Early in 2011, I first wrote about what I called “Discount Nation.” Having worked at Sears earlier in my career I was quite familiar with highly promotional retail. But what I was noticing was the ever growing intensity of discounting. Among traditional retailers the degree and frequency of deals was escalating. More brands were layering on loyalty programs or additional percents-off if you used their private label credit card. Free shipping was virtually ubiquitous during the 2010 holiday season. Newer business models, like the growing flash-sales segment, were trumpeting 40-60% off as the core element of their value proposition.
Since then it’s only gotten worse. The fastest growing segments of physical retail are off-price and dollar stores. Free shipping of online orders, once reserved for special promotional periods and often limited to higher order values, is fast becoming a basic consumer expectation. Minimum order sizes are falling and free returns & exchanges are becoming increasingly common. Rich discounts to incentivize trial now range from the sublime to the ridiculous (I’m looking at you Blue Apron). At any given time, it seems like virtually everything is on sale.
It’s easy to credit the transparency of the internet, cite the rise of digitally-native disruptive business models or simply blame the Amazon Effect for the erosion of any semblance of price integrity. And to be sure these are all contributors. But the reality is that it’s been a decades long process of retailers turning most of us into promiscuous shoppers. Regular price did not become the “sucker price” just in the last few years.
Some of this was inevitable; yet much is self-inflicted. Retailers could have chosen to focus on deep customer insight to deliver more relevant personalization. They could have invested in product innovation. They could have seen their physical stores as assets to leverage in creating a more harmonious and remarkable customer experience, rather than as liabilities to cost reduce and shutter.
We know that the relentless downward pressure on pricing only squeezes margins for all but the most cost efficient. As a result, many retailers find themselves standing at a precipice. The rather rosy forecasts for holiday spending are small comfort as it is clear that profits are another matter entirely and the harsh reality is that the future will not be evenly distributed. Living in Discount Nation may be great for consumers but it is disastrous for all too many retail brands that have failed to reinvent themselves and will be lucky to limp their way into 2018.
While it is too late for some, many brands still have a choice: engage in a discounting fueled race to the bottom or seek to do what is unique, intensely customer relevant and truly remarkable, where price is not the determining factor in the customer’s decision.
As they saying goes, choose wisely. And remember to hurry.
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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