e-commerce · Omni-channel · The Amazon Effect

Here’s who Amazon could buy next, and why it probably won’t be Nordstrom

Since the Whole Foods deal, more than a few industry analysts and pundits have weighed in on which retailers might be on Amazon’s shopping list.

Various theories underpin the speculation. Some say Jeff Bezos wants to go deeper in certain categories, so Lululemon or Warby Parker get mentioned. Foursquare (is that still a thing?) crafted its own list from analyzing location data. The Forbes Tech Council came up with 15 possibilities. The always provocative, and generally spot-on, Scott Galloway of L2 and NYU’s Stern School of Business believes Nordstrom is the most logical choice.

Obviously no one has a crystal ball, and Amazon’s immediate next move could be more opportunistic than strategic. Given Amazon’s varied interests, there are several directions in which they could go. And clearly they have the resources to do multiple transactions, be they technology enabling, building their supply-chain capabilities out further, entering new product or service categories, or something else entirely. For my purposes, however, I’d like to focus on what makes the most sense to expand and strengthen the core of their retail operations.

Before sorting through who’s likely to be right and who’s got it wrong (spoiler alert: Scott), let’s briefly think about the motivating factors for such an acquisition. From where I sit, several things are critical:

  • Materiality. Amazon is a huge, rapidly growing company. To make a difference, they have to buy a company that either is already substantial or greatly accelerates their ability to penetrate large categories. This is precisely where Whole Foods fit in.
  • Fundamentally Experiential. There is an important distinction between buying and shopping. As my friend Seth reminds us, shopping is an experience, distinct from buying, which is task-oriented and largely centered on price, speed and convenience. Amazon already dominates buying. Shopping? Not so much.
  • Bricks And Clicks. It’s hard to imagine Amazon not ultimately dominating any category where a large percentage of actual purchasing occurs online. Where they need help is when the physical experience is essential to share of wallet among the most valuable customer segments. They’ve already made their bet in one such category (groceries). Fashion, home furnishings and home improvement are three obvious major segments where they are under-developed and where a major stake in physical locations would be enormously beneficial to gaining significant market share.
  • Strong Marginal Economics. We know that Amazon barely makes money in retail. What’s not as well appreciated is the inconvenient truth that much of the rest of e-commerce is unprofitable. Some of this has to do with venture-capital-funded pure-plays that have demonstrated a great ability to set cash on fire. But unsustainable customer acquisition costs and high rates of product returns make many aspects of online selling profit-proof. An acquisition that allows Amazon access to high-value customers it would otherwise be challenged to steal away from the competition and one that would mitigate what is rumored to be an already vexing issue with product returns could be powerfully accretive to earnings over the long term. Most notably this points to apparel, but home furnishings also scores well here.

So pulling this all together, here’s my list of probable 2018 acquisition targets, the basic rationale and a brief word on why some seemingly logical candidates probably won’t happen.

Not Nordstrom, Saks or Neiman Marcus

Scott Galloway is right that Nordstrom (and to a lesser degree Saks and Neiman Marcus) has precisely the characteristics that fit with Amazon’s aspirations and in many ways mirror the rationale behind the Whole Foods acquisition. Yet unlike Whole Foods, a huge barrier to overcome is vendor support. Having been an executive at Neiman Marcus, I understand the critical contribution to a luxury retailer’s enterprise value derived from the distribution of iconic fashion brands, as well as the obsessive (but entirely logical) control these same brands exert over distribution. Many of the brands that are key differentiators for luxury department stores have been laggards in digital presence, as well as actually selling online. Most tightly manage their distribution among specific Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus locations. If Nordstrom or the others were to be acquired by Amazon, I firmly believe many top vendors would bolt, choosing to further leverage their own expanding direct-to-consumer capabilities and doubling down with a competing retail partner, fundamentally sinking the value of the acquisition. While Amazon might try to assure these brands that they would not be distributed on Amazon, I think the fear, rational or otherwise, would be too great.

Macy’s, Kohl’s or J.C. Penney 

Amazon has its sights set on expanding apparel, accessories and home but is facing some headwinds owing to a relative paucity of national fashion brands, likely lower-than-average profitability (mostly due to high returns) and a lack of a physical store presence. Acquiring one of these chains would bring billions of dollars in immediate incremental revenues, improved marginal economics and a national footprint of physical stores to leverage for all sorts of purposes. All are (arguably) available at fire-sale prices. Strategically, Macy’s makes the most sense to me, both because of their more upscale and fashion-forward product assortment (which includes Bloomingdale’s) and because of their comparatively strong home business. But J.C. Penney would be a steal given their market cap of just over $1 billion, compared with Macy’s and Kohl’s, which are both north of $8 billion at present.

