Luxury retail’s big stall

Neiman Marcus and Saks both just reported disappointing sales and earnings. And both cast most of the blame on the strong dollar’s effect on their tourist business. There was also some whining about the unseasonably warm weather, low oil prices and volatile capital markets.

To be sure, these factors have not been helpful. But the problems in the luxury market go deeper, particularly among the department store players. First some quick context.

The widely held notion among analysts that luxury brands are immune from the vicissitudes of the economy reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of their actual customer base. Yes, a significant percentage of the business comes from the very wealthy, who are not very price sensitive and not affected much by the sturm und drang of the economy. But for all but the most rarified brands, most luxury retail spending comes from what I call the “solidly affluent” (others call them HENRY’s–High Earners Not Yet Rich). These customers have much more volatile spending and much greater price sensitivity (I know this well from 4 years at Neiman Marcus diving into the data and conducting scores of studies). When the economy wanes they pull back. When prices get too high they shop less frequently or trade down to lower priced brands.

So with that as a backdrop–and going beyond the near-term headwinds– here are the key reasons I see a tough longer-term outlook for luxury retail–at least in North America:

  • Little new customer growth. Other than through e-commerce, luxury retail has had a tough time with customer acquisition for more than a decade. With e-commerce maturing, unfavorable demographics (see below) and few, if any, new store openings, luxury department stores, in particular, will struggle to replace the customers they lose.
  • Little or no transaction growth. While not widely appreciated, most of the comparable store growth in luxury retail for quite some time has come through prices increases, not growth in transactions. There is nothing to suggest this trend will change.
  • Unfavorable demographics. Affluent Baby Boomers have propped up the sector for the past decade or so. But as customers get older they spend less in general and quite a bit less on luxury products. The Baby Boomers are slowly but surely “aging out” of the sector. Gen X is a smaller cohort and there is little evidence they will spend as much on average as the Boomers. Over the longer term, Millennials will need to make up for the Boomers who, to put it bluntly, will be dying off. So far, most studies suggest Millennials will be more price sensitive and less status conscious then then the cohorts ahead of them.
  • Limits to price increases. For about 15 years, average luxury retail prices have grown at more than twice the general rate of inflation. In accessories it’s more like three times. Prices just don’t rise forever without affecting demand.
  • Shifts in spending. The affluent continue to value experiences and services over things–and are allocating their spending accordingly. Maybe this multi-year trend will start to reverse itself. Color me skeptical.
  • The omni-channel migration dilemma. Saks, Neiman’s and others are spending mightily on all things omni-channel and frankly the ROI is often terrible. Now they must do so to remain competitive. But it’s incredibly expensive to create a more integrated customer experience and, for the most part, the better you get at it the more you accelerate a shift to digital away from physical stores. Most often this is not accretive to earnings. For either Neiman Marcus or Saks to get a pay-off they need to grab market share. And the reality is they have more competition on the higher end part of their business from the wholesale brands that continue to open up stores and dramatically improve their e-commerce game. And on the lower end of their business they are playing catch up with Nordstrom.

For me, what I see is a sector that clearly has immediate term headwinds. But, more importantly, I see a sector that has much more profound long-term demographic and psycho-graphic headwinds. A sector that will have increasing difficulty wielding it’s tried and true big hammer of price increases. A sector that can no longer count on e-commerce for much new customer growth A sector that has 2-3 years of significant investment in digital and omni-channel capability building just to remain competitive.

Even if the dollar weakens or oil prices rise or we have colder winters, it’s still not a very pretty picture.

 

 

 

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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When cheap rules

In case you haven’t noticed, the retail apparel market is kind of a hot mess. Sales are going nowhere. Profits are waning. Many store closings have occurred, with more on the horizon. And for two basic reasons.

First, we aren’t buying as many items. It turns out that we actually don’t need so much stuff. It also turns out that, more and more, we are starting to value experiences over things. As Millennials become more important contributors to the market–which, after all, is merely the passage of time–this likely only gets worse.

