What if retail traffic declines last forever?

The results keep pouring in and they don’t bode well for brick & mortar retail. Across just about every sector and virtually every time period, traffic to physical stores continues to decline.

Of course, for the most part, we aren’t buying less, we are shopping differently. The obvious dominant trend is the explosion of e-commerce, and the one player accounting for the most growth is Amazon. Yet the real news for everyone else is how shoppers are diversifying the channels in which they research purchases and ultimately transact. This so-called “omni-channel” world is wreaking havoc with traditional retailers’ underlying economics and, like most things, the future will not be evenly distributed.

The vast majority of retailers have now likely entered a period where comparable store traffic will never increase again for any sustained period of time.

That’s profound. And more than a bit scary.

Drops in store traffic almost always dictate sales declines. Given that physical stores have relatively high fixed costs (rent, inventory, staffing, etc.) a material drop in revenue deleverages operating costs and profits fall disproportionately. This long-term (and increasingly widespread) trend is causing a great deleveraging across many retail segments and is the primary reason so many stores are being closed. It’s also causing brands to rethink the size and operating nature of the stores that remain or they plan to open. These shifts will prove seismic.

While there is a belief that e-commerce’s economics are superior to brick & mortar stores, that frequently is not the case, primarily owing to challenging supply chain costs, high product returns and compressed margins. As traditional retailers invest heavily in building their digital operations–and creating the much vaunted seamlessly integrated shopping experience–many are merely spending a lot of money to move sales from one channel to the other, often at lower profitability. Even brands such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and, to a lesser degree, Macy’s, that are often touted as omni-channel pioneers and have industry leading online penetration, have seen profit growth stall despite massive investments.

Roughly 90% of all retail is still done in physical stores. Yet the growth of e-commerce will continue unabated and the resulting drop in store traffic is an undeniable and unrelenting force. With rare exception, there is little any retailer can do to stem this tide. One key focus must therefore be on right-sizing store counts and the remaining stores’ footprints and operating costs. But the far more important strategy is to create a remarkable customer experience across all channels that reflects how consumers shop today and the intersectionality of digital and physical channels. Ultimately the key is to maximize customer growth, loyalty and profitability irrespective of where the customer decides to transact.

The pain of store traffic declines is inevitable.

The degree of suffering from it remains optional.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Kors is the latest retail highflier to get its wings clipped

Add once soaring–and seemingly invincible–Michael Kors to the list of retail brands to disappoint the market.

Last week Kors, the “accessible luxury” fashion brand that has grown from a niche player to a multi-billion dollar global juggernaut in under a decade, reported earnings that actually slightly beat expectations. Yet a miss on sales and lowered guidance sent the stock cratering.

At first blush, the overall sales weakness should not have surprised anyone. Kors has pulled back significantly on its wholesale distribution while simultaneously reducing promotional activity. An increase in that sector would have taken a miracle. But what was shocking was a rather precipitous 6.4% drop in comparable stores sales and a nearly 23% decline in licensing revenue.

It’s tempting to see the problems at Kors as brand specific, self inflicted and temporary as the brand realigns its pricing and distribution strategy. But I believe they underscore several broader and more vexing industry issues.

For several quarters now we’ve witnessed a panoply of once mighty high-end brands falter. The luxury department store industry’s big stall is now well into its second year. Saks has reported several quarters of disappointing comps. Neiman Marcus, saddled with high debt and weakening sales, had its debt rating downgraded last week. Nordstrom’s industry leading full-line store performance has become tepid at best. And all of this comes amidst a surging stock market and improving consumer confidence.

To be sure, the strong dollar and weak oil market has a material dampening effect. But even if that were to reverse–which seems rather unlikely anytime soon–the industry is still plagued by increasingly unfavorable demographics, lack of innovation, over capacity and growing consumer willingness to “trade down” to less expensive substitutes. Until these companies find ways to drive traffic increases, attract meaningful numbers of new customers and drive revenues through transaction growth instead of merely raising prices, we can expect a continued string of disappointments from most, if not all, of these brands.

And it just might take a major shakeout to restore the industry to its glory days.

A version of this post originally appeared @Forbes where I recently become a contributor. You can check out my latest work here.

Retail’s great deleveraging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does e-commerce suck?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you are retailer, yeah, that definitely sucks.

 

Easy to measure, not all that useful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

h/t to Seth for inspiring this post.

The store closing panacea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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