Lowe’s

The vast majority of the home improvement category is impossible to penetrate from a pure online presence. Lowe’s offers a strong value proposition, dramatic incremental revenues, already strong omni-channel capabilities, and a vast national network of stores. The only potential issue is its valuation, which at some $70 billion is hardly cheap, but is dramatically less than Home Depot’s.

A Furniture Play

Home furnishings is a huge category where physical store presence is essential to gaining market share and mitigating the high cost of returns. But it is also highly fragmented, so the play here is less clear as no existing player provides a broad growth platform. Wayfair, the online leader, brings solid incremental revenue and would likely benefit from Amazon’s supply chain strengths. But without a strong physical presence their growth is limited. Crate & Barrel, Ethan & Allen, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma and a host of others are all sizable businesses, but each has a relatively narrow point of view. My guess is Amazon will do something here — potentially even multiple deals — but a big move in furniture will likely not be their first priority in 2018.

As I reflect on this list (as well as a host of other possibilities), I am struck by three things.

First, despite all the hype about e-commerce eating the world, the fact remains that some 90% of all retail is done in physical stores, and that is because of the intrinsic value of certain aspects of the shopping experience. For Amazon to sustain its high rate of growth, a far greater physical presence is not a nice “to do” but a “have to do.”

Second, the battle between Amazon and Walmart is heating up. While they approach the blurring of the lines between physical and digital from different places, some of their needs are similar, which could well lead to some overlapping acquisition targets. That should prove interesting.

Lastly, the business of making predictions is inherently risky, particularly in such a public forum. So at the risk of stating the obvious, I might well be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it surely won’t be the last.

But why not go out on a limb? I hear that’s where the fruit is.

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

For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

e-commerce · Holiday Sales · Retail

Hype-y holidays: ‘Black Friday’ and other nonsense

Brace yourself. The media hype around Black Friday and Cyber Monday is now at a fevered pitch. Don’t fall prey to the nonsense.

But you can rest assured that as we emerge from a tryptophan-induced haze Friday morning and turn on just about any news outlet you will witness some hapless reporter standing in a mall–or outside a (insert well-known national retailer name here)–opining about whether various “indicators” (number of people in line at store opening, whether shoppers are carrying full shopping bags and so on) bode well for retailers’ fortunes. Alas, Black Friday has always been far more media trap than sign o’ the times. There are several reasons for this.

Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year.

The Saturday before Christmas and the day after are often the highest volume. In fact, if recent history is any indication, several days right before Christmas will likely rival Black Friday’s sales numbers. So while it’s an important day, it’s hardly a huge contributor to overall holiday season sales.

Black Friday revenues are on the decline.

As online shopping continues to grow, the relative share of total holiday sales done in stores on Black Friday is decreasing markedly. A recent survey suggests another down year. With some stores opening on Thanksgiving Day–and more and more Black Friday deals breaking early–revenues are being spread out over more days, rather than concentrated on the traditional “holiday” of massive consumption. Our friends at Amazon even launched their deals 50 days early this year.

For consumers, it’s mostly a con.

Study after study shows that, with few exceptions (mostly the heavily promoted, limited quantity “doorbusters”), the deals just aren’t that good. In fact, prices tend to be better in December or during traditional clearance periods.

The customer experience is terrible.

With overflowing parking lots, teeming throngs, long checkout lines and, in some cases, a need to camp out hours before the doors open to have a chance of scoring an actual great deal, shopping on Black Friday is the ultimate soul-crushing hassle. Apparently, some people thrive on this sort of thing. I hope they get the help they need. Oh, and many of the deals are recycled anyway.

Black Friday success (or failure) is meaningless.

With all the attention Black Friday gets you might think that a given retailer’s performance would be highly correlated with how its overall season will turn out. You’d be wrong. Over the years, many folks have tried to determine this correlation and haven’t found it. One study even found a somewhat negative relationship. So move along. Nothing to see here.

What about profits? 

While we’ll have to wait to see how Black Friday and Cyber Monday turn out, we can be fairly certain that it won’t be particularly profitable. This year’s retail industry exercise in group-think will have the predictable effect of compressing product margins and driving up operating costs all in the name of defending market share.

Of course with many retailers running scared or even fearful of their continued existence, few have the discipline to approach the season with any kind of restraint, promotional or otherwise.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · e-commerce · Strategy

Going private: Here comes Amazon’s next big wave of disruption and dismantling

While Amazon is often falsely blamed for all of retail’s woes, the “Amazon Effect” is both profound and well-documented. While the company’s overall market share is relatively low (under 5%), Amazon now accounts for nearly half of all e-commerce sales and its pricing and supply chain supremacy continues to put margin pressure across many categories of retail.

Yet, lost among the stories about the showdown between Amazon and Walmart or the impact of the Whole Foods acquisition or the company’s many stymied attempts to become a major fashion player is potentially an even bigger and more interesting narrative. What should be added to the list of things that keep both manufacturers and retailers up at night is Amazon’s rapidly evolving private brand strategy. The massive potential for a “go private” thrust to be another key component in what L2’s Scott Galloway has called Amazon’s systemic dismantling of retail and brands is huge.

