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

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

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

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

The end of e-commerce.

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

The death of physical retail has been greatly exaggerated.

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

This time it’s personal.

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

Artificial intelligence is ready for its close-up.

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

The false ebullience of the holiday season.

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

The best time to plant a tree.

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

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

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

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

For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

Compelling, creepy, annoying or just bad? Retail’s personalization opportunity

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 20 years since Martha Rodgers and Don Peppers’ seminal book The One to One FutureAt the time, Dr. Rodgers and Mr. Peppers (not to be confused with Mr. Rodgers and Dr. Pepper!) offered up the radical notion that mass, one-size-fits-all marketing would begin yielding to a brave new one-to-one world. Followed just three years later by Seth Godin’s classic Permission Marketing the more intrepid among us started to make “treat different customers differently” our mantra and advocate for a shift to more targeted and personalized campaigns. Alas, we were a bit ahead of our time.

Despite years of missteps and hype, some two decades later the business case for greater marketing and experiential personalization remains strong. Fortunately, lower cost data storage and more effective technology solutions, along with general advances in know-how and the ability to reach customers through digital channels, now make it possible for most retail brands to realistically differentiate themselves on the basis of deep customer insight, data science and advanced targeting strategies. From where I sit, it won’t be long before advanced personalization skills become table-stakes in the battle for customer share of attention. To remain relevant — to become the signal amidst all the noise — retail marketers will have to get good at one-to-one marketing and in delivering more personalized experiences both in the store and on the web.

Yet, despite the strong business case, advancing capabilities and many years of experimenting, personalization’s potential remains largely untapped. For every success story, it seems as if there are dozens of weak efforts or outright debacles. In fact, a recent study by Accenture estimates that personalization failures cost US firms $756 billion and a total of $2.5 trillion globally. While I have a hard time getting my head around the accuracy and magnitude of those numbers, there is no question poor data management and far from stellar personalization can chase away business as well as leave a lot of money on the table.

As we start to understand how to both avoid problems and seize on opportunities, I find it’s worth asking a few basic questions.

Is it compelling?

The essence of good personalization is two-fold: is it relevant and is it remarkable? Delivering intensely relevant one-to-one (or mass customized) experiences is predicated on deep customer insight and the ability to target the right interaction (or offer) to the right customer at–or as close as possible–to the right moment. Retailers that are getting it right use data science to ascertain customer needs and wants and to better predict the next most effective marketing action. Stitch Fix is a great example of a company that has built predictive analytics and targeted marketing into the fabric (heh, heh) of their enterprise. The other key element is “remarkability.” Even if an offer is relevant, simply serving up the same old tired promotional tricks is unlikely to get a good response and help enhance the brand’s image. According to the Accenture study, 44% of all customers feel that brands fail to deliver relevant personalized experiences. Plenty of untapped opportunities here.

Is it creepy?

In my experience, the vast majority of customers have no idea how easy it is for marketers to purchase potentially useful pieces of data to better inform their targeted marketing strategies. Moreover, many customers fail to grasp how their lack of attention to privacy settings on places like Facebook allows marketers to glean all sorts of insights from the data breadcrumbs left behind by our traffic, likes and so on. Advances in statistical techniques and artificial intelligence allow for powerful inferences to be made by analyzing behaviors, transactions and demographic information. Walking the thin line between delivering surprisingly useful recommendations and something that smacks of Big Brother –or that raises unnecessary privacy concerns–is challenging. In the bloodthirsty quest for incremental revenue, it is all too easy for undisciplined marketers to step over the line. Resist the temptation. Strong brands are based on trust. Tread lightly.

Is it annoying?

I’ve met few marketers that believe less is more. For most, more is more, often to the point of going well beyond diminishing returns. Since email (and certain other digital messages) are often quite cheap at the margin, retail marketers often take the bludgeon approach to their campaign messaging. They dial up frequency until we yell “Uncle.” They chase us all over the internet with retargeting ads. They offer us products we just bought (oh yeah, sure I often buy a second dishwasher or espresso machine the week after I bought my last one). The holiday shopping season is a particularly bad time of the year where frequency goes to 11 and many promotional strategies look like they were created by Jackson Pollock. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Is it just bad?

