Sears: Is The End Finally In Sight For The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale?

When I left Sears in 2003, I was quite pessimistic about the company’s long-term prospects. Some initiatives we had put in place during a two-year strategic re-positioning effort were gaining traction, but most key metrics were alarming. The apparel business was well below a sustainable productivity level. The appliance and home improvement segments–which accounted for roughly 50% of our enterprise value–were losing market share to better positioned competitors, mostly notably Home Depot and Lowes. And the one strategy that might have saved us was no longer a feasible option. My fear was that Sears’ slow death was inevitable.

The following year Eddie Lampert put two failing retailers together and promptly made a bad situation even worse. While Sears and Kmart both suffered from challenges driving revenue, Lampert focused on cutting costs. As leading brands realized that retail was moving to an era of greater customer experience and shopping integration, Lampert set up merchandise categories as warring factions. Next came the idea of starving the stores further to focus on making Sears more digitally savvy. Then he became enamored with an emphasis on making Sears “member-driven” by launching “Shop Your Way,” a frequency shopping scheme that only served to lower margins without restoring necessary sales growth.

After witnessing nearly a decade of flailing, in 2013 I publicly declared Sears “the world’s slowest liquidation sale” and suggested that they were a dead brand walking.

I have to admit that Sears has hung in there longer than I would have thought. The degree to which Lampert has been able to extract value from Sears assets has been surprising and remarkable. But he is rapidly running out of rabbits to pull out of his hat.

First, and most importantly, Sears has never laid out any realistic strategy to reverse a nearly perfect string of comp store declines for both the Sears and Kmart brands extending back to 2004. Sears cannot possibly cut enough costs to restore positive operating cash flow without growing top-line sales significantly.

Second, most store closings only make things worse. Contrary to popular belief, stores are needed to drive online sales, and vice versa. Sears’ fundamental problem is not too many stores, it is that is has become a brand that is no longer relevant enough for the assets and operating scale it has in place.

Third, with massive operating losses assured for the foreseeable future, Sears must raise a lot of cash to stay afloat. And it has already sold almost all the good stuff.

Yes, the presumably imminent sale of the Kenmore and DieHard brands may fetch in excess of a billion dollars. Yes, there is some real estate left to unload. Yes, the Home Services and Auto Centers retain some meaningful value. But don’t let the financial engineering strategies gloss over the fundamental point. There is no viable operating strategy to restore Sears to a profitable core of any material size. And unless the company can generate cash from operations before running out of assets to fund its staggering losses, it is not, in any practical sense, a going concern.

The company has been liquidating for many years now. It’s just that some of us are finally starting to notice.

 

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

Working on the wrong problem

When we see a brand struggling–or we find ourselves working within a flailing or failing organization–the first order of business should be clear. We need to understand the root causes. Once we’ve become keenly aware of what’s driving our problem–and accepted the reality of the situation–we are then ready to move into developing and launching a course of action.

So if the path is clear and obvious, why do so many retailers–and scores of other types of organizations, for that matter–get it so very wrong, so very often?

We regularly see retail brands hyper-focused on cost reductions when by far the bigger issue is lack of revenue growth (I’m looking at you Sears).

We see brands falling prey to the store closing delusion when often it turns out that closing stores en masse only makes matters worse.

We see brands blindly chasing the holy grail of all things omni-channel when, in most cases, they are merely spending millions of dollars to transfer sales from one pocket to the other–often at a lower margin.

We brands engaging in price wars they can never possibly win or without regard to the possibility that their customers aren’t even interested in the lowest price.

We see brands chasing average, the lowest common denominator, the one-size-fits-all solution because it seems safe. Yet it is precisely the most risky thing they could do.

Far too often we fail to pierce the veil of denial.

Far too often we fall victim to conventional wisdom, what we’ve always done or what we think Wall Street wants.

Far too often we ascribe wisdom to shrewd salespeople or charismatic and clever charlatans.

Far too often we fail to do the work, to ask for help, to dig deep to understand what’s really going on.

We can work really hard. We can focus our energies and those of our teams we great alacrity and intensity. We can pile on the data, build persuasive arguments and rock a really slick PowerPoint presentation. We can tell ourselves a story that convinces us we must be right.

But if we aren’t working on the right problem that’s all a colossal waste of time.

 

 

Retail’s great deleveraging

Over the past several quarters an awful lot of retail brands have reported disappointing earnings. Expect that to continue.

Some of this is because of tepid overall consumer demand in certain categories. Apparel comes to mind. But it goes far beyond simple macro-economics.

We are going through the great deleveraging of retail. And for many brands this will end badly.

When retailers operate a fleet of strong brick & mortar locations with growing revenues, small increases in sales typically convert powerfully to greater profits and return on invested capital. Yet when revenues are headed in the other direction the converse is true. The high fixed cost nature of physical stores can quickly make a given location financially untenable when sales sag. This is the primary reason we are seeing a virtual tsunami of store closings.

But store closings typically cause deleveraging as well.  Many marketing, supply chain, administrative and other costs are relatively fixed. Pull volume out of the system through massive store closings and other types of deleveraging occur.

A lot of folks seem to think that aggressive investments in digital channels and omni-channel integration are the silver bullet answer. But that’s often not true. There is also a relatively fixed cost nature of fulfilling and shipping a direct-to-consumer order. Shift sales from a physical store where the marginal cost of filling an order is comparatively low to e-commerce, where the marginal cost is higher and, once again, the financial leverage gets worse, not better.

