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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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.

The upside of denial

Is there any?

If your experience is anything like mine, you know how seductive denial can be. Denial is the temptress that helps us avoid pain. Denial keeps us in our comfort zone like a warm bath at the end of a long day. Denial creates the sense that defending the status quo is working or that we can go around our problems rather than through them.

But mostly it creates an illusion of safety when the reality is anything but. It works incredibly well–until it doesn’t.

Denial is cunning and baffling. It’s the monster lurking beneath the surface, hiding in the closet and buried in the chatter of our monkey mind.

In a business setting, denial allows us to trumpet our booming customer acquisition statistics, while ignoring the other engagement metrics that are falling apart. It causes us to crow about our rapidly growing e-commerce business, while the reality is that it’s entirely channel shift. It’s the glowing press release, the clever Powerpoint, the rah-rah company-wide meeting or the slick investor presentation that contains all the right buzz-words, when everyone else knows it’s the proverbial lipstick on the pig.

Denial kept Sears from ever really dealing with Home Depot and Lowe’s. It kept Blockbuster and Borders from confronting digital. And on and on.

Too often denial feels like our friend, when in fact it is every inch our enemy.

As David Pell humorously reminds us: “Among the dinosaurs, there were many asteroid deniers.”

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

Sears: The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale (Redux)

Today Sears Holdings reported comparable store sales decreases of 10.9% and its twelfth straight quarterly operating loss. And when we are reminded that despite a decade of Eddie Lampert’s leadership there is still no articulated–much less viable–strategy to turn the retailer around, another cash raising tactic is highlighted to distract from the brutal reality of the approaching cliff.

Long time readers of my blog know that I’ve taken Sears leadership to task multiple times over the past several years. And I will readily admit that I am guilty of piling on. But should you be desperate for entertainment, here are a few of my diatribes:

The original: Sears: The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale

The deliberately provocative: 5 reasons why Sears should liquidate ASAP

And my increasingly prescient: Sears: It’s even worse than you think.

By now, it’s hard to imagine that anyone buys the notion that the growing percentage of Sears Shop Your Way customers has anything to do with the retailer becoming more customer relevant–much less profitable. By now, I would hope it’s obvious that Sears cannot possibly cost cut its way to prosperity. By now, everyone should see that without unprofitable discounts, Sears is unable to even maintain market share.

Most critically, Sears is quickly falling–or has fallen–below a critical mass on a number of dimensions:

  • Number of stores to remain a viable national omnichannel retailer
  • Production volume and outlet distribution for its key proprietary brands (Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard)
  • Selling space and differentiated product offering needed in most categories to remain competitive.

To maximize the prices he can fetch through an orderly liquidation, I suppose Mr. Lampert has to maintain the illusion that Sears can remain a going-concern national retailer. Let’s just not forget, that it is only an illusion. And he had better hurry.

Dead brand walking.

The drip method of irrelevance

At first, the shift is almost imperceptible.

With quarterly earnings expectations to hit, we tell ourselves we can easily save a few bucks by automating some of our customer service functions. Or perhaps it’s through simplifying our organizational structure or eliminating “non-essential” positions. Better yet, let’s close some “unproductive” stores.

And obviously technology enables us to take away a bit of decision-making from the front-line staff. After all, human beings are notoriously misled by their own intuition. And whoever got fired for praying to the God of Efficiency?

And running all those different marketing campaigns adds a lot of complexity. It would be much easier to boil things down to just the major stuff that we know moves the dial.

And our product line is just too diverse. Sure it’s interesting to have something fresh and innovative, but doesn’t that just increase the risk of slowing down inventory turnover and increasing markdowns? Safe is smart right?

Of course, over time, the top-line stops growing and the only way we know how to drive profits is through cost-cutting.

Over time, we’re proud of our low average talk times, yet customers can’t speak to a human being and our Net Promoter Scores continue their inexorable decline.

Over time, our one-size-fits-all marketing is, at best, indistinguishable from the competition and, at worst, a dim signal amidst all the noise.

Over time, the sad reality is that all we sell is average products for average people and there’s no reason to pick us over the guy with the lowest price.

Sears, RadioShack and a host of others that are on a long inevitable march to the retail graveyard didn’t get trumped by a disruptive competitor that emerged out of nowhere. An oppressive government didn’t regulate them out of business. They weren’t crippled by a series of specious lawsuits or hobbled by natural disasters.

Usually the brands that become irrelevant have made hundreds of seemingly small decisions, over many years, that prioritized the short-term ahead of the long-term, the numbers instead of the customer, mass rather than personal, safe not remarkable.

And once they are gone, once their fate is sealed and their previously storied histories are part of the record, we’ll look back and realize it happened gradually, then suddenly.