Customer Experience · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Retail’s new fork in the road: Understanding ‘buying’ vs. ‘shopping’

As I pointed out in my last piece, it is all too easy to be misled by high-level statistics and narratives that paint an incomplete picture of the retail landscape. Similarly, many fail to appreciate the underlying dynamics that (increasingly) separate industry winners from the losers and that which will ultimately determine when online shopping starts to mature. Much of this, I believe, can be understood by focusing on the difference between “buying” and “shopping.”

I’m hardly the first to make this distinction. Seth Godin got me thinking about this with his 2015 post. Since then it has become more and more clear to me that delving into the differences is extremely useful in ascertaining what is next for the retail industry.

Understanding ‘Buying’

Buying is mostly transactional. More mission, than journey. More search, than discovery. Most times buying tilts toward being need-driven rather than motivated by want. At heart of buying is efficiency. When we are in buying mode we care primarily about speed, convenience and a broad, yet easy to navigate, assortment. Buying tends to be highly-value driven. When transacting digitally it must be easy to compare prices. When buying in brick & mortar stores, customers come to learn which brands consistently deliver the best value and often start their process with these favorite stores.

With this lens, it should be easy to see that e-commerce is optimized for buying. The categories that do the best online are those where there is a strong, though not necessarily exclusive, buying dynamic. Unsurprisingly, this is where Amazon has the greatest market share and growth. When it comes to being remarkable in the realm of buying, much of it is about eliminating friction in the path to efficiency, be that on price, assortment and/or convenience.

Understanding ‘Shopping’

Shopping is far more experiential. When shopping many customers fundamentally enjoy the process of exploring and discovering, whether online or in a store. Shopping can be highly social. Shopping takes more time, but the value is there in finding just the right item, the right outfit or solving a more complicated problem–like furnishing a room or completing a home improvement project. When shopping, typically the risk of making a mistake is greater, so the ability to get sales help, shop with friends, try something on, touch and feel the product, and so on, is paramount.

While a strong digital presence can greatly facilitate the shopping process, the share of online shopping is dramatically lower than online buying. Categories with strong shopping characteristics (higher-end home furnishings, fashion apparel, non-commodity grocery items like produce and meat, etc.) have very low e-commerce shares.

Apocalypse No

There really is no retail apocalypse, but certain sectors of retail are clearly being radically transformed. Much of this can be best understood by understanding the difference between buying and shopping. By far the greatest disruption is occurring where buying is being reinvented, online and offline. The first wave of massive share shift occurred in the buying of entertainment when music, books and games could be digitally downloaded. This wave was, in fact, apocalyptic to the likes of Babbage’s, Barnes & Noble, Blockbuster and Borders–and that’s just the “Bs.”

More recently, platform businesses like Alibaba and Amazon have made the buying process far more efficient in many categories, leading to major market share gains and the demise (or teetering on the brink) of many brands that could not keep pace. But let’s be clear: Amazon is not “the everything store.” It is, however, quickly becoming the anything-you-want-to-“buy” store. Absent a far greater brick & mortar presence, Amazon will continue to struggle in its quest to dominate shopping.

Innovation and growth in “buying” has occurred outside of the purely digital world. Brands such as Aldi, Lidl, Dollar General, Ross, TJX and others have re-worked and expanded their business model by delivering ever greater “buying” value. If there is a retail apocalypse, someone needs to tell these brands. They will collectively add thousands of new stores this year alone.

The same is true in the “shopping” world. Sephora, Ulta, Apple and many others that continue to offer a remarkable shopping experience are growing both online and offline. Moreover, many high profile pure-play e-commerce players have basically started to run out of customers that would approach their brands in “buying” mode and thus they needed to go seek out “shoppers” with brick & mortar locations In fact, several once stated that they would never open stores. This is because they didn’t understand how the buying vs. shopping dynamic would inevitably play out over time. It now turns out that Warby Parker, Peloton and Bonobos are seeing the majority of their incremental growth come from their physical locations.

