A really bad time to be boring · Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail

Retail reality: It’s death in the middle

I first pointed to what I called “retail’s great bifurcation”literally two years ago today. Though it wasn’t the first time that I had observed what I saw as the impending collapse of the middle. I began writing and speaking about that during 2011.

As we emerged from the financial crisis it seemed clear to me that retail brands were faced with the proverbial fork in the road. A strategy of being just about everything to everybody–of selling average products to average people in an average experience–was becoming increasingly untenable. While it’s easy to credit the “Amazon effect,” or the overall rise of e-commerce, that’s only part of the story. The fact is many factors conspired to squeeze the middle, while, for the most part, the two ends of the spectrum continue to thrive.

For years now brands that execute well on price, dominant assortments, buying efficiency and convenience are winning. Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Home Depot, Costco and virtually all the off-price giants and dollar stores, are driving strong growth and profits. And–I hope you are sitting down for this–despite the silly retail apocalypse narrative, they are all opening stores–in some cases lots of them. Similarly, we find many success stories at the other end of the spectrum. Most established luxury brands are experiencing strong growth, as are higher-end specialty retailers who have a tight customer focus, offer a superior experience and provide a real emotional brand connection. Think Apple, Bonobos, Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta, Warby Parker and many more. Somehow living in the age of Amazon and digital disruption has not come remotely close to creating an existential crisis for these retailers.

Of course, the story is very different for others in the great, mostly undifferentiated, wasteland of the middle. Most of the retailers that have recently made their way to the retail graveyard or find themselves at the precipice suffer from a decided lack of relevance and remarkability. They have decent prices, but not the best price. They have some service, but nothing to get excited about. Their product assortments and presentations are drowning in a sea of sameness. The overall experience is dull, dull, dull. It’s not surprising that a quick perusal of a store closing tracker features names like Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Radio Shack; brands that staked out the moderate part of the market long ago and have failed to innovate in any material way. Most of these companies now lack the financial resources, time and organizational DNA to affect the necessary transformations. This will end badly.

While it’s tempting to blame Amazon for the deep troubles faced by mid-priced department stores, the category has been on the decline for more than two decades. Studies also show that the majority of market share lost by these players in recent years has gone to the off-price sector. To be sure, Amazon is putting pressure on most sectors of retail. Further, the rise of digital shopping has created a radical transparency that places the customer firmly in charge. In many respects what was once scarce–reliable product information, lower prices, access to products from across the country (and around the world), rapid delivery–no longer is. No customer wants to be average and today, in most instances, no customer has to be. And, for those brands that have seriously invested in deep customer insight and committed to a “treat different customers differently” strategy, there is no place for unremarkable competitors to hide. Good enough no longer is.

The bifurcation of retail is only going to become more pronounced. The fork in the road is more and more obvious. The collapse of the middle will only get worse.

It turns out it’s really bad time to be boring.

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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.  For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

Consolidation · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

Sears: Dead brand walking

Recently Sears Holdings made several interesting announcements. First, it declared it was closing 63 more stores, in a continued false notion that it can shrink itself to prosperity. This is in addition to the 358 Sears and Kmarts already shuttered in 2017. Then it issued a press release detailing steps it’s taking to improve its financial structure, wherein it included operating results for the quarter. Despite over a decade of strategic restructuring, huge investments in its membership program and digital capabilities, closing hundreds of its worst locations–not to mention massive store closings on the part of many of its direct competitors–the company expected to report comparable store sales declines of 15.3% for the quarter and a loss of at least $525 million. Yikes!

Following all this, in what is likely to win the award for the most obvious prediction by a Wall Street investment analyst in modern history, Bill Dreher of Susquehanna opined that “Sears may never be profitable again.”

So while Sears apparently has a few folks willing to believe something good might still happen, the company continues to execute what I have long called “the world’s slowest liquidation sale.” In fact, Sears continues to act as if we’re all either gullible or stupid. Or perhaps both.

Despite growing signs of its imminent demise–or at least a complete collapse into a holding company with a small and decidedly mixed bag of residual assets–Sears Holdings CEO Eddie Lampert continues to put lipstick on the pig. A couple of weeks ago he took the Wall Street Journal to task for a rather harsh story by posting a retort on the company’s blog, in which he once again neglects to discuss anything that would meaningfully improve customer relevance, but goes to great lengths to highlight moves that are clearing perpetuating, if not accelerating, declining performance. And in what may be the surest sign that the company’s beleaguered CEO has no capacity for irony, the day after the company shared its horrible quarterly performance Sears announced it was opening two (count ’em two!) small format appliance & mattress stores.

