Holiday Sales · Marketing · Retail

With Cyber Monday behind us, the real holiday shopping season begins

As I wrote last week, the noise around Black Friday and Cyber Monday is mostly a bunch of hype. Both days represent a relatively small percentage of total holiday sales, and are even less important when you consider their contributions to profits given the amount of discounting that occurs. Moreover, there is little evidence that a “good” Black Friday and/or Cyber Monday has anything to do with whether a particular retailer will have a successful quarter or not. It also turns out that many folks take advantage of the past week’s hot deals to buy for themselves, not for Christmas or Hanukkah gifts.

The fact is the overwhelming majority of holiday season revenue for virtually every retailer will occur over the next four weeks, not during the past few days. And, if history is any indication, there will be at least two shopping days ahead that will comfortably exceed Black Friday’s sales numbers. We can also expect that the weekend of December 15 will surpass Cyber Monday’s volume.

We should also not get overly excited by the year-over-year online shopping growth numbers. Merely extrapolating the trend would suggest that e-commerce would grow somewhere in the vicinity of 15%-17%, and that’s exactly what happened. To be sure, the overall shift away from physical store shopping is profound, but nothing unexpected is happening, at least thus far, when it comes to this particular holiday season.

Now that we’ve moved beyond the two hype-iest days of the retail year, let’s bear in mind that there are still 23 shopping days left between now and Christmas and a lot can still happen. We should also remember that the week after Christmas is very important, where big volumes are posted, gift cards are redeemed, returns are processed and the trajectory for seasonal clearance starts to be set.

The good news seems to be that many retailers’ report that their inventories are in solid shape in light of conservative buying patterns. While this suggests deals might not be quite as sharp for consumers as past holidays, the industry might actually have a chance to realize decent gross margins. Of course, some sectors–I’m looking at you department stores!–are in a fierce battle for market share. Several chains, including Sears and Bon-Ton Stores, are facing existential crises, where a bad quarter could lead to their liquidation (or, minimally, additional massive store closings). In these situations we should expect promotional intensity to remain high.

But for now everyone just take a deep breath. Mentally place the stories about Black Friday and Cyber Monday in the “interesting, but not very illuminating” section of your brain and strap in. This next week will likely be the calm before the storm and then things will really start to ramp up. And, for sure, far more will be revealed in the weeks ahead then we learned this past long weekend.

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.

e-commerce · Holiday Sales · Retail

Hype-y holidays: ‘Black Friday’ and other nonsense

Brace yourself. The media hype around Black Friday and Cyber Monday is now at a fevered pitch. Don’t fall prey to the nonsense.

But you can rest assured that as we emerge from a tryptophan-induced haze Friday morning and turn on just about any news outlet you will witness some hapless reporter standing in a mall–or outside a (insert well-known national retailer name here)–opining about whether various “indicators” (number of people in line at store opening, whether shoppers are carrying full shopping bags and so on) bode well for retailers’ fortunes. Alas, Black Friday has always been far more media trap than sign o’ the times. There are several reasons for this.

Black Friday is not the biggest shopping day of the year.

The Saturday before Christmas and the day after are often the highest volume. In fact, if recent history is any indication, several days right before Christmas will likely rival Black Friday’s sales numbers. So while it’s an important day, it’s hardly a huge contributor to overall holiday season sales.

Black Friday revenues are on the decline.

As online shopping continues to grow, the relative share of total holiday sales done in stores on Black Friday is decreasing markedly. A recent survey suggests another down year. With some stores opening on Thanksgiving Day–and more and more Black Friday deals breaking early–revenues are being spread out over more days, rather than concentrated on the traditional “holiday” of massive consumption. Our friends at Amazon even launched their deals 50 days early this year.

For consumers, it’s mostly a con.

Study after study shows that, with few exceptions (mostly the heavily promoted, limited quantity “doorbusters”), the deals just aren’t that good. In fact, prices tend to be better in December or during traditional clearance periods.

The customer experience is terrible.

With overflowing parking lots, teeming throngs, long checkout lines and, in some cases, a need to camp out hours before the doors open to have a chance of scoring an actual great deal, shopping on Black Friday is the ultimate soul-crushing hassle. Apparently, some people thrive on this sort of thing. I hope they get the help they need. Oh, and many of the deals are recycled anyway.

