Retail at the precipice

Some have called it the retail apocalypse. Others refer to it the great retail meltdown. And while hyperbole is the best thing ever, these pronouncements serve as better clickbait than sound analyses. Worse, it makes it sound like every retailer is struggling and that physical retail is doomed.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the dramatic rise in store closings, job losses, bankruptcies and complete liquidations. It’s harder still to dismiss the wave of disruption that is shaking most traditional retailers to their core. The overbuilding of space is finally catching up to most sectors. The radical shift of spending online is creating a great deleveraging of physical retail. Consumer preferences are tilting to more experience, less stuff and a growing reluctance to pay full-price or spend conspicuously. Most damaging, the majority of “old school” retailers have not made innovation a priority and are now forced to play catch up at precisely the time they lack the cash to do so. And, sadly, for some retailers, it is too late.

Much of retail now finds itself at a precipice, a crossroads, the proverbial tipping point. In many cases, the decisions that will get made in the months ahead will make or break a scary number of major brands. Let’s look at four things that retailers that find themselves at or approaching the precipice need to focus upon and get right.

Should I stay or should I go? 

Major retailers have already announced nearly 3,000 store closings since the beginning of the year and more are on the way. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of physical retail’s death are greatly exaggerated. With some 90% of all retail still done in brick-and-mortar locations, physical retail needs to be different but it is not going away. There is great pressure on retailers to take an ax to their store counts, but this must be done judiciously. Careful rationalization of both store counts and remaining store footprints can enhance retailer relevance and profitability. But there is a real danger of closing too many stores. Deep analysis of network effects and cross-channel shopping behavior is needed to get this right.

The fault in our stores. 

With the rise of e-commerce and the over-storing of America, consolidation was inevitable. Despite most retailers’ best efforts, highly disruptive business models like Amazon were certain to gobble up share. But much of what ails retail is self-inflicted and most of what is causing heartache today could be seen coming for more than a decade. Retailer’s organizational silos get in the way of delivering an experience that is unified across channels and touch points. Traditional players’ reluctance to move away from one-size-fits-all marketing strategies fail to make the shopping experience more personalized. Retailer’s focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness stands in the way of a more simplified shopping experience and one that is more localized. And most brand’s risk aversion leads to a sea of sameness rather than an experience that is amplified in its relevance and remarkability.

Winning the moments that matter.

Since the vast majority of shopping journeys now begin online, which often means on a mobile device, a brand needs to be both present and impactful in what Google calls micro-moments (full disclosure: Google has been a client of mine) and what I have come to call “marketing’s new power of now.” Having a great product and cool advertising is necessary, but far from sufficient in a digital-first world where the first battle to win is the war for attention. If retailers don’t show up consistently in the moments that matter with an intensely relevant, remarkable and actionable offering, it’s likely game over.

Failure IS an option.

I headed up strategy at two Fortune 500 size retailers and in both assignments I tried to convince the CEO to establish an innovation process and to create an R&D budget. In both cases we said we wanted to be more innovative and in both cases we ultimately did nothing to meaningfully foster innovation. In fact, during one attempt to pitch a new idea to one of these CEO’s he said to me: “Steve I’m supportive of what you are trying to do but we need to this in such a way that we can’t fail.” At that point I was reminded of what Seth Godin says: “If failure is not an option, then neither is success.” I was also reminded it was time to update my resume. Spoiler alert: both retailers got into trouble due to their lack of innovation. Since becoming a consultant, writer and speaker on innovation I’ve seen how very few established retailers have taken innovation seriously. They are all paying a big price for that right now.

Retail isn’t getting any easier. In fact, one could argue that the pace of change is accelerating. And few of the issues plaguing retail are easily solved. But a few things seem certain. Defending the status quo is a recipe for disaster. If you believe you can shrink your way to prosperity, think again. Innovate or die. Your mileage may vary.

In today’s harsh retail world, a fair amount of pain is probably inevitable. The degree of suffering remains optional.

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.  

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‘Same-store sales’ is retail’s increasingly irrelevant metric

The retail industry has used “same-store sales” (or “comparable store sales”) as a key indicator of a retailer’s health for decades. From where I sit, its usefulness is rapidly fading, if not bordering on irrelevance.

While it remains to be seen whether retail traffic declines will last forever, most traditional retailers will struggle to grow physical store sales in the face of the significant and inexorable shift to online shopping. With few exceptions, so-called “omnichannel” retailers are experiencing flat to slightly down brick-and-mortar revenues while their e-commerce business continues to grow 10-20%. The mostly moribund department store sector points to this new reality. While overall revenues are basically going nowhere, online sales now account for over 30% of total revenue at Neiman Marcus, over 20% at Nordstrom and Saks, and some 18% at Macy’s (according to eMarketer), with the percentage growing every quarter.

What we do know, and what’s important to grasp and appreciate, is that physical stores are critical drivers of e-commerce success–and vice versa. For most retailers, a brick-and-mortar location sits at the heart of a brand’s ecosystem for a given trade area. Any retailer with a decent level of channel integration employs stores to acquire new customers, to serve, buy online, pickup in store orders (and returns) and to convert shoppers that start their shopping online but need to touch, feel or try on a product before buying. The decision of “digitally native” brands like Amazon, Bonobos, Warby Parker and others to open stores underscores this fact. Conversely, legacy retailers must be careful to avoid closing too many stores or they risk damaging the overall brand, slowing e-commerce growth and accelerating a downward spiral.

Customers shop brands, not channels or touchpoints. A robust one brand, many channels strategy requires management teams to understand precisely how the various marketing, experience and transactional channels interact to make a more relevant and remarkable whole. With this understanding, same-store sales performance may still have some utility, but “same trade area” performance–which accounts for all sales regardless of purchase channel within the influence area of a store–becomes a far more interesting and useful metric. Critically, it also provides the basis for understanding the drivers of customer segment level performance at a more granular and actionable level.

