A really bad time to be boring · Innovation · Retail

Will Macy’s ignite a new era of legacy retailer innovation?

The moderate department store sector has been struggling for some two decades; first losing share to category killers and discount mass merchants, then to off-price retailers and now, increasingly, to Amazon. Since 2008, department stores’ share of total retail has sunk from 2.8% to about 1.7%. Over 1,000 stores have been shuttered during the past few years with more sure to follow. J.C. Penney and Sears have seen their market values collapse, while Kohl’s, Dillard’s and Macy’s have significantly underperformed the market.

Recently, however, a certain ebullience has returned to the sector as financial performance has improved. Some observers now see a rebirth, while others are a bit more skeptical. It may well turn out that the past few months’ gains are more dead cat bounce than renaissance. Yet Macy’s has garnered considerable attention by stepping up its growth efforts under CEO Jeff Gennette. The first big step was announcing its Growth 50 Strategy earlier this year. Then, in just the past six weeks, two significant deals were announced. In early May, the company acquired Story, the Manhattan-based concept store, and made its founder Rachel Shechtman Macy’s new “chief brand experience officer.” And then just over a week ago Macy’s entered into a strategic alliance with b8ta, the experiential retailer and technology platform.

It remains to be seen whether these initiatives help relieve the epidemic of boring that struck Macy’s and its brethren years ago. Materially and fundamentally altering Macy’s stuck in the middle trajectory will take more than a couple of deals that look to affect a small percentage of its total business. The operational, experiential and product changes that are part of Growth 50 appear solid, but are far more evolutionary than revolutionary. And all of this comes against a backdrop of increasing competition from off-price retailers that are opening substantial number of stores (and aren’t yet close to mastering digital commerce), along with Amazon’s growing push into fashion.

Macy’s improved financial performance has to be put in the context of the broader market (Macy’s is barely keeping pace) and these innovation moves must be put in the context of their potential materiality (they aren’t likely to be). Still, Macy’s is to be applauded for its willingness to act and to embrace what I call a “culture of experimentation.” Given that the sector Macy’s competes in is virtually certain to keep shrinking, the only way for Macy’s to drive consistent, material profitable growth will be for them to steal significant market share. That will take more than incremental improvements or a random set of experiential pilots. These moves seem like a good, albeit limited, start.

While it’s easy to blame Amazon (and others) for the troubles that have befallen so many legacy retailers, the reality is that most of the wounds are self-inflicted. Too many of these retailers, including Macy’s, watched the last 15 or 20 years happen to them. They seemed to be believe that they could cost cut their way to prosperity and that mere tweaks to their product offering and customer experience would move the dial. Now, as many of them inch closer to the precipice, a few are acting—some rather more boldly than others.

The fact is they have no choice. The middle is collapsing under the weight of boring product, boring marketing and boring experiences. And you could not have picked a worse time to be boring. The only way out is to be dramatically more customer-relevant and to deliver a remarkable experience at scale. Being digital-first, offering a seamless customer experience, along with all the other buzzwords the pundit class likes to throw around (myself included) are fast becoming table-stakes. Necessary, but far from sufficient.

Traditional retailers are often pretty good at following others’ leads. I suspect that as Macy’s makes additional moves, many will be emulated by competitors. Yet the idea that legacy retailers will finally wake up to the need to be fundamentally more innovative seems unlikely. They mostly watched when it was clear that e-commerce was going to revolutionize shopping. They mostly stuck to channel-centric thinking and silo-ed behavior when it became clear that the customer was the channel. They mostly remained rooted in one-size-fits-all marketing strategies when it was obvious that we needed to treat different customers differently. And they continue to rely on store closings as a silver bullet, when the real problem is operating a brand that is not big enough for the stores they have.

Adding to my dire and admittedly cynical outlook is that many of the retailers that need to innovate the most still have no clue how to do it and, even if they did, lack the cash flow to make it happen. Sadly, for many, this will end badly.

For them, as the saying goes, the biggest problem is that they think they have time.

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 more on my speaking and workshops go here.

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