The news at Sears went from bad to sad a long time ago. As I have recounted before, back in 2003 when I was part of the senior team working on trying to fix the department store business, it was abundantly clear that Sears’ concentration of assets (particularly for its home business) in regional malls was a significant and growing liability. It was also apparent that Sears had much more of a revenue problem that a cost problem. As we sit here fourteen years later, average store sales productivity has declined in virtually every quarter since I moved on from the outhouse to the penthouse (Neiman Marcus Group) and beyond. The major appliance and home improvement businesses, which once were incredibly profitable, are largely decimated. Years of cost cutting have made Sears’ stores an embarrassment. Market share continues to plummet.

In the spirit of full disclosure, our team did not come up with a compelling plan to turn around Sears, so for me it has always been an open question whether anybody could have saved them. I was certainly neither smart enough, nor powerful enough, to make it happen. But I have always hoped Lampert and team would figure it out.

In any event, at this point any notion that Sears can be saved in any way remotely resembling a major national retail brand is the pinnacle of wishful thinking. Yet some people still seem to hold out hope. It’s time to let that go.

Dead brand walking.

 

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 · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

Department stores aren’t going away, but 3 big things still need to happen

It’s been a long, slow slide for department stores. Starting some two decades ago, the major chains began leaking share to the big-box, off-the-mall players. Just as that started to stabilize somewhat, Amazon and other e-commerce pure-plays began chipping away at the sector’s once dominant position in apparel, accessories and home products. Most recently, in addition to the ongoing threat from online shopping, off-price chains have benefitted from a growing legacy of major chain mediocrity.

Unsurprisingly, investors have treated the sector like the plague. The market values of Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears, Dillard’s and Kohl’s have all plummeted. Even Nordstrom, which has performed relatively well, has seen its market value halved in the past couple of years. Just this past week J.C. Penney saw its shares, which were already off some 80% since 2013, plunge further after a surprise earnings warning. In addition, Sycamore looks to be picking at the carcass of Bon-Ton Stores and Lord & Taylor is selling its iconic Manhattan flagship to WeWork. And on and on.

For many, this unrelenting parade of bad news leads them to believe that department stores are toast. But just as the retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense, so is the notion that department stores are going away. I am willing to go out on a limb to say that a decade from now there will still be hundreds of large, multi-category brick-and-mortar stores operating in the United States and throughout the world. But despite this conviction, things are virtually certain to get worse before they get better and three major things must happen before any sort of equilibrium can be reached and decent profits can return.

Major space rationalization/consolidation. The overall retail industry is still reeling from decades of overbuilding, as well as the abject failure of most department store anchors to innovate to stay remotely relevant and remarkable. While the idea that major chains can shrink to prosperity is fundamentally misguided, it’s clear that a) most chains still have too many stores, b) the stores they have are, on average, larger than they need and c) there is no compelling reason for Sears, Kmart, Bon-Ton (and perhaps a few others) to exist at all. Many dozens, if not hundreds, of locations are certain to be whacked after the holiday season. And despite the liquidation sales that will put pressure on earnings in the first half of the calendar year, there is actually a real chance for year-over-year margin improvement by the time the holiday season rolls around this time next year.

A true commitment to be more focused, more innovative and more remarkable. It turns out department stores, like every other struggling retail brand, picked a really bad time to be so boring. It turns out that deferred innovation is even more crippling than deferred maintenance. It turns out that trying to be everything to just about everybody means being mostly irrelevant to a lot of folks. Given the certain continuing contraction of the sector, the only hope for remaining brands is to gain significant amounts of market share. And that only happens to any material degree by embracing intense customer-centricity to become more relevant to a tighter customer set and by consistently executing a far more remarkable experience than the competition. Continued flogging of me-too products, one-size fits all advertising, boring presentation and chasing the promiscuous shopper through promotion on top of promotion won’t cut it. Period. Full stop. The hard part is that most of the flailing brands are woefully far behind, lack a culture of innovation and simply don’t have the cash to do what it will take to right the ship.