Second, the average unit price of what customers are buying is declining. Some of this is due to the frenzy of discounting that most retailers can’t seem to break out of. But mostly it’s a substitution effect: people trading down from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom, or from department stores to off-price stores, or from specialty stores to places like H&M, Zara and Primark.

In many cases, the consumer is saying “no” to excess, unwilling to pay a lot merely for status. Still others are reticent to support a high markup that goes to what they have come to see as needless frills and overhead.

As leaders of brands we are powerless over the first factor. But when it comes to the second we have choices. Many of us are trying to solve for this market shift by cutting expenses and closing stores. Others have launched discount versions of their core brand and are aggressively investing behind this cheaper version of themselves. Some of us are doing a combination of both.

When cheap rules it’s certainly fair game (and simply good management) to look at our cost structure, to consider rebalancing our assortments, to seek ways to become more effective and efficient.

But as leaders–as a matter of strategy–we face the proverbial fork in the road. Do we chase cheap or do we seek reasons other than price for consumers to choose us over the competition? Do we risk entering a race to the bottom or do we choose to become more personal, more relevant, more remarkable? Do we go with the flow (and what Wall St. seems to demand) or do we confidently embrace a stance of “yeah, we’re more expensive, here’s why and we’re worth it.”

Every brand is different, so the right answer must be situation specific. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a choice. We shouldn’t forget that once a brand trades-down there is usually no turning back. And we should always remember that the biggest problem with a race to the bottom is that we might win.

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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When the oxygen leaves the room

In the Republican Presidential race Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are sucking up virtually all the oxygen in the room. It may be for reasons that suggest mass psychosis, but I digress. The fact is that news of their campaigns dominates the airwaves and most political conversations, leaving little or no space for other candidates to garner attention, much less gain any real traction.

During my time at the Neiman Marcus Group, the vast majority of the oxygen was consumed by our hyper-focus on growing profits with our very top-tier customers–mostly through price increases–and executing our current operating strategy. There was little oxygen left for cultivating other important customer groups or working on the new ideas that a maturing business would need to gain share. It’s not terribly surprising that those initiatives withered on the vine. Nor should anyone be shocked that today’s growth pipeline is sparse and the company is now focused on cost-cutting.

Since Eddie Lampert has helmed Sears Holdings, his focus has been on extracting cash from many aspects of the core business, while throwing money at various vague digital initiatives, creating a culture of internal competition and his crazy notion of Sears’ becoming a “membership” company. The oxygen needed to fix the basic issues in Sears value proposition has never been there. This is certain to end badly.

Of course, this notion extends well beyond business strategy.

When protection of ego and the need to be right consumes most of the oxygen in the room, there is little or nothing left for connection.

When we are focused on judgment or condemnation of others, compassion has no room to breathe.

When we stoke the flames of hate, the fire of love goes out.

It’s easy to say we don’t have the time, money, skills or energy to do otherwise. But, for me, it’s really pretty simple.

Sometimes we are the ones sucking the oxygen out of the room through the example we set and the actions we take. It’s a choice–our choice–to stay on that path.

Sometimes the oxygen is being sucked out of the room by others. And sometimes, despite our best intentions and strongly held hopes that it might change, the stark reality is it won’t.

The only answer then is to leave the room.

An end to omni-channel?

I have a little confession to make.

Despite my including “omni-channel” liberally in speeches I give, in the hashtags of my tweets and in my often shameless self-promotion of my alleged retail strategy and marketing expertise, I kind of hate the term. Here’s why.

First, it’s hardly a new concept or a revelatory insight. I was leading the “anytime, anywhere, anyway” initiative at Sears in 2001 (not a typo). Companies like Nordstrom, Williams-Sonoma, REI and Neiman Marcus, among others, have been working in earnest on the essence of cross-channel integration and customer-centricity for more than a decade. If a brand has started throwing out the term in their annual priority statements and investor presentations more recently–or injecting it into the titles of staff members–it only means that company was late to the realization that it mattered, not that they are some kind of innovator or industry savant.

