Omni-channel’s migration dilemma: Holiday edition

Last year I wrote a post about what I called retail’s “omni-channel migration dilemma” wherein I observed that while the deployment of so-called omni-channel strategies–i.e. making it easier for consumers to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway–improves the customer experience immensely, the outcomes for most retailers were, thus far, not quite so wonderful.

At the heart of this argument were three core points:

  • With few exceptions, omni-channel retailers’ total revenues remain essentially flat, meaning that robust growth online is mostly cannabilizing brick & mortar sales;
  • In many cases, the profitability of e-commerce is actually worse than a physical store sale. This is particularly true for lower transaction value players like Walmart and Target.
  • In their quest to become “all things omni-channel”, retailers are investing enormous sums–and in some cases–getting distracted from arguably higher value-added activities.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that spending a lot of money to end up–if you’re lucky–with basically the same total revenue at a lower margin is not exactly a genius strategy. But this is where we find Macy’s and many other retailers right now.

The omni-channel frenzy around the holiday shopping season only shines a harsher light on the issue. By launching sales earlier and earlier, by pushing deep discount events like Cyber Monday and by offering free shipping pretty much throughout the season, the tilt toward online sales is exacerbated and margins continue to shrink. Consumers win through great deals. And retailers lose, as overall sales are likely to go absolutely nowhere.

Now some have argued that omni-channel is ruining retail. They are wrong. They’re wrong not only because it is pointless to fight reality, but also because efforts that are fundamentally rooted in the desire to improve the customer experience are rarely misguided. The key is not to confuse necessary with sufficient, nor “the what” with “the how.”

So we should not get distracted by analysts who try to extrapolate one or two days of sales as part of some trend.

And we should bear in mind that online sales for most omni-channel retailers remain far less than 10% of their total business. So even healthy e-commerce growth is not likely to offset seemingly small declines in physical stores sales. You don’t have to trust me on this. Do the math.

But mostly we should remember that the story is not about all things omni-channel, nor what happens on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or the few weeks that comprise the holiday shopping season.

It IS about which retailers are breaking through the sea of sameness with remarkable product AND a remarkable experience. It is about which retailers are eliminating friction for the consumers that matter the most in the places that matter most. It is about which retailers are eschewing one-size-fits-all strategies in favor of a “treat different customers differently” philosophy. It is about retailers that know where to focus and how to properly sequence their omni-channel initiatives, not blindly chase everything some consultant has pitched them.

Clearly, the future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed.

Don’t be blinded by the hype.

Small is the new interesting

It’s been at least 20 years now that most value creation in retail has been driven by big. Big stores–both physical and digital. Big assortments. Big advertising.

Walmart and Target. Home Depot and Lowes. Amazon and eBay. Best Buy, Ikea, Office Depot and on and on. Superstores, category killers and the “endless aisle” online guys have won big (heh, heh) on scale, efficiency and low prices.

There’s a lot to be said for pushing the frontiers of big. When your goal is to be the “we have everything store” your marching orders are pretty clear. When you have to be the winner in a price war, your focus is obvious.

The problem is that big has its limits. And a closer examination of many “winning” retailers’ strategies reveals that big is losing momentum.

It turns out that a strategy of big eventually faces diminishing returns. It turns out that most of the winners of the past decade or so are running out of new stores to build. It turns out that many of the mass promotions that drive incremental business lose money. It turns out that for most of these brands e-commerce growth is unprofitable. But mostly it turns out that big is boring. And consumers are starting to notice.

There’s no question that big is here to stay. There’s little doubt that for many consumers–and a vast number of purchase occasions–the quest for dominant product selection, convenience and great prices will remain paramount. But that doesn’t mean that’s where the future opportunities lie or that your strategy shouldn’t shift.

Shift happens. And it’s a shift away from mass marketing to becoming more personalized. Away from overwhelming assortments to editing and curation. Away from products that everybody has to items and experiences that the consumer creates. Away from the seemingly inevitable regression towards the mean to a deliberate choice to eschew the obvious and explore the edges.

Many brands will have a hard time breaking out of the pursuit of big. They are too vested in building scale, too scared of Wall St.’s reaction to a strategy pivot, too addicted to mass advertising.

Of course, therein lies our opportunity. Maybe it’s time to embrace small while the rest of those guys continue to flog big.


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.



Neiman Marcus & Target: A glorious failure

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

–  Samuel Beckett

If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you know that several months back Neiman Marcus and Target made a big splash when they announced a partnership to jointly market a limited collection of fashion items for the holidays. This announcement was followed by a lot of PR hoopla and a high-profile television and social media advertising campaign.

And guess what? It was a bust.

The product offering failed to generate the sales frenzy that past designer collaborations from Tar-zhay have, and the merchandise has been marked down 50 – 70%. The media are now out with their post-mortem bashings, many taking the “I knew it was a bad idea all along” route.

