What if retail traffic declines last forever?

The results keep pouring in and they don’t bode well for brick & mortar retail. Across just about every sector and virtually every time period, traffic to physical stores continues to decline.

Of course, for the most part, we aren’t buying less, we are shopping differently. The obvious dominant trend is the explosion of e-commerce, and the one player accounting for the most growth is Amazon. Yet the real news for everyone else is how shoppers are diversifying the channels in which they research purchases and ultimately transact. This so-called “omni-channel” world is wreaking havoc with traditional retailers’ underlying economics and, like most things, the future will not be evenly distributed.

The vast majority of retailers have now likely entered a period where comparable store traffic will never increase again for any sustained period of time.

That’s profound. And more than a bit scary.

Drops in store traffic almost always dictate sales declines. Given that physical stores have relatively high fixed costs (rent, inventory, staffing, etc.) a material drop in revenue deleverages operating costs and profits fall disproportionately. This long-term (and increasingly widespread) trend is causing a great deleveraging across many retail segments and is the primary reason so many stores are being closed. It’s also causing brands to rethink the size and operating nature of the stores that remain or they plan to open. These shifts will prove seismic.

While there is a belief that e-commerce’s economics are superior to brick & mortar stores, that frequently is not the case, primarily owing to challenging supply chain costs, high product returns and compressed margins. As traditional retailers invest heavily in building their digital operations–and creating the much vaunted seamlessly integrated shopping experience–many are merely spending a lot of money to move sales from one channel to the other, often at lower profitability. Even brands such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and, to a lesser degree, Macy’s, that are often touted as omni-channel pioneers and have industry leading online penetration, have seen profit growth stall despite massive investments.

Roughly 90% of all retail is still done in physical stores. Yet the growth of e-commerce will continue unabated and the resulting drop in store traffic is an undeniable and unrelenting force. With rare exception, there is little any retailer can do to stem this tide. One key focus must therefore be on right-sizing store counts and the remaining stores’ footprints and operating costs. But the far more important strategy is to create a remarkable customer experience across all channels that reflects how consumers shop today and the intersectionality of digital and physical channels. Ultimately the key is to maximize customer growth, loyalty and profitability irrespective of where the customer decides to transact.

The pain of store traffic declines is inevitable.

The degree of suffering from it remains optional.

 

This post originally appeared on Forbes where I recently became a contributor. You can check out more of my writing by going here.

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.

Does e-commerce suck?

Well it certainly isn’t bad for consumers. In fact, it’s been a bonanza.

The advent and enormous growth of e-commerce has dramatically expanded the availability of products, making nearly anything in the world readily accessible, 24/7. Product and pricing information that was previously scarce and unreliable is now easily obtainable. Prices are down, in many cases, dramatically. Digital tools and technologies have ushered in a new era of innovation making shopping far more convenient, easy and personalized.

For retail brands and investors the picture is much less clear and increasingly bleak. The fact is e-commerce is mostly unprofitable–and that’s not about to change anytime soon.

Amazon, which is both far bigger than any other retailer’s web business and growing faster than the overall channel, has amassed huge cumulative losses. The high cost of direct-to-consumer fulfillment and so-called omni-channel integration has made virtually every established retailer’s e-commerce business a major cash drain. And more and more, it’s becoming clear that most of the “disruptive” venture capital funded pure-plays are ticking time bombs. Quite a few major write-downs have already occurred (e.g. Trunk Club, Nasty Gal and just about every flash-sales business) and more are surely on the way (I’m looking at you Jet.com and Dollar Shave Club).

Investors have been throwing money at business models with no chance of ever making money for years. Analysts and pundits regularly excoriate traditional brands that are slow to “invest” tens of millions of dollars in all things digital and omni-channel while spewing nonsense about physical stores going away. Much of this is incredibly misguided.

It’s time for everyone to be more clearheaded and, dare I say, responsible.

Industry analysts and the retail press need to stop with the breathless pronouncements about the demise of physical stores. They need to back off the notion that retailers can cost cut their way to prosperity. They also need to quit labeling disruptive businesses as “successful” merely based upon revenues and rapid growth and take the time to really understand the economics of e-commerce and omni-channel (hint: it’s mostly about supply chain and customer acquisition costs).

More established retailers need to stop chasing all things omni-channel and prioritize investments based upon consumer relevance, long-term competitive advantage and ROI. They also need to realize that if they feel the urge to close a lot of stores or drastically cut expenses they are probably working on the wrong problem.

Venture capital investors need to start caring more about building a business based upon fundamentals, not just pricing everyone else out of the market and/or hoping that some idiot big corporation will come along and write a huge check. Also, have we forgotten that selling at a loss and making it up on volume has never been a viable strategy?

Of course, by far the single biggest thing that would restore an element of sanity to the overall market would be if Amazon were to decide to not treat most of their e-commerce business as a loss leader. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

So if you are a consumer, enjoy the ride and the subsidies.

If you are retailer, yeah, that definitely sucks.

 

Easy to measure, not all that useful

For a long-time the retail industry has focused on same-store sales as the primary measure of a retailer’s success. This ignores the fact that a brand can drive a sales increase through excessive promotions and completely destroy profitability. It fails to recognize that we can teach consumers to become promiscuous shoppers and have them show up in droves during a given sales event while completely undermining true loyalty. It neglects the reality that total channel performance in a given trade area is a better metric because comp store sales don’t account for the role of a physical presence in creating a viable e-commerce model.

More recently, we’ve latched onto the growth of e-commerce as a key barometer for success, failing to acknowledge that virtually every pure-play brand has an unsustainable business model that is rapidly approaching its expiration date. We also seem to forget (or deny) that for most established omni-channel retailers the outsized increases are merely the result of existing customers shifting their sales away from a physical store to a channel with typically far worse economics (owing primarily to incredibly high fulfillment costs).

