Retail at the precipice

Some have called it the retail apocalypse. Others refer to it the great retail meltdown. And while hyperbole is the best thing ever, these pronouncements serve as better clickbait than sound analyses. Worse, it makes it sound like every retailer is struggling and that physical retail is doomed.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the dramatic rise in store closings, job losses, bankruptcies and complete liquidations. It’s harder still to dismiss the wave of disruption that is shaking most traditional retailers to their core. The overbuilding of space is finally catching up to most sectors. The radical shift of spending online is creating a great deleveraging of physical retail. Consumer preferences are tilting to more experience, less stuff and a growing reluctance to pay full-price or spend conspicuously. Most damaging, the majority of “old school” retailers have not made innovation a priority and are now forced to play catch up at precisely the time they lack the cash to do so. And, sadly, for some retailers, it is too late.

Much of retail now finds itself at a precipice, a crossroads, the proverbial tipping point. In many cases, the decisions that will get made in the months ahead will make or break a scary number of major brands. Let’s look at four things that retailers that find themselves at or approaching the precipice need to focus upon and get right.

Should I stay or should I go? 

Major retailers have already announced nearly 3,000 store closings since the beginning of the year and more are on the way. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of physical retail’s death are greatly exaggerated. With some 90% of all retail still done in brick-and-mortar locations, physical retail needs to be different but it is not going away. There is great pressure on retailers to take an ax to their store counts, but this must be done judiciously. Careful rationalization of both store counts and remaining store footprints can enhance retailer relevance and profitability. But there is a real danger of closing too many stores. Deep analysis of network effects and cross-channel shopping behavior is needed to get this right.

The fault in our stores. 

With the rise of e-commerce and the over-storing of America, consolidation was inevitable. Despite most retailers’ best efforts, highly disruptive business models like Amazon were certain to gobble up share. But much of what ails retail is self-inflicted and most of what is causing heartache today could be seen coming for more than a decade. Retailer’s organizational silos get in the way of delivering an experience that is unified across channels and touch points. Traditional players’ reluctance to move away from one-size-fits-all marketing strategies fail to make the shopping experience more personalized. Retailer’s focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness stands in the way of a more simplified shopping experience and one that is more localized. And most brand’s risk aversion leads to a sea of sameness rather than an experience that is amplified in its relevance and remarkability.

Winning the moments that matter.

Since the vast majority of shopping journeys now begin online, which often means on a mobile device, a brand needs to be both present and impactful in what Google calls micro-moments (full disclosure: Google has been a client of mine) and what I have come to call “marketing’s new power of now.” Having a great product and cool advertising is necessary, but far from sufficient in a digital-first world where the first battle to win is the war for attention. If retailers don’t show up consistently in the moments that matter with an intensely relevant, remarkable and actionable offering, it’s likely game over.

Failure IS an option.

I headed up strategy at two Fortune 500 size retailers and in both assignments I tried to convince the CEO to establish an innovation process and to create an R&D budget. In both cases we said we wanted to be more innovative and in both cases we ultimately did nothing to meaningfully foster innovation. In fact, during one attempt to pitch a new idea to one of these CEO’s he said to me: “Steve I’m supportive of what you are trying to do but we need to this in such a way that we can’t fail.” At that point I was reminded of what Seth Godin says: “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.” I was also reminded it was time to update my resume. Spoiler alert: both retailers got into trouble due to their lack of innovation. Since becoming a consultant, writer and speaker on innovation I’ve seen how very few established retailers have taken innovation seriously. They are all paying a big price for that right now.

Retail isn’t getting any easier. In fact, one could argue that the pace of change is accelerating. And few of the issues plaguing retail are easily solved. But a few things seem certain. Defending the status quo is a recipe for disaster. If you believe you can shrink your way to prosperity, think again. Innovate or die. Your mileage may vary.

In today’s harsh retail world, a fair amount of pain is probably inevitable. The degree of suffering remains optional.

