A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Retail

Sears lives to die another day

Against the odds—and over the objections of most creditors—Eddie Lampert has “saved” Sears, with a federal bankruptcy court judge approving the sale of the once-storied retailer to the billionaire hedge fund king.

At one level, we should admire the resilience of the former Sears CEO (and its principal shareholder, though ESL Holdings). Part Energizer bunny, part Michael Myers from the Halloween movies, part gag birthday cake candles, he just won’t die. At another level, it’s hard to imagine a bigger waste of time. Moreover, the idea that he is motivated to keep the company going to save some 45,000 jobs is laughable and undeniably cruel.

For more than a decade, we have witnessed the brand shrink and shrink. Under Lampert’s leadership, the majority of Sears and Kmart locations have been shuttered. Key brand assets have been sold off to keep the lights on. Comparable store sales have been down virtually every quarter since 2004, and e-commerce sales have consistently lagged the industry. Nothing in the latest Hail Mary move reverses a strong downward trajectory. In fact, the situation keeps going from bad to worse, and the current fragility presents growing challenges, as fellow Forbes.com contributor Warren Shoulberg highlights.

As I have touched on before, Sears has been in trouble for decades, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone could have restored the brand to its former glory, much less maintain it as a meaningfully profitable national retailer. While that may be an interesting thought piece or business school case study, the reality today is that Sears simply has no reason to exist in its current manifestation. Sears no longer offers anything that is remarkable to customers—and no strategic plan has been proffered to alter that. While there may be a few diehard fans (heh, heh) left, absent any nostalgic feelings, as a practical matter, no one will miss Sears when it is gone. There simply are plenty of better options to buy everything that Sears sells.

A Sears store in Hackensack, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Despite being a former Sears executive, I now only wish the insanity would stop. There is no plausible scenario in which Sears does not keep shrinking into oblivion. There are few assets left to fund operating losses. The company will struggle to get creditors to ship it product. Its management team is in tatters. It has no clear target customer groups or compelling value proposition. It has little cash to invest in the areas that desperately need improvement—most notably its remaining stores. And the competition only continues to grow stronger and have greater scale to apply against any resurgence.

So the world’s slowest liquidation sale has entered yet another chapter. I will leave it to others to debate whether this particular move is merely a “scheme to rob Sears and its creditors of assets” or whether it is a good-faith effort to keep Sears as a going concern. Regardless, it is good news for the many thousands of Sears associates who get to keep their jobs for a bit longer. Sadly, though, for most of them, it only delays the inevitable.

As the former Sears CEO (and my former boss) Alan Lacy recently said, “We know how this movie ends; I’m just not sure how many more minutes are left.” Dead brand walking.

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.  

On February 25th I will be doing the opening keynote at New Retail ’19 in Melbourne, Australia, followed the next week by ShopTalk in Las Vegas where I will be moderating an expert panel and participating in other events.

Death in the middle · Embrace the blur · Retail

My 13 ‘provocative’ retail predictions for 2018: So how’d I do?

‘Tis the season for annual retail predictions and, fear not dear reader, I will be sharing mine early in the New Year. Yet amidst all the prognostication nary a modern day Nostradamus gets fact checked on how well-honed their gift of prophecy actually turns out to be. I don’t want to be that guy.

So here’s a mostly objective–and decidedly self-indulgent–assessment of my Baker’s Dozen Of Provocative Retail Predictions For 2018.

