Being Remarkable · Collapse of the middle · Retail

Retail earnings: The best of times, the worst of times

This is a big earnings period for retailers. As the reports roll in, it’s increasingly clear that it’s both the best of times and the worst of times for retail.

While performance overall is, on average, much better than a year ago, what continues to come into sharper relief are three inescapable conclusions. First, as I have been saying for years, the idea that physical retail is dying is abject nonsense. Second, retailers that are stuck in a cycle of boring are getting crushed, and the middle is collapsing. Third, as our friends at Deloitte have recently outlined in depth, the bifurcation of retail is becoming more pronounced. The overall conclusion is that the difference between the haves and the have nots is ever more distinct.

On the first point, strong performance from multiple brick-and-mortar dominant retailers, including Target and Home Depot, underscores that stores are not only going to be around for a long time, they will continue to have the dominant share of retail in many categories for the foreseeable future.

On my second point, significant underperformance ( JC Penney ), store closings ( Sears Holdings ) and bankruptcies (Toys “R” Us) continue to be concentrated among those retailers that have failed to carve out a meaningful position toward the more value, convenience-oriented end of the spectrum or, conversely, to move in a more focused, upscale experiential strategic direction. Those that continue to swim in a sea of sameness edge ever closer to the precipice. Increasingly, it’s death in the relentlessly boring middle.

The great bifurcation point, of course, is related to this phenomenon. Despite the retail apocalypse narrative, solidly executing retailers at either end of the spectrum continue to perform well. Sales, profits and store openings are robust at TJX Companies , Walmart and many others that play on the value end. A similar story can be painted for the premium, service-oriented retail brands such as Nordstrom and Williams-Sonoma.

As the scorecards continue to come in, there are a few key things we should bear in mind. The most important is that better is not the same as good. While positive sales and expanding margins certainly beat the alternative, the improved performance at brands like Macy’s and Kohl’s should not reflexively make us think that all is now well. Their sales growth is more or less in line with overall category growth. So there isn’t any reason to believe they are growing relative market share, which is generally a pretty good proxy for improving customer relevance.

Second, we should expect decent earnings leverage with improved sales, given the relatively fixed cost nature of the business. It’s more important to put the margin performance in the context of “best in breed” competitors. Here, most in the gang of most improved still fall short.

Third, a rising tide tends to raise all ships. This happens to be a particularly good time for consumer spending. It’s anybody’s guess if, and how long, retail expenditures will meaningfully exceed the rate of inflation.

From a more strategic, longer-term perspective, we need to sort out what is at the core of improving outcomes. If it’s riding the wave of a particularly ebullient economic cycle, that’s wonderful but not likely sustainable. If it’s starting to realize more fully the benefits of major technology investments, asset redeployment and/or picking up share from a rash of store closings on the part of competitors, that’s also nice, but those gains are likely to plateau fairly quickly. If margin improvement comes from big cost reductions, those often are more one-time gains and may ultimately weaken a given retailer’s competitive position over time.

What really matters, of course, is that most of the gains are coming from fundamentally being more intensely relevant and remarkable than the customer’s other choices. Viewed from this lens, many retailers’ improved results are necessary but far from sufficient.

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.  

September 6th I will be in New York for the Retail Influencer Network Kick-off.  On September 19th I’ll be speaking at Total Retail Tech in Dallas. The following Monday I’m headed to Austin to do the opening keynote at the Next Conference.

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