Black Friday success (or failure) is meaningless.

With all the attention Black Friday gets you might think that a given retailer’s performance would be highly correlated with how its overall season will turn out. You’d be wrong. Over the years, many folks have tried to determine this correlation and haven’t found it. One study even found a somewhat negative relationship. So move along. Nothing to see here.

What about profits? 

While we’ll have to wait to see how Black Friday and Cyber Monday turn out, we can be fairly certain that it won’t be particularly profitable. This year’s retail industry exercise in group-think will have the predictable effect of compressing product margins and driving up operating costs all in the name of defending market share.

Of course with many retailers running scared or even fearful of their continued existence, few have the discipline to approach the season with any kind of restraint, promotional or otherwise.

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.

Customer Growth Strategy · e-commerce · Marketing · Retail

Unsustainable Customer Acquisition Costs Make Much Of Ecommerce Profit Proof

As much attention as both the growth and disruptive nature of e-commerce receives, few observers seem realize that often the economics of selling online are terrible (what I often refer to as “the inconvenient truth about e-commerce”). The fact is only a handful of venture capital funded “pure-plays” have (or will ever) make money and most are now embarked on a capital intensive foray into physical retail that even Alanis Morissette would find deeply ironic. Amazon, which accounts for about 45% of all US e-commerce,  has amassed cumulative losses in the billions, and even after more than 20 years still operates at below average industry margins. And while I have yet to see a comprehensive breakout, it’s clear that the e-commerce divisions of many major omni-channel retailers run at a loss–or at margins far below their brick & mortar operations.

So why is this?

Last month I wrote a post pointing out how high rates of returns, coupled with the growing prevalence of free shipping “both ways”, makes certain online product categories virtually profit proof. While the impact of this factor tends to be isolated to categories with relatively low order values and a high incidence of returns or exchanges (e.g. much of apparel), a different dynamic has wider ranging implications and profit killing power. I’m referring to the increasingly high cost of acquiring (and retaining) customers online.

Investors have been lured (some might say “suckered”) into supporting “digitally-native” brands because of what they believed to be the lower cost, easily scaled, nature of e-commerce. Seeing how quickly Gilt, Warby Parker, Bonobos and others went from nothing to multi-million dollars brands, encouraged venture capital money to pour in. What many failed to understand were the diseconomies of scale in customer acquisition. As it turns out, many online brands attract their first tranche of customers relatively inexpensively, through word of mouth or other low cost strategies. Where things start to get ugly is when these brands have to get more aggressive about finding new and somewhat different customers. Here three important factors come into play:

  • Marketing costs start to escalate. As brands seeking growth need to reach a broader audiencethey typically start to pay more and more to Facebook, Google and others to grab the customer’s attention and force their way into the customer’s consideration set. Early on customers were acquired for next to nothing; now acquisition costs can easily exceed more than $100 per customer.
  • More promotion, less attraction. As the business grows, the next tranches of customers often need more incentive to give the brand a try, so gross margin on these incremental sales comes at a lower rate. It’s also the case that typically these customers get “trained” to expect a discount for future purchases, making them inherently less profitable then the initial core customers for the brand.
  • Questionable (or lousy) lifetime value. It’s almost always the case that customers that are acquired as the brand scales have lower incremental lifetime value, both because on average they spend less and because they are inherently more difficult to retain. It’s becoming increasingly common for fast growing online dominant brands to have large numbers of customers that are projected to have negative lifetime value.

So it’s easy to see how an online only brand can look good at the outset, only to have the profit picture deteriorate despite growing revenues. The marginal cost of customer acquisition starts to creep up and the average lifetime value of the newly acquired customer starts to go down, often precipitously. Accordingly it’s not uncommon for some of the sexiest, fastest growing brands to have many customers that are not only unprofitable, but have little or no chance of being positive contributors ever.