Stuck In the Middle With You

It’s increasingly untenable to attempt to stake out a middle ground between buying and shopping. The middle is collapsing. Trying to be sort of good at serving the customer who is firmly in buying mode is like being sort of pregnant. Being boring and unremarkable for customers in shopping mode is equally foolhardy.

The Fork In The Road

Certainly not every brand or every category has a clear cut, all or nothing, buying vs. shopping pattern. But it’s critically important to understand how this plays out for each and every retailer. While the ridiculous amount of debt Toys ‘R’ Us amassed was the proximate cause of their downfall, a strategic and financial crisis was inevitable as they wrong-headedly decided to be more about buying than shopping. Many struggling brands are similarly confused. This will not end well.

The fact is retailers must choose a clear path. If a retailer wishes to grab share (or insulate themselves) from the Amazon buying tsunami than it is pretty clear what that implies. Good luck and Godspeed.

If a retailer wishes to reimagine their business model to become a more remarkable shopping experience than that is an entirely different thing.

Choose wisely. Pick a lane. Step on the gas.

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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.  

On May 2 I will be keynoting the Retail Innovation Conference in NYC, followed by Kibo’s 2018 Summit in Nashville and Retail at Google 2018 in Dublin.

Innovation · Reimagining Retail · Retail

ShopTalk 2018: Lessons in hope, reality and denial

What struck me the most thematically — aside from how much better ShopTalk has become than the NRF’s “Big Show” — was that the talks, panels and hallway discussions tended to fall into one of three buckets.

Hope

Despite the often relentlessly negative retail narrative in the mainstream media, there was a hopeful tone. As everyone should realize by now, the future of retail will not be evenly distributed — yet at the conference there was solid optimism. I attribute some of this to (generally) improving retail trends. I think there was also a sense that some of the more gut-wrenching changes — particularly mass store closings and major bankruptcies — were starting to ebb. Through direct conversations, as well as social media response, I also found quite a lot of alignment (or was it relief?) on my “Physical Retail Is Not Dead. Boring Retail Is” post, which was published on Day 2 of the show (and I referenced at the outset of the panel I moderated).

Another key driver of the emerging hopefulness was the traction some heretofore pie-in-the-sky technologies were beginning to exhibit. Numerous presenters, panelists and exhibitors showcased newly far more pragmatic applications of voice-activated commerce, artificial intelligence/machine learning and augmented or virtual reality. Personalization now finally seems ready for its closeup. Ultimately the devil is in the details — and a given retailer’s mileage will certainly vary — but there was plenty of meat to chew on for those committed to transforming the customer journey and being willing to embrace a culture of experimentation. (Pro top: That should be every retailer).

Reality

In multiple sessions greater light was shone on some undeniable realities. Whether one sees these as inconvenient truths, blinding flashes of the obvious or somewhere in between, several important things were hard to escape. Chief among them were:

  • The digital-first customer journey. In the vast majority of cases, regardless of where the ultimate transaction is made, most customer journeys start in a digital channel–and more and more, that means on a mobile device.
  • The customer is the channel. All the talk about digital channels versus physical stores is mostly a distinction without a difference. It’s all just commerce and silos belong on farms.
  • The middle is collapsing. Just prior to ShopTalk Deloitte released an excellent study on the bifurcation of retail, which they showcased in a session. The study not only dispels the myth of the retail apocalypse but delves into the causes and conditions of the growth at the tail ends of the market and the reason why I have long suggested that it’s becoming death in the middle. The reality is retailers have to pick a lane and strive to become remarkable on either the price/value/convenience end of the spectrum or strive to make the shopping experience more intensely relevant and remarkable.

Denial

Sprinkled among the upbeat mood and growing acceptance of the new world order were moments of shocking denial or abject cluelessness. Most disturbing (or just plain sad) was when presenters would say something as if it were deep insight or some critically important new piece of strategic information. Instead they by and large only confirmed the degree to which they had been asleep at the wheel for the past decade. I won’t name names, but at least one retailer that presented will likely need a miracle on 34th Street to go from boring to truly remarkable.

