Should Hudson Bay Buy Neiman Marcus? The Case For And Against.

Tuesday morning the Neiman Marcus Group reported another quarter of disappointing financial results and announced that it was going to “explore strategic alternatives.”

To be sure, some of Neiman’s problems are idiosyncratic, largely owing to a botched systems implementation and a now crushing debt load taken on in a 2013 private equity buyout. Yet the brand’s continuing struggles also underscore how luxury retail has hit the wall and how it now seems increasingly likely that the storied company may need to run into the arms of yet another owner.

Recent reports have suggested that the Hudson’s Bay Company was hot on the trail of Macy’s. Yet to many, the notion that HBC would acquire a badly wounded company several times its size, seemed a bit crazy. But the rationale for HBC–the owner of Saks Fifth Avenue and Gilt–to acquire Neiman’s seems, at least at face value, more strategically sound and (perhaps) more easily financed.

When I worked for Neiman Marcus as the head of strategy and corporate marketing we took a hard look at acquiring Saks. Years later, many of the pros and cons of combining the #1 and #2 luxury department stores remain the same.

The Case For

It seems increasingly obvious that the luxury department store sector is quite mature. While e-commerce is growing (now representing 31% of Neiman’s total revenues), most of that is now merely channel shift. Moreover, there are virtually no new full-line store opportunities for either Saks or Neiman’s, and the jury remains out whether or not US brands can find a meaningful number of store openings outside their home markets. Shifting demographics also do not bode well for long-term sector growth.

Faced with this reality, consolidation makes a lot of sense. If Saks were to merge with Neiman’s there would be considerable cost savings from combining many areas of operations. Rationalization of the supply chain would yield material savings as well. Managing the two brands as a cohesive portfolio would allow for optimization of marketing spending and promotional activity. There might even be some benefits from combining buying power to extract greater margins from vendors. Less tangible, but potentially meaningful, is the ability to cascade best practices from each organization.

The more interesting benefits could come from addressing store overlaps. As the market matures and more sales move online, there will be a growing number of trade areas (and specific mall locations) where Saks and Neiman’s going head-to-head only waters down the profitability of each respective location. Selectively closing stores and redeploying that real estate could drive up the remaining locations’ profitability dramatically, while unlocking the underlying real estate value of certain locations. All of which certainly plays into Richard Baker’s (HBC’s Chairman) strengths.

The Case Against

By far the most challenging element of any buyout of Neiman’s by HBC (or by anyone for that matter) would be the price and the related financing. Neiman’s was sold in 2013 for $6 billion dollars and still carries about $5 billion in debt. Since the buyout the company’s EBITDA has gone south, with no prospect for an imminent major turnaround. Given the maturity of the sector and the company’s recent weak operating performance, it’s hard to see why anyone would pay the sort of multiple that would make the current equity and/or debt owners whole.

Unless the real estate value can be unlocked in a transformative way, the only rationale for a merger hinges on the ability to generate operational efficiencies and optimize trade area by trade area market performance. With regard to the former, this isn’t trivial. The Saks and Neiman’s cultures are very different. To say one is very New York and the other is very Texas merely hints at the challenges. It’s easy to sketch out the synergies on paper. Making them actually happen is another thing entirely.

With regard to the latter, the fact is that Saks and Neiman’s are very similar concepts (though Neiman’s historically has been operated far better). When I was at Neiman’s we struggled with how we would operate two virtually identical brands often operating in the same mall–or in places like San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Boston and Chicago–just down the street. Even if we could get out of a lease (or sell the store), would closing a shared location actually be accretive to earnings? If we continued to go head-to-head could we shift the positioning of each brand enough to actually grow market share and profits. Ultimately, other issues trumped this particular concern, but this issue isn’t trivial either and the degree to which it is important mostly comes back to the ultimate price to get a deal done.

Without access to proprietary data it’s impossible to completely assess the likelihood of an HBC/Neiman’s deal. But it seems increasingly likely that something dramatic needs to happen with Neiman’s capital structure and it’s difficult to imagine how another leveraged buyout gets done with private equity sponsors. And it’s hard to see another strategic buyer that makes much sense. More and more, HBC looks like the only game in town.

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

Neiman Marcus & Target: A glorious failure

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

–  Samuel Beckett

If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you know that several months back Neiman Marcus and Target made a big splash when they announced a partnership to jointly market a limited collection of fashion items for the holidays. This announcement was followed by a lot of PR hoopla and a high-profile television and social media advertising campaign.

And guess what? It was a bust.

The product offering failed to generate the sales frenzy that past designer collaborations from Tar-zhay have, and the merchandise has been marked down 50 – 70%. The media are now out with their post-mortem bashings, many taking the “I knew it was a bad idea all along” route.