Here’s why:

Private brands can have powerful consumer appeal. A well-executed private brand strategy allows for equal (or even better) quality products to be delivered at much lower prices. Store brands have moved well beyond the generic product days into being desired brands in their own right and have become significant lines of business for many retailers.

Private brands typically have greater margins. By controlling both the product design and supply chain–and avoiding the need for large marketing and trade allowance budgets–proprietary store brands can deliver a better price to the consumer and better gross margins for the retailer. Therefore the brand owner has a greater incentive to push its captive brands over national brands.

Amazon has already created a solid base of private brands. It turns out that Amazon already has a solid stable of proprietary brands. Some are more basic commodity items sold under the Amazon name. Some have their own identity, like Mama Bear and Happy Belly. Others tilt toward the more fashionable. With the Whole Foods acquisition, the company also controls the 365 Everyday Value brand which, rather unsurprisingly, is now available at Amazon. Recent reports suggest they are jumping into the athletic wear business.

Amazon’s private brands are on fire. While specific financial data is relatively sparse, most indications are that the company is thus far yielding strong performance with its own products. According to one report, many of these brands are experiencing hyper-growth.

The Amazon chokehold. Ponder for a moment the amount and quality of customer data Amazon can leverage to both design and target its own stable of higher margin products. Consider that more than 55% of all online product searches start at Amazon. Reflect on the reality that Alexa’s algorithms already give preference to Amazon’s private brands. Contemplate how easy it will be for Amazon to systematically design its website to feature the brands it wants to promote. Meditate on the freedom Amazon has to pursue the long game given its strong cash flow and Wall Street’s current willingness to value growth over profits.

Because of its sheer size, as well as the need to feed the growth beast, Amazon must both grab more market share in categories where it already has a material position, while also entering and penetrating significant new opportunity areas. At some point, Amazon will also have to demonstrate that it can make some decent money outside of its Amazon Web Services business. The opportunity in private brands serves both Amazon’s long-term revenue and margin objectives.

For the most part, Amazon’s private brand aspirations have operated under the radar. But from where I sit, it won’t be long before they reach critical mass in many key categories. And when they are ready to truly step on the gas–both from their organic efforts, as well as from what I believe will be at least one more major brick & mortar acquisition–another wave of brands (both wholesale and retail) will get caught in the wake.

For the competition, it’s time to be afraid. Very afraid.

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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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Customer Growth Strategy · e-commerce · Marketing · Retail

Unsustainable Customer Acquisition Costs Make Much Of Ecommerce Profit Proof

As much attention as both the growth and disruptive nature of e-commerce receives, few observers seem realize that often the economics of selling online are terrible (what I often refer to as “the inconvenient truth about e-commerce”). The fact is only a handful of venture capital funded “pure-plays” have (or will ever) make money and most are now embarked on a capital intensive foray into physical retail that even Alanis Morissette would find deeply ironic. Amazon, which accounts for about 45% of all US e-commerce,  has amassed cumulative losses in the billions, and even after more than 20 years still operates at below average industry margins. And while I have yet to see a comprehensive breakout, it’s clear that the e-commerce divisions of many major omni-channel retailers run at a loss–or at margins far below their brick & mortar operations.

So why is this?

Last month I wrote a post pointing out how high rates of returns, coupled with the growing prevalence of free shipping “both ways”, makes certain online product categories virtually profit proof. While the impact of this factor tends to be isolated to categories with relatively low order values and a high incidence of returns or exchanges (e.g. much of apparel), a different dynamic has wider ranging implications and profit killing power. I’m referring to the increasingly high cost of acquiring (and retaining) customers online.

Investors have been lured (some might say “suckered”) into supporting “digitally-native” brands because of what they believed to be the lower cost, easily scaled, nature of e-commerce. Seeing how quickly Gilt, Warby Parker, Bonobos and others went from nothing to multi-million dollars brands, encouraged venture capital money to pour in. What many failed to understand were the diseconomies of scale in customer acquisition. As it turns out, many online brands attract their first tranche of customers relatively inexpensively, through word of mouth or other low cost strategies. Where things start to get ugly is when these brands have to get more aggressive about finding new and somewhat different customers. Here three important factors come into play:

  • Marketing costs start to escalate. As brands seeking growth need to reach a broader audiencethey typically start to pay more and more to Facebook, Google and others to grab the customer’s attention and force their way into the customer’s consideration set. Early on customers were acquired for next to nothing; now acquisition costs can easily exceed more than $100 per customer.
  • More promotion, less attraction. As the business grows, the next tranches of customers often need more incentive to give the brand a try, so gross margin on these incremental sales comes at a lower rate. It’s also the case that typically these customers get “trained” to expect a discount for future purchases, making them inherently less profitable then the initial core customers for the brand.
  • Questionable (or lousy) lifetime value. It’s almost always the case that customers that are acquired as the brand scales have lower incremental lifetime value, both because on average they spend less and because they are inherently more difficult to retain. It’s becoming increasingly common for fast growing online dominant brands to have large numbers of customers that are projected to have negative lifetime value.

