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.

 

Dead brand walking

The business graveyard is filled with brands that have gone from the lofty heights of recognition, stature and profitability to flagging relevance and, ultimately, complete extinction. For every long-standing, legacy brand that continues to thrive (think Kraft or Coca-Cola) there is a former high flier that is now gone (think Borders or Oldsmobile).

Sometimes companies are hit by a largely unexpected exogenous force that sends them reeling. More often than not, the company’s ultimate demise surprises no one.

For some of us–investors or potential employees, for example–the key is to separate out the walking dead from the exciting turnaround story or the metaphorical Phoenix.

For business leaders, the obvious implication is to become aware of the early warning signs of decreasing brand relevance, accept the need to change and take the requisite actions. The obvious question, of course, is why are there so very many strategy meltdowns?

In my experience, brands go from healthy to critical in one or more of three ways.

First, you can’t fix a problem you aren’t aware you have. Many dead or dying brands lacked a fundamental level of customer insight. So not only did they not appreciate their vulnerability early enough, they didn’t focus on the important things quickly enough.

Second, just because you know something, doesn’t mean you accept it as the new reality. When I was a senior executive at Sears–the poster child for dead brands walking–we had tons of evidence that clearly showed our weakening relevance and declining profitability in our core home improvement and appliance businesses. Did those that could have changed Sears’ destiny truly accept that without aggressively attacking these issues it would eventually be game over? Sadly, then, as it is now, the answer is “no.”

More recently, when I ran strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus, we had plenty of customer research and analytics that our strategy of narrowing our assortments and pushing prices ever higher was losing us valuable customers to Nordstrom (among others). Did we accept that it constrained our growth and made us increasingly vulnerable in an economic downturn? Fortunately the harsh lesson of the recent recession–and a new CEO–”forced” Neiman’s to address these problems before they became crippling.

Lastly, even with keen awareness and complete acceptance of new realities, we regularly fail to take the (often radical) action needed. This is mostly about fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of getting fired. Fear of risking one’s legacy or resume value.

In fact, history teaches us that it’s far more common to see executives holding on to a mediocre status quo rather than risk competing with one’s self or making a big bet on that new technology or innovative business model that is ultimately used against them by an upstart competitor.

Frankly, if your inability or unwillingness to act on saving your brand is rooted in fear, don’t hire McKinsey or Bain (or me for that matter) to help you with your strategy. My advice would be to get yourself a new management team and/or go see a therapist. It’s far cheaper and more likely to work. And do this before your Board figures it out.

Dead brands almost never die by accident. They die by leaders failing to see the signs of terminal illness while there’s still time to save them. And they die by management teams’ inability or unwillingness to take the necessary and decisive action before it’s too late.

Hopefully dead brands walking can be a lesson to us all.

 

 

Sears: The world’s slowest liquidation sale

“I see dead people…they only see what they want to see.  They don’t know they’re dead.”

- Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense

There probably was a time when Eddie Lampert honestly believed that Sears and Kmart could be resurrected as competitive retailers. But the concept of putting together a mediocre (and declining) department store, with an also-ran to Walmart and Target, was failed from the start.

In the intervening nine (!!!) years, Lampert has never once articulated a strategy for fundamentally improving the value proposition of either brand that made any sense.

On the contrary, he organized product and business unit teams into “competing” merchandise categories despite overwhelming evidence that consumers wanted more integration, not less. He required that every individual product earn a competitive ROI when every winning retailer on the planet understood the notion of category management and market-basket profitability. He starved both nameplates of capital when each was already woefully behind best-in-class competitors. He cut expenses to the bone when it was clear that both Sears and K-mart had a revenue problem, not a cost problem. He closed dozens of stores, further exacerbating both brands’ lack of critical mass in many markets.

Of late, he’s been pushing two ridiculous notions. The first is the idea that Sears is becoming a “membership” company. Please. This is mostly a transparent customer data grab. The value proposition of “Shop Your Way” is weak and the idea that being a member conveys any real sense of brand loyalty, engagement or fundamental profitability would be laughable if the whole endeavor weren’t so sad.

Crazy Eddie’s other big idea is transforming Sears into an “integrated digital platform.” For this to work you have to believe that Sears can compete effectively with Amazon–not to mention a whole host of leading multi-channel retailers–or that you can somehow win in an omni-channel world with a crappy, declining and shrinking brick and mortar base. Both defy basic logic.

