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.


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.

Overestimating loyalty

Let’s get a few things straight. Just because someone is a member of your loyalty program doesn’t make them loyal. Just because a customer takes advantage of loyalty program discounts or redeems reward points doesn’t mean they are loyal either. Just because your brand is a consumer’s preferred choice is not a reliable indicator of their loyalty. And owning a large share of wallet, or garnering high rates of customer satisfaction, does not guarantee loyalty either.

By now, hopefully we understand that loyalty goes beyond behavior. Loyalty is an emotion. Loyalty is what allows a brand to command a price premium in the face of similar competition. Loyalty is why we stay when an organization has the inevitable screw up. Loyal customers aren’t always looking around for a better option or shifting their spending to a competitor when they dangle a sexy offer. Loyal customers trust us. Loyal customers drive our profitability. Loyal customers amplify our story.

When I was at Neiman Marcus, analysts–and the private equity investors that eventually bought us–were very impressed that we generated over half our revenues from our InCircle Rewards loyalty program. Alas that statistic was largely meaningless. Many of those customers were far from loyal, as subsequent events proved out. Sears (another of my former employers) makes a big deal about having some 80% of its sales come from their Shop Your Way program. If you think most (or many) of them have even a modicum of loyalty to Sears, I’m afraid you are very wrong.

One of the key things to understand about truly loyal customers is that they perceive switching costs to be high. In the good old days–i.e. before the internet–switching costs were often high due to scarcity of choice, access, information and risk amelioration. Today, with a nearly infinite assortment of products and services available online, 24/7 shopping, a multitude of user review sites and liberal return polices, perceived switching costs, in many cases, have plummeted.

The rise of digitally driven business models is fraying traditional bonds. The potential for new concepts to dramatically lower the cost-to-serve customers (think Uber or Netflix) and these brands’ willingness to spend freely–and often uneconomically–to acquire new customers (think every venture-funded dotcom business) is shifting the balance of power between industry incumbents and the upstarts that seek to peel away their loyal base. The potential to deliver a radically re-designed shopping experience can fundamentally redefine the basis for customer relationships.

This means the loyalty we take for granted can often be eroded very quickly. And overestimating loyalty is now not only common, it is increasingly dangerous.

We overestimate loyalty when we confuse behavior with emotion.

We overestimate loyalty when we don’t understand switching costs.

We overestimate loyalty when we can’t see how an outsider can attack our vulnerabilities and eliminate friction in our shopping experience.

There are plenty of examples of brands that had a large and seemingly loyal following that evaporated virtually overnight (I’m looking at you Blackberry and Blockbuster).

Label customers as “loyal” with considerable care. Understand the roots of their loyalty deeply. Dissect your vulnerabilities objectively and relentlessly.

Most importantly, work hard to eliminate the friction from your customers’ experience. If you don’t, be sure someone else will.

And overestimate loyalty at great peril.

HT to Nicole for helping advance my thinking on this topic

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.