So it’s easy to see how an online only brand can look good at the outset, only to have the profit picture deteriorate despite growing revenues. The marginal cost of customer acquisition starts to creep up and the average lifetime value of the newly acquired customer starts to go down, often precipitously. Accordingly it’s not uncommon for some of the sexiest, fastest growing brands to have many customers that are not only unprofitable, but have little or no chance of being positive contributors ever.

While it’s not the only reason, this challenging dynamic explains in large part the collapse of valuations in the flash-sales market in total, as well as several major flameouts like One Kings Lane. It also helps explain why so many pure-plays are investing heavily in physical locations. To be sure, opening stores attracts new customers that are reticent to buy online. But another key factor is that customers can often be acquired in a store more cheaply than they can be by paying Facebook or Google.

Slowly but surely the world is starting to wake up to this phenomenon. The nonsense that is the meal-kit business model is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves as people start to question whether Blue Apron is a viable business if it spends $400 to acquire new customers. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Increasingly, many “sophisticated” investors are backing off the high valuations that digitally-native brands are seeking to fuel the next stage of their growth, leaving these companies to thank their lucky stars that Walmart seems to relish its role as a VC bailout fund. More folks are starting to realize that physical retail is definitely different, but far from dead. And, in another bit of irony, some even are starting to see that many traditional brands (think Best Buy, Nordstrom, Home Depot and others) are actually well positioned to benefit from their stores and improving omni-channel capabilities.

It may take some time, but eventually the underlying economics tell the tale.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

e-commerce · Omni-channel

Many unhappy returns: E-commerce’s Achilles heel

It’s a common misconception that e-commerce is inherently more profitable than brick & mortar retail. The fact that very few online dominant brands’ profit margins exceed those of “traditional” retailers is one clue that this isn’t true. But a better way to understand the longer-term outlook is to look at the underlying economic drivers.

Above a basic level of scale, online retail is largely a variable cost business, whereas physical stores succeed by driving sufficient revenue to leverage their mostly fixed costs. At the risk of oversimplification, this means that to make money online gross profit/order needs to exceed the variable costs associated with that order. The reason that many eCommerce companies (or the e-commerce divisions of “omni-channel” retailers) don’t make money is that the marginal cost of acquiring a customer, plus the supply chain cost of fulfilling that order, exceeds the gross profit (essentially, revenue less the cost of goods).

The challenges of profitably acquiring customers online is an article for another day. But even where that hurdle can be overcome, e-commerce is often unprofitable due to high supply chain costs–and a huge driver is the high rate of returns. Consider this quote from Michael Kors’ CEO John Idol in a 2016 Bloomberg story: “Unfortunately today, e-commerce generates a lower operating profit for us than four-wall, brick-and-mortar. We think over time that will reverse itself but…when the consumer requires free delivery, free return, wonderful packaging, plus there’s a new trend that people are buying multiple sizes of things to try them at home and then return them, that all is a negative headwinds for us.” Bear in mind, this comes from a brand with significant consumer awareness, a sizable online operation and a high average transaction value.

While returns are not an issue for products that can be delivered digitally–or for many commodity items–in categories like apparel, accessories, footwear and home furnishings, where fit, coloration, fabrication and the like determine whether the consumer ultimately keeps the product, return rates between 25 and 40% are often the norm. When retailers pay for free shipping & exchanges handling costs can quickly erode any chance for a profitable transaction. We must also consider that returned or exchanged product often cannot be sold at the original gross margin, either because it is shop-worn (or otherwise “defective”) or because by the time it comes back the retailer has taken seasonal markdowns.

Some analysts have taken certain retail brands to task for their failure to aggressively invest in e-commerce. Yet many dragged their feet (or were rather deliberate about how they invested) quite intentionally because they understood that aggressive online growth was detrimental to their profitability. The fact is that unless returns rates can be mitigated significantly and/or the cost of handling returns can be lowered dramatically, some retailers will continue to suffer from what I call “omni-channel’s migration dilemma.”

While outside observers may gloss over this phenomenon, brands that face this growing profitability menace are taking action. One trend flies in the face of the retail apocalypse narrative. It turns out that physical stores can be incredibly helpful in lowering both the rate of returns and supply chain costs. While it is not the only reason that formerly digital-only retailers like Bonobos, UNTUCKit! and others are opening stores, it is a key driver. Large omni-channel brands have also tried to make it easier to return online orders in their brick & mortar locations. Not only are handling costs typically lower, but–surprise, surprise!–driving store traffic often leads to incremental sales.

