Inspiration · Leadership

Our initial descent

When we let a wildly inappropriate comment go because we don’t want to make waves or embarrass the person who made it.

When we take a comment too personally and shift into argumentative mode because it’s more important to be right than to stay present and connected.

When we stay stuck in habits that don’t serve us because we’re afraid to fail or look foolish.

When we take any kind of short-cut at the expense of quality.

When we put others down because we’re not feeling good about ourselves.

When we defend the status quo even though we know we’re headed for a fall.

Our initial descent into tolerating bad actions is barely noticeable.

In the beginning, our acceptance of mediocrity can be undetectable.

Falling into the habit of ego protection (or inflation) can be subtle at first.

But what’s clear is our trajectory. And we’re headed down.

We get to choose whether we want to crash or soar.

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Inspiration · Leadership

Famous

Deep down many of us seek fame. Constant attention. Mass adoration. Approval on a grand scale.

We get attached to the notion that our worth can be measured in breadth, not depth. Clicks and likes, over connection and intimacy.

We try vainly to be “friends” with everybody, before we make friends with ourselves.

Our heart may be closed, but our life is an open book on Facebook and Instagram.

We can all do selfies ad nauseam. We can all put our fake fabulous life on display for all to see.

But maybe it’s just a little bit better to be famous to your family. Your AA group. That non-profit that’s changing lives one at a time. Or that kid who could really use a hug right about now.

As usual, the poet says it better than I…

FAMOUS by Naomi Shihab Nye

“The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.”

h/t Anne Lamott

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Bricks and Mobile · Mobile · Omni-channel · Uncategorized

A very mobile Christmas?

It’s no secret that mobile is becoming increasingly important in consumers’ shopping journeys. Retail brands as diverse as Target and Neiman Marcus have alluded to the pivotal role that digital plays in driving both their online and physical store sales. And of course when we say “digital,” often we mean mobile. In fact, for many retailers, mobile is becoming the front door to the store.

If a just-released study by Adobe Analytics proves to be correct, an important milestone will be reached this holiday season. For the first time ever, more U.S. shoppers will visit a retailer’s site using a mobile device than a desktop computer. Because conversion rates remain higher on “traditional” devices, the amount of actual purchases made on desktops will still exceed those made on a smartphone or tablet. But that’s not likely to be true very much longer.

This shift is profound, and mirrors what other studies have shown about the growing integration of mobile devices across all dimensions of retail. For example, Deloitte has been tracking digital’s influence on physical store shopping, and their research shows that in 2016 some 37% of all brick & mortar sales were influenced by a mobile device. It seems certain that number will easily surpass 40% this year.

The reasons this year’s holiday numbers are so important are twofold. First, and most obviously, it’s the busiest shopping time of the year, so shifts in customer behavior are amplified. Second, for consumers seeking great gift ideas, in many cases they’ll be visiting new or infrequently trafficked sites. A poor (or even less than remarkable) experience can have a significant impact on customers’ future buying intent.

It would appear that there is no going back in the move to mobile. As the folks at Google like to say (full disclosure: a recent client), we no longer go online; we live online. More and more, our smart devices are a constant companion in the shopping process. Whether it’s for product research, checking prices, locating the nearest store, downloading a coupon or making a transaction, employing mobile technology to enhance the customer experience is moving from novelty to habit.

The growing challenge for retail marketers therefore is to win these mobile moments that matter by being relevant and remarkable throughout the critical aspects of the shopping journey. Here the increasing role of mobile presents many important opportunities, most notably the chance to leverage context awareness in consumer engagement. But the limitations of mobile are apparent as well and must be navigated carefully.

A few things seem certain. Mobile will play a much larger role this holiday season and that momentum is likely to carry forward into 2018. Brands that have a compelling mobile presence will reap great benefits. For those where that is not the case, they can expect a big lump of goal in their stockings.

Shopping-Apps

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Innovation · Inspiration · Leadership

Stay. Stay. Stay.

The amygdala is sometimes known as the “lizard brain.” It’s more or less a holdover from prehistoric times and its role is to activate our primal survival instincts such as aggression and fear. When we are faced with a perceived threat, it can reflexively kick us into “fight or flight” mode. Sometimes–typically when we get overwhelmed and flooded with stress hormones–we can bounce back and forth from attacker to avoider, from villain to victim. Or we can shut down entirely.

At work, the lizard brain can keep us from trying new stuff despite knowing we need to innovate. It can cause us to push back hard on challengers to the status quo because we fear being wrong or looking stupid. Or we can just get stuck, paralyzed into inaction.

