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.

Bricks and Mobile · Mobile · Omni-channel · Uncategorized

A very mobile Christmas?

It’s no secret that mobile is becoming increasingly important in consumers’ shopping journeys. Retail brands as diverse as Target and Neiman Marcus have alluded to the pivotal role that digital plays in driving both their online and physical store sales. And of course when we say “digital,” often we mean mobile. In fact, for many retailers, mobile is becoming the front door to the store.

If a just-released study by Adobe Analytics proves to be correct, an important milestone will be reached this holiday season. For the first time ever, more U.S. shoppers will visit a retailer’s site using a mobile device than a desktop computer. Because conversion rates remain higher on “traditional” devices, the amount of actual purchases made on desktops will still exceed those made on a smartphone or tablet. But that’s not likely to be true very much longer.

This shift is profound, and mirrors what other studies have shown about the growing integration of mobile devices across all dimensions of retail. For example, Deloitte has been tracking digital’s influence on physical store shopping, and their research shows that in 2016 some 37% of all brick & mortar sales were influenced by a mobile device. It seems certain that number will easily surpass 40% this year.

The reasons this year’s holiday numbers are so important are twofold. First, and most obviously, it’s the busiest shopping time of the year, so shifts in customer behavior are amplified. Second, for consumers seeking great gift ideas, in many cases they’ll be visiting new or infrequently trafficked sites. A poor (or even less than remarkable) experience can have a significant impact on customers’ future buying intent.

It would appear that there is no going back in the move to mobile. As the folks at Google like to say (full disclosure: a recent client), we no longer go online; we live online. More and more, our smart devices are a constant companion in the shopping process. Whether it’s for product research, checking prices, locating the nearest store, downloading a coupon or making a transaction, employing mobile technology to enhance the customer experience is moving from novelty to habit.

The growing challenge for retail marketers therefore is to win these mobile moments that matter by being relevant and remarkable throughout the critical aspects of the shopping journey. Here the increasing role of mobile presents many important opportunities, most notably the chance to leverage context awareness in consumer engagement. But the limitations of mobile are apparent as well and must be navigated carefully.

A few things seem certain. Mobile will play a much larger role this holiday season and that momentum is likely to carry forward into 2018. Brands that have a compelling mobile presence will reap great benefits. For those where that is not the case, they can expect a big lump of goal in their stockings.

Shopping-Apps

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.

Omni-channel · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

Are mass store closings the start of an inevitable downward spiral?

At the recent inaugural ShopTalk Europe event in Copenhagen, Hudson’s Bay Company CEO Gerald Storch posited that retailers risk hastening their demise by taking an axe to their store counts. Clearly there are many factors that contribute to a brand’s march to the retail graveyard, yet there is mounting evidence that Storch’s observation is on the money. As I’ve said many times, show me a retailer that is shuttering a large number of outlets and chances are the intrinsic problem is not too many stores but that the brand is not sufficiently relevant and remarkable for the stores it has.

I first surfaced this concern more than four years ago in my post “Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion” and revisited it more recently with an updated Forbes post. While in many cases store counts need to be rationalized to address the overbuilding of the past two decades and to optimize store footprints given the shift to e-commerce, with rare exception, the retailers that are closing a large number of stores are working on the wrong problem.

When physical retail still accounts for 75-90% of a category’s volume, it’s hard to understand how radical cuts in store counts help address a brand’s ability to maintain, much less grow, market share. When we know for a fact that brick & mortar locations are key to supporting a viable and growing e-commerce business (and vice versa), mothballing dozens (or even hundreds) of stores only serves to undermine a retailer’s ability to meet customers’ evolving omni-channel demands. When we recognize that it is often far cheaper to acquire and serve customers through physical stores, reducing store counts substantially can worsen a retailer’s long-term cost position. And, as Storch points out, mass store closings erode purchasing power and can send consumers a signal that a retail brand is on its way to oblivion, serving only to make matters worse.

In fact, I cannot come up with a single major retailer that has closed 20% or more of its stores and is now considered truly healthy. On the other hand, I can easily name many that went through multiple iterations of down-sizing that have either liquidated or are currently in bankruptcy proceedings–Sears Canada being the most recent example. I can also list many that seem to be in perpetual store closing mode (Sears US for one) that thus far have been spared a visit from the grim reaper yet continue to see their operating results deteriorate with little hope for resurrection. For many, sadly, it’s dead brand walking.