Having previously led strategy and corporate marketing at Neiman Marcus for several years, I’ve gotten plenty of questions about my take on the strategy and its execution (NOTE: full disclosure, I remain a Neiman’s investor). Frankly, I think much of the criticism misses the mark entirely.

Clearly, a lot of the execution was messed up. Prices were generally too high, designer brands were extended too broadly and some of the product was just plain goofy: a $50 Rag & Bone boys’ sweater? That was never a good idea.

Big picture, however, the concept was fundamentally good for both Target and Neiman’s. Target is well-known for enhancing its fashion cred with such partnerships; so for them, this was a no-brainer. If they made any money on it, all the better. But the real value is in brand enhancement.

For Neiman Marcus, the strategic value may be less obvious but, in essence, their foray into “mass-tige” is no different from Karl Lagerfeld or Jimmy Choo doing their special offerings at H&M. The goal is to generate buzz and expose their brands to a demographic that they need to cultivate for the long-term. Forging a longer-term and/or more broad partnership would be dumb. But experiments, such as what was tried here, can be shrewd moves indeed.

Which brings me to my last point. What gratifies me the most is that Neiman’s actually tried something bold and, arguably, counter-intuitive. Neiman Marcus’ last CEO–and my former boss–Burt Tansky was a brilliant merchant and remains a luxury and fashion industry icon–and rightly so. But he was hardly a risk-taker and fundamentally not wired to say ‘yes’ to strategic innovation. Kudos to Karen Katz and her team for being willing to push the envelope.

It’s so very easy to label something a failure after the fact and to castigate management for its ineptitude. The far easier path for leaders of course is to never try. You rarely get criticized for the things you didn’t do.

It’s a terrible strategy to eliminate the possibility of failure. Great companies and great leaders are not characterized by an absence of failure.

Without trying, there is no growth. Without failure, there is no learning. The key is to fail better.

So was the Neiman Marcus and Target partnership a failure? In the immediate-term, definitely. But the overall grade from where I sit is “Incomplete.”

If the lesson Neiman Marcus takes away from this project–and it is a project, not a strategy–is to pull back on innovation, to stop experimenting, than it will be a huge waste of time and resources. If it strengthens their resolve, if they apply their learning to improve the process of innovation, than it will be the most glorious of failures.

Out of Barneys’ rubble: What’s next for luxury fashion’s biggest boutique

Yesterday Barneys New York averted yet another trip to bankruptcy court through a major restructuring deal that converted most of their debt to equity (http://bloom.bg/IUyHir).

Unless you work at Istithmar–the PE firm that paid more than $940MM for Barneys in 2007 (oops!)–or owned Barneys debt, this is a big deal (pun intended). Barneys no longer has to divert the majority of its cash to service debt and now has greater capacity to improve existing operations and focus resources on growth.

So we’re good now, right? Not so fast.

To be sure, buying a marquee brand at fire sale prices sets up Barneys new class of equity owners for potentially high returns. And newish CEO Mark Lee has done a solid job of executing the basics and going after the proverbial low-hanging fruit. But we need to deal with a few facts.

We should not forget that Barneys recent improved performance comes at a time when virtually all luxury brands have performed well as the US market recovers from the devastating effects of the recession. As the market returns to 2007 levels–and we’re pretty much there–the reality is that the US luxury market is pretty mature.  Maintaining outsized revenue growth in the future is mostly going to need to come from market share gains and/or new stores.

The more looming reality is that Barneys is basically a 2 1/2 store chain. It’s no big secret that the New York and Beverly Hills stores drive the majority of profits while the Chicago flagship is a solid, but way less significant contributor. But expansions of flagship stores to markets like Scottsdale and Dallas have been disasters, and the Co-op stores have had decidedly mixed results.

Yes, Barneys expanded to markets like Las Vegas at precisely the worst time and yes, there have been execution follies along the way. But the bigger issue is that Barneys, as currently envisioned, is basically a big boutique. Unlike Neiman Marcus and Saks, which play in a full-range of affluent customer price points and target multiple lifestyles, Barney’s is tightly focused on a more specific customer from both a fashion point of view and price range.  In huge fashion markets like New York and LA, they can thrive. In smaller markets, faced with long-standing department store and boutique competition, it’s much, much harder.

Barneys has tried to correct for this by building smaller stores. While the stores are beautiful and contain a lot of great product, they mostly end up looking like a smaller boutique concept trying to fill up too big a space. So far, in markets like Dallas and Scottsdale, customers seem to agree.

For Barneys to profitably and meaningfully move beyond more than a handful of cities they are going to have to address a wider market while still maintaining a strong sense of their unique DNA and brand image. Faced with strong omni-channel competition like Saks, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom–not to mention a whole host of e-commerce only players and local boutiques–that is no easy task.

 

 

Don’t confuse members with customers

Thanks to the so-called flash-sales sites we now have a distorted definition of what being a member means. Before Gilt, RueLaLa and the myriad “private” e-commerce business wanna-bees, gaining membership in something typically meant you needed to actually do something more than have an email address and a pulse.

