e-commerce · Retail · The Amazon Effect

Is Amazon finally getting serious about retail profitability?

There seems little doubt that Amazon.com AMZN -0.27% is crushing it and Macy’s is flailing. So who has the best profitability? Well, it’s not even close.

Macy’s operating margin is just over 6%. In recently reporting what was widely seen as a blowout quarter, Amazon is just now approaching a whopping 2% in its non-Amazon Web Services business. By just about any comparison, in most categories, Amazon’s margin performance appears to be anywhere from lousy to lackluster, despite its vast capabilities and more than 20 years of working hard at most of it.

One particularly disturbing trend is rising shipping and fulfillment costs. With Amazon’s massive scale, you might think this would be a growing source of profit leverage. You’d be wrong. Logistics costs continue to rise faster than revenues.

This is not terribly surprising. The structure of Amazon’s Prime program (which recently surpassed 100 million members) essentially encourages customers to overuse “free” shipping for frequent small orders—which generally have low (or non-existent) profits. Amazon also continues to aggressively push same-day delivery, which, at current scale, has terrible marginal economics.

Amazon’s growing success in apparel may be great for the top line, but returns and exchanges tend to be much higher than average, pushing supply chain costs further in the wrong direction.

Before anyone quibbles with my high-level analysis, I will state that I know the company has been making substantial investments for the long term. I realize that there are many instances where Amazon could make more money but it continues to prioritize market share gains over decent (or any) near-term returns. And I understand that Wall Street clearly values growth over profits. Yet against this backdrop, it does seem as if there is a subtle shift in focus.

Given the significant headwinds from growing logistic costs, the fact that profits improved dramatically suggests that both product margins and non-logistics operating costs are starting to be leveraged in more powerful ways. Moreover, in what some see as a risky move—but I see fundamentally as an acknowledgement of customer loyalty, pricing power and a growing need to offset spiraling delivery costs—Amazon is raising the price of Prime membership by $20. Despite customer protestations, I am willing to bet that Amazon comes out way ahead on this move.

Another sign of Amazon’s seriousness toward pursuing profitability is its growing investment in private brands. Amazon already has more than 70 proprietary brands, and more are sure to follow. Done right, increasing the mix of its own brands can further drive market share gains by offering strong additional value to its customers and drive gross margins higher. Expect to hear more about the significant contributions these new brands are making within the next few quarters.

When it comes to buying versus shopping, Amazon holds more and more of the cards. More than 50% of all online product searches start at Amazon. Amazon is fast closing in on owning nearly 50% of the U.S. e-commerce market and is racking up significant share in many global markets. Prime membership tends to lock consumers into a virtuous shopping cycle where, at the margin, Amazon becomes the default choice for a growing basket of stuff. As Amazon gets deeper into physical stores (organically or through another major acquisition), even the “shopping” side starts to come more seriously into view—much of which should actually help expand margins. And personally I think Amazon has yet to take anywhere close to full advantage of its powerful customer data and insight assets.

Given the complexity of its operations—and the overlapping cycle of major investments in the next wave of growth—it’s often hard to discern the underlying dynamics of Amazon’s retail operations in any given quarter. Yet a few things seem clear.

First, Amazon likely never gets to decent operating margins without addressing the supply chain cost issue. Second, private brands will soon become a more important part of the story. Third, in the not too distant future, a more aggressive brick-and-mortar strategy is likely needed to continue to drive outsized growth. Lastly, Amazon still has a lot of levers to pull to leverage its data and take advantage of its growing customer loyalty. For the most part, improved profitability can likely come at a time and date of Amazon’s own choosing.

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 May 17 I will be keynoting Kibo’s 2018 Summit in Nashville, followed the next week by Retail at Google 2018 in Dublin.

e-commerce · Innovation · Retail

E-Commerce May Be ‘Only’ 10% Of Retail, But That Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story

It seems as if those who spend a lot of time worrying about the future of retail have fallen into one of two camps. There are the “retail apocalypse” proselytizers who would have us believe that virtually all shopping will eventually be done online, that most brick-and-mortar stores are doomed and that anyone who says otherwise is a dinosaur. At the other end of the spectrum are the disruption deniers who acknowledge that the retail climate is indeed changing but who take comfort in the fact that physical retail is still growing and, more notably, that e-commerce represents “only” about 10% of all retail.