We should also ignore any analysis that tries to estimate the number of store closings that a retailer must undertake to get back to prior store productivity levels. First, anchoring success on past store productivity metrics is largely irrelevant as it ignores a store’s contribution to online volume growth. Minimally, we need to understand the growth and profitability of a trade area and incorporate both e-commerce and physical store performance. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus–just to name two powerful examples–have seen their historical store productivity numbers weaken, yet they still have healthy financial performance overall. Second, any such analysis is merely a rote arithmetic exercise that erroneously assumes that massive store closings don’t have any adverse impact on e-commerce, nor make a brand less relevant and competitive in consumers’ minds nor serve to de-leverage fixed costs.

Ultimately, I don’t see a scenario where store closings will be the silver bullet that troubled retailers need to get back on track. They may be a key piece in a needed reinvention, but the critical work centers on taking the required actions to make these troubled brands sufficiently relevant and remarkable such that they can stem the share of wallet loss that got them into trouble in the first place.

Said differently, if sales are the problem, working on the cost side will never help breathe a dying retailer back to life.

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 · Digital · Omni-channel

The End Of E-Commerce? These Days, It’s All Just Commerce

Given the continued rapid growth of online shopping, it might seem crazy to suggest that the era of e-commerce is coming to an end. Yet while we are used to talking about e-commerce as a separate thing — and isolating statistics for digital transactions versus brick-and-mortar same-store sales — it’s increasingly clear that these are becoming distinctions without much of a difference. For consumers, it’s simply “commerce,” and retailers that want to thrive, or survive, need to fully embrace a one brand, many channels strategy.

I recently attended shop.org, the annual conference historically focused on digital commerce. What struck me most (beyond the dwindling attendance) was that speakers mostly ignored online shopping as a stand-alone concept. Instead, many emphasized the importance of brick-and-mortar stores in delivering a remarkable customer experience. Moreover, the majority of technology providers in the expo offered solutions that were very much anchored in online/offline integration or leverage, not e-commerce optimization, as was true in the past. Rather than buying into the retail apocalypse narrative and seeing brick-and-mortar stores as liabilities, most were clearly in the camp of believing that stores were (wait for it) assets. Physical retail might be different, but it clearly is not dead.

Notably, Mark Lore from Walmart/Jet spoke of the need for retailers to be channel agnostic and highlighted how Walmart’s stores give the brand a distinct advantage. TechStyle CEO Adam Goldenberg showcased statistics on how Fabletic’s overall brand performance has been enhanced through the opening of stores and on how the merging of cross-channel data gives them an edge. Kohl’s spoke of the role of mobile as a constant companion in the shopper’s journey from online to offline (and vice versa). While using somewhat different language, numerous other speakers acknowledged that customers shop everywhere and the best retailers need to meet them where they are. Clearly, more and more, it’s just commerce now.

Of course, the lines have been blurring for years, and study after study shows that a well-integrated shopping experience across channels (what some call “omni-channel” and what I prefer to call “harmonized retail”) is what customers desire and what often determines a brand’s ultimate success. The increasing investments in physical stores byAmazon and other digitally native brands serve to underscore this growing reality. Those of us who are familiar with retailers’ customer data know that, typically, a brand’s best customers are those who shop and/or are heavily influenced in both digital and physical channels. We also know that opening stores drives increases in e-commerce in that store’s trade area, just as closing a store often leads to dramatic declines in online shopping. It’s all just commerce.

This realization does not negate the fact that a meaningful percentage of shopping occurs in a purely digital fashion (particularly downloading books, music and games). It does not minimize that Amazon has achieved a total share of retail rapidly approaching 5% almost entirely without a physical presence. But as we move ahead, it’s important to realize the significant contributions to what we label “e-commerce” that are derived from traditional retailers’ online divisions. It’s important to recognize that Amazon will struggle to maintain outsized growth without deepening its investment in brick and mortar. It’s critical to grasp that digitally influenced physical-stores sales far exceed sales rung up online.

And ultimately it’s essential to realize that it is rarely an online-vs.-offline battle, but a struggle that is won when we accept that it’s all just commerce and strive to bring the best of offline and online together on behalf of the customer.

