As much attention as both the growth and disruptive nature of e-commerce receives, few observers seem realize that often the economics of selling online are terrible (what I often refer to as “the inconvenient truth about e-commerce”). The fact is only a handful of venture capital funded “pure-plays” have (or will ever) make money and most are now embarked on a capital intensive foray into physical retail that even Alanis Morissette would find deeply ironic. Amazon, which accounts for about 45% of all US e-commerce, has amassed cumulative losses in the billions, and even after more than 20 years still operates at below average industry margins. And while I have yet to see a comprehensive breakout, it’s clear that the e-commerce divisions of many major omni-channel retailers run at a loss–or at margins far below their brick & mortar operations.
So why is this?
Last month I wrote a post pointing out how high rates of returns, coupled with the growing prevalence of free shipping “both ways”, makes certain online product categories virtually profit proof. While the impact of this factor tends to be isolated to categories with relatively low order values and a high incidence of returns or exchanges (e.g. much of apparel), a different dynamic has wider ranging implications and profit killing power. I’m referring to the increasingly high cost of acquiring (and retaining) customers online.
Investors have been lured (some might say “suckered”) into supporting “digitally-native” brands because of what they believed to be the lower cost, easily scaled, nature of e-commerce. Seeing how quickly Gilt, Warby Parker, Bonobos and others went from nothing to multi-million dollars brands, encouraged venture capital money to pour in. What many failed to understand were the diseconomies of scale in customer acquisition. As it turns out, many online brands attract their first tranche of customers relatively inexpensively, through word of mouth or other low cost strategies. Where things start to get ugly is when these brands have to get more aggressive about finding new and somewhat different customers. Here three important factors come into play:
- Marketing costs start to escalate. As brands seeking growth need to reach a broader audience, they typically start to pay more and more to Facebook, Google and others to grab the customer’s attention and force their way into the customer’s consideration set. Early on customers were acquired for next to nothing; now acquisition costs can easily exceed more than $100 per customer.
- More promotion, less attraction. As the business grows, the next tranches of customers often need more incentive to give the brand a try, so gross margin on these incremental sales comes at a lower rate. It’s also the case that typically these customers get “trained” to expect a discount for future purchases, making them inherently less profitable then the initial core customers for the brand.
- Questionable (or lousy) lifetime value. It’s almost always the case that customers that are acquired as the brand scales have lower incremental lifetime value, both because on average they spend less and because they are inherently more difficult to retain. It’s becoming increasingly common for fast growing online dominant brands to have large numbers of customers that are projected to have negative lifetime value.
So it’s easy to see how an online only brand can look good at the outset, only to have the profit picture deteriorate despite growing revenues. The marginal cost of customer acquisition starts to creep up and the average lifetime value of the newly acquired customer starts to go down, often precipitously. Accordingly it’s not uncommon for some of the sexiest, fastest growing brands to have many customers that are not only unprofitable, but have little or no chance of being positive contributors ever.
While it’s not the only reason, this challenging dynamic explains in large part the collapse of valuations in the flash-sales market in total, as well as several major flameouts like One Kings Lane. It also helps explain why so many pure-plays are investing heavily in physical locations. To be sure, opening stores attracts new customers that are reticent to buy online. But another key factor is that customers can often be acquired in a store more cheaply than they can be by paying Facebook or Google.
Slowly but surely the world is starting to wake up to this phenomenon. The nonsense that is the meal-kit business model is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves as people start to question whether Blue Apron is a viable business if it spends $400 to acquire new customers. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Increasingly, many “sophisticated” investors are backing off the high valuations that digitally-native brands are seeking to fuel the next stage of their growth, leaving these companies to thank their lucky stars that Walmart seems to relish its role as a VC bailout fund. More folks are starting to realize that physical retail is definitely different, but far from dead. And, in another bit of irony, some even are starting to see that many traditional brands (think Best Buy, Nordstrom, Home Depot and others) are actually well positioned to benefit from their stores and improving omni-channel capabilities.
It may take some time, but eventually the underlying economics tell the tale.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.
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