  1. Physical retail isn’t dead. Boring retail is. This phrase later turned into a Forbes piece, which became my most popular post of the year. And the phrase itself started to catch on, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not (thanks Nike!). Regardless, as 2018 unfolded it seemed increasingly obvious that the retail apocalypse narrative was bogus. Sales in brick & mortar stores are up solidly this year, thousands of stores have opened, digitally-native brands like Warby Parker and Casper are accelerating the pace of their physical presence and Target, Walmart, Best Buy and many other largely brick & mortar-centric retailers have delivered strong results.
  2. Consolidation accelerates. Precise comparisons on mergers & acquisition activity and store closings are not yet available, but by any measure the pace of merger & acquisition activity was brisk. Macy’s, Target, Amazon, Nordstrom, Albertson’s, Kroger and Walmart were among the large players that scooped up one or more earlier stage, largely tech-driven companies. As growth stalls among mature brands, we’re seeing deals like Kors acquisition of Versace take center stage. The vast over-storing of US retail is also moving closer to equilibrium as thousands of surplus real estate shutters or gets repurposed.
  3. Honey, I shrunk the store. As predicted, 2018 brought a lot more activity here. Target, Ikea and Sam’s Club, among others, got more serious about opening scaled down versions of their big stores to squeeze into urban centers. Nordstrom announced that it would expand its totally re-imagined, service-centric “micro-concept” called Local. Less interesting–and potentially more perilous–were efforts on the part of over-spaced (i.e. under-customer relevant) retailers to sub-lease parts of their stores in a vain hope to shrink to prosperity.
  4. The difference between buying and shopping takes center stage. In my view, this trend becomes more obvious by the day, particularly as e-commerce keeps gaining share of “buying” (i.e. a more mission-focused customer journey where price, speed and convenience are especially valued), yet generally struggles with “shopping” (i.e. more discovery-based and tactile journeys where a more immersive experience is desired and face-to-face sales help may be important). Strategically this may have moved to center stage for more retailers (see Amazon’s moves into physical below), but there still is a general lack of understanding and appreciation here.
  5. Amazon doubles down on brick & mortar. Amazon hasn’t gone quite as far as I expected here (yet), but in addition to making some big changes within Whole Foods (their biggest physical store bet thus far) they introduced the Amazon 4 Star concept, expanded Amazon Books and Amazon GO (while hinting at thousands more to come) and continued to experiment with other expressions of Amazon in the physical realm, like their partnership with Kohl’s.
  6. Private brands and monobrands shine. The biggest acceleration came from Amazon, as they are on their way to a stable of more than 100 private brands. Traditional retailers continued to accelerate their own brands and/or largely exclusive offerings as an antidote to Amazon. Digitally-native vertical brands continued to shine, announcing plans to open more than 800 new stores. And Nike, among other manufacturers making a big push into direct-to-consumer, debuted their amazing new NYC flagship and Nike Live.
  7. Digital and analog learn to dance. Legacy brands (think Walmart, Target, Best Buy) that finally learned to embrace the blur and deliver a more harmonized (my, ahem, superior term for what most call “omnichannel”) experience across channels demonstrated great success. Brands that were already pretty good at it (Nordstrom, Sephora) continued to perform well. The upstart digitally native vertical brands continue to kill it, as they don’t care about channels, they care about the customer and use both digital and analog tools to deliver a remarkable retail experience. It appears finally that brand are starting to accept that digital help physical and vice versa.
  8. The great bifurcation widens. And it’s death in the middle. Well positioned retailers at either end of the price/value spectrum continue to grow sales and open stores. Brands stuck in the boring middle are getting killed. This year hundreds of stores that continue to swim in a seas of sameness have shuttered. Sears filed for bankruptcy. JC Penney finds itself in very serious trouble. It’s time to pick a lane.
  9. Omnichannel is dead. Digital-first, harmonized retail rules. This is an expansion of #7 above. The smart retailers are realizing that it’s not about being everywhere, it’s about showing up in remarkable and relevant ways where it really matters in the customer journey and eliminating the discordant notes and amplifying the ‘wow’. I did make a mistake in anchoring this prediction on being “digital-first”–which I have since corrected in my keynotes and in my forthcoming book. While leveraging digital technology to enhance the customer experience can be hugely important in many cases, it’s clear that not all customer journeys start in a digital channel and that digital is not always better.
  10. Pure plays say “buh-bye.” Name a profitable brand of any size that started online and has yet to open brick & mortar stores. Yeah, there are a few, but there numbers are dwindling rapidly. In fact, brands like Warby Parker that once thought they could scale without physical stores are now opening dozens and seeing most of their growth come from their stores. Brands like Everlane that said they’d never open stores are now doing so. Brands like Wayfair are struggling to figure out how to get returns and customer acquisition costs down to remotely profitable levels without a physical presence. And don’t even get me started on Blue Apron. The era of pure-play is, for all intents and purposes, over.
  11. The returns problem is ready for its close up. Arguably, this area got even more attention than predicted. Earlier this year I revisited the issue I first referred to as the industry’s “ticking time bomb” in 2017. Multiple media outlets featured stories on how the growth of e-commerce is leading to very unfortunate outcomes within many online dominant retailers, including Amazon. In response, we are seeing more venture capital funded companies like Good Returns and ReturnRunners getting funded to scale their solutions to retailers.
  12. “Cool” technology underwhelmsDid you buy much on Alexa this year, use a “magic mirror” or experience a store through VR? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Voice commerce will be a big thing some day. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will go from basic applications and ways to eliminate costs to truly delivering a more remarkable and personalized experience. And stores will become far more immersive through the application of advanced technology. Just not this year.
  13. The search for scarcity and the quest for remarkable ramps up. Consumers have access to just about anything they want from anywhere in the world just about anytime they want it. What was scarce a decade ago–price comparisons, product reviews, product access, speedy and affordable home delivery–is now virtually ubiquitous. Yet boring and mediocre retail still abounds. What’s scarce are truly customer relevant and remarkable experiences. You used to be able to get away with being good enough. Today, not so much. The retailers that continue to struggle often find themselves stuck in the middle, trying to cost cut their way to prosperity, hoping to win a race to the bottom. Good luck with that.