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 · Omni-channel · Retail

Reports Of JC Penney’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

The last several years have not been kind to JC Penney. Not only have they been swept up in the long-term decline of the moderate department store sector, but they also hemorrhaged huge amounts of market share during Ron Johnson’s failed re-boot. Under current leadership, the picture has not improved much. In fact, last week shares sank again after a disappointing earnings report. The stock is off nearly 90% in the past five years and some 40% year to date.

Many observers have concluded that Penney’s is on a slow slide to oblivion. And while I agree that much more needs to be done to right the ship, I am cautiously optimistic. In fact, full disclosure, I bought some Penney’s shares last week. While investing in the company is clearly not for the faint of heart, I believe there are a few reasons to conclude that the news on Penney’s going forward is more likely to be positive than not.

Store closings muddy the picture. The biggest reason for the miss on gross margin was from unusually high markdowns. Both Penney’s own store closings and those of competitors put pressure on pricing as stores liquidate merchandise. While clearly the industry is facing a great deal of promotional intensity, margin pressures should subside a bit as the pace of store closings slows.

New initiatives are gaining traction. Penney’s continue to expand its partnership with Sephora, opening 32 new locations and expanding 31 others. The beauty category is key to driving incremental traffic. The company also is growing its appliance showrooms and seeing positive sales momentum. The repositioning of its critically important apparel business also seems to be going well, with most categories seeing positive comps despite a difficult market.

Gaining share in a down market. Wall St. is overly focused on same-store sales growth, which I continue to deem retail’s increasingly irrelevant metric.  With nearly 20% of sales in Penney’s core categories occurring online it’s more important to understand combined e-commerce and physical store performance on a trade-area by trade-area basis. If Penney’s closed a bunch of stores but overall sales grew, it suggests that they gained omni-channel share, which speaks to their improving digital commerce capabilities. While there is considerable room for improvement, that’s still encouraging. And unlike some, Penney’s seems to get that stores drive e-commerce and vice versa–and they are acting accordingly and wisely.

Well-positioned to gain from Sears demise. While Sears may still technically survive as a holding company for intellectual property, it seems obvious that most of their mall-based department stores will be shuttered within the next year or so. That will give Penney’s a crack at hundreds of millions of dollars of home and apparel business, not to mention solid upside from their expanding appliance presence.

Maybe Amazon buys them? Amazon clearly has its eyes set on growing market share in traditional department store categories. And the reality is a physical store presence is going to be required to access the majority of the business. Both Macy’s and Kohl’s market caps are around $7b. Penney’s is under $2b. You do the math.

Of course, even if my prognostications prove accurate, I know other risks exist. JC Penney’s is highly leveraged. The Amazon Effect remains real. The off-price sector continues to steal share away from department stores. The full effect of retail consolidation is yet to be realized

However, the broader “retail apocalypse” narrative is nonsense and the notion that mall-based retail is doomed is overblown. Physical retail is different but far from deadMost malls are not going away. And recent earnings reports from many “traditional” retailers suggest the broader market is beginning to stabilize. Either way, more capacity needs to come out of the market before any of the struggling retailers have any shot at significantly improved performance. For Penney’s in particular, they need further work to make their assortments and experience more relevant and remarkable, while right-sizing their store fleet for optimal performance. They need to reduce their debt burden.

Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part, but I think they are fundamentally pointed in the right direction. Only time will tell.

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.

Customer experience · 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 · Forbes · Omni-channel · Store closings

Honey, I shrunk the store

While the “retail apocalypse” narrative is nonsense, it’s clear that we are witnessing a major contraction in traditional retail space. Store closings have tripled year over year and more surely loom on the horizon. The “death of the mall” narrative also tilts to the hyperbolic, but in many ways it is the end of the mall as we know it, as dozens close and even larger number are getting re-invented in ways big and small.

While the shrinking of store fleets gets a lot of attention, another dynamic is becoming important. Increasingly, major retailers are down-sizing the average size of their prototypical store. In some cases, this is a solid growth strategy. Traditional format economics often don’t allow for situating new locations in areas with very high rents or other challenging real estate circumstances. Target’s urban strategy is one good example. In other situations, smaller formats allow for a more targeted offering, as with Sephora’s new studio concept.

By far, however, the big driver is the impact of e-commerce. With many retailers seeing online sales growing beyond 10% of their overall revenues–and in cases like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus north of 25%–brick & mortar productivity is declining. It therefore seems logical that retailers can safely shrink their store size to improve their overall economics.

