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.

 

 

Built for me

We’ve all been there.

We walk into a new store, check out a just opened restaurant, surf a recently discovered website or perhaps slip into the front seat of that new model car and instantly it hits us: whoever designed this must have had me in mind.

The overall feel, the tiniest details, the careful editing, all seem built around our particular wants and needs. We can’t wait to come back and there is a pretty good chance we’re eager to tell all our friends about our new-found love.

Contrast that experience with the brands we engage with infrequently, or try once, never to return. In many cases–as a point in strategy–that’s not only fine, it’s desirable. It’s not supposed to be for us. Walmart is not trying to get the Saks customer. And vice versa.

But if you aren’t winning with the consumer segments your brand is supposed to be for, than clearly you’ve got work to do.

More and more, building deep engagement, loyalty and “remarkability” in a world of constant connection, ever-expanding choices and a blitzkrieg of marketing communications, demands that you become the signal amidst the noise.

Increasingly retail is shifting toward  “Me-tail.”

If your core customer segments don’t resonate with a “built for me” notion,  you need to get at the root cause. And you need to get busy.

 

 

Honey, I shrunk the store

Until Amazon–and a handful of other pure-play concepts–emerged as power-house brands, a retail growth strategy largely consisted of two major components: build bigger stores and create a bigger retail footprint.

Whether you were Walmart, Office Depot, Coach or Lowe’s, your strategy was mostly about pushing the limits of market dominance: expanding your assortments to cover every related purchase occasion and expanding locations to cover every trade area perceived to be viable.

Then digital happened, and if a large part of your product offering could be delivered without the need of a physical location (think Best Buy, Blockbuster or Borders–and that’s just the “B’s”) this has proved to be a big problem indeed.

And show-rooming happened, and if you were in categories where the consumer likes the research service found in a brick and mortar location, but ultimately buys on price, you were losing a lot of business to direct-to-consumer players not burdened by your overhead structure.

Then there’s the emergence of omni-channel retailing, and if you aren’t making it frictionless for your customer to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway, you were losing share to those who have truly embraced customer-centric retailing.

Last, but not least, the recession happened, and many of the consumers you were counting on–you know, the ones that had become weapons of massive consumption fueled by easy credit–suddenly pulled back big time, and many of the locations you opened in the last five years or so are dead in the water.

So for most, it’s time to shrink.

Fewer, more productive stores. New, smaller formats that resonate more strongly with today’s blended channel realities and that can work in different kinds of trade areas.

But if you think getting smaller is just about physical space, think again.

When you think smaller, think more intimate. Become more personalized, more intensely relevant. Treat different customers differently.

In the future the customer shouldn’t walk away from interacting with your brand thinking that you have down-sized. They should feel that you know them, you get them and that your brand was built with them at the center of all that you do.

Where everybody knows your name. The “new shopkeepers.”

More and more the retail world is bifurcating.

At one end of the spectrum, you have the high-efficiency players. Great prices, endless assortments, super convenience, built for speed. Amazon, Walmart, iTunes, Home Depot. You get the picture.

While each go about it slightly differently, their world is mostly a mass market one. Customer segmentation means little. For all intents and purposes, you shop there anonymously.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I like to call the “new shopkeepers.” In the (good?) old days retail was characterized by owner-run, single location, small specialty shops. The butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker. No CRM system was needed because the shopkeeper knew you, knew what you liked and she tailored her assortment and experience to you and her other like-minded customers.

We know that very few of these old-timey shopkeepers are around any more. But the new shopkeepers embrace the fundamental principles of old. Deep customer insight. Remarkable experiences. Relationships, not transactions. They treat different customers differently. They know your name.

Your mission–if you choose to accept it–is to pick a lane. Too many retailers straddle the line, trying to be something for everyone and ultimately being totally unremarkable and eventually irrelevant.

If you can’t out-Amazon Amazon–I’m looking at you Best Buy!–you had better move strongly to the other end of the continuum. You had better embrace all things customer-centric.

I’d get started if I were you. You have a lot of names to learn.