2018 clearly brought more and different levels of disruption. 2019 is likely to bring more of the same, despite what I suspect will be some moderation in store closings. But that’s a different post.

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.  

Death in the middle · Retail

Eddie Lampert just can’t stop picking at Sears’ carcass

As some readers may know, I began my retail career at Sears. And these days, when folks ask how long I worked there, I typically say, “Too long.” The more accurate, less snarky answer is 12 years.

I learned a tremendous amount during my tenure and, for the most part, am proud of the work I led or was deeply involved with. I have also never regretted leaving when I did. Much of that is because I desperately needed a new challenge and to be in a place where my talents could be better leveraged. Despite quite a few twists and turns along the way, it’s all worked out just fine. Of course, another reason is that — through sheer luck — I managed to get out before Eddie Lampert decided that combining a mediocre retailer with a terrible one might be a good idea.

Anyway, I have written extensively over the years about Lampert’s horribly misguided and at times seemingly delusional leadership of the once-storied brand, and I will not recount that in any detail here. Google my name and “world’s slowest liquidation sale” or “dead brand walking” if you are desperate for that kind of entertainment. You can also see me on CNBC four years ago suggesting that the best thing for Sears shareholders would be for the company to liquidate ASAP. Oh, well.

So when it comes to Lampert, it’s safe to say I’m not a fan. I will point out in all fairness that, largely with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I have come to believe that no one could have prevented Sears from sinking into irrelevance once certain opportunities were missed many years ago. While there were unquestionably many chances over the past decade for Sears to do a much better job for its customers, associates, retirees and investors, it was always likely to end badly. Now, sadly, it is just a matter of time before Sears joins others in the retail graveyard, as evidenced by yet another round of stores closing this past week.

When the history of Sears demise is written, many leaders will rightly be taken to task for their lack of strategic insight, their unwillingness to take risk, their hiring of the wrong people and so on. Yet it’s safe to say that Lampert will stand alone in using his other interests (principally ESL Holdings) to stave off the inevitable by both loaning money to Sears and scooping up many of its remaining fungible assets. Now I will leave it to far more adept minds to determine if ultimately this multi-year complex web of financial engineering turns out to be brilliant for Lampert and his fellow ESL investors. Perhaps Crazy Eddie is indeed crazy like a fox?