Rapidly declining same-store sales performance may suggest the need for aggressive action, including shuttering stores. Unquestionably, the great de-leveraging of retail store economics is cause for real concern. But without a broader view of how digital commerce and the in-store shopping experience work together, an obsession with same-store sales performance will inevitably lead to some very dumb decisions indeed.

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

Omni-channel is dead. Long live omni-channel 

“Omni-channel” has been one of retail’s favorite buzzwords for years now. At last week’s excellent ShopTalk conference, several speakers challenged the relevance of omni-channel. This conversation is long overdue.

The shift from a “multichannel” strategy–being active in multiple channels such as physical stores, catalogs and e-commerce–to omni-channel, suggested some form of profound change. It created a veritable cottage industry in related buzzphrases like “seamless integration,” “frictionless commerce” and “being channel agnostic.” To be honest, I’ve been known to throw some of these terms around in blog posts and keynote talks with reckless abandon.

Yet five years or so into this journey, it’s increasingly obvious that omni-channel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Many of the retailers at the forefront of omni-channel evangelism–Macy’s being the most glaring example–have only delivered quarter after quarter of disappointing performance. Many struggling retailers have problems that go far beyond merely drinking the omni-channel Kool-Aid. But the fascination with, and massive investment in, all things omni, have in many cases made matters far worse. A recalibration is needed. Perhaps the term needs to be buried.

The first problem is that retailers have been chasing ubiquity when they need to be chasing relevance and differentiation. Clearly, customers are engaging in more channels as part of their shopping journeys and retailers must respond accordingly. But in trying to be everywhere many brands have ended up being nowhere when it comes to a compelling offering. Undifferentiated product, less than remarkable customer service and uncompetitive pricing aren’t helped by extending their reach.

The second problem stems from investing in e-commerce and digital marketing with insufficient focus and prioritization. The majority of retail purchases in virtually all categories start online and, despite conventional wisdom, digitally influenced physical store sales are far bigger than online sales. Many traditional retailers made their e-commerce offering better while underinvesting in their physical stores, seeming to forget that the lion’s share of shopping is still done in brick & mortar locations. Not every aspect of e-commerce or embracing a “digital-first” strategy is important.

The third problem is that a lot of e-commerce remains unprofitable and many digitally-based customer acquisition strategies are uneconomic. The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed. Retailers need to have a well-sequenced roadmap of digital marketing and channel integration initiatives rooted in a deep understanding of customer behavior and underlying economics. Too much of what has been done thus far has been more shotgun, rather than laser-sighted rifle, in its approach, and the generally poor results illustrate this quite dramatically.

The fourth problem is somehow thinking that customers care about channels. Customers care about experiences, about solutions, about shopping with ease and simplicity. At the risk of advocating yet another buzzphrase, “unified commerce” is far more descriptive of what needs to happen than “omni-channel.” “All channels” never suggested a meaningful consumer benefit. And it never will.

Of course, engaging in semantic arguments doesn’t ultimately accomplish very much. But neither does continuing to plow mindlessly ahead, chasing a once bright and shiny object that is rapidly losing its luster.

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

An inconvenient truth about e-commerce: It’s largely unprofitable

The disruptive nature of e-commerce is undeniable. Entirely new business models are revolutionizing the way we buy. The transformative transparency created by all things digital has revolutionized product access, redefined convenience and lowered prices across a wide spectrum of merchandise and service categories. The radical shift of spending from brick & mortar stores to online shopping is causing a massive upheaval in retailers’ physical footprint, which looks to continue unabated.

But the inconvenient (and oft overlooked) truth is that much of e-commerce remains unprofitable–in many cases wildly so–and many corporate and venture capital investments have no prospect of earning a risk-adjusted ROI.

While it was once thought that the economics of selling online were vastly superior to operating physical stores, most brands–start-ups and established retailers alike–are learning that the cost of building a new brand, acquiring customers and fulfilling orders (particularly if product returns are high) make a huge percentage of e-commerce transactions fundamentally profit proof. Slowly but surely the bloom is coming off the rose.

Despite the hype–and a whole lot of VC funding–it’s increasingly clear that most of pure-play retail is dying, as L2’s Scott Galloway lays out better than I can. We have already seen the implosion of the flash-sales sector and the collapsing valuations of once high-flying brands like Trunk Club and One King’s Lane. Just the other day Walmart announced it was acquiring ModCloth, reportedly for less than the cumulative VC investment. A broader correction appears to be on the horizon and I suspect we will see a number of high-profile, digitally native brands get bought out at similarly discounted prices. And, ironically, we will continue to witness a doubling down of efforts by many of these same brands to expand their physical footprints, some of which is certain to end badly.

The challenges for traditional retailers and their “omni-channel” efforts are even more vexing. Walmart, Pier 1, H&M and Michaels are among the many retailers that have been criticized for their slowness to embrace digital shopping. Yet I suspect their seemingly lackadaisical approach owes more to their understanding of e-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem than corporate malfeasance. Alas, more and more retailers are increasing their investment in online shopping and cross-channel integration only to experience a migration of sales from the store channel to e-commerce, frequently at lower profit margins. Moreover, this shift away from brick & mortar sales is causing these same retailers to shutter stores, with no prospect of picking up that volume online. The risk of a downward spiral cannot be ignored.

Given the trajectory we are on it’s inevitable that more rational behavior will creep back into the market. But with Amazon’s willingness to lose money to grow share and investor pressure on traditional retailers to “rationalize” their store fleets, I fear it will take several years for the dust to truly settle.

In the meantime, e-commerce continues to be a boon for consumers and a decidedly mixed bag for investors.

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