In personal relationships, those of us who fear intimacy can push away those whom we love, despite our desire to be more deeply connected. Or we can bolt for the door just as we get closer to what we so strongly desire.

The Resistance is real. So is self-sabotage. But as Pema Chodron reminds us, “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”

Clearly some situations are untenable and they deserve to be run from and put well behind us. Frankly, quitting is often under-rated.

Other circumstances require us to stand up and fight and say “enough is enough.” No one should endure tantrums or constant boundary violations or harassment or far worse.

Discerning the situations where we need to get in and rumble and get messy and walk through our fear is not easy. It takes real courage to remain in the arena when everything tells us to to flee. To engage when the fear comes up. To do the hard, uncomfortable work. To be neither victim, nor persecutor, nor rescuer, but an accountable adult, fully present, living in reality and owning our truth.

Our restlessness is part of the human condition. And the lizard brain can be easily activated–even more so if we have a history of trauma.

But like a dog being trained, we can learn to stay. Stay engaged. Stay focused. Stay patient. Stay accountable.

We can do the work.

The challenges are great, but so too can be the reward.

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Being Remarkable · Inspiration · Leadership

The way we vote

A lot of people will be going to the polls today.  But most won’t–and not because they aren’t holding elections in their community.

Voter turnout is ridiculously low in many parts of the country, particularly in local elections. And that means those that actually show up have disproportionate influence.

Of course we get to vote on lots of things each and every day by deciding what we give our time and attention to. And it’s easy to vote “no”.

It’s comfortable to play it safe. To hope someone else will do it. To stay in thought, rather than action. To ruminate on what could have been, or fantasize about what might be someday. To admire others good work from a distance. To be the critic, rather than the person in the arena. To tell ourselves that we will be ready to commit when various forces align that will make for the perfect moment to start. But we’re never ready.

The way we vote matters. And it turns out that in just about everything we are confronted with those that show up have disproportionate influence.

Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

Department stores aren’t going away, but 3 big things still need to happen

It’s been a long, slow slide for department stores. Starting some two decades ago, the major chains began leaking share to the big-box, off-the-mall players. Just as that started to stabilize somewhat, Amazon and other e-commerce pure-plays began chipping away at the sector’s once dominant position in apparel, accessories and home products. Most recently, in addition to the ongoing threat from online shopping, off-price chains have benefitted from a growing legacy of major chain mediocrity.

Unsurprisingly, investors have treated the sector like the plague. The market values of Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears, Dillard’s and Kohl’s have all plummeted. Even Nordstrom, which has performed relatively well, has seen its market value halved in the past couple of years. Just this past week J.C. Penney saw its shares, which were already off some 80% since 2013, plunge further after a surprise earnings warning. In addition, Sycamore looks to be picking at the carcass of Bon-Ton Stores and Lord & Taylor is selling its iconic Manhattan flagship to WeWork. And on and on.

For many, this unrelenting parade of bad news leads them to believe that department stores are toast. But just as the retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense, so is the notion that department stores are going away. I am willing to go out on a limb to say that a decade from now there will still be hundreds of large, multi-category brick-and-mortar stores operating in the United States and throughout the world. But despite this conviction, things are virtually certain to get worse before they get better and three major things must happen before any sort of equilibrium can be reached and decent profits can return.

Major space rationalization/consolidation. The overall retail industry is still reeling from decades of overbuilding, as well as the abject failure of most department store anchors to innovate to stay remotely relevant and remarkable. While the idea that major chains can shrink to prosperity is fundamentally misguided, it’s clear that a) most chains still have too many stores, b) the stores they have are, on average, larger than they need and c) there is no compelling reason for Sears, Kmart, Bon-Ton (and perhaps a few others) to exist at all. Many dozens, if not hundreds, of locations are certain to be whacked after the holiday season. And despite the liquidation sales that will put pressure on earnings in the first half of the calendar year, there is actually a real chance for year-over-year margin improvement by the time the holiday season rolls around this time next year.

A true commitment to be more focused, more innovative and more remarkable. It turns out department stores, like every other struggling retail brand, picked a really bad time to be so boring. It turns out that deferred innovation is even more crippling than deferred maintenance. It turns out that trying to be everything to just about everybody means being mostly irrelevant to a lot of folks. Given the certain continuing contraction of the sector, the only hope for remaining brands is to gain significant amounts of market share. And that only happens to any material degree by embracing intense customer-centricity to become more relevant to a tighter customer set and by consistently executing a far more remarkable experience than the competition. Continued flogging of me-too products, one-size fits all advertising, boring presentation and chasing the promiscuous shopper through promotion on top of promotion won’t cut it. Period. Full stop. The hard part is that most of the flailing brands are woefully far behind, lack a culture of innovation and simply don’t have the cash to do what it will take to right the ship.