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.  

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Wall Street’s Misguided (And Dangerous) Fascination With Retail Store Productivity

An unprecedented number of retail store locations are closing this year and more announcements are surely coming–though perhaps not quite as many as I suggested in my April Fool’s post.

Given the lack of innovation on the part of traditional retailers, rampant overbuilding and the disruptive nature of e-commerce, this ongoing and massive consolidation of retail space was both inevitable and overdue. Yet much of the way the investor community sees the need for even more aggressive store closings is wrong and, one could argue, pretty dangerous.

One of the more ridiculous ways Wall Street firms have tried to determine the “right” number of store closings is to calculate how many locations would need to be shuttered to return various chains to their 2006 store productivity levels. A somewhat more responsible, though still alarming, analysis comes from Cowen, which focused more on the need to more closely align retail selling space supply and demand.

The most obvious problem with this type of analysis is its focus on ratios. The fact is that many stores with below average productivity are still quite profitable, particularly department stores, given their low rent factors. So while closing a lot of locations may yield a temporary productivity boost it often has a direct and immediate negative impact on earnings, which is a far better indicator of a retailer’s health.

The bigger issue is an underlying misunderstanding of the role of brick & mortar stores in retail’s new world order. Just as “same-store” sales is an increasingly irrelevant metric, so are store productivity numbers. Yes, more stores need to close. Yes, many of the stores that remain need a major rethink with regard to their size and fundamental operations. But what many still fail to grasp is how a retailer’s store footprint drives a brand’s overall health and the success of its e-commerce operations.

A given store’s productivity can be below average and decline yet still contribute to a retailer’s overall success, particularly online. Stores serve as an important–and often low cost–channel to acquire new customers. Stores serve as showrooms that drive customers online. Stores serve as fulfillment points for e-commerce operations. Stores are billboards for a retail brand. Without a compelling store footprint, a brand’s relevance will likely decline and its e-commerce business almost certainly will falter. Stated simply, store productivity numbers, taken in isolation, no longer get at the heart of a brand’s overall performance in an omnichannel world.

While there surely is merit in closing stores that drain cash and management attention, store closings can often make a bad situation worse. Ironically–as Kevin Hillstrom from MineThatData does a great job of illustrating–closings stores to respond to e-commerce growth can actually have the opposite effect. In fact, from my experience, massive store closings often initiate (or at least signal) a coming downward spiral.

Store closings are hardly the panacea that Wall Street seems to believe. And the notion that a brand can shrink its way to prosperity is typically horribly misguided. Macy’s, J.C. Penney and a host of others need to close more stores. And Sears and Kmart just need to go away. But, as I’ve said many times before, show me a retailer that is closing a lot of stores and you’ve likely shown me a retailer that doesn’t have too many stores, but a retail brand that is no longer relevant enough for the stores it has.

The danger of closing too many stores is increasingly real. The danger that struggling retailers will continue to appease Wall Street’s thirst for taking an ax to store counts instead of working on the underlying fault in their stores seems, sadly, clear and present.

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.  

We over me

The other day President Trump talked about how “my military” was successful in carrying out a bombing run.

Regardless of how one feels about the merits of taking military action, or which side of the aisle you happen to sit on politically, it’s hard to imagine a leader who deserves less credit for the strength and skills of the US armed forces. It’s also shocking in its failure to recognize who foots the bill. Criticism was deservedly fast and furious.

Contrast that with superstar golfer Jordan Spieth (who, by the way, is nearly 50 years younger than Trump). It’s rare for Spieth to not say “we” when talking about his play. In fact, the times when he tends to use “I” or “me” are when he hasn’t played particularly well. In a sport which is highly individualistic, he is quick to credit his team; to value the we over me.

Of course, we drive every day on roads we didn’t pave.

We sit in offices we didn’t build.

We use an internet we didn’t design and don’t maintain.

