Collapse of the middle · Embrace the blur · Retail

Strange bedfellows? Legacy retailer and disruptive brand partnerships are on the rise.

As the middle continues to collapse—and many well established retailers struggle to move from boring to remarkable—brands must continually seek new ways to become unique, more intensely relevant and truly memorable. One strategy that seems to be picking up steam involves so-called digitally native brands creating alliances with much larger legacy retail companies. Earlier this month, as just one example, Walgreen’s announced a partnership with fast growing online beauty brand Birchbox. An initial pilot will feature a Birchbox offering in 11 Walgreen stores.

The Walgreen’s and Birchbox deal is only the most recent of many business marriages forged in recent years. Target has been especially forward leaning, expanding its assortments via industry disruptors Casper (mattresses), Quip (ultrasonic toothbrushes) and Harry’s (razorblades), among more than a half dozen others. Nordstrom has been active as well, having added (and invested in) Bonobo’s (menswear) way back in 2012. More recently, it has augmented its offering with Reformation (women’s clothing) and Allbirds (shoes). Earlier this year Macy’s invested in and expanded the number of stores featuring b8ta’s store-within-a store concept and Blue Apron began testing distribution through Costco.

I first came to understand the potential power of these alliances when I worked on Sears’ 2002 acquisition of Lands’ End. While the roll-out of Lands’ End products at Sears was horribly botched (and hindered by Sears’ bigger problems), the strategic motivations are easy to grasp. For Sears, struggling to offer powerfully customer relevant brands that weren’t widely distributed at competing retailers, Land’s End held the promise of providing product differentiation, an image upgrade and acquiring new apparel shoppers. For Lands’ End, gaining access to hundreds of Sears stores provided substantially broadened customer reach, lower customer acquisition cost and improved product return rates. Importantly, Lands’ End management knew the biggest barrier to growing its customer base was making it easy for potential customers to experience the product in person—something only physical stores could help deliver. The Sears deal addressed this issue rapidly and at dramatically lower incremental capital investment.

More than 15 years later, the rationale for retailers with a large brick-and-mortar footprint and newer D2C brands to hook up is only stronger. In a world where consumers have nearly infinite product choices and it’s quite easy to shop on the basis of price, it’s never been more important for retailers to differentiate their assortments. Private brands (not “labels”) are one critically important element. Exclusive (or narrowly) distributed products is the other. Not only do these alliances present brands that are largely unique at retail, they can help boost a legacy brand’s overall image, attract new customers and drive incremental traffic.

For many fast-growing digitally native brands the appeal of such partnerships is compelling as well. While many of these brands are opening their own stores, some have used these partnership to test the waters prior to embarking on their own brick-and-mortar strategy. Some use wholesale distribution to drive incremental business in markets where their own stores won’t work. Others (Quip and Harry’s are prime examples) can expand their consumer reach when an owned store strategy simply won’t make sense given their particularly narrow products lines. The opportunity to dramatically expand customer awareness and trial with very little incremental marketing or capital investment is especially attractive.

Of course traditional retail and digitally native brands alike must be quite intentional about how strategic alliances advance their long-term goals. Yet done for the right reason and executed well, these partnerships can address real pain points for each and help accelerate growth. As Amazon continues to gobble up market share—and more and more tools are introduced to help consumers compare product features and prices from any and all retailers—retail brands will face increasing pressure to find meaningful and memorable points of differentiation. And, as the broader market is finally starting to accept, few disruptive direct-to-consumer brands can scale profitability without a material brick-and-mortar presence.

Seen in this light, the rise in these partnership is far from strange. Indeed, they often are quite logical. Which is why we are likely to see quite a few more in the very near future.

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.  

November 8th I’ll kick of the eRetailerSummit in Chicago. For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. 

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.