Yet the notion that shrinking store size is an automatic gateway to better performance is just as misunderstood and fraught with danger as the idea that retailers can achieve prosperity through taking an axe to the size of their physical store fleets. To be sure, there are quite a few categories where physical stores are relatively unimportant to either the consumer’s purchase decision and/or the underlying ability to make a profit. Books, music, games and certain commodity lines of businesses are great examples. But brick & mortar stores are incredibly important to the customer journey for many other categories, whether the actual purchase is ultimately consummated in a physical location or online.

Often the ability to touch & feel the product, talk to a sales person or have immediate gratification are critical. In other cases, lower customer acquisition and supply chain costs make physical stores an essential piece of the overall economic equation. Shrinking the store base or the size of a given store can have material adverse effects on total market share and profit margins. For this reason, retailers are going to need (and Wall St. must understand) a set of new metrics.

The worst case scenario is that a brand makes itself increasingly irrelevant by having neither reasonable market coverage with its physical store count nor a compelling experience in each and every store it operates. Managing for sheer productivity while placing relevance and remarkability on the back burner is all too often the start of a downward spiral. Failing to understand that a compelling store presence helps a retailer’s online business (and vice versa) can lead to reducing both the number of stores and the size of stores beyond a minimally viable level. But enough about Sears.

In the immediate term, we may feel good that by shooting under-performing locations and shrinking store sizes through the pruning of “unproductive” merchandise we are able to drive margin rates higherAlas, increasing averages does nothing if we are losing ground over the long-term with the customers that matter.

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

 

Digital · Mobile · Omni-channel · Retail

Retail’s Single Biggest Disruptor. Spoiler Alert: It’s Not E-commerce

There is no question that the retail industry is under-going a tremendous amount of change. Record numbers of store closings. Legacy brands going out of business–or teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Venture capital funded start-ups wreaking havoc upon traditional distribution models and pricing structures. Discount-oriented retailers stealing share away from once mighty department stores. And, oh yeah, then there’s Amazon.

In assessing what is driving retailers’ shifting fortunes most observers point to a single factor: the rapid growth of e-commerce. But they’d be wrong.

To be sure, online shopping has, and will continue to have, a dramatic impact on virtually every aspect of retail. One simply cannot ignore the dramatic share shift from physical stores to digital commerce, nor can we under-estimate the transformative effect of e-commerce on pricing, product availability and shopping convenience.

Yet a far more profound dynamic is at play, namely what some have termed “digital-first retail.” Digital-first retail is the growing tendency of consumers’ shopping journeys to be influenced by digital channels, regardless of where the ultimate transaction takes place. It’s obvious that this shift helps explain the success of Amazon and other e-commerce players. But when it comes to how traditional retailers need to reinvent themselves, several factors related to this phenomenon need to be better understood and, most importantly, acted upon.

The majority of physical store sales start online. Deloitte has done a great job tracking digitally influenced sales and its most recent report indicates 56% of in-store sales involved a digital device–and this will only continue to grow. Moreover, quite a few major retailers, across a spectrum of categories, have publicly commented that they are experiencing 60-70% digital influence of physical stores sales.

Digitally-influenced brick & mortar sales dwarf e-commerce. While e-commerce now accounts for (depending on the source) some 10% of all retail sales, both Forrester and Deloitte have estimated that web-influenced physical store sales are about 5X online sales.

Increasingly, mobile is the gateway. We no longer go online, we live online and smartphones are the main reason. As the penetration of mobile devices–and time spent on them–grows, mobile is becoming the front door to the retail store. Digital-first now often means mobile-first. It may not be the predominant behavior today, but it won’t be long before it is.

It’s a search driven world. Sometimes consumers turn to the web for rather mundane tasks: confirming store hours or looking up the address of a retailer’s location. Other times they are engaged in a more robust discovery process, seeking to find the best item, the best price, the best overall experience and so forth. Retailers need to position themselves to win these moments that matter (what Google calls “micro-moments.” Full disclosure: Google’s been a client of mine).

Digital-first can be (really) expensive: Part 1. Having a good transactional e-commerce site is table stakes. Becoming great at enabling a digital-first brick & mortar shopping experience is the next frontier. As customers turn to digital channels to help facilitate brick & mortar activity, be that a sale or a return, retailers need to be really good at creating a harmonious shopping experience across all relevant engagement points. This isn’t about being everything to everybody in all channels. It isn’t about integrating everything. It is about understanding the customer journey for key customer segments, rooting out the friction points and discovering points of amplification, i.e. where the experience can be made unique, intensely relevant and remarkable at scale. It’s not easy, and it’s rarely cheap to implement. It turns out, however, it’s a really bad time to be so boring.

