Kohl’s and JC Penney both reported sales and earnings this past week. And while there is always plenty of discussion about how they did relative to Wall Street’s expectations, that’s all rather beside the point. Whether Kohl’s deepening partnership with Amazo will drive incremental traffic or whether Penney’s newish CEO will get her arms around the flagging retailer’s inventory problem is all just so much lipstick on the pig.
It scarcely matters whether you call it boring, mediocre, unremarkable or undifferentiated retail. The fact is that it’s death in the middle, and good enough simply no longer is. As I have written about before, the moderate department store sector was in decline long before Amazon was anywhere close to being the force it is today. Most of department stores’ woes were caused first by discount mass merchandiser expansion and then category killer growth and, more recently, the proliferation of off-price retail. In fact, to put a point on this, in the face of Kohl’s and Penney’s negative store comps, TJX posted strong increases.
I coined the phrase retail’s great bifurcation and began writing and speaking about it in 2015. Ever since then, the hollowing out of the boring middle has continued unabated, as highlighted in some detail in a Deloitte study last year. Unfortunately, we aren’t close to seeing the end of this, despite the huge number of store closings in recent years.
Of course, none of this is to say that there aren’t many opportunities for Kohl’s, JC Penney, Macy’s, et al to materially enhance their customer experience and financial performance. But better isn’t the same as good, and a slightly better version of mediocre is hardly a prescription for sustainable long-term success. Moreover, while closing stores may be necessary, such actions are far from sufficient to restore a struggling brand to remarkable customer relevance and a high return on capital. Wall Street seems to love the “shrinking to prosperity” narrative, but you’d be hard pressed to name a single brand that has actually done it and retained any real scale.
Emerging from the sea of sameness that epitomizes most department store brands’ offering today requires a first step, followed by many more. But the notion that some combination of store closings, cost reductions and strategic alliances—or that sprinkling an “experience” or two throughout an otherwise unremarkable store—will lead to materially improved market share and profitability is not only wishful thinking, it is abject nonsense.
The hole that many of these brands need to crawl out of is deep. Much of what several of them are doing is what I call “innovating to parity”—that is, merely playing catch up to what the competition is offering and consumers have come to expect. And not only does that not ultimately convey competitive advantage, all too often by the time the laggards implement their new offerings the competition is another two or three steps ahead.
What’s most insidious, however, is the low expectations that now seem to be built into how we view many of these struggling retailers. Macy’s shares were up on their recent earnings report because they managed a minuscule sales increase. But let’s please remember that anything less than about 3% growth is a loss of relative market share. Unless these retailers start posting much greater gains in sales and profits, an investor might do well on a short-term trade, but none of these retailers will ever get back to a position of being remarkable in both the customer and the investors mind.
To be sure the journey to remarkable has to start somewhere. But we are kidding ourselves if we think incremental improvement will keep those trapped in the boring middle around for the long-term. And to quote Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield (channeling Miguel de Cervantes) “the trouble is you think you have time.”
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.