Sears: It’s even worse than you think

The only thing worse than witnessing someone fail, is hearing the denial that pervades their explanations of why things are going to be so much better in the future.

With Sears Holding’s most recent earnings announcement we get yet another quarter of abysmal results and yet another  round of “trust me honey, I can change” assertions from management. Don’t buy it.

Sears was struggling mightily with relevance and profitability when I was still in senior management there more than a decade ago. In the intervening years–despite a merger with Kmart and numerous revitalization experiments–the company has moved from mediocre to bad to just plain sad. Unfortunately, we must now conclude that Sears has zero chance of surviving in anything resembling its current state and size. Given this tragic reality, I recently called for the company to stop the insanity and liquidate ASAP.

While my post was deliberately provocative–and more than a bit hyperbolic–it illustrated two fundamental and important points. The first, that Sears cannot and will not be turned around and therefore the highest value for shareholders is through an orderly liquidation. The second, more urgently, is that the underlying assets continue to decline in value and the sooner their break-up value can be realized, the better.

Last week’s earnings announcement only amplifies my argument–and suggests that things are even worse than most people think. Here are a few points to ponder.

  • Traffic continues to wane at malls and department stores as shoppers increasingly favor online shopping. This trend is sure to continue in the aggregate and bodes poorly for the underlying value of Sears real estate.
  • While they are still far from turned around, JC Penney is on a strong trajectory and beginning to win back customers lost during the Ron Johnson era. A resurgent Penney’s is a growing problem for Sears efforts to improve its soft-lines business.
  • Sears’ much vaunted “Shop Your Way” is clearly making things worse. Sears has flogged this very mediocre rewards program as a transformative strategy. While it’s theoretically helpful in building a customer data asset and enhanced personalization capabilities, all it’s done in practice is give a growing majority of customers an extra layer of discount, without moving the dial on retention or share of wallet. The more people who join, the worse margins get. With its cash balances dwindling, Sears simply cannot afford to keep buying sales.
  • The value of Sears major private brand assets (Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard) is intrinsically linked to their channel performance, which continues to deteriorate. These brands are also much stronger with an older customer. Here too, Sears does not have time on its side.
  • Lack of investment and a shrinking store base is making things worse. Sears abject failure to invest in their stores to retain any measure of competitiveness has accelerated Sears decline. While some store closings and realignment of space is necessary for virtually any retailer, Sears aggressive down-sizing points to a value proposition problem, not a fundamental real estate issue. Dramatic further shrinking risks de-leveraging the expense structure, losing the support of key vendors and ultimately makes it harder to be top-of-mind with consumers.
  • They’ve yet to find a buyer for Sears Canada. Why? Potential investors see it as a real estate play, not as a going-concern. Bottom line, Sears is very unlikely to get close to their asking price.

Dead brand walking.

 

 

Full disclosure: I have a long, albeit modest, position in JC Penney. 

The problem with ‘good enough’

There are two ways to lose to ‘good enough.’

The first is to believe that you can get away with good enough much longer.

As consumer choices continue to expand, as the pace of innovation increases, as the battle for our attention reaches a fevered pitch, as it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to separate the signal from the noise, your solid, yet undifferentiated, value proposition is going to lose out to the remarkable and the more relevant. Good enough just isn’t anymore.

The second way is to over-estimate the strength of your brand. A specific, very topical, example may be helpful here.

Sears owns and sells several well-known proprietary brands, such as Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard. One can do consumer surveys–as I have done many times in the past–that clearly indicate that the #1 brand choice for major appliances is Kenmore, the #1 brand choice for tools is Craftsman and the #1 battery choice is Diehard. Many consumers will even state that if they needed any of these products in the next week that their preferred place to shop is at Sears. Yet, both Sears and these private brands have been leaking market share for well over a decade. How come?

Well, If I’m working on a major kitchen remodel and I need not only appliances, but also cabinets, a countertop, fixtures and the like, I might prefer Kenmore, but the appliance selection at Home Depot or Lowe’s is very likely good enough for me to achieve the overall solution I desire.

If I’m working on a DIY project and it turns out I need a new drill to get the job done, I’m headed to a home improvement warehouse or hardware store that has all the key items required to complete the task. Am I likely to get back in my car and make an extra trip to the mall to buy the Craftsman drill, or am I likely to view the selection of national brand choices where I already am as good enough?

If my car battery dies, the chances are the replacement is coming from the closest service station or from wherever I’m towed. Regardless of my stated preference for DieHard, in the context of my needs at the moment of truth, just about any brand that is available to me is good enough.