In 2011 I started pointing out when bad personalization happens to good people and it’s become a bit of a hobby for me (apparently I have that kind of time). A certain airline (I won’t tell you which one, but their initials are “AA”) regularly sent my teenage daughters offers “specially selected” for them which included deals for mortgage financing. We were nicely generous with their allowances, but not enough for any real estate speculation. Neiman Marcus (where I once, ironically, oversaw our customer insight and personalization efforts) often encouraged me to redeem my InCircle Rewards points. Which would be great if I actually had any. Citibank still pitches me a credit card I already have, while AT&T, um, well where to start?

The first rule of personalization club is to not ask a customer to provide information that you already have (unless it’s to verify identity). The second rule is to demonstrate that you know the customer and understand their relationship with your brand. Any offer that belies that is likely to make a brand look dumb. The third rule is to show the customer that you value them: value their time, their spending, their loyalty, the exchange of information they may have provided you. Don’t waste a customer’s time by misusing their data, failing to protect their privacy, trying to sell them stuff they already own and not making a real effort to treat different customers differently. Don’t mistake simple or cheap for useful or effective.

Personalization is not easy. But the revolution sweeping retail demands that brands get more relevant, more differentiated and more remarkable. And fast. For many, delivering more personalized experiences and marketing may be the difference between success and being roadkill in the age of Amazon and digital disruption.

The changes that many brands need to make are not insignificant. They typically require new technology, new people, new processes, new metrics, material incremental investment and a willingness to aggressively experiment. But to paraphrase Eric Shinseki, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

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.

The fault in our stores

Last week Target became the latest retailer to report weak earnings and shrinking physical store sales. They certainly won’t be the last.

As more retail brands disappoint on both the top and bottom lines–and announce scores of store closings–many may conclude that brick-and-mortar retail is going they way of the horse-drawn carriage. Unfortunately this ignores the fact that roughly 90% of all retail is still done in actual stores. It doesn’t recognize that many retailers–from upstarts like Warby Parker and Bonobos, to established brands such as TJMaxx and Dollar General–are opening hundreds of new locations. It also fails to acknowledge the many important benefits of in-store shopping and that study after study shows that most consumers still prefer shopping in a store (including millennials!)

Brick-and-mortar retail is very different, but not dead. Still, most retailers will, regardless of any actions they take, continue to cede share to digital channels, whether it’s their own or those of disruptive competitors. To make the best of a challenging situation, retailers need a laser-like focus on increasing their piece of a shrinking pie, while optimizing their remaining investment in physical locations. And here we must deal with the reality that aside from the inevitable forces shaping retail’s future, there are many addressable faults in retailers’ stores. Here are a few of the most pervasive issues.

The Sea Of Sameness

Traditionalists often opine that it all about product, but that’s just silly. Experiences and overall solutions often trump simply offering the best sweater or coffee maker. Nevertheless, too many stores are drowning in a sea of sameness–in product, presentation and experience. The redundancy in assortments is readily apparent from any stroll through most malls. The racks, tables and signage employed by most retailers are largely indistinguishable from each other. And when was the last time there was anything memorable about the service you received from a sales associate at any of these struggling retailers?

One Brand, Many Channels

Too many stores still operate as independent entities, rather than an integral piece of a one brand, many channels customer strategy. Most customer journeys that result in a physical store visit start online. Many customers research in store only to consummate the transaction in a digital channel. The lines between digital and physical channels are increasingly blurred, often distinctions without a difference. Silos belong on farms.

Speed Bumps On The Way To Purchase

How often is the product we wish to buy out of stock? How difficult is it to find a store associate when we are ready to checkout? Can I order online and pick up in a store? If a store doesn’t have my size or the color I want can I easily get it shipped to my home quick and for free? Most of the struggling retailers have obvious and long-standing friction points in their customer experience. When in doubt about where to prioritize operational efforts, smoothing out the speed bumps is usually a decent place to start.

Where’s The Wow?

As Amazon makes it easier and easier to buy just about anything from them, retailers must give their customers a tangible reason to traffic their stores and whip out their wallets once there. Good enough no longer is. Brands must dig deep to provide something truly scarce, relevant and remarkable. Much of the hype around in-store innovations is just that. For example, Neiman Marcus’ Memory Mirrors are cool, but any notion that they will transform traffic patterns, conversion rates or average ticket size on a grander scale is fantasy. Much of what is being tested is necessary, but hardly sufficient. The brands that are gaining share (and, by the way, opening stores) have transformed the entire customer experience, not merely taken a piecemeal approach to innovation.

Treat Different Customers Differently

In an era where there was relative scarcity of product, shopping channels and information, one-size-fits all strategies worked. But now the customer is clearly in charge, and he or she can often tailor their experience to their particular wants and needs. Retailers need to employ advanced analytical techniques and other technologies to make marketing and the overall customer experience much more personalized, and to allow for greater and greater customization. More and more art and intuition are giving way to science and precision.

