Customer experience · Digital · Omni-channel · Retail

Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer

“Retail disruption” has been a popular buzz phrase for several years now. In fact, most of the retail brands that have received out-sized mentions in the business press–and commanded the adoring attention of industry conference attendees–for the past 5 years or so are somehow or other leveraging digital innovation to fundamentally re-work the consumer experience, gobble up market share and attract truckloads of venture capital.

Amidst this transformative reshaping of the retail landscape three things are clear:

  • Consumers have benefitted substantially from the introduction of new business models through more convenience, greater product access and lower prices.
  • This profound shift in the consumer value equation has put enormous pressure on industry incumbents that lack either the cost structure or agility to respond effectively.
  • A dramatic rationalization is gaining momentum as traditional players are being forced out of business or pressured to close and or shrink the foot-print of their stores, make huge investments in “omni-channel” capabilities and lower costs across the board.

Unfortunately what is lost in tales of this evolution is that most of the “disruptive” pure-play e-commerce brands have completely unsustainable business models and mostly what is happening is that venture capitalists (and other investors) are funding a transfer of wealth to the consuming public. So, on behalf of my fellow consumers, thanks venture capitalists.

Alas, this is unlikely to last much longer.

While many people think digital retail is some sort of license to print money, it’s becoming clear that e-commerce is virtually profit proof in categories with low transaction values, owing primarily to the substantial supply chains costs (particularly when brands offer free shipping and returns). Moreover, while it can be relatively easy and cheap to build an initial following online through public relations,  social media and other forms of peer-to-peer marketing, scaling an e-commerce only brand turns out to be extremely costly. Many of the buzziest pure-plays are now investing heavily in expensive branding efforts (as well as opening their own stores) in the hopes that size engenders profitability. Accordingly, initial expectations of break-evens are now being pushed out several years.

As the ROI of these efforts starts to come into sharper relief, my bet is many funding sources will lose their patience.

I’ve been an on-the-record skeptic for several years now, going back to when I called into question the sustainability of the flash-sales market well before the meltdown. More recently, I’ve been pointing out E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem. So I’m not suprised that recent valuations of several once high flying players have collapsed. And more folks are starting to take notice. Professional smart guy (and noted wise ass) Scott Galloway agrees and has been on the “pure play doesn’t work” train for some time. Expect more to join us.

To be clear, a few digital-first brands will likely emerge as sustainable value creators. Brands with high enough average order values to overcome high delivery costs are better positioned (though Net-a-porter’s inability to make money after all these years underscores how difficult this is). Those that deftly merge online and offline experiences–think Warby Parker and Bonobos–also improve the odds (though, side-note, don’t be misled by the high productivity of their initial locations and comparisons to other brands’ productivity stats. We need to understand the four-wall profitability of these new stores and make comparisons to traditional retailers averages in like locations, not overall chain averages).

Mostly, however, we need to be careful to declare a brand successful without defining what we mean by success. If we define success as having grown revenues quickly and having been able to raise gobs of capital from investors to enable subsidizing consumers on a massive scale, than clearly Amazon and dozens of others are wildly successful. If we define success as creating enormous pricing pressure and raising the cost of doing business so as to push traditional players into a double-bind than, yes, mission accomplished.

But if we determine success as having demonstrated the ability to deliver a new and better customer experience AND earn a risk appropriate return on capital than I’m not sure any pure-play E-commerce player of any size is yet successful.

I will go on the record as saying far more pure plays will go bust in the next three years (or get sold at valuations well below their most recent funding) than will emerge as truly successful.

Until then, enjoy the low prices and the free shipping, and if you get some time, send the nice folks funding and others a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” note.






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