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.

Omni-channel: Myths, distortions and, yeah, that’s just silly

Let me be clear: I’m pretty into all things omni-channel. Get me started talking about creating a single view of the customer, silo-busting, frictionless commerce, creating a seamless experience, etc. you might want to order a pizza. We could be here for a while.

I was named the VP of Multi-channel Integration at Sears way back in 1999. I led multi-channel initiatives and enterprise customer analytics at the Neiman Marcus Group from 2004-2008. I’ve written dozens of related posts and given numerous speeches on the topic during the last few years. I’m a believer.

Yet much of what passes as inspired strategy on the part of brands extolling their new-found “omni-ness” is, well, let’s just say it ranges between being disingenuous and outright foolhardy. And then there are the legions of analysts, pundits, consultants and software providers peddling a guaranteed path to customer-centricity nirvana. Much is hype. Some is just plain dumb. Here’s an attempt to move toward more “truthiness.”

  1. You don’t really mean “omni.” “Omni-channel” means “all” or “every” and typically refers to both channels for communications and for transactions. Do you really intend to sell on cruise ships? In airports? How about door-to-door sales? Are you going to do infomercials? I didn’t think so. What you really mean is expanding your marketing and sales channels to those essential for the acquisition, growth and retention of key consumer segments–and being really good at doing it. A rush to invest in omni-channel without an actionable segmentation–and without understanding which levers are really the most important to hone in on–is a license to lose money and waste precious time.
  2. Omni-channel customers are not your best customers. Chances are it’s the other way around. And causality matters. A lot. The customers that already trust your brand are often the early adopters of new media and new places to buy. There is a dangerous false narrative that suggests that simply by becoming omni-channel a world of new sales will open to you. As Kevin Hillstrom has pointed out, many companies that have gone omni-channel have failed to improve their business. This is usually because the brand’s core is weak and merely adding more places to research and buy does not fix the underlying issues (see Sears). The best multi-channel strategies are rooted in a deep understanding of current customer behavior–and prioritize opportunities to stem defection, address new customer acquisition barriers and build add-on sales. A sensible growth strategy has clear building blocks, not a mad rush into e-commerce or rolling-out the next bright and shiny mobile or social media application.
  3. You say you want a revolution. Yet, organizational and data silos abound. Yet, analysis of most promotions still have a single channel focus. Yet, much of your marketing remains mass, rather than personalized. The underlying move to omni-channel is about customer-centricity. As long as you hold on to traditional metrics, silo-ed organizational structures and rely on fragmented data and batch, blast and hope marketing programs, not much is really changing.
  4. Confusing necessary with sufficient. To be sure, more and more customers are becoming cross-channel shoppers and, particularly with the rapid growth of mobile devices, the distinction between e-commerce and physical retail is blurring. Certain “omni” capabilities like order online, pick up in the store are becoming base expectations. It’s hard to imagine that many retailers will survive, much less thrive, without robust integration capabilities and compelling web and mobile offerings. But far too many brands think that by adding these newish features they are doing enough. They’re not. Many of these capabilities are becoming table-stakes. In other cases, they are expensive and complicated “nice to have’s.” What you need to do to keep pace is not the same as what you need to do to become differentiated and remarkable. Confuse this at your own peril.
  5. New hybrid-models are genius. The press is eating up Warby Parker’s, Bonobos and many other e-tailers move into physical locations and raving about their productivity numbers. First, this isn’t new (see Williams-Sonoma). Second, the move into actual stores had to happen. Over 3 year ago I was sitting with the CEO of one of these companies and asked him when they would think about opening stores. He answered: “we will never have physical stores.” Now he’s on CNBC singing their praises. Did I have the gift of prophecy? Of course not; the move was totally foreseeable given the known economics and limitations of pure-play e-commerce. Lastly, what would be remarkable about these hybrid-models’ sale productivity in their initial forays into the physical realm is if they did NOT do huge numbers. Bear in mind, they have opened stores in trade areas where they already have a density of customers and are in very small locations. Comparing their initial results to more mature specialty stores is silly. Comparing them to say, the top 2 or 3 bays of Neiman Marcus’ beauty counters in the Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour and Michigan Avenue stores is more apt (hint: it would be well over $3,000/sf). I am a repeat customer of the two brands I mentioned and believe they have bright futures. But let’s be careful of false positives. There is much more of this story to play out.

Omni-channel is a nice catch phrase, and there can be no question that we are witnessing an incredible transformation in how consumers shop and how brands need to do business. The status quo is not an option, but neither is a blind rush into all things “omni.”

The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed. The path you choose is critical.

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.

 

The obsessive core

Every great brand has an obsessive core. The person who camps out for hours before the next iPhone is released. The Harley Davidson fanatic who sports the logo tattoo and is dressed head to toe in Harley gear. The frequent shopper who willingly pays full price and is an incredible source of great word of mouth. The raving fan. You get the picture.

The great thing about most obsessive core customers is that they are highly profitable and help acquire new customers at a low-cost. If you lack such a passionate group, chances are you are making average products for average people. Good luck with that.

Yet brands blessed with an obsessive core–or even a bit less enthusiastic but significant group of “heavy-users”–are often led astray.

Many luxury brands–including my former employer Neiman Marcus–tilted too heavily towards their obsessive core shopper and neglected other important, profitable customer segments. When the recession hit, the day of reckoning was harsh indeed.

Most high-flying e-commerce companies gain their initial traction with an obsessive core. By focusing on an underserved niche that loves to shop online, these brands can often quickly and cost effectively acquire thousands of profitable customers. Alas, as we’re starting to see with many companies that have attracted millions in venture capital funding, growing profitably beyond that initial core is not so easy.

Unfortunately, the factors that create the obsessive core, the raving fan, the incredibly passionate brand advocate, often cannot be scaled.

Unfortunately, in our quest to exploit the seductive virtues of the obsessive core, we can lose sight of the big picture.

The key, I think, is to not let ourselves become obsessed with this group, but to place them in the appropriate context.