Working on the wrong problem

When we see a brand struggling–or we find ourselves working within a flailing or failing organization–the first order of business should be clear. We need to understand the root causes. Once we’ve become keenly aware of what’s driving our problem–and accepted the reality of the situation–we are then ready to move into developing and launching a course of action.

So if the path is clear and obvious, why do so many retailers–and scores of other types of organizations, for that matter–get it so very wrong, so very often?

We regularly see retail brands hyper-focused on cost reductions when by far the bigger issue is lack of revenue growth (I’m looking at you Sears).

We see brands falling prey to the store closing delusion when often it turns out that closing stores en masse only makes matters worse.

We see brands blindly chasing the holy grail of all things omni-channel when, in most cases, they are merely spending millions of dollars to transfer sales from one pocket to the other–often at a lower margin.

We brands engaging in price wars they can never possibly win or without regard to the possibility that their customers aren’t even interested in the lowest price.

We see brands chasing average, the lowest common denominator, the one-size-fits-all solution because it seems safe. Yet it is precisely the most risky thing they could do.

Far too often we fail to pierce the veil of denial.

Far too often we fall victim to conventional wisdom, what we’ve always done or what we think Wall Street wants.

Far too often we ascribe wisdom to shrewd salespeople or charismatic and clever charlatans.

Far too often we fail to do the work, to ask for help, to dig deep to understand what’s really going on.

We can work really hard. We can focus our energies and those of our teams we great alacrity and intensity. We can pile on the data, build persuasive arguments and rock a really slick PowerPoint presentation. We can tell ourselves a story that convinces us we must be right.

But if we aren’t working on the right problem that’s all a colossal waste of time.

 

 

Retail’s great deleveraging

Over the past several quarters an awful lot of retail brands have reported disappointing earnings. Expect that to continue.

Some of this is because of tepid overall consumer demand in certain categories. Apparel comes to mind. But it goes far beyond simple macro-economics.

We are going through the great deleveraging of retail. And for many brands this will end badly.

When retailers operate a fleet of strong brick & mortar locations with growing revenues, small increases in sales typically convert powerfully to greater profits and return on invested capital. Yet when revenues are headed in the other direction the converse is true. The high fixed cost nature of physical stores can quickly make a given location financially untenable when sales sag. This is the primary reason we are seeing a virtual tsunami of store closings.

But store closings typically cause deleveraging as well.  Many marketing, supply chain, administrative and other costs are relatively fixed. Pull volume out of the system through massive store closings and other types of deleveraging occur.

A lot of folks seem to think that aggressive investments in digital channels and omni-channel integration are the silver bullet answer. But that’s often not true. There is also a relatively fixed cost nature of fulfilling and shipping a direct-to-consumer order. Shift sales from a physical store where the marginal cost of filling an order is comparatively low to e-commerce, where the marginal cost is higher and, once again, the financial leverage gets worse, not better.

Most retailers are investing heavily in omni-channel integration capabilities. Many of these investments are necessary, but not sufficient. If all we are doing is adding a lot of cost to the system without gaining market share and becoming meaningfully more customer relevant, we are once again deleveraging our underlying economics.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that retailers experiencing relatively flat sales overall through a combination of minor declines in physical store sales, but strong increases online are seeing profits erode. Deleveraging is to blame.

Ultimately, the greatest long-term leverage comes from being more remarkable and more intensely customer relevant in ways that grow share of wallet and engender true loyalty, not by squeezing out operating costs and closing stores.

Show me a retailer that is all about cost-cutting and “rationalizing” its real estate and most often you’ve shown me a brand that is out of ideas. Far too often that merely confirms that the downward spiral has begun. Dead brand walking.

Stop blaming Amazon for department store woes

Given Amazon’s staggering growth and willingness to lose money to grab market share it’s easy to blame them for everything that is ailing “traditional” retail overall–and the  department store sector in particular.