Yes, brands are still important. Yes, multi-channel shoppers spend more than single channel shoppers. Yes, mobile is an important part of the customer journey. Yes, your e-commerce sales will go up in the trade area where you decide to open a store (newsflash: brands that started in catalog sales have known this for decades). Yes, when you close stores your e-commerce sales are likely to go down. All of this and more has been known for years to those who pay attention, do the work and are willing to act on their insight.

Stepping back, in total, there was a lot of great information and insight to be gleaned. I spoke with dozens of folks who had dozens of substantive follow-up actions that resulted from content sessions, one-on-one meeting or what started as purely social interactions. The key to all of this, of course, is to go from information to insight to action.

For legacy brands that are struggling — or newer brands that need to stay relevant over the long term — I remind them of a Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

 

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.  

My next speaking gig is in Madrid at the World Retail Congress.  Check out the speaking tab on this site for more on my keynote speaking and workshops.

A really bad time to be boring · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Physical retail is not dead. Boring retail is.

It may make for intriguing headlines, but physical retail is clearly not dead. Far from it, in fact. But, to be sure, boring, undifferentiated, irrelevant and unremarkable stores are most definitely dead, dying or moving perilously close to the edge of the precipice.

While retail is going through vast disruption causing many stores to close — and quite a few malls to undergo radical transformation or bulldozing — the reality is that, at least in the U.S., shopping in physical stores continues to grow, albeit at a far slower pace than online. An inconvenient truth to those pushing the “retail apocalypse” narrative, is that physical store openings actually grew by more than 50% year over year. Much of this is driven by the hyper-growth of dollar stores and the off-price channel, but there is also significant growth on the part of decidedly more upscale specialty stores and the move of digitally-native brands like Warby Parker and Bonobos into brick and mortar.

People also seem to forget that, according to most estimates, about 91% of all retail sales last year were still transacted in a brick-and-mortar location. And despite the anticipated continued rapid growth of online shopping, more than 80% of all retail sales will likely still be done in actual physical stores in the year 2025. Different? Absolutely. Dead? Hardly.

I have written and spoken about the bifurcation of retailand the collapse of the middle for years. While I was confident in my analysis, I had concluded much of this through intuition and connecting the dots from admittedly limited data points. Now, a brilliant new study by Deloitte entitled “The Great Retail Bifurcation” brings far greater data and rigor to help explain this growing phenomenon. Their analysis clearly shows that demographic factors — particularly the hammering that low-income people take while the rich get richer — help explain the rather divergent outcomes we see playing out in the retail industry today.

In particular, wage stagnation and the rising cost of “essentials” is driving lower income Americans to seek out lower cost, value-driven options. Rising fortunes for top earners, most notably ever greater disposable income, creates spending power for more expensive retail at the other end of the continuum. Deloitte’s data clearly shows the resulting strong bifurcation effect: Revenue, earnings and store growth at both ends of the spectrum and stagnation (or absolute decline) in the vast undifferentiated and boring middle.

Notably, if we isolate what’s going on with retailers focused on delivering convenience, operational efficiency and remarkably value-priced merchandise, along with those retailers that differentiate themselves on unique product and more remarkable experiential shopping (including great customer service, vibrant stores and digital channels that are well harmonized with their stores), you would conclude not only that physical retail isn’t dead, you could well argue it is quite healthy.

Conversely, the stores that are swimming in a sea of sameness — mediocre service, over-distributed and uninspiring merchandise, one-size-fits-all marketing, look-alike sales promotions and relentlessly dull store environments — are getting crushed. A close look at their performance as a group reveals lackluster or dismal financial performance and shrinking store fleets. For these retailers, by and large, physical retail is indeed dead or dying. But so are their overall brands.