Whether Lampert is delusional or not remains irrelevant. Whether by design or desperation, Sears has been liquidating for years.

Sears can certainly create liquidity for a bit longer by continuing to off load assets. But any realistic hope that Sears can pull out of this dive has, sadly, long since passed.

Dead man walking.

 

 

Maybe it’s a fact

“If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem.  Maybe it’s a fact.”

-Yitzhak Rabin

“Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don’t do what I want them to”

- Talking Heads, “Cross-eyed and Painless”

I’d wager that the vast majority of business failures are rooted in a profound denial of reality.  The demise or persistent flailing of Borders, Blockbuster, Sears–and many other current or future residents of the retail graveyard–stems largely from a lack of awareness and acceptance of the unassailable facts of shifting consumer behavior.

It’s far too easy to dismiss an industry upstart or new technology as a fad or hype, until it’s too late.  It’s common to worry more about protecting your turf rather than embracing a product or service for yourself that you fear “cannabilizes” your core.

Of course this is commonplace in interpersonal relations and communications as well.  I know I can be quick to defend my behavior when I know deep down I’m the one who made the mistake, I’m the one who needs to change.

The next time someone challenges your business or your point of view, maybe your first reaction shouldn’t be to dismiss or defend.

Facts may not do what you want them to.  But that doesn’t make them untrue.  Ignore them at your own peril.

 

The world’s first omni-channel executive

The world’s first omni-channel retail executive was probably me.

In 1999 (not a typo), in a shockingly rare moment of forward thinking and risk taking, Sears’ senior leadership decided to launch an enterprise-wide initiative to glean how e-commerce and digital technology would alter our business model and to design a strategy to meet customer needs “anytime, anywhere, anyway.”

Millions of dollars were allocated, full and part-time resources were assigned from various business and support functions, a big name consulting firm was hired to help with systems integration, governance structures were created, and yours truly was plucked from the relative obscurity of running a small division to become the Vice President of Multi-channel Development & Integration.

Over a 15 month period, our renegade bunch of retail futurists executed a ton of analysis, unearthed scary findings (we had over 200 different 1-800 numbers!), delivered PowerPoint presentations bursting with jargon and coined memorable catch-phrases (my favorite: “silos belong on farms”). We also gained a deep appreciation for the barriers erected by organizations steeped in product and channel-centric thinking and behavior.

Once we wrapped up our work–and having blown through something like $7 million– we couldn’t point to many immediate high ROI recommendations. But our work did lead to an acceleration of investment in sears.com, building systems to create a single view of the customer and the formation of a central CRM group that yielded a lot of actionable customer insight.  We also developed the confidence to make pioneering investments in critical cross-channel capabilities such as ordering on-line and picking up in-store.

Personally I gained a very firm understanding of what is required to design a customer-centric strategy and implement a frictionless, channel-agnostic experience–which I was able to leverage once I moved on to the Neiman Marcus Group and in the years since I’ve been a consultant.

The purpose of this story, however, is not to regale you with my multi-channel bona fides.

The real point is that despite all the recent fervor around omni-channel this and omni-channel that, if you were really paying attention at any time during the past ten years or so, it has been blindingly obvious that digital technology was going to dramatically change the retail customer experience.

If you were really paying attention, you would know that Sears (and others) were publicly discussing the higher spend and engagement rates of multiple channels shoppers as early as 2003.

If you were really paying attention, you would know that companies like Nordstrom have been investing heavily in channel integration technology and processes for nearly a decade.

So if you are just starting to take customer-centricity seriously now–if you are peppering your earnings reports, industry conference presentations and investor meetings with little anecdotes about cross-channel customer behavior and the omni-channel blur as if this all just started happening–all this proves is that you were not paying enough attention years ago.  One has to wonder what other game-changing stuff you are years behind on.

Of course as Seth reminds us: “The best time to start was a while ago. The second best time to start is today.”

Leading through innovation starts first with awareness. Which needs to be followed with acceptance.

It’s a choice what you decide to pay attention to. And it’s a choice to act and to act boldly. Ultimately nothing matters without action.

It’s later than you think.

Understanding your brand’s ecosystem

Your brand, if it has any depth or breadth at all, can be seen as an ecosystem of sorts–an inter-related set of processes, relationships and perceptions that ultimately determine its relevance and health.