Having previously led strategy and corporate marketing at Neiman Marcus for several years, I’ve gotten plenty of questions about my take on the strategy and its execution (NOTE: full disclosure, I remain a Neiman’s investor). Frankly, I think much of the criticism misses the mark entirely.

Clearly, a lot of the execution was messed up. Prices were generally too high, designer brands were extended too broadly and some of the product was just plain goofy: a $50 Rag & Bone boys’ sweater? That was never a good idea.

Big picture, however, the concept was fundamentally good for both Target and Neiman’s. Target is well-known for enhancing its fashion cred with such partnerships; so for them, this was a no-brainer. If they made any money on it, all the better. But the real value is in brand enhancement.

For Neiman Marcus, the strategic value may be less obvious but, in essence, their foray into “mass-tige” is no different from Karl Lagerfeld or Jimmy Choo doing their special offerings at H&M. The goal is to generate buzz and expose their brands to a demographic that they need to cultivate for the long-term. Forging a longer-term and/or more broad partnership would be dumb. But experiments, such as what was tried here, can be shrewd moves indeed.

Which brings me to my last point. What gratifies me the most is that Neiman’s actually tried something bold and, arguably, counter-intuitive. Neiman Marcus’ last CEO–and my former boss–Burt Tansky was a brilliant merchant and remains a luxury and fashion industry icon–and rightly so. But he was hardly a risk-taker and fundamentally not wired to say ‘yes’ to strategic innovation. Kudos to Karen Katz and her team for being willing to push the envelope.

It’s so very easy to label something a failure after the fact and to castigate management for its ineptitude. The far easier path for leaders of course is to never try. You rarely get criticized for the things you didn’t do.

It’s a terrible strategy to eliminate the possibility of failure. Great companies and great leaders are not characterized by an absence of failure.

Without trying, there is no growth. Without failure, there is no learning. The key is to fail better.

So was the Neiman Marcus and Target partnership a failure? In the immediate-term, definitely. But the overall grade from where I sit is “Incomplete.”

If the lesson Neiman Marcus takes away from this project–and it is a project, not a strategy–is to pull back on innovation, to stop experimenting, than it will be a huge waste of time and resources. If it strengthens their resolve, if they apply their learning to improve the process of innovation, than it will be the most glorious of failures.

JC Penney swings for the fences (Part 3): When the invitation is better than the party.

I like Penney’s new marketing campaign.

The TV ads featuring Ellen DeGeneres are captivating and funny–and seemingly everywhere. The print campaign does a solid job of re-branding JCP as fresh and contemporary, the monthly theme is carried through each piece beautifully and the featured items look great and seem well-priced. My only criticism is that the ads look a bit too much like Target (gee, I wonder how THAT happened).

But here’s the thing. Over the long-term the work of marketing is to differentiate the brand, create strong preference and reinforce loyalty/advocacy. Penney’s won’t win without doing a much better job of attracting and retaining a new generation of consumers and increasing the trip frequency, average purchase size and/or retention rate of the current base.

In the short-term, the work of marketing is to get the target customers’ butts in the store (or drive them to the website). I suspect the new campaign IS elevating interest in JCP and starting to drive incremental traffic. Yet while Penney’s has improved their presentation markedly, the stark reality is that both the product assortments and overall experience are still pretty much the same–i.e. unremarkable in most instances. And unlike Apple and Target, Penney’s store fleet is a grab bag of some very good locations with a whole bunch of mediocre and lousy ones.

We all know that when the invitation is better than the party, we aren’t very likely to get fooled the next time around.




Discount Nation and the sucker price

When was the last time you went to Macy’s or Bed, Bath & Beyond or any furniture store and paid full-price?  Did you actually pay for shipping on any e-commerce purchases during the holiday?

At most retailers, regular price is the sucker price. You only pay it out of desperation or ignorance.

Walk through any mall and you are inundated with sales signs, with coupons and with triple rewards points.  Buy one sports coat at regular price and get a second one at half-off?  Yes, please.

One retailer–I’m looking at you Gap–even put their whole store on sales for several hours during the run up to Christmas.

It makes perfect sense that product gets marked down as the season draws to a close.  It makes sense that your best customers get rewarded for concentrating their share of wallet with you. And faced with an intensely competitive market, one must certainly be mindful of maintaining market share.

But at what price comes the glory of same-store sales growth?

For years we have been teaching consumers that there is no integrity in our pricing. We have become a “discount nation”, bribing the promiscuous shopper to choose us over the competition while needlessly giving away margin to potentially loyal and profitable customers.

I don’t believe for a second that we are going to see an end to rampant discounting and blanket promotions any time soon. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that Target announced a new credit card that offers a straight 5% off all purchases.

I do believe that companies that deliver truly compelling value propositions and experiences based on a deep understanding of customers needs, wants and long-term profitability will win over the long-term.   I do believe that the best brands–think Apple, Nordstrom and Coach–know how to drive their business at regular price.

Those brands do the work of customer-centricity.

Those other brands?  We know what you are.  All we are doing is negotiating.