E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem

Online-only retailers have attracted huge amounts of investment capital during the past decade. Flash-sales sites such as Gilt and RueLaLa have collectively raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Rather small, but rapidly growing, specialty players like Bonobo’s, Warby Parker, One Kings Lane and Birchbox have all recently raised tens of millions of dollars and now have valuations approaching $1 billion or more. Net-a-porter, perhaps the strongest global fashion e-tailer, was purchased by luxury powerhouse Richemont for more than $500 million in 2010 and is reportedly being shopped for a multi-billion dollar price tag.

And on and on.

The pesky little problem–the seriously nagging and increasingly pressing issue, is that the vast majority of even the most established players don’t make any money and few have any prospect of doing so any time soon.

The bulls say that all trends point to the eventual dominance of e-commerce and that these brands must invest heavily in critical infra-structure, acquiring new customers and building their brands. Today’s heavy losses will yield category dominance and ungodly riches just a few years down the road. While I’m fairly certain that this will be true for a handful of today’s industry darlings, for most it’s likely to end badly.

Aside from consumer preference shifting toward online shopping, e-commerce seems to have important economic advantages, most notably avoidance of capital investment in physical real estate. In addition, by centralizing inventory in a few locations–or having a “buy it only when you sell it” model–the potential to streamline logistics costs and generate very high inventory productivity is significant. Digital-only marketing strategies also create the opportunity to serve customers more cost effectively than traditional sales and marketing tactics.

But here’s where reality starts to set in and why many e-commerce only models are profit-proof at any kind of reasonable scale.

While fixed costs are lower for pure-plays, marginal costs can be very high. Most hyper-growth companies find it initially fairly easy and cost-effective to acquire their “best fit”and most loyal customers. Consumers that are prone to gravitate to a disruptive business model often “get it” quickly and are great at spreading the word. They tend to return fewer items and aren’t as likely to need a deep discount to spur a purchase.

Unfortunately, growing beyond what I call the obsessive core, tends to be much more expensive and difficult. Acquisition costs rise dramatically. Big discounts are needed to drive conversion. Return rates are much higher. Assortments need to expand to create greater interest. Cost and complexity follows. Many of the new customers that contribute to higher sales, never have the potential to be profitable.

In fact, one of the reasons we are seeing many of these high growth brands now aggressively investing in physical stores is that they are finding it too difficult and expensive to acquire and serve new customers purely online.

So while it’s true that fixed costs are favorable in a pure-play model, it’s the dynamics of marginal profitability (and the associated variable costs) that ultimately determine the long-term viability of an e-commerce brand. And this will prove to be the Achilles Heel for many of today’s highly valued players.

It’s easy to extol the wonderful customer service delivered by Zappos, the incredible marketing and design from Bonobos or the overall awesomeness of Amazon. But lest we forget, it’s not that hard to be awesome if you aren’t required to make any money. It’s one thing to love these brands for the experience they deliver (which I do). It’s an entirely different thing to earn a return for the risk you are taking as an investor.

So far, the only winners from the advent and rapid growth of pure-play online shopping have been consumers and a small group of investors and entrepreneurs lucky enough to cash out at the right time.

Certainly Amazon could be profitable tomorrow if they wanted to (well, more accurately, if they could deal with a collapsing multiple). And a few e-commerce only companies ARE building strong brands and appeal to enough target consumers to eventually make real money. For this short list it is, in fact, just a matter of time.

But for the rest, don’t believe the hype. And proceed with caution.

 

 

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem

  1. Russell Kwiat

    Happy new year steve. I always enjoy reading you blog and just wanted to drop you a note wishing you the best.

    ________________________________

    Like

  2. Very good article! I created an online store to enhance our brick & mortar….and, my theory, your theory, is absolutely correct because many of our sales in our brick & mortar are driven from our online site.

    Thank you for articulating what I call the ’emperors clothes’ model for many tech companies.

    Janet Deleuse

    Like

  3. Pingback: Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer | Steve Dennis' Blog

  4. Pingback: Relevance-light models are now retail’s big problem – Steve Dennis' Blog

  5. Pingback: An inconvenient truth about e-commerce: It’s largely unprofitable – Steve Dennis' Blog

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