Another avenue for taming the returns monster is using new technology and processes. TrueFit is a venture-funded company that uses artificial intelligence (among other tools) to help consumers choose the right product during the ordering process. Happy Returns is a more recent start-up that has also attracted solid VC funding. This expanding brand focuses on reducing consumer friction in the returns process and helping lower the cost of eCommerce returns for brands by operating “return bars” in major malls. The malls may also benefit by seeing incremental traffic.

Clearly e-commerce will continue to grow at much faster rates than physical retail. And with Amazon and newer disruptive brands helping drive the share of apparel, accessories and home furnishings that is sold online, the impact of high returns rates will become a bigger and bigger issue for many brands. Industry analysts would be wise to dig into this more deeply. Consumers can continue to enjoy the free ride until some rationality takes hold. Retailers would be well served to not gloss over this growing problem.

Taj Sims

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

Being Remarkable · e-commerce · Growth · The Amazon Effect

With Kenmore Deal Amazon Is A Winner. For Sears, Not So Much.

Investors reacted quite favorably to the news that Kenmore appliances will soon be sold through Amazon. For Amazon, it’s clearly an interesting opportunity. While online sales of major appliances are currently comparatively small, being able to offer a leading brand on a semi-exclusive basis gives Amazon a jump start in a large category where they have virtually no presence. On the other hand, for Sears, it smacks of desperation.

First, some context. Way back in 2003 I was Sears’ VP of Strategy and my team was exploring options for our major private brands. Despite years of dominance in appliances and tools, our position was eroding. Our analysis clearly showed that not only would we continue to lose share (and profitability) to Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy, but those declines would accelerate without dramatic action. Unfortunately, it was also clear that very little could be done within our mostly mall-based stores to respond to shifting consumer preferences and the growing store footprints of our competitors. Kenmore, Craftsman and Diehard’s deteriorating positions were fundamentally distribution problems.  And to make a long story a bit shorter, a number of recommendations were made, none of which were implemented in any significant way.

Flash forward to today, and Sears leadership in appliances and tools is gone. While in the interim some minor distribution expansion occurred, it was not material enough to offset traffic declines in Sears stores and the shuttering of hundreds of locations. More important is the fact that Kenmore and Craftsman still aren’t sold in the channels where consumers prefer to shop–and that train has left the station.

So last week’s announcement does expand distribution, but it does little, if anything, to fundamentally alter the course that Sears is on. Simply stated, making Kenmore available on Amazon will not generate enough volume to offset continuing sales declines in core Sears outlets, particularly as more store closings are surely on the horizon. Selling Kenmore on Amazon does not in any way make Sears a more relevant brand for US consumers. In fact, it will give many folks one more reason not to traffic a Sears store or sears.com.

Since 2013 I have referred to Sears as “the world’s slowest liquidation sale”, owing to Eddie Lampert’s failure to execute anything that looks remotely like a going-concern turnaround strategy, while he does yeoman’s work jettisoning valuable assets to offset massive operating losses. Earlier this year, Sears fetched $900 million by selling the Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker, one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of hand and power tools. So it’s hard to imagine that Sears did not try to do a similar deal with either a manufacturer of appliances (e.g. Whirlpool or GE) or one of the now leading appliance retailers. The Kenmore partnership with Amazon appears to have far less value than the Craftsman deal, despite being done just six months later–which speaks volumes to how far Sears has fallen and for how weak Sears’ bargaining position has become.

The cash flow from the Amazon transaction will do little to mitigate Sears operating losses and downward trajectory. In fact, it seems to be mostly the best way, under desperate circumstances, to extract the remaining value of the Kenmore brand given that no high dollar suitors emerged and Sears continues its march toward oblivion. Amazon, however, is able to take advantage of fire-sale pricing and create the valuable option to have Kenmore as a potentially powerful future private brand to build its presence in the home category.

Advantage Bezos.

dezhas8u0aac0fw

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

Bricks and Mobile · Customer-centric · Digital · e-commerce

Physical retail: Definitely different, far from dead

From recent headlines you might assume that sales in brick & mortar stores must be falling off a cliff. You’d be wrong. Yes, e-commerce is growing at a much faster rate, but revenues in physical stores remain positive (1%-2% growth depending on the source). There is also a sense that online shopping is becoming the dominant way most people shop. In fact, even with a dramatic share shift, e-commerce still represents less than 10% of total retail sales and is expected to remain below 20% even 5 years from now.

Moreover, if physical retail is dying somebody should tell well established (and quite profitable) retailers like Aldi, Apple, Costco, TJX, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, Nordstrom, H&M, Ulta and Sephora. Collectively they’ve announced plans to open about 3,000 stores. Newer brands–think, Bonobos, Casper, Warby Parker–that were once dubbed geniuses for their “digitally native” strategy are now opening dozens of physical stores as their online-only plans proved limited and unprofitable. A little outfit from Seattle also has recently made a pretty big bet on physical retail.