They are both more wrong than they are right, and neither provides a point of view that is useful or actionable to brands or investors seeking to make critical decisions.

Let’s be clear. Physical retail is far from dead. There is no “retail apocalypse.” E-commerce is not eating the world. Every mall is not closing. And many of the brands we all know and love are likely to be around for a long time.

The facts are clear. In most major markets, physical retail continues to grow, albeit at a far slower rate than online shopping. Lots of stores continue to be opened, including by quite a few brands that are hardly new or “digital-first” (think Dollar General or Aldi). And it is true that physical stores account for roughly 90% of all retail sales (at least in North America). Five years from now, by most estimates, that number is still likely to be well over 80%.

But in most cases, taking any solace from the “e-commerce is only 10% of all retail” narrative is — and, well, there is simply no nice way to say this — just plain dumb.

First of all, that percentage is an industry-wide average, an amalgamation of many different categories. The percentage of e-commerce sales varies markedly by product segment, from around 2% for grocery to more than 20% for apparel to the overwhelming majority of sales in categories where products can be digitally delivered, like music, books and games. So perhaps folks in the supermarket business might justly not be completely freaked out by the growth and relative market share of e-commerce today, but I doubt you’d get the same reception from the executives at Borders and Blockbuster who failed to see the wave of digital disruption a decade ago and were given the gift of “spending more time with their families.”

Think of it this way: If you live in the U.S. or China or any nation with greatly varying climates, you wouldn’t decide what clothing to wear based upon the average temperature in the country. So why would one even think about driving the urgency and direction of their company’s corporate strategy based upon broad industry averages?

The other big problem with the “only 10%” argument is that it ignores the marginal economic impact of how a loss (or transfer) of physical-store sales to digital channels affects financial returns under specific retailer circumstances. A brand that has done a good job of “harmonizing” the customer experience across physical and digital channels might have kept most of the potential shift away from physical to digital within their corporate umbrella. Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom (as just two examples) may have struggled to grow comparable stores sales across the last several years, but their e-commerce business has been strong and now accounts for over 25% of total revenues. So clearly it can make a big difference, regardless of the category average for e-commerce, whether a brand captures much of the shift versus very little of it — as many other legacy retailers have failed to do.

Unfortunately, if one works in a business where margins are already below average and there are large fixed costs of operating stores and the marginal economics of online shopping aren’t good (likely owing to lower average order values and/or high rates of products returns) and the brand is not capturing its fair share of the shift away from physical stores to e-commerce, then relatively small revenue loss to online shopping can severely worsen overall economics. The moderate store department sector is a good example of this phenomenon and what is increasingly looking like a downward spiral.

Regardless of where a given brand falls within the digital category share numbers, the potential de-leveraging of its physical-store fixed costs and whether it faces what I call the “omni-channel migration dilemma” mandate a hard look at particular situations and dynamics. Relying on averages seldom works under any circumstances. An individual retailer’s mileage will, without question, vary.

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 next speaking gig is in Madrid on Tuesday at the World Retail Congress.  On May 2 I will be keynoting the Retail Innovation Conference in NYC.

e-commerce · Retail

Wayfair, StitchFix And Pure-Play E-commerce’s Scaling Problem

Late last month, Wayfair, the leading online-only furniture brand, reported dramatic sales growth and yet year-over-year profits fell significantly. Unsurprisingly the stock took a steep hit. In its most recent earnings announcement, Stitch Fix, the online styling subscription service, reported sales up over 25%, yet profits were essentially flat. When they signaled that profits were expected to get worse as they grew, their stock also took a beating. Several non-public online-only retailers are said to be facing similar issues of growing sales and non-existent profits. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Not too long ago it seemed like e-commerce was going to eat the world. Pundits, equity analysts and venture capital seeking entrepreneurs alike declared the death of physical retail. Many even predicted online shopping would surpass 50% of all retail sales by 2025 (spoiler alert: it will be lucky to break the 20% mark by then).