Most retailers are investing heavily in omni-channel integration capabilities. Many of these investments are necessary, but not sufficient. If all we are doing is adding a lot of cost to the system without gaining market share and becoming meaningfully more customer relevant, we are once again deleveraging our underlying economics.

Therefore, it should not surprise us that retailers experiencing relatively flat sales overall through a combination of minor declines in physical store sales, but strong increases online are seeing profits erode. Deleveraging is to blame.

Ultimately, the greatest long-term leverage comes from being more remarkable and more intensely customer relevant in ways that grow share of wallet and engender true loyalty, not by squeezing out operating costs and closing stores.

Show me a retailer that is all about cost-cutting and “rationalizing” its real estate and most often you’ve shown me a brand that is out of ideas. Far too often that merely confirms that the downward spiral has begun. Dead brand walking.

Does e-commerce suck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are retailer, yeah, that definitely sucks.

 

Easy to measure, not all that useful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

h/t to Seth for inspiring this post.

Stop blaming Amazon for department store woes

Given Amazon’s staggering growth and willingness to lose money to grab market share it’s easy to blame them for everything that is ailing “traditional” retail overall–and the  department store sector in particular.

In fact, with announcements last week from Macy’s to Kohl’s and Sears to JC Penney that could only charitably be called “disappointing” many folks that get paid to understand this stuff reflexively jumped on the “it’s all Amazon’s fault” bandwagon. Too bad they are mostly wrong.

The fact is the department store sector has been losing consumer relevance and share for a long, long time–and certainly well before Amazon had even a detectable amount of competing product in core department store categories.

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The fact is it’s just as logical to blame off-price and warehouse club retailer growth–which is almost entirely done in physical locations, by the way–for department stores’ problems.

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The fact is that, despite other challenges along the way, Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus have maintained share by transitioning a huge amount of their brick & mortar business to their online channels and have closed only a handful of stores in the last few years. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus now both derive some 25% of their total sales from e-commerce.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Amazon isn’t stealing business from the major department store players. Clearly they are. And as Amazon continues to grow its apparel business they will grab more and more share.

But the underlying reason for department stores decades long struggle is the sector’s consistent inability to transform their customer experience, product assortments, marketing strategies and real estate to meet consumers’ evolving needs.

More recently, those brands that have been slow to embrace digital first retail are scrambling to play catch up. Those that still haven’t broken down the silos that create barriers to a frictionless shopping experience will continue to hemorrhage customers and cash.

Most importantly those that think they can out Amazon Amazon are engaged in a race to the bottom. And as Seth reminds us, the problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

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The store closing panacea

There has been a strong and growing narrative that the single smartest thing a struggling retailer can do is to close stores and, in some cases, a lot of them. I first touched on this nearly three years ago in my post “Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion.”

There is no question that, in aggregate, the United States has too much retail space. There is no question that, in concept, the growth of e-commerce can allow an omni-channel retailer to serve some trade areas more profitably without a store and some trade areas with a smaller box. The key is to understand “some” and that starts with understanding why a given brand is under-performing in the first place. The other key is to understand the role that brick & mortar locations play in driving e-commerce–and vice versa.

In most cases, as recent events are bearing out more and more, store closings make an already irrelevant retailer less relevant. And frequently much less profitable as well.

Nearly 90% of traditional retail is still done in physical stores. In five years it will still be about 85%. The math is not that complicated.

Make it harder to get to a store OR make returns in a store OR order online and pick up in a store OR go to a store to research potential purchases OR learn about the brand, etc. and a retailer is almost certain to lose way more business (and margin dollars) to a competitor’s physical store in the vacated trade area than the brand “rationalizing” its store count will ever be able to make up through its website. This is why JC Penney, Home Depot and Lowes should write Eddie Lampert thank you notes pretty much every day.

Moreover, the symbiotic nature of digital and physical channels should not be ignored, yet often is. Several retailers–Sears is perhaps the best example–made the assumption that by investing in digital at the expense of physical stores they could more profitability serve their customer base over the long-term. As it turns out (and as more retailers are learning), e-commerce is often less profitable at the margin than brick & mortar operations and that when you close stores you actually make it more difficult for your e-commerce business to thrive. Oops.

Any retailer in trouble should absolutely analyze whether closing and/or “right-sizing” stores will be accretive to cash-flow. But that analysis MUST include the impact on long-term competitiveness and digital channel sales in the affected store’s trade area. Thinking you are helping when in fact you are merely initiating a downward spiral is a pretty big mistake to make.

Any analyst pushing for store closings and footprint down-sizing should be mindful that it is almost never the case that a struggling retailer’s ills are because they have too many stores or that the stores they have are fundamentally too large. Rather, it is because their brand relevance is not big enough for the channels, both physical and digital, that they have. Be careful what you wish for.

Show me a retail brand that is remarkable and relevant enough to command the share of attention that drives share of market and I’m virtually certain their executives are not spending a second on down-sizing. In fact, most are opening physical stores (e.g Nordstrom, Warby Parker, Amazon, TJX) and, in many cases, a bunch of them.

Show me a retail brand that is consumed with store closings and expense reduction and there is a pretty good chance they are a dead brand walking.

 

Thanks to those who have encouraged me along my path as I took a six month break from writing this blog. During my sabbatical I started a new blog on waking up to a life of love, purpose and passion at any age, which can be found at http://www.IGotHereAsFastAsICould.blog.