Physical retail is losing share to e-commerce at the rate of about 110 basis points per year. While that is not terribly significant in the aggregate, this erosion will not be evenly distributed and the deleveraging of physical store economics will prove devastating to many slow to react retailers. This seemingly inexorable shift is causing many retailers to reflexively throw up their hands and choose to disinvest in physical retail. The result, as we’ve seen in spades, is that many stores are becoming boring warehouses of only the bestselling, most average product, presented in stale environments with nary a sales associate in sight.

The fault in our stores are legion. But adopting an attitude that stores are fundamentally problems to be tolerated–or eliminated–rather than assets to be leveraged and improved, makes the outcome inevitable and will, I fear, eventually seal the fate of many once great retailers.

PurpleCow

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

This time it’s personal

A book that I read more than 20 years ago fundamentally changed my perspective on business overall and marketing in particular.

Peppers and Rodgers “The One to One Future” embedded in my psyche the notion that knowing more about your customer than your competition was a critical component of competitive advantage. And before long “treat different customers differently” became my mantra.

As brilliant as Don and Martha’s book is, it was, for the most part, way ahead of its time. To be sure, many brands and marketers benefitted from its wisdom. But overall, few brands saw personalization as a burning platform and many of the espoused concepts simply could not be operationalized in any practical and cost effective way.

For most, a strategy of uniquely identifying customers, differentiating them by their needs and value, interacting with them to understand their desires and then customizing the experience in a relevant and remarkable way, lingered somewhere between a dream and a nice-to-do.

Yet today personalization is not only increasingly possible at scale, it is rapidly and inexorably becoming a business imperative.

It’s an imperative not because it’s cool or sexy or sounds good at a conference.

It’s an imperative because the battle has shifted from market share to share of attention–and it’s increasingly difficult to be the signal amidst all the noise.

It’s an imperative because one size fits all marketing strategies are well past the point of diminishing returns.

It’s an imperative because we are drowning in a sea of sameness and delivering average products for average people gets you average results, if you are lucky, and gets you fired, if you aren’t.

It’s an imperative because the power has shifted irretrievably to the consumer and the only way to stand a fighting chance is to compete on deep customer insight, intense relevance, remarkability and trust.

That means small is the new big and intimate is the new interesting. And that, at last, the one to one future is here.

 

I will be moderating two very different expert panels on personalization during the next month. Stop by and say “hello” if you can.

On April 20th I’ll be with the Dallas-Fort Worth Retail Executives Association. Pre-register here: http://bit.ly/1Moj5ag  

Then it’s ShopTalk in Las Vegas on May 17th. More information is available at http://bit.ly/1qYKvul  Readers of this blog can use my promo code “sageb250” to save $250 on their conference registration.

I am the captain now 

For a long time brands had the upper hand.

The purchase funnel was relatively straight-forward. Media channels were few and generally well controlled. The consumer’s access to product and pricing information was limited. Distribution channels were highly disciplined. Communication was largely one-way. Marketing plans were often drawn up just once year and any changes required substantial lead times. Mass marketing ruled the day.

Today? Well not so much.

The shift of power away from brands to consumers has been swift and profound. The advent of search unleashed a tsunami of information access that tipped the balance of power irretrievably. The rise of social networks allowed for tribes to connect more easily to share ideas, reviews and instantly understand that people like us do stuff like this. The rapid adoption of smart devices has meant that most consumers now have access to just about anything they want, anytime, anywhere, anyway. We no longer go online, we live online.

Yet still some brands remain seemingly unconscious and horribly stuck.

They continue peddling average products for average people, when no customer wants to be average. With nothing new and interesting to say, they simply shout it louder and more often. Many retail brands continue to rely on one-size-fits-all strategies when those programs rarely get noticed, must less drive any profitable business. In today’s attention economy these efforts remain merely a dim signal amidst the noise.

The power shift away from the brand to the individual consumer and the power of the tribe is upon us. Retail has a new immediacy. Retail is now much more ME-tail and WE-tail than some holistic top down strategy cooked up in a conference room. Don’t kid yourself–you’ve never been less in control than right this very minute. And that’s not changing.

The individual is the captain. The collective “we” increasingly rules the roost. And unlike in Captain Phillips, no one is coming to save us. We can only accept this reality, let go of the past and work with a new set of rules and tools.

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