Almost of all us eat food we neither planted, nor tended,  nor picked, nor hauled to the store.

It’s easy to be selfish, to value the me over we.

And often harder to give credit where credit is due.

Harder still, it seems, to be grateful for all all we have whether we deserve it or worked for it or had it fall into our laps by luck or some measure of grace.

 

 

‘Same-store sales’ is retail’s increasingly irrelevant metric

The retail industry has used “same-store sales” (or “comparable store sales”) as a key indicator of a retailer’s health for decades. From where I sit, its usefulness is rapidly fading, if not bordering on irrelevance.

While it remains to be seen whether retail traffic declines will last forever, most traditional retailers will struggle to grow physical store sales in the face of the significant and inexorable shift to online shopping. With few exceptions, so-called “omnichannel” retailers are experiencing flat to slightly down brick-and-mortar revenues while their e-commerce business continues to grow 10-20%. The mostly moribund department store sector points to this new reality. While overall revenues are basically going nowhere, online sales now account for over 30% of total revenue at Neiman Marcus, over 20% at Nordstrom and Saks, and some 18% at Macy’s (according to eMarketer), with the percentage growing every quarter.

What we do know, and what’s important to grasp and appreciate, is that physical stores are critical drivers of e-commerce success–and vice versa. For most retailers, a brick-and-mortar location sits at the heart of a brand’s ecosystem for a given trade area. Any retailer with a decent level of channel integration employs stores to acquire new customers, to serve, buy online, pickup in store orders (and returns) and to convert shoppers that start their shopping online but need to touch, feel or try on a product before buying. The decision of “digitally native” brands like Amazon, Bonobos, Warby Parker and others to open stores underscores this fact. Conversely, legacy retailers must be careful to avoid closing too many stores or they risk damaging the overall brand, slowing e-commerce growth and accelerating a downward spiral.

Customers shop brands, not channels or touchpoints. A robust one brand, many channels strategy requires management teams to understand precisely how the various marketing, experience and transactional channels interact to make a more relevant and remarkable whole. With this understanding, same-store sales performance may still have some utility, but “same trade area” performance–which accounts for all sales regardless of purchase channel within the influence area of a store–becomes a far more interesting and useful metric. Critically, it also provides the basis for understanding the drivers of customer segment level performance at a more granular and actionable level.

Rapidly declining same-store sales performance may suggest the need for aggressive action, including shuttering stores. Unquestionably, the great de-leveraging of retail store economics is cause for real concern. But without a broader view of how digital commerce and the in-store shopping experience work together, an obsession with same-store sales performance will inevitably lead to some very dumb decisions indeed.

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

Yeah, but what if we don’t?

All too often we can find ourselves ruled by fear, both subtle and profound. Faced with going out on a limb, being vulnerable, trying something entirely new, it’s easy for The Resistance to take over, for the lizard brain to kick in, for us to tell ourselves the time isn’t right or that we aren’t quite ready.

For many us, it’s not the least bit difficult to imagine the embarrassment, pain or all manner of calamities that might result from exposing our ideas to the world, starting our own new business, choosing to be the one to stand up to injustice, aggressively pushing our organizations to innovate or embarking on just about any endeavor that is fraught with risk.

I’m reminded of what Mark Twain supposedly said: “there has been much tragedy in my life, some of which actually happened.”

It turns out we humans seem to be rather good at naming and feeling the risk of doing something, but maybe not so good at seeing the reward. We ask ourselves the “what if we do?” question and then frequently talk ourselves into stopping, waiting or hoping someone else will act instead.

Yet when it comes to pondering the work that matters perhaps a better question would be “what if we don’t?”

If we don’t innovate, our organization or business might not only stagnate, it might cease to exist entirely.

If we don’t speak up against hate, we enable injustice to spread unchallenged.

If we don’t vote, we get leaders that are at best clueless; at worst dangerous.

