Over the past several quarters an awful lot of retail brands have reported disappointing earnings. Expect that to continue.
Some of this is because of tepid overall consumer demand in certain categories. Apparel comes to mind. But it goes far beyond simple macro-economics.
We are going through the great deleveraging of retail. And for many brands this will end badly.
When retailers operate a fleet of strong brick & mortar locations with growing revenues, small increases in sales typically convert powerfully to greater profits and return on invested capital. Yet when revenues are headed in the other direction the converse is true. The high fixed cost nature of physical stores can quickly make a given location financially untenable when sales sag. This is the primary reason we are seeing a virtual tsunami of store closings.
But store closings typically cause deleveraging as well. Many marketing, supply chain, administrative and other costs are relatively fixed. Pull volume out of the system through massive store closings and other types of deleveraging occur.
A lot of folks seem to think that aggressive investments in digital channels and omni-channel integration are the silver bullet answer. But that’s often not true. There is also a relatively fixed cost nature of fulfilling and shipping a direct-to-consumer order. Shift sales from a physical store where the marginal cost of filling an order is comparatively low to e-commerce, where the marginal cost is higher and, once again, the financial leverage gets worse, not better.
Most retailers are investing heavily in omni-channel integration capabilities. Many of these investments are necessary, but not sufficient. If all we are doing is adding a lot of cost to the system without gaining market share and becoming meaningfully more customer relevant, we are once again deleveraging our underlying economics.
Therefore, it should not surprise us that retailers experiencing relatively flat sales overall through a combination of minor declines in physical store sales, but strong increases online are seeing profits erode. Deleveraging is to blame.
Ultimately, the greatest long-term leverage comes from being more remarkable and more intensely customer relevant in ways that grow share of wallet and engender true loyalty, not by squeezing out operating costs and closing stores.
Show me a retailer that is all about cost-cutting and “rationalizing” its real estate and most often you’ve shown me a brand that is out of ideas. Far too often that merely confirms that the downward spiral has begun. Dead brand walking.