What really galls me, though, and strikes me as worthy of a fast-track entry into the Chutzpah Hall of Fame, is how Lampert, through his totally inept leadership of Sears Holdings, drives down the value of the company’s assets only to pick them up at ostensibly bargain-bin prices. The latest example of this is ESL’s offer to buy the Kenmore brand for $400 million.

When I left Sears late in 2003 (the year before the Sears and Kmart merger), we had valued Kenmore well in excess of $2 billion, and Sears’ major appliance market share was north of 40%. Today, Sears’ leadership position has totally fallen apart. Today, the trends are relentlessly negative. Today, after two years of searching, ESL may now be the only plausible buyer.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting any intentional manipulation or malfeasance on the part of Lampert and/or ESL. Yet if I were the owner of a great house on a beautiful piece of property, I might be more than a bit suspicious of the buyout offer I just got from the guy who burned it down.

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.

A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Retail

JC Penney goes back to the future, but it’s likely too little, too late

At one level, the announcement that JC Penney was going to stop wooing younger customers in favor of focusing on baby boomer moms seems to make a lot of sense.

During the devastating Ron Johnson era, Penney’s was practically driven out of business by trying to execute what I call the customer trapeze way too quickly while simultaneously doing a number of other bone-headed things. In a bid to “contemporize” the brand, Johnson dropped many (it turns out profitable) lines that were deemed old and stodgy in favor of more fashion-forward assortments aimed at attracting younger customers. And sales promptly fell off a cliff. The more-than-a-century-old retailer has been trying to dig itself out of this hole ever since.

In the intervening five years, Penney’s has tried a more balanced approach. Yet despite adding back some customers’ preferred brands, launching new products and services, retooling many aspects of its go-to-market strategy and having hundreds of its competitors’ doors close, the retailer has failed to build any sustained momentum. As I wrote a couple of months back, clearly Penney’s needs to try something new, and unquestionably it needs to do it with great urgency. Unfortunately, this latest gambit is very unlikely to work.

The most obvious problem with a return to focusing on middle-age moms is that it is essentially the strategy Penney’s was executing against before Ron Johnson showed up. And while Johnson set the house on fire, Penney’s was far from lighting things up during the years leading up to the failed “transformation.” In fact, growth and profits had stalled, and the stock was selling at less than half its historical high.

So as Penney’s goes back to the future, the one thing we know for sure is that the market it was trying to succeed in almost a decade ago is now considerably smaller and quite different. On-the-mall, moderate apparel and home stores have been steadily losing share to off-price/value-oriented off-the-mall competitors for many years. More recently, Amazon and other online players have set their sights on the segment as well — and most department stores are struggling mightily to keep pace. By going back to its old customer focus in a market that has shrunk considerably, Penney’s would have to gain more market share than it was able to do when things were far less competitive. That strikes me as a very tall order.

Even under the assumption that a more tightly focused customer strategy has merits, Penney has plenty of other hurdles to overcome. Like most retail brands stuck in the boring middle, it continues to swim in a sea of sameness, with repetitive products, me-too promotions, mediocre service and mostly uninspiring stores. Going deeper on a particular customer segment may provide some incremental upside in the short term, but it is hardly sufficient to make it materially more relevant and remarkable.

The retail formula for growth is, at one level, simple. Target a big enough audience. Increase traffic. Increase conversion. Increase average spending. Increase frequency. Rinse and repeat.

Doubling down on any one customer cohort may hold the promise of performing materially better on one or more of these factors. But given how the particular part of the market Penney’s is returning to has contracted, one has to make some pretty incredible assumptions to believe it can possibly drive meaningful and enduring profitable growth.