If we don’t act to unleash our potential, our desire, our creativity we, to paraphrase Thoreau, can easily fall into the trap of living lives of quiet desperation and go to our graves with the song still in us.

Too often we think the risk is in acting, when it is precisely the opposite.

Too often we believe we have more time, when in fact it’s much later than we think.

Too often we find ourselves asking the wrong question entirely.

 

 

Blaming your predecessor

Some 20 years ago I took a transfer within the retailer I was working for at the time and was promoted to my first real marketing leadership position. I inherited a colossal mess. Our division’s sales were down month after month and margins were collapsing. As far as I could tell, nothing that marketing had tried over the past several years had improved the brand’s positioning one iota, much less successfully driven critically needed incremental traffic to our stores.

As I embarked on this Herculean challenge I initially leaned into what was, in retrospect, an extremely juvenile and pointless tactic that only served to underscore both my immaturity and inexperience: I blamed my predecessor.

Now to be sure, he hadn’t done a great job. But, to be fair, he was dealt a horrible hand and, in many respects, was in way over his head. Regardless, as far as I could tell, he did the best he could given the circumstances and always operated from a place of integrity.

Yet all of this was beside the point.

There was, of course, nothing wrong with acknowledging the reality I found myself–and the business–in. There was nothing wrong with dissecting the root causes of our problems. There was nothing wrong in learning from what worked and, as it turned out, mostly from what didn’t.

But where I failed as a leader was going into blaming mode rather than accountability mode. I chose to tap into the drama of feeling like a victim rather than the creative energy of being empowered.

The fact was that nobody forced me to take the job. Nobody had given me the advice that it was a good idea to focus my energies and attention on assigning blame and dwelling on the past. Most importantly, nobody had provided me with a time machine that allowed me to go back in time to fix all the things I was complaining about.

Our egos love avoiding difficult situations and deflecting attention away from accepting the challenges and opportunities of the present moment. Slipping into the blame game is seductively easy because it takes us off the hook and shifts the spotlight to an imagined perpetrator who surely must be the source of our problems.

Yet when we sign up to lead, we need to do just that. No blaming. No avoidance. No deflecting. And definitely no whining.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson. Sadly, many in positions of responsibility and authority are still learning.

Not everyone wants to (or deserves to be) in a leadership position. But if we ask for the keys, we need to learn how to drive responsibly. And most importantly, we need to start driving.

As it turns out, much of the time winning is easy. Governing is harder.

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Every Single Retail Store in the US To Close Permanently By Month’s End

In a surprise move that underscores the sweeping changes faced by the retail industry, the National Retail Federation, speaking on behalf of all of its members, announced today that every brick & mortar location of every retailer in the United States would close forever within the next few weeks. For nearly a decade “traditional” retailers have been struggling with profitability as sales shifted online and more consumers started to notice that many retailers appeared to have given up years earlier. Yet the move to close down every single store in America still came as a shock to most industry observers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a CEO of one major retail brand remarked “I would have thought that the fact that 90% of all shopping is still done in physical locations would have been enough to warrant keeping at least a few stores around. I guess I was wrong.” Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was recently named Sears’ 13th CEO in as many months, seemed surprised as well. “Wait, most shopping is still done in stores? I guess maybe we should have worked on making our stores better rather than thinking that closing them down would somehow make things better? Oops.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, the brand that has benefitted the most from consumers’ growing love of e-commerce, was approached for comment after delivering his keynote at the annual World Hyperbole Conference in Geneva, but would not speak to reporters. He was, however seen high-fiving Elon Musk off stage and doing what some described as a “clumsy Irish jig” upon learning the news.

