Growth · Retail · Winning on Experience

Assessing The Damage Of ‘The Amazon Effect’

Since I anticipate being labeled a Luddite, a Socialist and a hypocrite by some, let me acknowledge that I firmly believe that Amazon has done a lot of good for consumers by expanding choice, making shopping far more convenient and by delivering extraordinary product value. I recognize that many retailers were long overdue for a swift kick in their strategy. I also remain a very good and loyal Amazon customer. And I anticipate that the Whole Foods acquisition will ultimately result in lower prices, an enhanced shopping experience and maybe even improve the availability of more healthful food options. These are all good things.

Yet, we can’t–and shouldn’t–ignore the profound effect that Amazon is having on just about every corner of the retail world they set their sights on. Amazon is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. Their entry into a market segment reshapes shopping dynamics, upsets the supply chain and exerts tremendous pricing and margin pressure. Books came first and we know how that played out. But, one by one, other categories followed and the dominoes continue to fall. Store closings. Bankruptcies. Once proud and dominant retailers teetering on the brink. Now you can add small “natural” grocery chains to the list of established retailers that may well get Amazon-ed (which is the most polite way to say it.)

To be fair, we should not blame department store woes on Amazon. Clearly many malls and quite a few retailers were well on their way to oblivion before Amazon cracked the $25 billion mark. And the grocery market share that Amazon will pick up with the Whole Foods acquisition is a drop in the bucket, even when combined with Amazon’s existing volume. We also know that not everything Amazon touches turns to gold (I’m guessing you are unlikely to be reading this on your Amazon Fire).

Still it’s hard to underestimate the magnitude of the Amazon effect. E-commerce represents about 10% of all U.S. retail and Amazon is by far the largest player, with an estimated share of 43%. Last year, Amazon accounted for 53% of all the incremental growth of online shopping, which means they are only growing their dominance. To underscore how much Amazon has infiltrated the shopping zeitgeist, one study indicates that more than half of all product searches start on Amazon.

It’s also hard to underestimate the fundamentally different rules Amazon plays by. First and foremost, Amazon isn’t required by its investors to make any real money. In fact, despite being in business more than 20 years, Amazon only recently surpassed Kroger and Priceline (not the sexiest of retailers) in total annual profits.

As a core strategy to gobble up market share, Amazon (or more accurately its shareholders) provides huge subsidies to its delivery operation. According to one analysis, Amazon lost $7.2 billion on shipping costs last year alone. While this is clearly great for consumers, it puts many retailers in the untenable position of choosing between ceding market share to Amazon or lowering their prices to uneconomic and unsustainable levels. Most have chosen the latter strategy and are paying the price. The fallout is far from over.

It’s hard to argue against innovation. It’s hard to argue against greater choice, more convenience and lower prices. And clearly, long-term investors in Amazon have few arguments, while those that have hung in with Macy’s, JC Penney and the like are licking their wounds.

Maybe Amazon can sell all this stuff at a loss and make it up on volume. Maybe once they help put many, many retailers out of business and play a big role in the “rationalization” of commercial real estate, Amazon will continue to reduce prices, rather than exploit their emerging monopoly-like power. Maybe we’ll all be happy with fewer choices in retail brands. Maybe Amazon’s dominance will encourage a new wave of different and more interesting retail models to counter-act the homogenization of retail we are in the midst of.

Maybe.

On the other hand, perhaps we should all be careful what we wish for. Perhaps we should consider that the problem with a race to the bottom is that we might win.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

Being Remarkable · Innovation · Inspiration · Leadership

The next hill

How many times have we said that we want innovation, change, growth, maybe even a revolution?

Sometimes we express these hopes and desires for our organization or society writ large. Sometimes our intention is directed squarely at ourselves. Whatever the case, too often we talk a good game but actually do very little.