Amazon needs to place its bet. It’s clear that Amazon has its sights set on being a much bigger player in apparel, accessories and home products. And it’s hard to see how Amazon gets speed, adds the necessary volume and addresses the vexing returns/supply chain issues without a major physical presence in the moderate and higher-end softlines arena. For that reason, I’m also willing to go out on a limb and predict that Amazon will buy a major department store player in 2018. And just as its acquisition of Whole Foods is transformative for the grocery industry, so too will be a much deeper brick-and-mortar (and omnichannel) presence in the department store sector. In fact, it’s hard to underestimate how a big move by Amazon here will reshape just about every imaginable facet.

While 2017 has brought more than its fair share of department store news–and we’re hardly finished–I see 2018 as being chock-a-block with not only profound news but likely representing the year when the future of the sector will become far more clear. Stay tuned.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Inspiration · Leadership

Does this path have a heart?

“Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t it is of no use.  – Carlos Castenada, “The Teachings of Don Juan”

The focus of our career. Who we vote for. What we say when challenged. Where we spend our free time. The people we decide to hang out with. The organizations and causes we support. The comments we make on social media. How we show up in relationships. Just about anything we opt to give our time and attention.

These are all choices and each imply directionality and our fundamental orientation to the world.

And so…

We can operate from self-righteousness or curiosity. We can employ a mindset of scarcity or one rooted in generosity. We can choose judgment or grace, condemnation or forgiveness, distraction or connection, cruelty or compassion. We can chase busyness or meaning. And so on.

It’s not easy. And I fail at it all the time. Sometimes miserably. And yet…

And yet…it’s always worth knowing which way I want my compass to point. It helps to challenge that which I worship. It matters that when I get to the fork in the road, I know which path I want to choose, even if I get it wrong more times than I’d like to own up to.

Sure the bigger house is nice. The bigger heart maybe just a wee bit better.

Being Remarkable · e-commerce · Strategy

Going private: Here comes Amazon’s next big wave of disruption and dismantling

While Amazon is often falsely blamed for all of retail’s woes, the “Amazon Effect” is both profound and well-documented. While the company’s overall market share is relatively low (under 5%), Amazon now accounts for nearly half of all e-commerce sales and its pricing and supply chain supremacy continues to put margin pressure across many categories of retail.

Yet, lost among the stories about the showdown between Amazon and Walmart or the impact of the Whole Foods acquisition or the company’s many stymied attempts to become a major fashion player is potentially an even bigger and more interesting narrative. What should be added to the list of things that keep both manufacturers and retailers up at night is Amazon’s rapidly evolving private brand strategy. The massive potential for a “go private” thrust to be another key component in what L2’s Scott Galloway has called Amazon’s systemic dismantling of retail and brands is huge.

Here’s why:

Private brands can have powerful consumer appeal. A well-executed private brand strategy allows for equal (or even better) quality products to be delivered at much lower prices. Store brands have moved well beyond the generic product days into being desired brands in their own right and have become significant lines of business for many retailers.

Private brands typically have greater margins. By controlling both the product design and supply chain–and avoiding the need for large marketing and trade allowance budgets–proprietary store brands can deliver a better price to the consumer and better gross margins for the retailer. Therefore the brand owner has a greater incentive to push its captive brands over national brands.

Amazon has already created a solid base of private brands. It turns out that Amazon already has a solid stable of proprietary brands. Some are more basic commodity items sold under the Amazon name. Some have their own identity, like Mama Bear and Happy Belly. Others tilt toward the more fashionable. With the Whole Foods acquisition, the company also controls the 365 Everyday Value brand which, rather unsurprisingly, is now available at Amazon. Recent reports suggest they are jumping into the athletic wear business.

Amazon’s private brands are on fire. While specific financial data is relatively sparse, most indications are that the company is thus far yielding strong performance with its own products. According to one report, many of these brands are experiencing hyper-growth.

The Amazon chokehold. Ponder for a moment the amount and quality of customer data Amazon can leverage to both design and target its own stable of higher margin products. Consider that more than 55% of all online product searches start at Amazon. Reflect on the reality that Alexa’s algorithms already give preference to Amazon’s private brands. Contemplate how easy it will be for Amazon to systematically design its website to feature the brands it wants to promote. Meditate on the freedom Amazon has to pursue the long game given its strong cash flow and Wall Street’s current willingness to value growth over profits.

