Just a couple of years ago the conventional wisdom was that e-commerce was going to wreak havoc with every aspect of physical retail. This “e-commerce will eat the world” hypothesis continues to drive the “retail apocalypse” nonsense. It has even caused some normally level-headed analysts (and some maybe not so much) to suggest that brick & mortar stores will cease to exist within 10 – 20 years. I’ll take the over on that bet.
As it turns out lots of folks still like to shop in stores, including–and I hope you are sitting down for this–millennials! It also turns out that many retail categories do not lend themselves to high (or even meaningful) online shopping penetration. But there is another reason that e-commerce is not going to get to 100%, much less 40%, market share any time soon: the economic are often terrible. And while Amazon is leveraging its massive scale and expertise to improve its anemic profit margins, for some high profile disruptive brands the profit challenges are only getting worse.
Earlier this year I wrote about pure-play e-commerce’s scaling problems calling attention to what I saw as the increasingly questionable economics of Wayfair, Stitch Fix and Blue Apron, among others. Quite a few folks challenged my conclusions, much as the excellent work by Peter Fader and Dan McCarthy on similar topics has attracted its share of critics. Aside from being called a Luddite and being told to do some anatomically impossible things, it was suggested that I failed to appreciate how these brands would soon realize the fruits of their massive investments in technology, customer acquisition and “brand” and start to make it rain (okay that’s my wording not theirs).
As luck would have it, we now have some updated facts (author’s note: historians believe data and objective truth were once important to drawing conclusions on any particular object of discourse). Wayfair reported its quarterly earnings just last week and, once again, sales were way up. And once again losses widened. They are now deep into what I refer to as their ruh-roh moment as customer acquisition costs have grown to a staggering $196. They are fast becoming the poster child for profitless prosperity (though I imagine Uber and WeWork might get jealous of that appellation).
Luxury marketplace Farfetch just went public, so we now have visibility into their economics. Their story is much like Wayfair’s. Booming sales, worsening profits and less than stellar marginal customer acquisition economics. Zalando, the Germany based online business, is also public and their latest earnings show great sales growth and deteriorating profits as well. Revolve has filed for an IPO and its financials reveal strong sales growth, little movement on profitability and some truly scary stats on high rates of returns. Coincidence, or an underlying business model issue?
The picture at Stitch Fix and Blue Apron is a bit murkier, but still points to the difficulty in scaling online only businesses. Stitch Fix continues to enjoy solid growth and is marginally profitable, but its growth trajectory is slowing markedly. For Blue Apron, they just reported another terrible quarter. The stock has cratered this year as the meal-kit brand attempts to rein in spiraling costs has resulted in significant customer defections and worsening customer acquisition. And this speaks to an underlying dilemma. These brands could stop investing in customers that have little or no chance of every being profitable, but then their sales growth would go from wow to tepid.
To be fair, there are a few online only brands that are scaling successfully. YNAP, which was acquired by Richemont earlier this year, is a case in point. The luxury e-tailer formed by the merger of Yoox and Net-a-porter is solidly profitable and continues to grow nicely, albeit now barely above the industry’s overall e-commerce growth rate. With much higher than average order size and customer lifetime value they are largely immune from the factors that hamstring or sink other pure-plays (high marginal fulfillment and customer acquisition costs).
As the majority of pure-play brands are private, we don’t much about their profitability. But anecdotally we know that some of the most high profile disruptive brands continue to post big losses. We know that several that were burning tons of cash were bailed out by Walmart. We know that one of the first things HBC’s new CEO did was sell off Gilt. Most importantly, we know that just about every digitally native brand is now opening physical stores. We also know that many of these brands are now seeing the majority of their marginal growth come from their brick & mortar locations. And we can suspect that when many of them leave the ranks of pure-plays their marginal economics get better–often dramatically so.
I will not be so bold as to say there will be no such thing as a profitable online only brand of any real size in a few years time. I am, however, confident that we will see several notable collapses within the next 12-18 months and that the real action in digital commerce will continue to be in the blurring of the lines between channels, not the growth of e-commerce at the expense of brick & mortar.
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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