Fear is one problem. Anything truly worth doing involves risks. And putting ourselves out there, sharing our ideas, committing to make a real difference, doing the hard, uncomfortable work, can be scary. Of course much of this is pure imagination. As Mark Twain reminds us: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

The other problem is we greatly overestimate our ability to understand the future. And too often we think that our actions will lead to an easily predictable outcome. Too often we believe that with enough planning and analysis we can control the way forward. Too often without a clear view of all the steps to success we don’t even take the first one. Our illusion of control and our flawed gift of prophecy all contribute to our stuck-ness.

Having a precise map for our next road trip is a solid idea. But being attached to that notion for journeys of innovation and profound change is worthless. The way forward for personal and organizational transformation is fraught with twists and turns, ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys. The moment we believe that before we can begin we need to be able to see our way clear to the end is the moment paralysis starts to set in.

Along our path, personal or otherwise, we will be climbing a series of hills. When we reach the top of each hill more will be revealed. What we couldn’t see from the base will now lay before us. We will have the lessons from our trek. We will have a clearer view of the landscape ahead. We will have the confidence gained from having successfully completed our hike.

It’s only complicated if we make it so.

Get pointed in the right direction.

Start moving.

Just make it to the next hill.

Recalibrate.

Rinse and repeat.

Digital · Mobile · Omni-channel · Retail

Retail’s Single Biggest Disruptor. Spoiler Alert: It’s Not E-commerce

There is no question that the retail industry is under-going a tremendous amount of change. Record numbers of store closings. Legacy brands going out of business–or teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Venture capital funded start-ups wreaking havoc upon traditional distribution models and pricing structures. Discount-oriented retailers stealing share away from once mighty department stores. And, oh yeah, then there’s Amazon.

In assessing what is driving retailers’ shifting fortunes most observers point to a single factor: the rapid growth of e-commerce. But they’d be wrong.

To be sure, online shopping has, and will continue to have, a dramatic impact on virtually every aspect of retail. One simply cannot ignore the dramatic share shift from physical stores to digital commerce, nor can we under-estimate the transformative effect of e-commerce on pricing, product availability and shopping convenience.

Yet a far more profound dynamic is at play, namely what some have termed “digital-first retail.” Digital-first retail is the growing tendency of consumers’ shopping journeys to be influenced by digital channels, regardless of where the ultimate transaction takes place. It’s obvious that this shift helps explain the success of Amazon and other e-commerce players. But when it comes to how traditional retailers need to reinvent themselves, several factors related to this phenomenon need to be better understood and, most importantly, acted upon.

The majority of physical store sales start online. Deloitte has done a great job tracking digitally influenced sales and its most recent report indicates 56% of in-store sales involved a digital device–and this will only continue to grow. Moreover, quite a few major retailers, across a spectrum of categories, have publicly commented that they are experiencing 60-70% digital influence of physical stores sales.

Digitally-influenced brick & mortar sales dwarf e-commerce. While e-commerce now accounts for (depending on the source) some 10% of all retail sales, both Forrester and Deloitte have estimated that web-influenced physical store sales are about 5X online sales.

Increasingly, mobile is the gateway. We no longer go online, we live online and smartphones are the main reason. As the penetration of mobile devices–and time spent on them–grows, mobile is becoming the front door to the retail store. Digital-first now often means mobile-first. It may not be the predominant behavior today, but it won’t be long before it is.

It’s a search driven world. Sometimes consumers turn to the web for rather mundane tasks: confirming store hours or looking up the address of a retailer’s location. Other times they are engaged in a more robust discovery process, seeking to find the best item, the best price, the best overall experience and so forth. Retailers need to position themselves to win these moments that matter (what Google calls “micro-moments.” Full disclosure: Google’s been a client of mine).