Amazon needs to place its bet. It’s clear that Amazon has its sights set on being a much bigger player in apparel, accessories and home products. And it’s hard to see how Amazon gets speed, adds the necessary volume and addresses the vexing returns/supply chain issues without a major physical presence in the moderate and higher-end softlines arena. For that reason, I’m also willing to go out on a limb and predict that Amazon will buy a major department store player in 2018. And just as its acquisition of Whole Foods is transformative for the grocery industry, so too will be a much deeper brick-and-mortar (and omnichannel) presence in the department store sector. In fact, it’s hard to underestimate how a big move by Amazon here will reshape just about every imaginable facet.

While 2017 has brought more than its fair share of department store news–and we’re hardly finished–I see 2018 as being chock-a-block with not only profound news but likely representing the year when the future of the sector will become far more clear. Stay tuned.

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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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Customer experience · Reinventing Retail

Flailing retailers need to learn to ‘sell the hole’

I cannot begin to tell you how many times executives at various retailers have said to me that “it’s all about the product.” Earlier in my career, when someone would spout this alleged truism, my somewhat smug thought would be that I could easily come up with many examples where that was demonstrably false. In more recent years, I’ve come to believe that it is precisely retailers’ false clinging to this notion that helps explain why so many find themselves standing at the precipice.

We can argue at length about how important product features and benefits are to consumers’ purchase decisions and long-term loyalty. And clearly that varies by industry segment and customer type. Yet by now it should be obvious that in the vast majority of cases good product is necessary, but hardly sufficient, in determining retail success. It should be clear that people buy the story before they buy the product.

Stated differently, when a consumer buys a drill, it’s because they want the hole. When someone pays $4 for a bottle of water they are mostly paying for how that water makes them feel, not for the better taste. If you think Apple products are always objectively the best functioning, you are only kidding yourself. And if you believe that $200 jar of eye cream works any better that the stuff you can get at Walgreen’s, prepare to be disappointed. Second-best and just plain old mediocre products win all the time. It’s clearly not only about the product; it’s about the solution, the feeling, what our purchase says about us. As noted retail strategist Bill Clinton might say: It’s the experience, stupid!

It’s not all that difficult to understand how traditional retailers became overly product-centric. Take a look at the leadership at most retailers and most came up through the merchant ranks. While the era of the “merchant prince” is on the wane, there are still an awful lot of CEOs who are long on merchandising skills and short on customer experience and digital bona fides. And that mindset permeates the cultures of many struggling brands. It needs to be blown up.

Go through the list of bankrupt or severely struggling retailers and it should be readily apparent that while there may have been merchandising issues that contributed to their problems, their big issues emanate from a failure to deeply understand shifting customer preferences and to respond to those changes. As a result they ended up with a largely irrelevant and utterly unremarkable customer experience. And, as it turns out, they picked a really bad time to be so boring.

If flailing retailers — be they Toys ‘R’ Us, JCPenney, Macy’s or dozens of others — are to survive, much less thrive, the answer isn’t going to be found in shrinking to prosperity, trying to out-Amazon Amazon or being hyper-focused on improving their product assortments.

The answer is going to be found in crafting a truly remarkable and relevant customer experience that is far more about the hole than the drill.

Toys-R-Us

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 · Customer Insight · Reinventing Retail

Discount Nation, Promiscuous Shoppers And The Sucker Price

Early in 2011, I first wrote about what I called “Discount Nation.” Having worked at Sears earlier in my career I was quite familiar with highly promotional retail. But what I was noticing was the ever growing intensity of discounting. Among traditional retailers the degree and frequency of deals was escalating. More brands were layering on loyalty programs or additional percents-off if you used their private label credit card. Free shipping was virtually ubiquitous during the 2010 holiday season. Newer business models, like the growing flash-sales segment, were trumpeting 40-60% off as the core element of their value proposition.

Since then it’s only gotten worse. The fastest growing segments of physical retail are off-price and dollar stores. Free shipping of online orders, once reserved for special promotional periods and often limited to higher order values, is fast becoming a basic consumer expectation. Minimum order sizes are falling and free returns & exchanges are becoming increasingly common. Rich discounts to incentivize trial now range from the sublime to the ridiculous (I’m looking at you Blue Apron). At any given time, it seems like virtually everything is on sale.

It’s easy to credit the transparency of the internet, cite the rise of digitally-native disruptive business models or simply blame the Amazon Effect for the erosion of any semblance of price integrity. And to be sure these are all contributors. But the reality is that it’s been a decades long process of retailers turning most of us into promiscuous shoppers. Regular price did not become the “sucker price” just in the last few years.