In matters of spirituality, accepting that we are good enough just as we are leads to greater serenity.

In matters of the marketplace, misunderstanding the power of good enough may have far more dire consequences.

 

 

JC Penney: Better isn’t the same as good

I bought some JC Penney shares on Thursday in advance of their earnings announcement.

I almost never buy individual stocks, but this was an easy decision. Penney’s execution has improved dramatically since Ron Johnson’s departure. Two major competitors–Sears and Kohl’s–are flailing. The year-over-year comparison is absurdly easy. Inventory seems to be tightly managed, which virtually guarantees a solid lift in gross margin. But mostly importantly, negative Wall Street sentiment has been fueled by much fundamental misunderstanding–as evidenced by the large amount of short interest.

My hunch was right. Penney’s reported better than expected performance. And the stock has popped some 15%.

Yet I am keenly aware that better is not the same as good. Penney’s has a huge amount of work to do just to get back to the performance level of the pre-Johnson era which, frankly, was solidly mediocre. The moderate department store sector has basically become a zero sum game where top-line growth must come from stealing share from the competition. And competition is, and will remain, intense.

I am, however, optimistic about the immediate-term. The self-inflicted wounds of the Johnson era are gone. Marketing and merchandising are moving in the right direction. Appropriate attention is now being placed on e-commerce and omni-channel capabilities. As Sears sinks into oblivion, JCP is poised to gain market share and leverage their real estate position. Mike Ullman’s back-to-basics strategy is appropriately conservative and should result in steadily improving gross margins.

It’s also important to note that a year ago Penney’s had done virtually everything one could think of to chase customers away. Importantly, a significant percentage of their stores were off-line in preparation for the home re-launch. Gross margins were getting pummeled by clearance markdowns. Lastly, retail remains a relatively high fixed cost business. As sales improve (both in-store and on-line) Penney’s will start to see tremendous operating leverage.

So for me, better is a virtual certainty for Penney’s–at least for the next few quarters. And those who see the brand at the brink and in need of massive store closings are going to be disappointed (and, as an aside, they also fail to understand the importance of physical stores in driving the online business and overall omni-channel strategy).

Better is easy.

Good? That’s a whole different question.

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 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.

 

 

Attraction, not promotion

If you are familiar with 12-step recovery programs you know that most employ 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 many spin-off programs–reject self-seeking as a personal value. But it goes deeper.

Most people do not wish to sold to or want to heed the clarion call of “pick me, pick me.” If I have to hit you over the head again and again with my message, perhaps you are not open to hearing it. Or maybe what I’m selling isn’t for you. Constantly reducing your price or pitching me all sorts of deals may be an intelligent way to clear a market, but all too often it’s a sign of your desperation.

12 Step programs are among the first viral programs to scale. They gained momentum through word of mouth and blossomed into powerful tribes as more and more struggling addicts came to be attracted to and embraced the lifestyle of successful recovery. No TV. No radio. No sexy print campaigns. No 3 suits for the price of 1. When it works it’s largely because those seeking relief come to want what others in the program have.

In the business world, it’s easy to see some parallels. Successful brands like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus run very few promotional events, have little “on sale” most days of the year and have very low advertising to sales ratios. Customers are attracted to the brands because of the differentiated customer experience, well curated merchandise and many, many stories of highly satisfied customers. Net Promoter Scores are high.

Contrast this with Sears and JC Penney who inundate us with an onslaught of commercials, a mountain of circulars and endless promotions and discounts. How many of their 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 and margins are low.

Migrating to a strategy rooted firmly 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” rather than keep beating the dead horse of relentless sales promotion.

Maybe you can win on price. Maybe you can out shout the other guy. Maybe, just maybe, if you can coerce just a few more customers to give you a try you can make your sales plan.

Maybe.

 

 

 

 

Sears Holdings to convert most stores to indoor waterparks

After years of fighting declining sales and anemic profits, Sears Holdings (the parent company of Sears and Kmart) announced today that it would convert all of its more than 800 mall-based Sears department stores to indoor water parks. The new parks–reportedly to be called “Eddie World”–are scheduled to open in early 2015. Proceeds from the company’s spin-off of Lands’ End will be used to fund the renovations and re-branding.