When the last 15 years happens to you

If you are in retail, the last 15 years or so have brought enormous change. Let me call out a few profound shifts:

  • Winning business model bifurcation: Price and dominant assortments at one end (Wal-mart, Amazon); remarkable experience and assortment curation/product differentiation on the other (Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton). The result is death in the middle.
  • Digital retail: What started as an electronic catalog is now not only a high growth channel approaching 10% of many categories’ sales–and much higher if the product can be delivered digitally–but an increasingly important medium for promotion, interaction, customer reviews, price checking, etc.
  • The constantly connected–and inter-connected–consumer.  As more and more consumers are armed with powerful mobile devices the notion of anytime, anywhere, anyway retail has become a reality–and expectation. Social networking, product review sites and pricing apps are creating greater and greater information transparency. The brand is no longer in charge. The consumer is.
  • The omni-channel blur. Most of your customers will engage with multiple touch points in their decision journeys. As mobile commerce grows–and it becomes easier for consumers to seamlessly move between various applications to gather product information, check prices, confirm inventory availability, get product reviews and the like–the notion of distinct channels breaks down. It’s a frictionless, compelling experience that matters, not making each of your channels better. New ways of consumer engagement, new ways of organizing your business, new ways of measuring and incentivizing become mandatory. Silos belong on farms.

While it is true that remarkable new business models sometimes emerge quickly and unexpectedly, most winning concepts that have gobbled up market share from industry incumbents did not come out of nowhere.

Amazon launched in 1995. The off-the mall and specialty formats that have made life difficult for the Sears’ and JC Penney’s of the world have been important competitors since the late 1990’s. Anybody paying any attention to customer data during the last 10 years has known that the so-called “multi-channel” customer outspends a single channel customer by a factor of 3-4 times.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s clear that many Boards and many retail executives were asleep at the wheel. They failed to gain sufficient awareness of the competition and seek truly actionable customer insight. They failed to accept what was happening. And of course they failed to act. And now it’s too late.

So here’s the new reality. While many of the companies I mentioned–and countless more I’m sure you can offer up–had some 15 years to see what was happening and make the necessary changes, chances are you will have less time. A lot less time.

So I guess the question is: what are you going to do to make sure the next 5 years don’t happen to you?

 

Wrong Turn at Lung Fish: Critical Decisions in Strategic Evolution

Twenty years ago the brilliant Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company debuted Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz’ play Wrong Turn at Lung Fish.  This farcical piece is an inquiry into the often harmful peculiarities of human behavior.  In a pivotal scene, one of the characters wonders whether mankind may have made a profound wrong turn along the Darwinian path of evolution.  The “wrong turn at lungfish” sets humanity on a path of despair, and ultimately begs the question whether our fate is inevitable, or could pain be averted with different decisions at critical junctures?

With the benefit of hindsight, it would appear that many businesses have made profoundly wrong turns in the evolution of their business models.  Sears failing to enter (or acquire into) the big box home improvement category.  Blockbuster neglecting to launch a serious alternative to RedBox and NetFlixCircuit City’s decision to exit appliances and abandon its high service sales model.   Any number of smaller retail formats laid to waste in Walmart’s wake.

These are retail examples, but virtually every industry has multiple stories of brands that were on top, but that failed to evolve to the changing customer and competitive environment.  Before long they found themselves dropping from leadership positions to also-rans or, in some cases, filing for bankruptcy and possibly disappearing altogether.  And indeed for some their fates may have been inevitable.

Yet, in the Sears, Blockbuster and Circuit City examples, it’s clear that those companies had the opportunity to know-and the resources to act–to change their course.  Through a lack of customer insight, faulty economic analysis and a fundamental misperception of risk, they somehow failed to see what was obvious to many others.

For these brands the worst case scenario has come true, or the day of reckoning is drawing ‘nigh.  Their fates are sealed.

Chances are, however, that you still have time to act, to develop deep customer insight, to understand your vulnerabilities to competitive innovation, to realize that you should be the one to cannibalize your cash cow.   It is easy?  No.  Is it more than a little scary sometimes?  Of course.

But I always think about the guy on the way to the bankruptcy hearing and what they wish they had done differently when they had the chance.  I bet what they are about to go through seems a lot harder and a lot scarier than what they could have gone through.   Don’t be that guy.