So-called “asset-light” business models, where a company has relatively few capital assets compared to the overall size of its operations, have drawn increasing attention (and investor dollars) in recent years. Think Airbnb, Uber, Snap and many other essentially digital-only brands. The concept isn’t new. Brand licensing and many hotel management and franchise-based businesses have employed this formula for years.
In fact, the initial appeal of e-commerce was centered on the notion that a profitable business could be built without expensive physical stores loaded up with gobs of inventory. Then people started to learn that even with relatively little capital tied up in brick & mortar, both online-only brands and the e-commerce divisions of omni-channel retailers still have a hard time making money.
Recently, more and more traditional retailers have been drinking the asset-light Kool-Aid. Sears Holdings CEO Eddie Lampert has been jettisoning real estate and investing heavily in e-commerce while largely ignoring physical stores. Macy’s, HBC and other department and specialty stores have been closing and/or spinning off real estate assets galore. JCPenney is among a number of retailers that are bringing in outside entities to run parts of their business, effectively reducing the risk of a heavy commitment to physical space and inventory.
Clearly some of these moves may make sense as either savvy financial engineering strategies or targeted product/service offerings. Well, not for Sears, but perhaps for others.
Yet as we seek to understand what’s behind the headline grabbing announcements–with many more certain to come–we should grasp one key concept. The fundamental problem at Sears, Penney’s, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Dillard’s and a host of other long suffering retail brands is not that they have too many assets. The driving issue is that they have too little relevance for the assets they possess. In fact, we need look no further than last week’s strong earnings announcements from Home Depot and Walmart to see that retail companies can have enormous physical assets and still remain relevant.
Unfortunately, more times than not, focusing attention on driving down assets (the denominator of a success equation) instead of improving customer relevance (the numerator) only helps the investor math for a short time. This is not to say that store closings are not needed. But the evidence is clear that plenty of asset-heavy retailers have figured out how to make money without embracing the store closing panacea.
Leaders and Boards of struggling retailers may think they are pursuing a smart asset-light strategy. My fear is that most of them are only deepening their commitment to a relevance-light model. And that’s likely to end badly.
A version of this post appeared @Forbes where I have recently become a retail contributor. To see more click here.