Digital-first can be (really) expensive: Part 1. Having a good transactional e-commerce site is table stakes. Becoming great at enabling a digital-first brick & mortar shopping experience is the next frontier. As customers turn to digital channels to help facilitate brick & mortar activity, be that a sale or a return, retailers need to be really good at creating a harmonious shopping experience across all relevant engagement points. This isn’t about being everything to everybody in all channels. It isn’t about integrating everything. It is about understanding the customer journey for key customer segments, rooting out the friction points and discovering points of amplification, i.e. where the experience can be made unique, intensely relevant and remarkable at scale. It’s not easy, and it’s rarely cheap to implement. It turns out, however, it’s a really bad time to be so boring.

Digital-first can be (really) expensive: Part 2. Estimates vary, but it’s clear that search (or engaging on social media) is an intrinsic part of most consumers’ shopping process. And that means that an awful lot of customer journeys intersect with Google, Amazon, Facebook or some other toll-booth operator. I say toll-booth operator because so often a brand’s ultimate success in capturing the consumer’s attention, driving traffic to a website or store and converting that traffic into sales requires paying one of these companies a fee. And that can add up. Fast. Of course the best brands generate consumer awareness and interest through word-of-mouth, not paying to interrupt the consumer’s attention. The best brands get repeat business through the inherent attractiveness of their offering, not chasing promiscuous consumers through incessant bribes. The best brands don’t engage in a race to the bottom because they are afraid they might win. This shift in who “owns” (or at least can dictate) access to the customer is profound. A strategy of attraction rather than (expensive) promotion is the far better course, but not so easily done.

While e-commerce–and Amazon in particular–is re-shaping the retail industry, having a compelling online business is necessary, not sufficient. In fact, in my humble opinion, many of the retailers that are reeling today got into trouble because they spent too much time and money focused on building their e-commerce capabilities as a stand-alone silo, to the detriment of their physical stores and without understanding the digital-first dynamic that determines overall brand success and the ultimate viability of their brick & mortar footprint.

Blaming struggling retailers’ woes on Amazon, or e-commerce more broadly, is only part of the story. Figuring out how to thrive, much less survive, in the age of digital-first disruption requires a lot more than shutting down a bunch of stores and getting better at e-commerce. A whole lot more.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

 

Being Remarkable · Leadership · Loyalty Marketing

Demanding loyalty

It seems rather natural to want loyalty. Maybe sometimes we even crave it or desperately feel as if we need it. From our employees. From our customers. From our friends or partner.

But as the boss, we shouldn’t think we have loyalty when conformance with our agenda–or praise from a parade of sycophants–is engendered out of fear of humiliation or termination.

As brand leaders, we shouldn’t claim we have loyal customers when the primary reason they buy our product is because we bribe them with endless discounts.

As someone in a personal relationship, we might deservedly expect loyalty, but if we only feel it exists when we threaten negative consequences we are merely kidding ourselves.

Loyalty is an emotion. And when deeply felt it can lead to our getting what we desire.

Loyalty is earned. Over time, through remarkable, relevant and consistent actions that build trust.

Demand loyalty all you want. If you aren’t getting it, don’t waste your time blaming your employees, customers or loved ones.

Our work is to get real, get accountable, and yes, get vulnerable. Loyalty is available to those that do the work and earn it.

 

Growth · Retail · Store closings

Shrinking To Prosperity: Can Store Closings Save Struggling Retailers?

It seems as if major store closing announcements are becoming a nearly daily occurrence. Earlier this week Michael Kors, the once high flying accessible luxury brand, announced it would close at least 100 stores over the next two years. They now join the ranks of Payless Shoes, Macy’s, JC Penney and a host of other major players that have recently decided to shutter a significant percentage of their store fleet.

In fact, some retailers are closing all of their stores hoping to thrive as an online only retailer. Bebe, Guess, Wet Seal and The Limited have all chosen to go this route–and it seems like both Sears and Radio Shack are headed there as well; they just haven’t made it official. In any event, if you want follow the action along at home my friends at Fung Global Retail maintain a store closing tracker.