We work to optimize the ratio of digital ad spending to digital sales, even though we know that digital mostly drives physical channel volume. Worse yet, we make these sort of measures a part of an incentive scheme that reinforces the silo-ed behaviors that undermine customer-centricity.

We obsess over our e-commerce conversion rates even though they are highly imperfect measures of long-term consumer engagement and retention and we know that so much of our traffic is really part of the customer’s journey to a brick & mortar location anyway.

Attribution is messy. Economics is messy. Getting our organizations and constituencies to let go of metrics, processes and habits that are no longer relevant is messier still.

Yet just because we’ve always done it that way is a terrible reason to continue doing so.

Just because someone else expects us to do it doesn’t mean we have to.

Just because it’s easy to measure doesn’t make it useful.

And just because doing something is hard or imperfect doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.

 

h/t to Seth for inspiring this post.

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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My top blog posts of 2016

As has become an annual tradition–and despite my nearly six month hiatus–I present my most popular blog posts from this year.

  1.  I am the captain now
  2.  A few inconvenient truths about e-commerce
  3.  Sears: The one thing that could have saved them
  4.  Quitting is underrated
  5.  Umm, so why aren’t your sales better?
  6.  Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) wealth transfer
  7.  The struggles of the flying trapeze artist
  8.  The new retail ecosystem: NRF edition
  9.  Retail’s big reset
  10.  I’m going to build and wall and get Amazon to pay for it

And here are a few more that didn’t put up huge numbers, but are personal favorites.

  1. Just about everything is noise
  2. Retail’s museums of disappointment
  3. Don’t bite the hook
  4. The magical mystery powers of gratitude
  5. Put your ass where your hearts wants to be

As I wrap up my seventh year writing this blog I am incredibly grateful for your attention, support and feedback.

Best wishes for a safe, happy and prosperous New Year!

And if you get a chance check out my other blog “I got here as fast as I could.”

Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer

“Retail disruption” has been a popular buzz phrase for several years now. In fact, most of the retail brands that have received out-sized mentions in the business press–and commanded the adoring attention of industry conference attendees–for the past 5 years or so are somehow or other leveraging digital innovation to fundamentally re-work the consumer experience, gobble up market share and attract truckloads of venture capital.

Amidst this transformative reshaping of the retail landscape three things are clear:

  • Consumers have benefitted substantially from the introduction of new business models through more convenience, greater product access and lower prices.
  • This profound shift in the consumer value equation has put enormous pressure on industry incumbents that lack either the cost structure or agility to respond effectively.
  • A dramatic rationalization is gaining momentum as traditional players are being forced out of business or pressured to close and or shrink the foot-print of their stores, make huge investments in “omni-channel” capabilities and lower costs across the board.

Unfortunately what is lost in tales of this evolution is that most of the “disruptive” pure-play e-commerce brands have completely unsustainable business models and mostly what is happening is that venture capitalists (and other investors) are funding a transfer of wealth to the consuming public. So, on behalf of my fellow consumers, thanks venture capitalists.

Alas, this is unlikely to last much longer.

While many people think digital retail is some sort of license to print money, it’s becoming clear that e-commerce is virtually profit proof in categories with low transaction values, owing primarily to the substantial supply chains costs (particularly when brands offer free shipping and returns). Moreover, while it can be relatively easy and cheap to build an initial following online through public relations,  social media and other forms of peer-to-peer marketing, scaling an e-commerce only brand turns out to be extremely costly. Many of the buzziest pure-plays are now investing heavily in expensive branding efforts (as well as opening their own stores) in the hopes that size engenders profitability. Accordingly, initial expectations of break-evens are now being pushed out several years.

As the ROI of these efforts starts to come into sharper relief, my bet is many funding sources will lose their patience.

I’ve been an on-the-record skeptic for several years now, going back to when I called into question the sustainability of the flash-sales market well before the meltdown. More recently, I’ve been pointing out E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem. So I’m not suprised that recent valuations of several once high flying players have collapsed. And more folks are starting to take notice. Professional smart guy (and noted wise ass) Scott Galloway agrees and has been on the “pure play doesn’t work” train for some time. Expect more to join us.

To be clear, a few digital-first brands will likely emerge as sustainable value creators. Brands with high enough average order values to overcome high delivery costs are better positioned (though Net-a-porter’s inability to make money after all these years underscores how difficult this is). Those that deftly merge online and offline experiences–think Warby Parker and Bonobos–also improve the odds (though, side-note, don’t be misled by the high productivity of their initial locations and comparisons to other brands’ productivity stats. We need to understand the four-wall profitability of these new stores and make comparisons to traditional retailers averages in like locations, not overall chain averages).

Mostly, however, we need to be careful to declare a brand successful without defining what we mean by success. If we define success as having grown revenues quickly and having been able to raise gobs of capital from investors to enable subsidizing consumers on a massive scale, than clearly Amazon and dozens of others are wildly successful. If we define success as creating enormous pricing pressure and raising the cost of doing business so as to push traditional players into a double-bind than, yes, mission accomplished.

But if we determine success as having demonstrated the ability to deliver a new and better customer experience AND earn a risk appropriate return on capital than I’m not sure any pure-play E-commerce player of any size is yet successful.

I will go on the record as saying far more pure plays will go bust in the next three years (or get sold at valuations well below their most recent funding) than will emerge as truly successful.

Until then, enjoy the low prices and the free shipping, and if you get some time, send the nice folks funding Jet.com and others a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” note.