While it’s not the only reason, this challenging dynamic explains in large part the collapse of valuations in the flash-sales market in total, as well as several major flameouts like One Kings Lane. It also helps explain why so many pure-plays are investing heavily in physical locations. To be sure, opening stores attracts new customers that are reticent to buy online. But another key factor is that customers can often be acquired in a store more cheaply than they can be by paying Facebook or Google.

Slowly but surely the world is starting to wake up to this phenomenon. The nonsense that is the meal-kit business model is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves as people start to question whether Blue Apron is a viable business if it spends $400 to acquire new customers. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Increasingly, many “sophisticated” investors are backing off the high valuations that digitally-native brands are seeking to fuel the next stage of their growth, leaving these companies to thank their lucky stars that Walmart seems to relish its role as a VC bailout fund. More folks are starting to realize that physical retail is definitely different, but far from dead. And, in another bit of irony, some even are starting to see that many traditional brands (think Best Buy, Nordstrom, Home Depot and others) are actually well positioned to benefit from their stores and improving omni-channel capabilities.

It may take some time, but eventually the underlying economics tell the tale.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Omni-channel · Retail

Reports Of JC Penney’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retail · Store closings · The Amazon Effect

Department store quarterly performance: Better isn’t the same as good

Last week we had five major department stores report their quarterly earnings: Macy’sKohl’sNordstromDillard’s and JCPenney. It was a decidedly mixed bag relative to both expectations and absolute performance. Yet many observers seemed encouraged by the overall improvement in sales trend. Yet the overall sector is still losing market share, just not at quite as fast a rate. Which begs the question, is less bad somehow good?

It’s clear that one must pull out of a dive before an ascent can begin. It’s also obvious that reducing the rate of descent is no guarantee of a resurrection. Better is simply not the same as good. So to understand whether recent results provide a dose of optimism or are merely noise, it’s worth looking more closely at a few key considerations.

More rationalization must occur. The sector has been in decline for two decades–and not because of Amazon or e-commerce. The main reason is that department stores failed to innovate. They focused on expense reduction and excessive promotions, instead of being more remarkable and relevant. That won’t be fixed easily or quickly. So, in the meantime, there is simply too much supply chasing contracting consumer demand. Sector profitability isn’t going to improve much until Sears goes away and additional location pruning on the part of remaining players occurs.

Yet physical retail is not going away. Brick & mortar retail is becoming very different, but it’s far from dead. There is no fundamental reason why any given department store cannot not have a viable operation with hundreds of physical locations, particularly when we realize that some 80% of all products in core department store categories are purchased offline.

You can’t shrink to prosperity. Wall Street seems to think that store closings are a panacea. They’re wrong. It’s one thing to right-size both store counts and individual store sizes in response to overbuilding and shifting consumer preferences. It’s another thing to make a brand’s value proposition fundamentally more relevant and remarkable. Department stores must spend more time working on giving consumers reasons to shop in the channels they have (note: excessive discounting doesn’t count) and abandon the idea that shuttering scores of locations is a silver bullet.

Same-store sales are an increasingly irrelevant metric. Wall Street needs to let go of its obsession with same-store performance as the be-all-end-all performance indicator. Any decent “omni-channel” retailer should be on its way to–or as is already true with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus well past–more than 20% of its overall sales coming from e-commerce. So unless a retailer is gobbling up market share most of that business is coming from existing stores. The reality is that shifting consumer preferences are going to make it nearly impossible for many retailers (of any kind) to run positive store comps. That does not mean a brand cannot grow trade area market share and profits. And it doesn’t mean that a given store is not productive even if sales keep trending down. Stores drive online, and vice versa. Smart retailers understand this and focus on customer segment and trade area dynamics, not merely individual store performance in isolation.

It is going to take more than a couple of quarters to fully understand whether the department store sector has stabilized, much less turned the corner. As we look ahead, of the five that reported, Nordstrom is clearly the best positioned, both from the standpoint of having relevant and differentiated formats and possessing physical and digital assets that are the closest to being “right-sized” for the future. And call me crazy, but I sense that JC Penney is actually starting to gain some meaningful traction. Dillard’s is a mess and Macy’s and Kohl’s remain very much works in progress.