While its clear that more and more struggling retailers are embracing a strategy to get much smaller, this ultimately begs the question whether it’s really possible to shrink your way to greatness.

Take a moment to make a list of brands (don’t worry, I’ll wait) that have intentionally walked away from a significant percentage of their revenue and been successful over the long-term. I’m not talking about conglomerates that have jettisoned under-performers in their portfolio or companies that have exited specific lines of business with challenging profitability. I’m talking about brands that have willingly stopped doing business in major geographies and/or with large numbers of core customers. It’s not easy it?

The truth is that it is far easier to name brands that closed stores merely as an intermediate step on their way to oblivion. Think Blockbuster and Borders (or Bradlee’s for you old timers). And that’s just the B’s. The retail graveyard is chock-a-block with once mighty merchants that spent years closing stores only to eventually succumb to the inevitable.

I have maintained for some time that when retailers start to close a lot of stores the issue is rarely that they have fundamentally too many outlets. Rather it’s that their value proposition is not sufficiently relevant and remarkable for the locations they have. We know that the notion that physical retail is dead is just silly. We know that plenty of “traditional” retailers are opening stores. Ulta, Sephora, Dollar General, Costco come readily to mind. We know that the hottest brands in retail–from giants like Amazon to specialty players like Warby Parker and Bonobo’s– are opening stores. We know that in most cases the economics of physical stores are superior to e-commerce. We know that the combination of digital AND physical is most often what customers want and what yields the best results. We know that it is virtually always the case that when retailers close stores their e-commerce revenues in the vacated trade area go down.

Clearly, on balance, there are too many stores. And for most retailers the size, configuration, operations and many fundamental aspects of the in-store experience must be changed, in some cases radically. Often the “need” to close stores is borne of desperation, propelled by multiple years of management neglect and failure to innovate. Often, as a practical matter, there is no choice, because there is no way to make up for the sins of the past in the here and now. While I cannot definitively say that mass store closings indicate the beginning of a downward spiral, I would definitely reject that notion that they are a panacea. And we absolutely shouldn’t conclude that such moves suggest a sustainable long-term strategy.

Over three years ago I posited that retailers were delusional if they thought that store closings would be their salvation. Today, as the pace of these closings accelerate, I still fundamentally reject the notion that more than a handful of brands can shrink their way to greatness. I hope I’m wrong.

michael-kors-closing-stores

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

Amplify · Being Remarkable · Story Telling

Your customers aren’t buying your products

I don’t mean your customers are no longer buying your products. Because if they aren’t buying from you anymore they are no longer customers. And that’s a different blog post.

I mean the main reason your customers bought from you in the first place–and the reason they continue to buy from you–isn’t because you have the best products. In fact, the retail industry’s relentless and nearly single-minded focus on product is the main reason so many retailers are in trouble. So-called “merchant prince” Mickey Drexler of J. Crew finally admitted this.

But it’s always been true. People buy the story before they buy the product. And they continue to carry our handbag, wear the hat with the swoosh, come to our restaurant or wait in line for the next version of our stuff because of how they feel when they experience our product or service. And that goes way beyond the objective, rational superiority of our features and benefits.

While I am hardly the first person to make this point, every time I make it I invariably get challenged on my lack of merchandising skill (guilty) or how I just can’t see how critical good product is. If these people only drink tap water I tend to listen a bit more carefully. But that doesn’t make them right.

Here’s the thing. I’ve never said product is unimportant. But when we confuse necessary with sufficient, we are on our way to making some big mistakes.

Brand success is most often determined at the intersection of desire and scarcity. You may sell what I want (or need), but if it isn’t special I’m not buying it (or I’m only buying it from you because you have the lowest price).

For most customers, in most categories, good product is far from scarce. A truly remarkable experience, a feeling that move us and that we are compelled to tell others about? Well that is very much in short supply.

Perhaps you DO need to improve your products. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager you also need to tell a better story.

It matters which you choose to prioritize.