Because of its sheer size, as well as the need to feed the growth beast, Amazon must both grab more market share in categories where it already has a material position, while also entering and penetrating significant new opportunity areas. At some point, Amazon will also have to demonstrate that it can make some decent money outside of its Amazon Web Services business. The opportunity in private brands serves both Amazon’s long-term revenue and margin objectives.

For the most part, Amazon’s private brand aspirations have operated under the radar. But from where I sit, it won’t be long before they reach critical mass in many key categories. And when they are ready to truly step on the gas–both from their organic efforts, as well as from what I believe will be at least one more major brick & mortar acquisition–another wave of brands (both wholesale and retail) will get caught in the wake.

For the competition, it’s time to be afraid. Very afraid.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Inspiration · Leadership

A hypothesis of generosity

None of us suffer from a deficit of experience. In fact, “stuff’ happens virtually non-stop.

The daily rhythm of life is that we have ups and downs. Problems manifest, big and small. Complications arise, both profound and mundane. We encounter joys, concerns and everywhere in between. Items get checked off our to-do list. Or not.

Amidst the backdrop of our existence come the many challenges to our equanimity. Often these arise as times when we feel confronted, slighted, or disrespected, Other times we may feel shunned or even attacked.

Maybe we get get cut off in traffic or treated rudely by a stranger. A friend doesn’t call us back. A co-worker doesn’t include us in an important meeting. Perhaps we don’t feel truly heard by our partner. Maybe we even sense that we are being judged or harshly criticized by someone who loves us.

If you are anything like me, you might find yourself drawn to apply a strong filter of negativity, propelled by self-righteousness, defensiveness and anger. If you are anything like me, you might start to make up quite a lot about what’s actually going on and what it all means.

So what if instead we started with a hypothesis of generosity? What if our filter was set to kindness and curiosity instead of assuming the worst possible interpretation? What if we followed Brene Brown‘s advice in her book Rising Strong and we asked ourselves “what is the most generous assumption about this person’s intentions or what this person said?”

In choosing this path we have to challenge our ego. We have to let go of the need to be right. We have to stop getting our needs met through propping ourselves up by putting others down. We have to move toward connection, rather than run from it. It’s not always easy. And it means telling ourselves a fundamentally different story.

But as Brene goes on to remind us:  “What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.”

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Being Remarkable · Customer experience · Reinventing Retail

Flailing retailers need to learn to ‘sell the hole’

I cannot begin to tell you how many times executives at various retailers have said to me that “it’s all about the product.” Earlier in my career, when someone would spout this alleged truism, my somewhat smug thought would be that I could easily come up with many examples where that was demonstrably false. In more recent years, I’ve come to believe that it is precisely retailers’ false clinging to this notion that helps explain why so many find themselves standing at the precipice.

We can argue at length about how important product features and benefits are to consumers’ purchase decisions and long-term loyalty. And clearly that varies by industry segment and customer type. Yet by now it should be obvious that in the vast majority of cases good product is necessary, but hardly sufficient, in determining retail success. It should be clear that people buy the story before they buy the product.

Stated differently, when a consumer buys a drill, it’s because they want the hole. When someone pays $4 for a bottle of water they are mostly paying for how that water makes them feel, not for the better taste. If you think Apple products are always objectively the best functioning, you are only kidding yourself. And if you believe that $200 jar of eye cream works any better that the stuff you can get at Walgreen’s, prepare to be disappointed. Second-best and just plain old mediocre products win all the time. It’s clearly not only about the product; it’s about the solution, the feeling, what our purchase says about us. As noted retail strategist Bill Clinton might say: It’s the experience, stupid!

It’s not all that difficult to understand how traditional retailers became overly product-centric. Take a look at the leadership at most retailers and most came up through the merchant ranks. While the era of the “merchant prince” is on the wane, there are still an awful lot of CEOs who are long on merchandising skills and short on customer experience and digital bona fides. And that mindset permeates the cultures of many struggling brands. It needs to be blown up.

Go through the list of bankrupt or severely struggling retailers and it should be readily apparent that while there may have been merchandising issues that contributed to their problems, their big issues emanate from a failure to deeply understand shifting customer preferences and to respond to those changes. As a result they ended up with a largely irrelevant and utterly unremarkable customer experience. And, as it turns out, they picked a really bad time to be so boring.

If flailing retailers — be they Toys ‘R’ Us, JCPenney, Macy’s or dozens of others — are to survive, much less thrive, the answer isn’t going to be found in shrinking to prosperity, trying to out-Amazon Amazon or being hyper-focused on improving their product assortments.

The answer is going to be found in crafting a truly remarkable and relevant customer experience that is far more about the hole than the drill.

Toys-R-Us

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.