By now it should be clear to everyone that membership to these sites is simply a marketing gimmick. And an effective one at that.

But beyond semantics, the key issue is really how many of these members are actually customers? And of the actual customers, how many have bought more than once in the last year and how many are actually profitable (or have the potential to be)? You don’t have to tumble too many numbers to realize how shallow the customer base for most of these sites must be.

With competition heating up, and overall core sector growth flattening, it won’t be long before some investors become quite unhappy indeed.

Luxury’s back!!! Uh, not so fast.

With last quarter’s improved earnings–and a string of positive same-store sales reports–many have declared that the luxury market is once again booming.

While there is no question that business is on fire in developing luxury markets like China, the results in mature markets suggest a business that IS dramatically improved–and on a much more positive trajectory–but recovered? I beg to differ.

Better is not the same as good.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Neiman Marcus (full disclosure: my former employer and I still own an equity stake) is the clear leader in full-line luxury retail and today reported a December sales increase of 4.7%  In their most recently released quarterly earnings, Neiman’s reported a 7% same-store sales increase and a 33% increase in operating earnings compared to last year.

Today Saks reported a 11.8% increase in December sale-store sales.  In their last quarterly report, they showed a year over year sales increase of 4% and a doubling of their operating income.

This is all sounds pretty good until you compare these results to the same period just before the recession started.  Compared to the comparable quarter in 2007, Neiman’s sales are 18% below where they were–and this is after opening several new stores and having a rapidly growing e-commerce business.  More dramatically their quarterly earnings are still only half of what they were at their 2007 peak.

Same basic story at Saks: their sales are still down some 17% compared to 2007 (though they have closed a few full-line stores) and pre-tax operating earnings are down 30%.

Nordstrom–the best in class “accessible luxury” player–was affected less during the recession and has bounced back more strongly.  Their overall sales are pulling ahead of 2007, buoyed by new store openings, a leading omni-channel capability and a more broadly accessible offering.  While they have clearly gained market share, their earning are still about a third less than they were three years ago.

I have little doubt that virtually every player catering to the high end will report significantly improved earnings this next reporting period. And I’m delighted to see this positive trend.  But very few will have truly recovered.

A complete recovery will require more than just return of the ultra-high net worth customers and a bounce off the bottom.  It’s going to take a broader consumer recovery.  It’s going to take a better in-store customer experience.  It’s going to take building in more tangible value to the merchandise offering.  It’s going to take making the brand more accessible, while preserving the core customer.  It’s going to take a more compelling omni-channel strategy.  Fundamentally, it’s going to mean that all these players become more customer-centric rather than product-centric.

It can happen–it needs to happen–but it won’t fully happen anytime soon.

I had some surgery a couple of years ago and for some time I was hobbling around, feeling a fair amount of pain.  I realized–as did those around me–that each day I was feeling a little bit better.  And that was good.  But while I was still limping, nobody was deluded that I had completely recovered.

When it comes to the luxury recovery, let’s not kids ourselves either.

 

Luxury’s Flight to Quality

Hermes. Bulgari. Louis Vuitton. PPR (owner of Gucci and Bottega Veneta). Richemont.  All have recently reported strong profits.

Clearly, these firms have benefitted from their growing presence in the booming Asian luxury markets. But something else is going on. I believe this dazzling performance during a worldwide recession is about more than their global footprint.

All of these brands represent a powerful legacy of craftsmanship, of superior materials, of timelessness.  Unquestionably these products are expensive, yet time and time again, consumers choose them over much less costly options or similarly priced more trendy alternatives.

Because the affluent consumer’s capacity and willingness to spend remains constrained, brands must work even harder to capture a disproportionate share of the available wallet.  These heritage luxury brands are getting more than their fair share in a flight to quality.  They have taken a purchase which could be seen as a splurge and made it a seemingly sensible choice.

Of course, regardless of the price point, any brand wins because the consumer sees a strong price/value relationship.  And let’s face it, it’s easy to run a sale, offer extra loyalty points or give away a gift with purchase to drive short-term revenue.

Spending the money, making the hard choices, having the patience to build an investment quality to your brand–well that takes something extra.  It takes leadership, vision and courage to build something truly remarkable and enduring.

What’s your choice?

 

Reset! Engaging Customers in the New Normal

If you missed the webinar that Jon Giegengack and I conducted earlier this week entitled Engaging Consumers and Growing Market Share in the “New Normal,” the recording of the session and presentation deck are now both available.

Webinar recording:

https://cmbinfoevents.webex.com/cmbinfoevents/lsr.php?AT=pb&SP=EC&rID=2764867&rKey=b264f15e93796eb1

Webinar deck:

http://www.cmbinfo.com/cmb-cms/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/The-New-Consumer-Report_2010.pdf

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