It’s been clear for some time that the future of retail will not be evenly distributed. Those that have looked closely know that the retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense. Yet, depending on where brands sit on the spectrum, the impact of digital disruption and the age of Amazon is affecting them quite differently. For some, at least for now, it’s much ado about nothing. For others, it should be sheer, full-on panic.

These forces, along with the underlying macroeconomic factors that Deloitte illuminates in their report, bring far greater clarity to what many have been missing, leaving the savvy retail executive to conclude a few key things:

  1. Physical retail is not dead, but it’s very different
  2. The future of retail will not be evenly distributed
  3. The market is likely to continue bifurcating and, increasingly, it’s death in the middle
  4. It’s a really bad time to be boring
  5. Struggling retailers need to pick a lane
  6. If you think you are going to out-Amazon Amazon you are probably wrong
  7. Most likely you are going to have to have to choose remarkable
  8. You have to get started and you had better hurry
  9. What better time than 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.  

My next speaking gig is in Madrid at the World Retail Congress.  Check out the speaking tab on this site for more on my keynote speaking and workshops.

A really bad time to be boring · Death in the middle · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Better is not the same as good for department stores stuck in the middle

As most U.S. department stores reported earnings recently, a certain level of ebullience took hold. Macy’sKohl’s and even Dillard’s, for crying out loud, beat Wall Street expectations, sending their respective shares higher. J.C. Penney, which has failed to gain any real traction despite Sears’ flagging fortunes, continued to disappoint, suggesting that I probably need to revisit my somewhat hopeful perspective from last year. And in the otherworldliness that is the stock market, Nordstrom — the only department store with a truly distinctive value proposition and objectively good results — traded down on its failure to live up to expectations.

Given how beaten down the moderate department store sector has been, a strong quarter or two might seem like cause for celebration–or at least guarded optimism. I beg to differ.

First, we need to remember that the improved performance comes mostly against a backdrop of easy comparisons, an unusually strong holiday season and tight inventory management. There is also likely some material (largely one-time) benefit from the significant number of competitive store closings and aggressive cost reduction programs that most have put in place.

Second, and more importantly, we cannot escape the fact that mid-priced department stores in the U.S. (and frankly, much of the developed world) all continue to suffer from an epidemic of boring. Boring assortments. Boring presentation. Boring real estate. Boring marketing. Boring customer service. And on and on. For the most part, they are all swimming in a sea of sameness at a time when the market continues to bifurcate and it’s increasingly clear that, for many players, it’s death in the middle. It’s nice that some are doing a bit better, but as I pointed out last summer, we should not confuse better with good.

To actually be good — and to offer investors a chance for sustained equity appreciation — a lot more has to happen. And while being less bad may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Most critically, all of the major players still need to amplify their points of differentiation on virtually all elements of the shopping experience. It’s comparatively simple to close cash-draining stores, root out cost inefficiencies and tweak assortments. It’s another thing entirely to address the fundamental reasons that department stores have been ceding market share to the off-price, value-oriented, fast-fashion and more focused specialty players for more than a decade. And now with apparel and home goods increasingly in Amazon’s growth crosshairs, there has never been a more urgent need to not only to embrace radical improvement, but to really step on the gas.

Without a complete re-imagination of the department store sector — and frankly who even knows what that could actually look like — near-term improvements only pause the segment’s long-term secular decline.

It’s unclear how much the eventual demise of Sears and the inevitable closing of additional locations on the part of other players will benefit those still left standing. It’s unclear whether the current up-cycle in consumer spending will be maintained for more than another quarter or two. What is crystal clear, however, is that incremental improvement in margin and comparable sales growth rates merely a point or two above inflation never makes any of these mid-priced department stores objectively good.

Ultimately, without radical change, it all comes down to clawing back a bit of market share and squeezing out a bit more efficiency in what continues to be a slowly sinking sector riddled with mediocrity. Boring, but true.

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.  

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NOTE: March 19 – 21st I’ll be in Las Vegas for ShopTalk, where I will be moderating a panel on new store design as well as doing a Tweetchat on “Shifting eCommerce Trends & Technologies.”