What got lost in the hype were two fundamental things. First, in many instances, brick-and-mortar locations actually add value to the shopping experience. It turns out lots of consumers prefer going to a physical store for all sorts of reasons and for all sorts of products and services. So it’s hardly shocking that once digital-only brands are now opening stores and that many “traditional” retailers continue to add to their store fleets as well. Second, and more importantly, a great deal of e-commerce remains unprofitable and often struggles from significant diseconomies of scale. This latter factor likely helps explain what’s going on underneath the surface of recent earnings concerns, including from brands as disparate as Blue Apron and Walmart.

Without access to internal data it’s impossible to say for sure, but having analyzed several pure-play brands’ customer metrics over the years I can hazard a guess at the challenges these brands are facing. Here’s a typical growth pattern for a pure-play online brand and why most eventually hit a wall, some never to recover.

Phase 1: The Liftoff

Having identified an interesting market niche and put together a solid business model, the brand launches. The first tranche of customers are acquired relatively easily as they quickly “get” the new concept and are already comfortable shopping online. They tend to be acquired inexpensively as they are the quintessential “heavy users” who are apt to learn about the brand through social media and word-of-mouth. Accordingly, many are likely the perfect fit customers, likely to be loyal and less reliant on discounting. Lifetime value is very high, cost of acquisition low. Bingo!

Phase 2: Momentum Builds

With success in Phase 1, the buzz starts to build, and flush with a big round of VC money the website gets optimized, investments in branding are made and marketing is expanded. Growing awareness leads to the relative ease of aquiring “look-alike” customers at a generally attractive cost of acquisition. It may take a bit more promotion to incentivize trial, but hey you got to fuel the rocket ship right?

Phase 3: Time To Go Find Customers

In this phase it becomes readily apparent why building an online-only brand isn’t so easy. Here, in order to sustain hyper-growth, the brand must start moving beyond its obsessive bullseye core customer to the outer rings where, on average, the customer spends less per year, is less loyal and is more promotionally driven. There also tends to be more direct competition as a brand expands. It also turns out that to break through all the marketing noise and gain the attention (and first sale) from these more promiscuous shoppers, the brand has to start spending more on expensive highly targeted marketing channels (i.e., Google and Facebook). Cost of customer acquisition starts to escalate, gross margins start to be depressed and the average lifetime value of the marginal customer acquired declines.

Phase 4: ‘Ruh ‘Roh

Here despair starts to set in for many as it becomes apparent that the cost of acquiring a marginal customer is often greater than the lifetime value of the customers being acquired. In the initial stages of Phase 4, the best brands are playing around with their marketing mix, finetuning their assortments and generally optimizing all manner of things to try to see if they can change this trajectory and convince investors that they aren’t throwing good money after bad. Some conclude that the only way to sustain growth and have a chance at profitability is to open physical stores (oh, irony, you are a cruel mistress). This is also often the time someone calls Bentonville or other deep-pocketed “strategic partner” in hopes of securing a lifeline.

Phase 5: Crossroads

Quick, name the pure-play e-commerce brands that made it through Phase 4 and came out alive (it doesn’t count if they got acquired by Walmart). To be fair, it is still too early to say whether many of the brands that find themselves at this difficult crossroad will make it out alive or join the many others in the retail graveyard. And to be sure it’s certainly not unusual for customers that get added later in a company’s growth cycle to be less profitable. What is different for pure-play e-commerce brands is that it is almost impossible to avoid rapidly escalating marginal customer acquisition costs (which is only like to get worse as Instagram and Pinterest figure out how to raise their prices for targeted ads). Rising cost of acquisition with declining lifetime value is a difficult equation to work through.

When it starts to look like every incremental customer that gets added to a brand makes profits worse, investors might want to start think about heading for the door.

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 · Personalization · Retail

Retail’s ‘Big Show’: A few key takeaways

Every year 35,000 or so of my closest friends assemble in New York City for the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show”–a three day extravaganza featuring dozens of presentations, a huge technology EXPO and networking, networking, networking. During my 25+ year career as an executive (at Neiman Marcus and Sears) and now as an independent consultant, author and speaker, I have attended at least a dozen times.