Some of this was inevitable; yet much is self-inflicted. Retailers could have chosen to focus on deep customer insight to deliver more relevant personalization. They could have invested in product innovation. They could have seen their physical stores as assets to leverage in creating a more harmonious and remarkable customer experience, rather than as liabilities to cost reduce and shutter.

We know that the relentless downward pressure on pricing only squeezes margins for all but the most cost efficient. As a result, many retailers find themselves standing at a precipice. The rather rosy forecasts for holiday spending are small comfort as it is clear that profits are another matter entirely and the harsh reality is that the future will not be evenly distributed. Living in Discount Nation may be great for consumers but it is disastrous for all too many retail brands that have failed to reinvent themselves and will be lucky to limp their way into 2018.

While it is too late for some, many brands still have a choice: engage in a discounting fueled race to the bottom or seek to do what is unique, intensely customer relevant and truly remarkable, where price is not the determining factor in the customer’s decision.

As they saying goes, choose wisely. And remember to hurry.

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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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

The Retail Apocalypse And The Urgent Quest For Remarkable

Some love the “retail apocalypse” narrative. It’s great clickbait, makes for captivating keynote speeches and gives consultants a hook to peddle complicated strategic frameworks. Alas, it’s mostly nonsense. Physical retail is definitely different, but it’s far from dead. The fact is plenty of new stores are opening, many traditional retailers and — I hope you are sitting down — even quite a few malls are doing great. Brick-and-mortar retail sales are likely to be up this year, just as they were last year.

Some retailers love hearing this alternative narrative because they think it means they will be okay, that they don’t have to change, that there is some storm they just have to ride out. Unfortunately, that is not only nonsense, it is dangerous nonsense. While physical retail is not dead, virtually every aspect of retail is changing dramatically, as this excellent pieceby Doug Stephens points out. While I believe Doug overstates a few things, his underlying premise is on the money. Almost everything has to change and the key thing to understand is that the future of retail will not be evenly distributed. Stated simply: yes, some brands will do well. But many others will struggle mightily, others will be eviscerated and quite a few are dead already, they just don’t know it.

Physical retail is not going away but unremarkable retail is getting hammered. The brands that relied on good enough are learning the hard way that good enough no longer is. The mediocre brands that were protected by scarcity of information, distribution and access are getting blown apart as the customer can now get the same product anytime, anywhere, anyway — and often for less money. The brands that tried to stake out a place in the vast wasteland between cheap and special are losing as retail becomes more bifurcated and it’s increasingly clear that it’s death in the middle.

By now, a few things should be abundantly clear:

Just because physical retail isn’t dead doesn’t mean you don’t have to change.

On average, more than 80% of retail will still be done in physical stores in 2025. Unfortunately, you can’t pay your bills with averages and your mileage will vary. The way the migration of sales away from physical stores to online will affect your competitive situation and marginal economics can have devastating consequences. Even small shifts can require the need for radical reinvention.

Stop blaming Amazon.

hile there is no question of Amazon’s dramatic and growing impact upon the retail ecosystem, most of the retail industry’s problems today have nothing to do with Amazon. Overbuilding, excessive discounting, boring product, unremarkable experiences and a fundamental lack of innovation are the main reasons that most retailers are struggling today.

It’s not just about e-commerce. 

The most disruptive force in retail is not e-commerce but the fact that most customer journeys start in a digital channel. In fact, digitally-influenced brick-and-mortar sales dwarf online sales.

You can’t out-Amazon Amazon. 

Pop quiz: Are you Walmart or Target? No? Okay, then stop trying to out-price, out-assort and out-convenience Amazon. To paraphrase Seth Godin: the problem with a race to the bottom is you might win.

Choose remarkable. 

Unless you are on the short list of brands that can be just about everything to everybody (and actually make money) your task is to get hyperfocused on a set of consumers for whom you can be intensely relevant and remarkable at scale. That likely means being far more experiential and blending the best of online and offline in a compelling and harmonized way.

Be prepared to blow stuff up. 

Remarkable is easier said than done. And most retailers suffer from bringing a knife to a gun fight when it comes to innovation. Much of what got us any level of success in the past isn’t going to work in the age of digital disruption. New thinking, new processes, new technology, new metrics and new people are table-stakes on the path to retail reinvention.

Hurry.

As the Chinese proverbs says, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Chances are you’re already behind and it’s far later than you think. The only choice then is to get started. Now. And go fast. Fail fast. Rinse and repeat.

The big problem is we think we have time.

purple cow

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.