So the constant media references to a “retail apocalypse” may serve as great clickbait, but they lack both accuracy and nuance. I believe we’re all better served by not painting the industry with too broad a brush and spinning false narratives.

Nevertheless, it is crystal clear that years of overbuilding, failure to innovate on the part of most traditional retailers, shifting customer preferences and market-share grabs from transformative new models that aren’t held to a traditional profit standard (mostly the little outfit in Seattle) are creating fundamentally new dynamics.  Physical retail is not going away, but digital disruption is transforming most sectors of retail profoundly. Here are a few important things to bear in mind:

Good enough no longer is. Mediocre retailers were protected for years by what was once scarce: scarcity of product and pricing information, scarcity of assortment choice, scarcity of strong local competition, scarcity of convenient ways for product delivery. Digital commerce has created anytime, anywhere, anyway access to just about everything and the weaknesses of many retailers’ business models have been laid bare. Traditional retailers’ failure to innovate over the past decade has put quite a few in an untenable position from which they will never recover. It turns out they picked a really bad time to be so boring.

E-commerce is important. Digital-first retail is more important. The rise of e-commerce is having a dramatic effect on shopping behavior but it is not the most disruptive factor in retail. What’s far more transformative is the fact that most customer journeys for transactions that ultimately occur in a brick & mortar location start in a digital channel–and increasingly that means on a mobile device. In fact, digitally-influenced physical stores sales are far greater than all of e-commerce. Many brands’ failure to understand this reality caused them to waste a lot of time and money building strong online capabilities at the expense of keeping their stores and the overall shopping experience relevant and remarkable.

Physical and digital work in concert. A retail brand’s strong digital presence drives brick & mortar sales and vice versa. When different media and transactional channels work in harmony, the brand is more relevant. When any aspect is unremarkable or creates friction, the brand suffers. Too often, traditional retailers treat digital and physical retail as two distinct entities when most customers are, as some like to say, “phygital.”  Moreover, with the exception of products that can literally be delivered digitally (books, games, music), there is rarely any inherent reason why the rise of e-commerce should make a substantial number of physical stores completely irrelevant. Retailers that are closing a lot of stores most often have a business model problem, not a “too many stores” problem.

The future will not be evenly distributed. Clearly, there are brands and retail categories that are being “Amazon-ed.”  There are also sectors that have been in long-term decline (department stores and many regional malls), whose troubles have little to do with what’s transpired most recently. Still others have remained largely immune from the disruptive forces that are hitting others so hard. Off-price chains, warehouse clubs, dollar stores and gas stations all come to mind. Grocery shopping has also seen little impact, though that’s likely to change. It’s also important to note that some forces that are shaping the industry have little to do with e-commerce vs. physical stores shopping or the notion that Amazon is eating the world. Many sectors are being hit by a fundamental change in shopping behavior (a shift to experiences away from stuff, a tendency to trade down to lower price points) that has nothing to do with how spending is being reallocated away from brick & mortar to online. Your mileage may vary.

To be sure, a degree of panic is appropriate in some circles. It’s obvious that many retailers spent more time defending the status quo and burying their heads in the sand during the past decade than they did understanding the consumer and being committed to innovation. Some retailers need to adapt. Some need to transform the customer experience fundamentally. Others just need to go away. Most need to take bold and decisive action to stay relevant and remarkable in a very different and constantly evolving world.

The big question is whether they will act while they still have time.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

Digital · e-commerce · Retail · Store closings

Sears must think we’re stupid or gullible. Here’s why.

Having spent my first 12 years in retail as an executive at Sears, I’ve followed the company’s trials and tribulations with more than a passing interest. And considering my last role at the once-storied brand was leading corporate strategy–where my team was mostly focused on trying to fix the mall-based department store format and making the Lands’ End acquisition work–I am far from an impartial or unknowing observer.

Arguably, I’ve taken Sears to task too many times over the years. When I left Sears in 2003 (a year before Sears and K-mart merged), I had already concluded that the once iconic brand was on a slow slide to oblivion. Combining a deteriorating, mediocre chain with a terrible one did not change my view. Over the years Eddie Lampert’s misguided leadership has been a frequent target of criticism on my blog. In 2013, I labeled Sears “The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale” as it became abundantly clear that after nine years Lampert still had no viable turnaround plan. In 2014, I lampooned the futility of their efforts in an April Fool’s post and went on CNBC arguing that investors would be better served by a swift liquidation rather than perpetuating an increasingly delusional strategy that only served to lower asset values.

So, years later, Sears is still hanging around and Lampert is still peddling his special brand of snake oil. How is this possible?

