The disruptive nature of e-commerce is undeniable. Entirely new business models are revolutionizing the way we buy. The transformative transparency created by all things digital has revolutionized product access, redefined convenience and lowered prices across a wide spectrum of merchandise and service categories. The radical shift of spending from brick & mortar stores to online shopping is causing a massive upheaval in retailers’ physical footprint, which looks to continue unabated.
But the inconvenient (and oft overlooked) truth is that much of e-commerce remains unprofitable–in many cases wildly so–and many corporate and venture capital investments have no prospect of earning a risk-adjusted ROI.
While it was once thought that the economics of selling online were vastly superior to operating physical stores, most brands–start-ups and established retailers alike–are learning that the cost of building a new brand, acquiring customers and fulfilling orders (particularly if product returns are high) make a huge percentage of e-commerce transactions fundamentally profit proof. Slowly but surely the bloom is coming off the rose.
Despite the hype–and a whole lot of VC funding–it’s increasingly clear that most of pure-play retail is dying, as L2’s Scott Galloway lays out better than I can. We have already seen the implosion of the flash-sales sector and the collapsing valuations of once high-flying brands like Trunk Club and One King’s Lane. Just the other day Walmart announced it was acquiring ModCloth, reportedly for less than the cumulative VC investment. A broader correction appears to be on the horizon and I suspect we will see a number of high-profile, digitally native brands get bought out at similarly discounted prices. And, ironically, we will continue to witness a doubling down of efforts by many of these same brands to expand their physical footprints, some of which is certain to end badly.
The challenges for traditional retailers and their “omni-channel” efforts are even more vexing. Walmart, Pier 1, H&M and Michaels are among the many retailers that have been criticized for their slowness to embrace digital shopping. Yet I suspect their seemingly lackadaisical approach owes more to their understanding of e-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem than corporate malfeasance. Alas, more and more retailers are increasing their investment in online shopping and cross-channel integration only to experience a migration of sales from the store channel to e-commerce, frequently at lower profit margins. Moreover, this shift away from brick & mortar sales is causing these same retailers to shutter stores, with no prospect of picking up that volume online. The risk of a downward spiral cannot be ignored.
Given the trajectory we are on it’s inevitable that more rational behavior will creep back into the market. But with Amazon’s willingness to lose money to grow share and investor pressure on traditional retailers to “rationalize” their store fleets, I fear it will take several years for the dust to truly settle.
In the meantime, e-commerce continues to be a boon for consumers and a decidedly mixed bag for investors.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.