This year three major things struck me. First, there was a giddy optimism as the industry convened on the heels of the most robust holiday season in more than a decade. Second, attendance was up considerably. No matter that the Javits Convention Center is ill equipped to handle the growing throngs. Third, much of the main stage content was steeped in overly self-promotional messaging; heavy on the “what” and largely devoid of any useful “how’s”. Organizers need to take note of how the audience regularly voted with its feet, leaving en masse during several sessions where the speaker failed to provide any truly useful or relevant content.

Yet moving past some of the limitations seemingly inherent to most large industry conferences, there were a few major themes and takeaways from the event.

The end of e-commerce.

Anyone who has been paying attention (or who has been following research from folks like Deloitte Digital) knows that the distinction between e-commerce and physical stores is increasingly a distinction without a difference. Digital drives brick & mortar shopping and vice versa. It’s all just commerce now and the customer is the channel. As outgoing NRF Chairperson and recently retired Macy’s CEO Terry Lundgren put it “retail is retail” wherever it occurs. It’s not clear to me why the industry has been so slow to embrace this reality, but various speakers seemed to finally acknowledge what I’ve been writing about since 2010–and what many winning brands having been putting into practice for years. Retailers need a one brand, many channels strategy and silos belong on farms.

The death of physical retail has been greatly exaggerated.

NRF CEO Matthew Shay was among several speakers who challenged the “retail apocalypse” narrative, pointing to the large number of retailers that continue to open stores (including many once online-only brands) and the fact that overall shopping in brick & mortar store has not declined. He won’t get any argument from me. Lost, however, in debunking the high-level narrative is any level of nuance. The fact is retail’s future is not being evenly distributed. On average physical retail is doing okay, but it’s fair to say that individual retailer’s mileage will vary–often considerably. The middle continues to collapse and many retailers’ existence is being challenged by the seismic shifts in retail. Physical is not dead, but boring retail is.

This time it’s personal.

A strong theme, both from speakers and from various exhibitors in the technology EXPO, was personalization. More and more retailers are finally accepting that one of the best paths to being more intensely relevant and remarkable is to treat different customers differently by using data and advanced technology to tailor marketing messages and the overall experience. Finding ways to be compelling, rather than creepy, annoying or just bad, isn’t easy, but retailers from emerging (Stitch Fix) to legacy (Neiman Marcus) are finding ways to make it work.

Artificial intelligence is ready for its close-up.

While still relatively early in its deployment, AI was at the center of major technology announcements, including IBM’s new V9 Watson-enabled commerce platform (full disclosure: I’m a member of their Influencer program). A wide range of companies, from Alibaba to eBay to Williams-Sonoma, also discussed how artificial intelligence, machine learning and related advanced analytics tools are enhancing their ability to execute marketing and merchandising strategies. Clearly, use cases are being proven out and momentum is building.

The false ebullience of the holiday season.

Coming off of a robust holiday season, optimism was definitely in the air. I hate to be cynical (though it IS one of my super powers), but there are at least two things to bear in mind as the industry moves forward. First, a month or two of above average sales is no guarantee of sustained momentum. Any euphoria from tax cuts and a buoyant stock market is likely to be short-lived as the realities of a largely dysfunctional US government and ballooning deficits become more apparent. Second, the gulf between the have’s and have not’s continues to widen. A great quarter for the industry in total does somewhere between little or nothing for failing retailers. Arguably, for a few, it may give them a tiny bit of breathing room. But the long-term prospects of brands like Sears, Macy’s and JC Penney are not meaningfully better because of the overall strong holiday season. We went into the season with a mixed-bag of performance and we’ll come out of it with the same exact mix.

The best time to plant a tree.

Nobody needed to attend the NRF show to be reminded that the retailers that have gone out of business–or are struggling mightily–suffer(ed) from two main root problems. First, they did not focus enough time and energy on deeply understanding their customers and evolving with those changing needs and wants. Second, they fundamentally failed to embrace a culture of innovation and experimentation.

In addition to hearing from numerous fast-growing disruptive retailers, XRCLabs sponsored the Innovation Lab which showcased 25 emerging technology companies. There was plenty of variety to choose from in the booths and among the various talks. Both were typically packed. Of course the real question is how many were there as spectators versus how many will actually have the courage to act on what they saw and learned.

For retailers that have a hard time keeping pace with change, it’s worth remembering the Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

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 · 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.