When you don’t see your brand as an ecosystem, and neglect to accept how you must co-evolve with your customers while fighting off hostile organisms, you miss emerging problems and nascent opportunities.

Witness Sears. When I joined in 1991, major appliances and home improvement products were king, defining the brand for most consumers and contributing an overwhelming majority of profits. Until Home Depot and Lowe’s emerged as major competitors the ecosystem we played in was a relatively straightforward one. Your appliance breaks, you get a new one. You need to hammer a nail, tighten a screw, cut some wood, we had the Craftsman tool for you.

Of course, the customer was always solution focused: as the old adage goes, you don’t buy a drill because you really want a drill, but because you really want a hole.  When new brands emerged to address a broader set of needs, consumer wants became articulated as home solutions–kitchen remodel, new home construction, DIY projects and the like.  The Sears (and Kenmore and Craftsman) brand needed to evolve as well. But didn’t.

During the nineties we worked hard to improve within our narrowly defined ecosystem (existing product focus, mall-based distribution), rather than see how the ecosystem was evolving. If we had truly understood and accepted the evolution of the ecosystem we had dominated for years, it would have been clear that we HAD to be in the home improvement warehouse business.

You know how this has played out. The fundamentally stronger organisms began to win out. Sears’ failure to participate meaningfully in the evolved ecosystem has doomed them to mediocrity at best; eventual demise in the most likely scenario.

Sears is just one high-profile case, but there are many other brands that have become extinct or largely irrelevant by neglecting to truly understand the ecosystem in which they live. Or die.

 

 

 

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.

***********

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

 

The obvious obviousness of omni-channel

Sitting in sessions at last month’s NRF annual conference I might have thought a drinking game had launched where you would down a shot every time someone said “omni-channel” or uttered the phrase “seamless integration.”

Speaker after speaker–as well as subsequent press coverage–rattled off buzz-phrases, statistics and factoids regarding multi-channel consumer behavior as if this were some big new discovery or insight.

All this proved was one inescapable fact. There are two types of retailers in this world: those that have been paying attention and those that haven’t.

If you’ve been paying attention all of this has been obvious for years. If not, you are suddenly awakening to the cold harsh reality that you are behind. Perhaps way behind.

Any brand that has taken the time to understand consumer behavior already knows that consumers think brand first, and channel second. Any retailer that analyzes their customer data understands how digital commerce influences brick and mortar sales–and vice versa. Any company that has been willing to look, appreciates the large degree of cross-channel behavior that has been evident (and growing) for years.

It’s been more than 5 years since retailers like JC Penney, Sears and Neiman Marcus stated publicly that customers that purchase in 2 or more channels outspend single channel customers by a factor of 3 to 4X. In 2006–nearly six years ago!–my team did an analysis that showed that more than 50% of Neiman Marcus’ total sales (and a higher percent of profit) came from customers that purchased in multiple channels within a 12 month period.

The proliferation of robust mobile devices–smart phones and tablets–add more touch-points, new functionality and serve to further blur the lines between channels, while creating the need for more frictionless integration.

There is a big difference between a new reality emerging and your becoming aware of a reality that is already there.  And it’s dangerous to be confused about that.

Obviously.

 

It’s time to let go of that hammer

You probably know the saying: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This explains a lot of behavior we see with the leadership at struggling retailers.

If you came up through the merchant ranks, chances are you obsess about product–rather than the consumer–and fall woefully behind in creating a compelling omni-channel shopping experience. Today, you are desperately playing catch-up.

If the only way you know to drive revenue is through relentless price promotions, you now sit lamenting the lack of customer loyalty and your shrinking margins.

If you made your money through financial re-engineering and scorched earth expense reductions, you assume your latest investment will cost cut its way to prosperity, rather than realize that your overwhelming issue is top-line growth (I’m looking at you Eddie Lampert!).

If you drove same-store sales through price increases rather than customer and transaction growth–as the US luxury retail industry did for many years–post-recession you find yourself with too narrow a customer base to sustain profitable growth. You now are working overtime to win back customers you priced out of your brand.

All of these problems were caused by a monolithic view of strategy and a failure to gain deep insight into customer behavior. Most were preventable.

Of course, the past is history and the future is a mystery.

But there is no mystery in the failed wisdom of clinging to the past and continually wielding the hammer that got you into trouble in the first place.

Let go.

Move on.

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