A really bad time to be boring · Retail

Department Store Shares Are Up. Your Hopes Shouldn’t Be.

Amidst reports that holiday spending was up nearly 4.9%, some optimism about the American moderate department store sector has started to creep back in. In fact, right after these reports shares of Macys, Dillards, Kohls and JC Penney spiked. It’s all a bit baffling.

On the one hand, if I were a betting person, I expect that these brands will report decent, maybe even objectively good, numbers this quarter. Consumer confidence is strong, the stock market is up and many regular folks (mistakenly) believe that their income will be up materially on the heels of the new tax bill. From a retailer perspective, the burst of cold weather bodes well for sales of seasonal items. Tighter inventories, store closings and other expense reductions should lead to year-over-year profit improvements.

On the other hand, none of this fundamentally changes the relative competitive positions of these retailers. And that means until several other things change, the overall outlook for the sector remains pretty gloomy.

As I pointed out several months ago, at least two major things must happen before any optimism about the prospects of any of the middle market department store brands is warranted.

First, there is still too much capacity chasing a shrinking pie of spending. While it may turn out that these chains picked up a bit of market share over the holidays, the sector remains in overall decline and any blip in consumer spending ebullience isn’t very likely to continue into 2018. More store closings need to occur to get supply better in line with sustained demand. As Sears sinks into oblivion, and the remaining big four close additional locations early next year, there is some hope for the future. For now though, capacity remains out of whack.

More importantly, the major moderate department stores have picked a really bad time to be boring. They remain stuck in the vast, largely undifferentiated middle, drowning in a sea of sameness. And, unfortunately, it’s death in the middle. These major chains all have considerable work to do to create a more harmonious shopping experience, to up there game on personalization and to find places in both their assortment strategies and customer experience to be more relevant and remarkable. They remain overly attached to competing on price, when fundamentally that is deciding to compete in a race to the bottom which–spoiler alert–they will never win.

The notion that department stores are fundamentally doomed is just as silly as the retail apocalypse narrative. So too is the idea that Amazon is solely to blame for department store woes. Yet the structural reasons for the declining state of the sector remain intact. The only way any of these brands deserve stock appreciation is for more rationalization to occur (which is inevitable) and for them to truly embrace more innovation and to have the courage to become more intensely relevant and remarkable.

Then again, there is always the hope they get bought out by Amazon.

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.  For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

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