Digital-first can be (really) expensive: Part 2. Estimates vary, but it’s clear that search (or engaging on social media) is an intrinsic part of most consumers’ shopping process. And that means that an awful lot of customer journeys intersect with Google, Amazon, Facebook or some other toll-booth operator. I say toll-booth operator because so often a brand’s ultimate success in capturing the consumer’s attention, driving traffic to a website or store and converting that traffic into sales requires paying one of these companies a fee. And that can add up. Fast. Of course the best brands generate consumer awareness and interest through word-of-mouth, not paying to interrupt the consumer’s attention. The best brands get repeat business through the inherent attractiveness of their offering, not chasing promiscuous consumers through incessant bribes. The best brands don’t engage in a race to the bottom because they are afraid they might win. This shift in who “owns” (or at least can dictate) access to the customer is profound. A strategy of attraction rather than (expensive) promotion is the far better course, but not so easily done.

While e-commerce–and Amazon in particular–is re-shaping the retail industry, having a compelling online business is necessary, not sufficient. In fact, in my humble opinion, many of the retailers that are reeling today got into trouble because they spent too much time and money focused on building their e-commerce capabilities as a stand-alone silo, to the detriment of their physical stores and without understanding the digital-first dynamic that determines overall brand success and the ultimate viability of their brick & mortar footprint.

Blaming struggling retailers’ woes on Amazon, or e-commerce more broadly, is only part of the story. Figuring out how to thrive, much less survive, in the age of digital-first disruption requires a lot more than shutting down a bunch of stores and getting better at e-commerce. A whole lot more.

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.

 

Customer Growth Strategy · Omni-channel · Retail

Is off-price the next retail sector to go off the rails?

Amidst all the pain that most of the retail industry has endured during the past few years, the “off-price” sector has been one of the few shining stars.

While most retailers struggle to eke out any top-line growth, the segment’s big four–TJX, Ross, Burlington and Nordstrom Rack–have delivered solid growth. While many retailers are closing stores in droves, the off-price leaders have been opening new outlets at a brisk pace while announcing plans to open hundreds of stores over the next several years. TJX, the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post, added nearly 200 stores this past year alone.

So while it’s easy to blame Amazon for department stores’ troubles, there is ample evidence that it’s been the major share grab on the part of the off-price and outlet sector that’s inflicted a great deal of the pain.

Of course, the bifurcation of retail has been going on for some time. Consumers have been steadily shifting their spending toward more price-oriented brands since the recession. In some cases it has been driven by an economic need to spend less. In other cases by a realization that strong value can be obtained at a lower price, whether that is from a traditional retailer (e.g. Walmart), a leading fast fashion brand (e.g. H&M and Zara), a newer business model (e.g. Gilt and Farfetch) or, of course, Amazon.

Yet there is growing evidence that the segment is beginning to mature and that future results may be quite different from the boom of recent years. In the most recent quarter, TJX saw same-store sales growth slow to 1%. Archrival Ross posted better results but struck a decidedly cautious note. Nordstrom Rack, which has been the star within Nordstrom, has seen its growth slow to below the industry average.

So while one or two quarters do not indicate cause for alarm, there are several reasons why investors might want to beware.

Sluggish apparel growth

Average unit prices for apparel continue to contract, the discounting environment shows no sign of abating and consumers continue to shift their spending away from products to experiences. This means most sales growth must come from stealing share. That’s not likely to come easily.

Growing competition.

Competition is always intense in retail, but with the number of new stores that are opening, the rapid growth of online competition and Amazon’s growing and intense focus on apparel and home products (including an almost certain big push into private fashion brands in the next couple of years), sales and margin pressures are certain to become more pronounced.

Here comes e-commerce–and its challenges.  

The off-price industry was slow to get into digital commerce. Some of this was for good reason: it’s almost impossible to make money online in apparel with low transaction values and high rates of returns. But given consumer demand, the convergence of channels and pressure from growing competition, none of these brands have a choice but to invest heavily. But as e-commerce becomes an important growth driver, much of that growth will come through diversion of sales from a brand’s own physical stores–and often at a lower profit margin (what I call “the omnichannel migration dilemma”). As e-commerce becomes a more important piece of the overall business, the economics of physical stores will become more challenging, calling into question the reasonableness of the current store opening pace.