Moreover, I would argue that no retailer can sustain itself over the long term without a powerful customer acquisition strategy. And here demographics are hardly JC Penney’s friend. A decade ago Penney’s was struggling partially because it had not done a good job of attracting new, younger customers. It’s no different today as Millennials are sure to become a more significant potential source of volume.

To survive, much less thrive, Penney’s must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time. It must avoid, as Jim Collins likes to say, “the tyranny of the or” in favor of “the genius of the and.” A portfolio approach to customer acquisition, growth and retention is at the heart of any good strategy, and Penney’s must find ways to both leverage its historical core and attract the next generation of customers.

Plenty of retailers have suffered from casting too wide a net and ending up not being relevant and remarkable to any group of consumers in particular. Yet brands can cast too narrow a net as well. My fear is that this is exactly what Penney’s is electing to do. From where I sit, it simply cannot afford any more strategic missteps.

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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.  

My speaking page has been updated with several new gigs. See the latest here.

A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Better is not the same as good for department stores stuck in the middle

As most U.S. department stores reported earnings recently, a certain level of ebullience took hold. Macy’sKohl’s and even Dillard’s, for crying out loud, beat Wall Street expectations, sending their respective shares higher. J.C. Penney, which has failed to gain any real traction despite Sears’ flagging fortunes, continued to disappoint, suggesting that I probably need to revisit my somewhat hopeful perspective from last year. And in the otherworldliness that is the stock market, Nordstrom — the only department store with a truly distinctive value proposition and objectively good results — traded down on its failure to live up to expectations.

Given how beaten down the moderate department store sector has been, a strong quarter or two might seem like cause for celebration–or at least guarded optimism. I beg to differ.

First, we need to remember that the improved performance comes mostly against a backdrop of easy comparisons, an unusually strong holiday season and tight inventory management. There is also likely some material (largely one-time) benefit from the significant number of competitive store closings and aggressive cost reduction programs that most have put in place.

Second, and more importantly, we cannot escape the fact that mid-priced department stores in the U.S. (and frankly, much of the developed world) all continue to suffer from an epidemic of boring. Boring assortments. Boring presentation. Boring real estate. Boring marketing. Boring customer service. And on and on. For the most part, they are all swimming in a sea of sameness at a time when the market continues to bifurcate and it’s increasingly clear that, for many players, it’s death in the middle. It’s nice that some are doing a bit better, but as I pointed out last summer, we should not confuse better with good.

To actually be good — and to offer investors a chance for sustained equity appreciation — a lot more has to happen. And while being less bad may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Most critically, all of the major players still need to amplify their points of differentiation on virtually all elements of the shopping experience. It’s comparatively simple to close cash-draining stores, root out cost inefficiencies and tweak assortments. It’s another thing entirely to address the fundamental reasons that department stores have been ceding market share to the off-price, value-oriented, fast-fashion and more focused specialty players for more than a decade. And now with apparel and home goods increasingly in Amazon’s growth crosshairs, there has never been a more urgent need to not only to embrace radical improvement, but to really step on the gas.

Without a complete re-imagination of the department store sector — and frankly who even knows what that could actually look like — near-term improvements only pause the segment’s long-term secular decline.

It’s unclear how much the eventual demise of Sears and the inevitable closing of additional locations on the part of other players will benefit those still left standing. It’s unclear whether the current up-cycle in consumer spending will be maintained for more than another quarter or two. What is crystal clear, however, is that incremental improvement in margin and comparable sales growth rates merely a point or two above inflation never makes any of these mid-priced department stores objectively good.

Ultimately, without radical change, it all comes down to clawing back a bit of market share and squeezing out a bit more efficiency in what continues to be a slowly sinking sector riddled with mediocrity. Boring, but true.

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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NOTE: March 19 – 21st I’ll be in Las Vegas for ShopTalk, where I will be moderating a panel on new store design as well as doing a Tweetchat on “Shifting eCommerce Trends & Technologies.”