In a press release, Sears Holdings Chairman & CEO Eddie Lampert said that the company worked with consultants Bain & Company for over a year to explore strategic options for its chronically under-performing stores. “Our initial review revealed that almost anything would be a better use of all that space than what we were currently doing, but I knew we had a fiduciary responsibility to get more specific,” said Lampert in the prepared statement.

According to people familiar with Sears’ deliberations, the company embarked on an extensive consumer research exercise which took longer to complete than expected as many respondents were surprised to learn that Sears was still in business. Ultimately more than a dozen different options–ranging from what one former Sears executive characterized as “bulldoze the suckers,” to repurposing the buildings as urban contemporary rental apartments (initially dubbed “The Loftier Side of Sears”)–were considered.

According to the press release the decision to convert the stores to indoor waterparks centered on America’s growing interest in family-based entertainment, the convenient locations of the existing units, the relative ease of turning escalators into water slides and what Lampert referred to in the press release as Sears’ “core capability in plummeting.”

Sources with knowledge of Sears’ analysis said that the company also considered, but rebuffed, offers from both Forever 21 and Apple to acquire the stores as part of their expansion strategies. Forever 21 is reportedly interested in piloting a new concept aimed at aging baby-boomers called Forever 39. The stores would feature wildly inappropriately, but more comfortably sized, apparel and accessories than the company’s flagship brand.

Apple, under new retail store chief Angela Ahrendts, is considering launching Apple Mega Stores, where the company’s 3 products would be displayed over and over on more than 200 displays, of varying sizes and configurations, across a wide expanse and on multiple levels. The much larger units would also dramatically expand the number of Apple Geniuses, though the company does not expect any improvement in average wait times or the ability to actually solve your problem.

In a phone call with analysts this morning, Lampert indicated that Sears Holdings is also considering shuttering its entire fleet of Kmart stores. The company recently conducted pilots in Charlotte and Phoenix where it simply didn’t open any of its more than 32 Kmart units in the market for more than a week. According to Lampert “we didn’t get a single call. Not one. No one seemed to notice at all. So we have to really take a hard look at that.”

In pre-market trading Sears shares were up over 11% on the news.

 

Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion

Yesterday Radio Shack announced it’s closing 1,100 stores, nearly 20% of their total. Earlier this year, JC Penney took the axe to 33 units, amidst a rising call of analysts pushing for more aggressive real estate pruning. Sears has closed some 300 units across the last 3 years, including recent decisions to shutter its downtown Chicago and Seattle “flagships.”

For those pushing a shrinking to prosperity agenda, the rationale is that eliminating the weakest units in the portfolio improves overall productivity. Well, yes, that’s just math. Unfortunately you don’t make money on ratios.

They also claim that with the growth in e-commerce fewer stores are needed. While there is an element of truth to this, it ignores the vital inter-relationship between physical stores and digital channels. For the vast majority of multi-channel retailers the web drives store traffic and stores drive e-commerce. Close stores and you hurt your e-commerce business because your brand become less accessible, and therefore less relevant.

Now don’t get me wrong. If a company is hemorrhaging cash and the data show that a given location cannot be made cash positive quickly (including the effect on the digital business, net of closing costs), it needs to go. Marginal economics 101. And certainly with shifting populations, rapidly evolving consumer behaviors and changes in real estate conditions, there is always going to be a steady stream of real estate rationalization.

Yet the heart of the matter for all the retailers at the center of the store closing debate is this: their value proposition is not working. Unless you shift your business model to becoming more destination driven–or somehow more regionally focused–closing a bunch of stores is likely to make things worse in the aggregate. You lose economies of scale and scope. You become less convenient to your target consumers. Your brand visibility declines.

Brick and mortar retail is not dying. But it certainly is becoming different. Yet it’s not hard to find many examples of winning brands that continue to open plenty of stores (e.g. Walgreen’s, Michael Kors). In fact, in the face of all this talk about mass store closings, formerly e-commerce only players like Warby Parker and Bonobo’s are now opening physical locations. I guess they must be really stupid.

I cannot recall a single retailer that engaged in large-scale store closings in the last decade that is thriving today. Actually every one I can think of is either gone or gasping for breath.

For Radio Shack and Sears, the hacking of their store count signals that they don’t have a viable strategy to survive and that their store closings are more rooted in desperation and the desire to keep the wolf from their door. For Penney’s, if they are able to craft (and execute) a value proposition that fights and wins in the middle market–no easy task–chances are they can support more stores, not fewer. If they announce plans to cut more than 10% of their units, it’s likely the beginning of their slide into oblivion, not a sensible bit of financial engineering.