Customer Growth Strategy · Omni-channel · Retail

Is off-price the next retail sector to go off the rails?

Amidst all the pain that most of the retail industry has endured during the past few years, the “off-price” sector has been one of the few shining stars.

While most retailers struggle to eke out any top-line growth, the segment’s big four–TJX, Ross, Burlington and Nordstrom Rack–have delivered solid growth. While many retailers are closing stores in droves, the off-price leaders have been opening new outlets at a brisk pace while announcing plans to open hundreds of stores over the next several years. TJX, the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post, added nearly 200 stores this past year alone.

So while it’s easy to blame Amazon for department stores’ troubles, there is ample evidence that it’s been the major share grab on the part of the off-price and outlet sector that’s inflicted a great deal of the pain.

Of course, the bifurcation of retail has been going on for some time. Consumers have been steadily shifting their spending toward more price-oriented brands since the recession. In some cases it has been driven by an economic need to spend less. In other cases by a realization that strong value can be obtained at a lower price, whether that is from a traditional retailer (e.g. Walmart), a leading fast fashion brand (e.g. H&M and Zara), a newer business model (e.g. Gilt and Farfetch) or, of course, Amazon.

Yet there is growing evidence that the segment is beginning to mature and that future results may be quite different from the boom of recent years. In the most recent quarter, TJX saw same-store sales growth slow to 1%. Archrival Ross posted better results but struck a decidedly cautious note. Nordstrom Rack, which has been the star within Nordstrom, has seen its growth slow to below the industry average.

So while one or two quarters do not indicate cause for alarm, there are several reasons why investors might want to beware.

Sluggish apparel growth

Average unit prices for apparel continue to contract, the discounting environment shows no sign of abating and consumers continue to shift their spending away from products to experiences. This means most sales growth must come from stealing share. That’s not likely to come easily.

Growing competition.

Competition is always intense in retail, but with the number of new stores that are opening, the rapid growth of online competition and Amazon’s growing and intense focus on apparel and home products (including an almost certain big push into private fashion brands in the next couple of years), sales and margin pressures are certain to become more pronounced.

Here comes e-commerce–and its challenges.  

The off-price industry was slow to get into digital commerce. Some of this was for good reason: it’s almost impossible to make money online in apparel with low transaction values and high rates of returns. But given consumer demand, the convergence of channels and pressure from growing competition, none of these brands have a choice but to invest heavily. But as e-commerce becomes an important growth driver, much of that growth will come through diversion of sales from a brand’s own physical stores–and often at a lower profit margin (what I call “the omnichannel migration dilemma”). As e-commerce becomes a more important piece of the overall business, the economics of physical stores will become more challenging, calling into question the reasonableness of the current store opening pace.

Brand dilution and saturation. 

The key driver of the off-price business has been offering major brand names at deeply discounted prices. While this is a bit of a con, the consumer is either blissfully ignorant or doesn’t care–at least so far. But as more brands grow through heavily discounted channels the risk of brand dilution goes up. And we’ve already seen several major brands pull back from factory outlet channels and tighten their distribution to wholesale channels where discounting was rampant. As Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Macy’s and Bloomingdales emphasize off-price growth (both physical store openings and online) the brand dilution concern to their “parent brands” looms large.

Overshooting the runway on store growth.

The over-expansion of most major retail chains is plaguing much of the retail industry right now. So far the off-price sector has escaped this fate, largely because the sector has been gaining share. But if growth continues to moderate and a greater share of the business moves to e-commerce, today’s store opening plans seem awfully aspirational. This is not a 2017 issue, and probably not one for 2018 either. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager that in 2019 we will view today’s plans as incredibly optimistic.

While the off-price sector is unlikely to experience the shockwaves of disruption pummeling its retail brethren anytime soon, we should remember that no business is immune from fundamental forces. And no business maintains above average growth forever. Investors would be wise to take a more cautious approach.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.