In fact, with announcements last week from Macy’s to Kohl’s and Sears to JC Penney that could only charitably be called “disappointing” many folks that get paid to understand this stuff reflexively jumped on the “it’s all Amazon’s fault” bandwagon. Too bad they are mostly wrong.

The fact is the department store sector has been losing consumer relevance and share for a long, long time–and certainly well before Amazon had even a detectable amount of competing product in core department store categories.

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The fact is it’s just as logical to blame off-price and warehouse club retailer growth–which is almost entirely done in physical locations, by the way–for department stores’ problems.

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The fact is that, despite other challenges along the way, Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus have maintained share by transitioning a huge amount of their brick & mortar business to their online channels and have closed only a handful of stores in the last few years. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus now both derive some 25% of their total sales from e-commerce.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Amazon isn’t stealing business from the major department store players. Clearly they are. And as Amazon continues to grow its apparel business they will grab more and more share.

But the underlying reason for department stores decades long struggle is the sector’s consistent inability to transform their customer experience, product assortments, marketing strategies and real estate to meet consumers’ evolving needs.

More recently, those brands that have been slow to embrace digital first retail are scrambling to play catch up. Those that still haven’t broken down the silos that create barriers to a frictionless shopping experience will continue to hemorrhage customers and cash.

Most importantly those that think they can out Amazon Amazon are engaged in a race to the bottom. And as Seth reminds us, the problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

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The store closing panacea

There has been a strong and growing narrative that the single smartest thing a struggling retailer can do is to close stores and, in some cases, a lot of them. I first touched on this nearly three years ago in my post “Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion.”

There is no question that, in aggregate, the United States has too much retail space. There is no question that, in concept, the growth of e-commerce can allow an omni-channel retailer to serve some trade areas more profitably without a store and some trade areas with a smaller box. The key is to understand “some” and that starts with understanding why a given brand is under-performing in the first place. The other key is to understand the role that brick & mortar locations play in driving e-commerce–and vice versa.

In most cases, as recent events are bearing out more and more, store closings make an already irrelevant retailer less relevant. And frequently much less profitable as well.

Nearly 90% of traditional retail is still done in physical stores. In five years it will still be about 85%. The math is not that complicated.

Make it harder to get to a store OR make returns in a store OR order online and pick up in a store OR go to a store to research potential purchases OR learn about the brand, etc. and a retailer is almost certain to lose way more business (and margin dollars) to a competitor’s physical store in the vacated trade area than the brand “rationalizing” its store count will ever be able to make up through its website. This is why JC Penney, Home Depot and Lowes should write Eddie Lampert thank you notes pretty much every day.

Moreover, the symbiotic nature of digital and physical channels should not be ignored, yet often is. Several retailers–Sears is perhaps the best example–made the assumption that by investing in digital at the expense of physical stores they could more profitability serve their customer base over the long-term. As it turns out (and as more retailers are learning), e-commerce is often less profitable at the margin than brick & mortar operations and that when you close stores you actually make it more difficult for your e-commerce business to thrive. Oops.

Any retailer in trouble should absolutely analyze whether closing and/or “right-sizing” stores will be accretive to cash-flow. But that analysis MUST include the impact on long-term competitiveness and digital channel sales in the affected store’s trade area. Thinking you are helping when in fact you are merely initiating a downward spiral is a pretty big mistake to make.

Any analyst pushing for store closings and footprint down-sizing should be mindful that it is almost never the case that a struggling retailer’s ills are because they have too many stores or that the stores they have are fundamentally too large. Rather, it is because their brand relevance is not big enough for the channels, both physical and digital, that they have. Be careful what you wish for.

Show me a retail brand that is remarkable and relevant enough to command the share of attention that drives share of market and I’m virtually certain their executives are not spending a second on down-sizing. In fact, most are opening physical stores (e.g Nordstrom, Warby Parker, Amazon, TJX) and, in many cases, a bunch of them.