Let’s answer the easy question first. Sears has endured longer than they deserve to because they had enough assets to unload (real estate, private brands and fungible business units) to cover the massive operating losses they’ve racked up during the past decade. The fact that Sears has very low operating costs (partially because of favorable rents, partially because Lampert has cut overhead to the bone) has extended their life. But, make no mistake, they are very close to the end of the runway.

To answer the other question we must conclude that investors are either stupid or gullible–or at least Lampert is counting on it. Before we get to the most recent nonsense, it’s worth mentioning some of the whoppers we were supposed to believe over the years:

  • That Sears and Kmart would create some magical synergy
  • That Sears’ problems could be fixed by cutting costs rather than investing in the customer experience
  • That it made sense to have merchandise categories compete internally with each other, rather than focus on the customer and external competition
  • That Sears could disinvest in stores and profitably transition much of its business online
  • That selling once enormously valuable private brands like Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard in off-the-mall formats and Ace Hardware Stores was a sufficient antidote to the massive share loss to Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy.

Today, the company continues to make a big deal about how it is a “member-driven” company, touting its “Shop Your Way” program and “ecosystem” as some sort of important differentiator and value contributor. The facts are that a) it is, at best, a mediocre loyalty program, b) customer engagement is driven almost exclusively by a high rate of discounting, c) margins have declined since its introduction and d) sales continue to slide. Referring to customers as “members” may sound good, but it connotes a strength of relationship and value that clearly does not exist. The program has always been an expensive gimmick to collect customer data. Suggesting anything else defies credulity.

In an apparent attempt to distract from the collapse of its mall-based stores, Sears Holdings also continues to announce “innovative” new store formats like an appliance & mattress store (which isn’t a new idea at all) and a DieHard Battery Center. These might be interesting formats to franchise when Sears ceases to be a significant retail operator, but the notion they will somehow be material to a turnaround is just silly.

More broadly–and most stupefyingly–Lampert continues to claim turnaround efforts are on track. This from a company that has had precisely one-quarter of positive sales growth in seven years, operating losses that continue to worsen, an acceleration in store closings and rampant departures of key executives. Moreover, the moves detailed in the most recent press release are all about financial restructuring and say nothing about actions to improve customer relevance. If Sears does not quickly and dramatically improve its performance with its customers nothing else matters. Period.

At one level, I get why Lampert apparently chooses to create the illusion that Sears can actually stay in business. He needs vendors to keep shipping product to mitigate a complete unraveling. He needs employees to keep the lights on and greet the few customers who might wander into the ever shrinking store fleet. He needs to avoid looking too desperate to dodge fire sale pricing on the few remaining assets he must unload to make it through the holiday season. And he needs creditors to give him more time to try to pull another rabbit out of his hat.

Yet, let’s be clear, to believe that Sears is somehow going to make it much longer as anything remotely resembling a national, fully operating retailer is beyond folly. I have no idea whether Lampert truly believes Sears can be saved. I hope not because that would be quite sad.

But for the rest of us, there is simply no reason to be stupid or gullible. The reality is there for all to see. A story and, most importantly, the one spinning the tale–only has power if we allow them.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

Agility · Customer Insight · Digital · e-commerce · Innovation · Store closings

Retail’s next punch in the face

Five years ago I wrote a post entitled: “The next punch in the face”, which you can read here.  I began by quoting noted retail legend Mike Tyson who allegedly said “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” My point, more or less, was that in the world we live in, we’re going to get punched. Sometimes we’ll see it coming, sometimes we won’t. But we must be prepared and we must get our organizations to be more agile.

A few years later, after a successful trip to the Metaphor Store, I decided I needed a less violent but still powerful message to underscore how innovation and transformation were rippling through the industry, sometimes casting brands against the rocks like boats in the tempest.

So it seemed easy to borrow from Jack Kornfield, one of my favorite spirituality teachers. My updated message, dripping with stolen metaphor, was to point out that once we wade into the ocean, waves are inevitable and that to cope with that reality we are all going to have to learn to surf.

So what does any of this have to do with thriving in today’s environment? Well, if one looks at what’s happening to retail today that is highly disruptive, much of it may feel like a punch when it fully hits. The waves may seem unending and often violent. But here’s where the metaphors lose power and relevance.

We SHOULD have seen it coming. At least, most of it. Instead what we have is more slow motion car crash than retail apocalypse–despite what the pundits say.

A brand that’s been in business over 100 years suddenly has 20% or more of its total store base it needs to close immediately? That didn’t happen overnight.

A retailer that has tons of customer data and dozens, if not hundreds, of marketers wakes up one morning and discovers they are not ready for Millennials?

A retailer with masses of merchants, sophisticated planning software, consultants galore, misses sales and margin plans quarter after quarter? I guess they suddenly got a whole bunch of new customers they didn’t notice and know nothing about?