Other industry veterans were more circumspect. Ryan Gozzi, a prominent Wall Street analyst who has been pushing many retail brands to shutter locations to improve profitability, commented “honestly I think this just goes too far. I always envisioned retailers would cut and cut until they had just a handful of stores that did like $15,000 per square foot, you know like Warby Parker, Bonobos and Birchbox.” When asked what he thought of today’s announcement Ron Johnson, who oversaw a failed attempt to re-invent JC Penney, looked earnestly into the interviewer’s eyes and exclaimed “Apple. Apple. Target. Apple. Target. Apple. Apple,” then added “golly that’s big news. I was only able to decrease Penney’s sales by about 40%. So signing up for destroying 100% of sales is truly transformative. Gosh I’m impressed.”

The complete shut down of all stores comes after many retailers had aggressively explored new strategies to revive their fortunes. According to multiple sources, newly appointed Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette recently presented his Board with a bold plan to turn the storied retailer around. The strategy, developed with a team of 2nd year Wharton MBA students, was designed to transform the Macy’s culture and incorporate many of the components that have allowed so-called “digitally native” brands to grab market share away from traditional player while transferring billions of dollars from venture capitalists to consumers without anyone apparently noticing or caring.

The new plan reportedly called for the company to relocate its headquarters to a loft-building in the Pearl District of Portland where employees would receive complimentary Stumptown Coffee and Voodoo Donuts, in addition to an enhanced benefits package. Reports that corporate staff would be required to bring their dogs to work could not be independently confirmed. According to multiple sources, sales associates were to be re-named “customer service sensei’s” and the company would guarantee 15 minute delivery of any product anywhere in the continental United States for free. Initial plans also called for consumers to receive 1,500 Plenti points with every order over $50 but were dropped when research revealed that no one knew what Plenti points were.

According to insiders the plan hinged on four key elements:

  • Liberal use of the words “disruptive” and “transformative” in conversation, written communication and speeches at analyst meetings and conferences.
  • Getting on the cover of Fast Company.
  • A willingness to lose a cumulative $27 billion over the next 10 years.
  • A miracle happening in year 11.

The Board was reportedly initially intrigued, but the strategy lost support when one member pointed out that the plan was mostly just a description of Amazon’s strategy and that nothing was being done to improve the products Macy’s sold or the actual shopping experience. Ultimately a growing malaise crept over the Board despite plans to hold their Board dinner that evening at Masa. According to one long time Macy’s Director “while we were excited to dine together that night at arguably the best sushi restaurant outside of Japan, we couldn’t get past the realization that when it came to our business we had nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

While today’s announcement would seem to doom many once leading brands to the retail graveyard, some believe Walmart might come out ahead. The Bentonville, Arkansas based company recently began aggressively acquiring online-only brands in a bid to become “more customer relevant and digitally savvy.” Sean Spicer, Walmart’s newly appointed VP of Cash Incineration Initiatives, told the Wall Street Journal that the shuttering of all physical stores only validated what Walmart has been saying all along and that anyone who says otherwise is either stupid or lying. Challenged on that remark Spicer added: “Hold on, hold on, hold on. We’ve always maintained that the future of retail is selling cheap stuff that Americans need, shipping it to their house, losing money on every order and making it up on volume. If you can’t see that you haven’t been paying attention.” He then told reporters to direct any further questions to the Justice Department.

The economic impact of closings tens of thousands of stores and putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work remains unclear, but many were concerned it could lead to a recession. It also cast serious doubt on President Trump’s claim that ‘we would be winning so much we would get tired of winning.” Prior to today’s news a recent Gallup survey confirmed that most Americans weren’t remotely tired of winning.

Many commercial real estate investors also expressed concern that billions of square feet of vacant retail space coming on the market all at once would have a depressive effect on rents. Despite this widely shared belief, General Michael Flynn, recently named President of the Association for Commercial Real Estate Over-Capacity Denial” noted that the industry had gone through multiple down cycles over the years and that any excess supply would quickly be absorbed. “For every Home Depot or Target that closes there are plenty of Soul Cycles and expensive juice bars with that one employee awkwardly standing there to take their place” Flynn said.

 

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