Show me a retail brand that is consumed with store closings and expense reduction and there is a pretty good chance they are a dead brand walking.

 

Thanks to those who have encouraged me along my path as I took a six month break from writing this blog. During my sabbatical I started a new blog on waking up to a life of love, purpose and passion at any age, which can be found at http://www.IGotHereAsFastAsICould.blog.

It’s easy to vote ‘no’

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” ~Pema Chodron

It’s rarely the case that organizations utterly lack new ideas or things to try. They just get voted down most of the time.

Many of us when confronted with change are quick to find fault with moving ahead. It might not work. We could look foolish. It just makes me uncomfortable. Maybe I’ll get fired. Best to just say ‘no.’

Most of us are filled with “should’s.” I should finish that novel or start that business. I should speak up more. I should finally make that trip. I should deal with the unfinished business with my family. And on and on. But our fear keeps us stuck and ‘no’ is all too often the seemingly safe choice.

Voting ‘yes’ more often isn’t the path of least resistance and it is far from a guarantee of success. Not everyone will get it, few may have your back and others might shun you entirely.

Stay the course. Be vulnerable. Chase remarkable.

Going out on a limb is where we’re needed, where we’re called to be, where the magic happens.

And your vote counts.

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Coffee is for closers

Coffee may be for closers, but that’s about all the rewarding we should do. The relentless focus on transactions, conversion rates and closing statistics is well past its expiration date.

Sure you could get married on a first date, but I’ll wager that’s not the best idea.

Today the shift must be toward building relationships–and that starts with earning attention and establishing trust, not making a quick deal.

In a new model of retail KPIs we start first with awareness, which is mostly about breaking through the noise and achieving share of attention. We then focus on engagement that is intensely relevant and remarkable in the truest sense of that word. And we accept that one transaction doesn’t count for much, particularly if it’s achieved through uneconomic and unsustainable discounting. What does matter is continued engagement and interaction that, overtime, leads to loyalty (not mere frequency) and brand advocacy.

Brands that adopt this mindset and plan of action will be far better positioned for a digital-first, customer-in-charge world.

For everyone else, well, enjoy the steak knives.

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Shut up and play the hits

Maybe you’ve been to the famous comedian’s show where by far the biggest laughs come from the bits you’ve already seen him do on Fallon. And Kimmel. And YouTube. And his five year old Netflix special.

Maybe you’ve excitedly gone to hear that marketing guru at a big industry conference and grown weary and uninterested when she begins by talking about her just released book, you know, the one you haven’t read. But you instantly light up again when she starts to riff on the ideas from a decade old tome that formed the basis of her TED talk that you’ve watched a half dozen times.

Maybe you’ve attended a concert by an iconic rock band and became impatient with the lead singer’s extended stage patter. And then as soon as they start to play the new stuff–or maybe some deep track from a classic album you’ve always skipped past–you know that’s your signal to head to the rest room or go grab a beer.

For any kind of artist–and we’re all artists now–it’s a whole lot easier to go for the well-tested laugh line, crank up the guaranteed crowd pleaser or simply default to the thing that made you popular (or at least accepted) in the first place. As it turns out, most of us like safety and there is safety in the familiar.

Organizations and brands aren’t a whole lot different. Most non-profits turn again and again to golf tournaments and galas to raise money. In the CPG  world, the core strategy is to churn out seemingly endless iterations of best sellers. And just about every retailer goes back to the well over and over again with minor tweaks to long-standing merchandising and marketing practices.

Yet the evidence is clear. Eventually we grow tired of the greatest hits. What worked well for so long, no longer does. And with more and more art and content and ideas and disruption being produced literally by the second–accessible to nearly everybody at any time, anywhere–what once seemed remarkable is anything but.

Is there an audience who only wants regurgitated versions of what you or your organization has always done, who can’t possibly accept new material, who has no interest in being challenged? Perhaps.

Is that the audience that is going to get you to where you need to be?

 

Pema Nest