A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Better is not the same as good for department stores stuck in the middle

As most U.S. department stores reported earnings recently, a certain level of ebullience took hold. Macy’sKohl’s and even Dillard’s, for crying out loud, beat Wall Street expectations, sending their respective shares higher. J.C. Penney, which has failed to gain any real traction despite Sears’ flagging fortunes, continued to disappoint, suggesting that I probably need to revisit my somewhat hopeful perspective from last year. And in the otherworldliness that is the stock market, Nordstrom — the only department store with a truly distinctive value proposition and objectively good results — traded down on its failure to live up to expectations.

Given how beaten down the moderate department store sector has been, a strong quarter or two might seem like cause for celebration–or at least guarded optimism. I beg to differ.

First, we need to remember that the improved performance comes mostly against a backdrop of easy comparisons, an unusually strong holiday season and tight inventory management. There is also likely some material (largely one-time) benefit from the significant number of competitive store closings and aggressive cost reduction programs that most have put in place.

Second, and more importantly, we cannot escape the fact that mid-priced department stores in the U.S. (and frankly, much of the developed world) all continue to suffer from an epidemic of boring. Boring assortments. Boring presentation. Boring real estate. Boring marketing. Boring customer service. And on and on. For the most part, they are all swimming in a sea of sameness at a time when the market continues to bifurcate and it’s increasingly clear that, for many players, it’s death in the middle. It’s nice that some are doing a bit better, but as I pointed out last summer, we should not confuse better with good.

To actually be good — and to offer investors a chance for sustained equity appreciation — a lot more has to happen. And while being less bad may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Most critically, all of the major players still need to amplify their points of differentiation on virtually all elements of the shopping experience. It’s comparatively simple to close cash-draining stores, root out cost inefficiencies and tweak assortments. It’s another thing entirely to address the fundamental reasons that department stores have been ceding market share to the off-price, value-oriented, fast-fashion and more focused specialty players for more than a decade. And now with apparel and home goods increasingly in Amazon’s growth crosshairs, there has never been a more urgent need to not only to embrace radical improvement, but to really step on the gas.

Without a complete re-imagination of the department store sector — and frankly who even knows what that could actually look like — near-term improvements only pause the segment’s long-term secular decline.

It’s unclear how much the eventual demise of Sears and the inevitable closing of additional locations on the part of other players will benefit those still left standing. It’s unclear whether the current up-cycle in consumer spending will be maintained for more than another quarter or two. What is crystal clear, however, is that incremental improvement in margin and comparable sales growth rates merely a point or two above inflation never makes any of these mid-priced department stores objectively good.

Ultimately, without radical change, it all comes down to clawing back a bit of market share and squeezing out a bit more efficiency in what continues to be a slowly sinking sector riddled with mediocrity. Boring, but true.

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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NOTE: March 19 – 21st I’ll be in Las Vegas for ShopTalk, where I will be moderating a panel on new store design as well as doing a Tweetchat on “Shifting eCommerce Trends & Technologies.”  

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