Brand dilution and saturation. 

The key driver of the off-price business has been offering major brand names at deeply discounted prices. While this is a bit of a con, the consumer is either blissfully ignorant or doesn’t care–at least so far. But as more brands grow through heavily discounted channels the risk of brand dilution goes up. And we’ve already seen several major brands pull back from factory outlet channels and tighten their distribution to wholesale channels where discounting was rampant. As Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Macy’s and Bloomingdales emphasize off-price growth (both physical store openings and online) the brand dilution concern to their “parent brands” looms large.

Overshooting the runway on store growth.

The over-expansion of most major retail chains is plaguing much of the retail industry right now. So far the off-price sector has escaped this fate, largely because the sector has been gaining share. But if growth continues to moderate and a greater share of the business moves to e-commerce, today’s store opening plans seem awfully aspirational. This is not a 2017 issue, and probably not one for 2018 either. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager that in 2019 we will view today’s plans as incredibly optimistic.

While the off-price sector is unlikely to experience the shockwaves of disruption pummeling its retail brethren anytime soon, we should remember that no business is immune from fundamental forces. And no business maintains above average growth forever. Investors would be wise to take a more cautious approach.

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.  

Omni-channel · Retail · Store closings

Wall Street’s Misguided (And Dangerous) Fascination With Retail Store Productivity

An unprecedented number of retail store locations are closing this year and more announcements are surely coming–though perhaps not quite as many as I suggested in my April Fool’s post.

Given the lack of innovation on the part of traditional retailers, rampant overbuilding and the disruptive nature of e-commerce, this ongoing and massive consolidation of retail space was both inevitable and overdue. Yet much of the way the investor community sees the need for even more aggressive store closings is wrong and, one could argue, pretty dangerous.

One of the more ridiculous ways Wall Street firms have tried to determine the “right” number of store closings is to calculate how many locations would need to be shuttered to return various chains to their 2006 store productivity levels. A somewhat more responsible, though still alarming, analysis comes from Cowen, which focused more on the need to more closely align retail selling space supply and demand.

The most obvious problem with this type of analysis is its focus on ratios. The fact is that many stores with below average productivity are still quite profitable, particularly department stores, given their low rent factors. So while closing a lot of locations may yield a temporary productivity boost it often has a direct and immediate negative impact on earnings, which is a far better indicator of a retailer’s health.

The bigger issue is an underlying misunderstanding of the role of brick & mortar stores in retail’s new world order. Just as “same-store” sales is an increasingly irrelevant metric, so are store productivity numbers. Yes, more stores need to close. Yes, many of the stores that remain need a major rethink with regard to their size and fundamental operations. But what many still fail to grasp is how a retailer’s store footprint drives a brand’s overall health and the success of its e-commerce operations.

A given store’s productivity can be below average and decline yet still contribute to a retailer’s overall success, particularly online. Stores serve as an important–and often low cost–channel to acquire new customers. Stores serve as showrooms that drive customers online. Stores serve as fulfillment points for e-commerce operations. Stores are billboards for a retail brand. Without a compelling store footprint, a brand’s relevance will likely decline and its e-commerce business almost certainly will falter. Stated simply, store productivity numbers, taken in isolation, no longer get at the heart of a brand’s overall performance in an omnichannel world.

While there surely is merit in closing stores that drain cash and management attention, store closings can often make a bad situation worse. Ironically–as Kevin Hillstrom from MineThatData does a great job of illustrating–closings stores to respond to e-commerce growth can actually have the opposite effect. In fact, from my experience, massive store closings often initiate (or at least signal) a coming downward spiral.

Store closings are hardly the panacea that Wall Street seems to believe. And the notion that a brand can shrink its way to prosperity is typically horribly misguided. Macy’s, J.C. Penney and a host of others need to close more stores. And Sears and Kmart just need to go away. But, as I’ve said many times before, show me a retailer that is closing a lot of stores and you’ve likely shown me a retailer that doesn’t have too many stores, but a retail brand that is no longer relevant enough for the stores it has.

The danger of closing too many stores is increasingly real. The danger that struggling retailers will continue to appease Wall Street’s thirst for taking an ax to store counts instead of working on the underlying fault in their stores seems, sadly, clear and present.

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.