A CEO goes to a conference (or on CNBC) and “enlightens” the audience about how most in-store purchases are driven by digital and how a consumer that shops in multiple channels is most profitable and shopping needs to be seamless and blah, blah, blah. Sir, anyone who’s been paying attention at all has known this for years (too bad I didn’t save my presentation to the Neiman Marcus Board from 2007 to show you),

Most of the troubles afflicting major retailers, wholesale brands and the commercial real estate market have been obvious for years and their impact highly predictable. You can go look it up. I’ll wait.

If we were paying attention, if we were doing the hard, necessary work, if we were innovating, rather than just talking about innovation, if we accepted the inevitable realities of the marketplace, how could we not have acted?

Awareness.

Acceptance.

Action.

Accountability.

Rinse and Repeat.

The only real surprise is how some of these leaders still have their jobs given what lousy surfers they’ve turned out to be or how awful they were at seeing the punch coming.

Maybe they over-looked the really hard part of surfing?

Or maybe they just don’t know how to take a punch?

Either way, the next time someone says “wow, nobody saw this coming” chances are they were looking the wrong way all along or too busy riding the brake when they need to step on the gas.

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Digital · e-commerce

Walmart’s E-commerce Strategy: Pure Genius Or Venture Capitalist Bailout Fund?

Some believe Walmart should be pilloried for its laggard status in e-commerce. Many of these same folks are now cheering the company’s decision to put all e-commerce under internet wunderkind Mark Lore, as well as its new aggressive strategy to acquire online brands (Jet, ModCloth, ShoeBuy, MooseJaw and–apparently any minute–Bonobos). At last, they say, the company is serious about taking on Amazon.

The contrarian view is that Walmart was right to go slow in online shopping because of how hard it is to make money, and that encouraging too much volume to shift from physical to digital channels would de-leverage brick & mortar store economics unnecessarily. Moreover, spending billions to acquire brands that seem to have little prospect of ever being cash positive may appease Wall Street, but it is throwing good money after bad. More than a few folks have also intimated that Walmart is mostly bidding against itself in these deals as the “smart money” now sees how crazy many so-called digitally-native brand valuations have become.

I tend to side with the latter camp. And, full disclosure, I’ve never understood how Jet.com could ever make any real money. I’ve also been on record for some time in my view that much of e-commerce is profit proof and that most digitally-native brands will never turn profitable. Of course, the jury is still out on most of this, but the collapse of the flash-sales market and recent big write-downs of some high-fliers should give investors pause and encourage them to see past the hype and to dig deeper.

Either way, there are a few important things to consider as Walmart’s strategy unfolds:

  • Shopping behavior is morphing dramatically. While e-commerce remains small to the total, it is growing much faster than physical store shopping. More importantly, most shopping trips start online. Any retailer that fails to have a strong digital presence and does not offer a well integrated shopping experience will be at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Walmart, like every other retailer, needs to respond to this trend aggressively even if the marginal economics aren’t always so favorable.
  • A digital-first mindset is critical. Here is where most “traditional’ brands get stuck. When a culture is rooted in the old way of doing business and holds on to product-centric thinking and siloed organizational structures, much needed innovation is thwarted and vast numbers of opportunities are missed. Arguably, the greatest value from Walmart’s new acquisition strategy is that they are injecting a new mindset into the organization and jump-starting a cultural transformation that can pay vast dividends.
  • Demographics are destiny. The core Walmart model is rapidly maturing. Walmart has never done well with more affluent consumers and they are likely not doing particularly well with acquiring increasingly important Millennial customers. One way or another, to sustain growth Walmart needs to figure this out and scale it quickly.
  • Organic growth is hard and time is not our friend. Most large companies struggle to move the needle on growth in any material way through their own internal efforts. If anything, the pace of change is accelerating. Clearly, a smart acquisition strategy is one way to address both of these challenges.
  • E-commerce valuations are mostly irrational. I have consulted to multiple investment firms and conducted due diligence on quite a few e-commerce deals–including one of the brands that Walmart acquired. In every case the prices that were being discussed at the time either proved to be ridiculously high (as evidenced by subsequent write-downs) or the company could not present a compelling roadmap to profitability. Clearly there are, and will continue to be, exceptions. But irrationality does not last forever. Bubbles eventually burst.

As skeptical as I am, Walmart needs to do something big and bold. Minimally, their culture will get shaken up, likely in a very good way. Managing a portfolio of innovative brands should give them plenty of useful learning. And, in the scheme of things, a poor ROI on a few billions dollars will hardly bring them to their knees.

Yet mostly I am struck by the words of a venture capitalist who has been struggling mightily with how he was going to salvage a multi-million dollar investment in a “disruptive” online brand that has garnered gobs of good PR but is burning through cash with no end in sight.

As he reflected on Walmart’s most recently announced acquisition he told me this: “Now I wake up every day and thank God for companies like Walmart.”

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.