Second, it’s vague. As it’s applied relentlessly in retail do we ever actually mean “all”? Home shopping? Cruise ships? Military bases? University book stores? Of course not. Good strategy is rooted in choice, not trying to do it all. It’s not enough to say we’ve embraced all things omni-channel. In fact that’s quite sloppy and unhelpful. We need to lay out the customer relationships that are essential to our brand, the channels that matter for them and what we are doing specifically to eliminate the friction–and amplify the intensely relevant and remarkable–in their experience.

Third, it’s over-used. At conferences, in white papers and among industry observers it’s a virtual hype-fest. It often seems as if certain brands think that if they say “omni-channel” enough their needed (or hoped for) capabilities will magically appear. In my experience if a company is throwing around jargon a lot there is a pretty good chance it’s to obfuscate their lack of strategic clarity and/or executional progress.

Lastly, and most importantly, by itself becoming “omni-channel” is simply not good enough. Regardless of exactly what a brand means when they extol their omni-channel strategy, capabilities like cross-channel inventory availability, order-online-pick-up-in-store, and a host of other functionality that add up to the much vaunted “seamlessly integrated” experience, are rapidly becoming table-stakes, not differentiators.

Certainly retailers must root out the friction in their customer-facing processes and strive for a one brand, many channels experience. But they also need to accept that the power has shifted to the consumer and it’s become much harder to get a brand’s signal to command attention amidst all the noise. The reality is that in a slow growth world, more and more, sales increases must come from stealing share from the competition and mass, one-size-fits-all strategies are rapidly dying. Without making customer insight a core capability–and adopting a treat different customers differently commitment–market share losses and shrinking margins are almost certain.

Ultimately, I don’t care if you use the term “omni-channel” so long as you are clear about exactly what you are doing, how it benefits your efforts to retain, grow and acquire your core customers and why, when successful, it will be truly remarkable. But I’d also like to hear an acknowledgement that those efforts are simply necessary, not sufficient, to win in an ever noisier, customer empowered, slow growth world.

The easy prey

In most endeavors it’s a good idea to start with the easiest sale. Get the quick win. Gain some traction. Build a base. Rinse and repeat.

Organizations with any chance of staying around all have easy prey. The easy prey need the least convincing. The easy prey likes just about everything we do. They buy more often and more broadly. They’re typically the least price sensitive and provide the strongest word of mouth.

The tendency in established organizations is to rely on the easy prey too much, to go back to the well too many times. When I was at Neiman Marcus, our easy prey were the super wealthy who were intensely interested in the latest fashion. We raised our prices 8-10% per year and they kept buying. They loved the ridiculously expensive and exotic redemption opportunities in our InCircle Rewards program. We offered ever more exclusive merchandise and events and they cried “more, more, more!”

Unfortunately, the majority of our profits came from folks that weren’t in this elite segment, and our over-reliance on the best of the best started to chase them away (you’re welcome Nordstrom). When the recession came we were hit unnecessarily and devastatingly hard by the lack of balance in our customer portfolio.

For newer, rapidly growing brands, the typical mistake is to optimistically project that early success will readily scale. Many hot e-commerce brands are classic examples. These start-ups hyper-focus on a particular demographic and product-niche and use the advantages of the internet to quickly and cost effectively acquire an initial batch of customers. The metrics for the easy prey are impressive and venture capital dollars follow. Alas, the dynamics that worked so well for the easy prey become quite different (and challenging) as the business scales.

The next tranche of customers don’t get the value proposition as readily as the easy prey. They are harder to convert, requiring more expensive marketing and more costly incentives. Some may like the offering in concept, but want to see, touch and try on the product to be certain they wish to buy it. Acquisition costs go up and physical retail stores are often needed to scale the business to the next level. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is a big change and fundamentally alters the nature of how the business operates and makes money.

All brands of any size are composed of multiple customer segments, each with somewhat different needs, values, emotions and behaviors. Some are easier to acquire, grow and retain than others. Some aren’t worth the effort. A well crafted growth strategy is rooted in a solid understanding of each segment and employs a targeted and balanced portfolio approach to maximizing customer value. It necessarily involves moving beyond the easy sale and moving outside of our comfort zone.

I suppose it’s human nature to choose the path of least resistance. Ironically, it’s when we get stuck in what is easy that suddenly things get very, very hard.