of a multi-faceted, multi-year transformation.

My fear is that this pricing change is much more of a swing for the fences move then the new management team realizes and that the first few innings of this new game will be far more brutal than expected.

While unconfirmed, initial reports are that sales having taken a bigger hit than management anticipated, which could lead to inventory issues and a huge loss of momentum for the new leadership at Penney’s.

I applaud Ron Johnson’s willingness to go big and bold. However, I expect his credibility and tenacity will soon be tested.

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In Part 2 I explore what else Penney’s new strategy must entail.