Regardless, with tepid consumer demand and over-capacity, no department store brand (and I’d include Neiman Marcus and Saks in the mix as well) does especially well until we see further consolidation. And even when that occurs, if department stores keep swimming in a sea of sameness and engaging in a promotional race to the bottom, they have zero chance of getting back to a sustainable, much less interesting, level of performance. Better is nice. Encouraging even. But it is simply not the same as good.

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

Digital · Innovation · Retail

For many retailers it’s later than they think

There is a lot we know about what innovative companies do–and way too much to go into here. But it’s readily apparent that most traditional retailers have ignored a great deal of it and are paying the price right now.

While no one has the gift of prophecy–and most would likely agree that few could have imagined the degree and speed of disruption we are experiencing–there are plenty of things that should have been obvious years ago to anyone paying attention. Here are just a few that were being actively discussed at the retailers I worked with at least five year ago and, in some cases, over a decade ago:

  • Physical retail space was being overbuilt and a consolidation needed to occur
  • Customers who shopped in multiple channels were far more valuable than single channel shoppers
  • Emphasizing the growth of e-commerce without tight integration with the overall brand experience would have unintended negative consequences
  • Shopping influence of digital channels was critical to physical store success, and vice versa
  • Data, organization and process silos needed to be busted to provide an integrated (I like to call it “harmonized”) experience
  • High rates of returns and high customer acquisition costs would make most pure-play brands profit proof and unsustainable
  • You can’t out-Amazon, Amazon and the middle is collapsing. The focus needs to be on remarkable, scalable, “ownable” experiences, not engaging in a race to the bottom
  • More innovation and experimentation is essential to stay ahead of the curve and best manage risk
  • A premium needed to be placed on deeper customer insight and on translating that insight into more personalized offerings and experiences.

I have no idea what percentage of retailers were aware and accepted these emerging truths. I do know that very few acted on them. I do know that very few retail brands have anything that looks like a robust innovation process. I do know that the notion of an R&D budget and having a senior executive responsible for driving innovation is absent at the vast majority of top retailers.

If I told you I was going to successfully run a marathon next year without doing any training you would tell me that I was crazy and wouldn’t be surprised in the least if I failed miserably. Yet apparently most Boards and CEO’s thought that somehow all this innovation would magically appear without a strategy and the resources to make it happen. Hope is not a strategy and counting on a time machine to go back and fix things doesn’t seem all that workable either. It’s easy to blame Amazon for the problems of most retailers, but that would be wrong. Most of the wounds are self-inflicted.

For quite a few retailers the bullet has already been fired, it’s just that the full impact has not been realized yet. Unfortunately they are in a dive from which they will never recover. Dead brand walking.

Others stand at the precipice, where their fate is not yet sealed, but the pressures to radically transform grow stronger by the day. The answer will not be to try to out-Amazon Amazon, to finish second in a race to the bottom. The answer lies in striving to be more intensely relevant and remarkable, to get out of the stands and into the arena, to understand that it is far more risky to hold on to the status quo than to embrace radical experimentation and transformation.

As the Chinese proverb says “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

plant-a-tree-today

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

Digital · e-commerce · Retail · Store closings

Sears must think we’re stupid or gullible. Here’s why.

Having spent my first 12 years in retail as an executive at Sears, I’ve followed the company’s trials and tribulations with more than a passing interest. And considering my last role at the once-storied brand was leading corporate strategy–where my team was mostly focused on trying to fix the mall-based department store format and making the Lands’ End acquisition work–I am far from an impartial or unknowing observer.

Arguably, I’ve taken Sears to task too many times over the years. When I left Sears in 2003 (a year before Sears and K-mart merged), I had already concluded that the once iconic brand was on a slow slide to oblivion. Combining a deteriorating, mediocre chain with a terrible one did not change my view. Over the years Eddie Lampert’s misguided leadership has been a frequent target of criticism on my blog. In 2013, I labeled Sears “The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale” as it became abundantly clear that after nine years Lampert still had no viable turnaround plan. In 2014, I lampooned the futility of their efforts in an April Fool’s post and went on CNBC arguing that investors would be better served by a swift liquidation rather than perpetuating an increasingly delusional strategy that only served to lower asset values.

So, years later, Sears is still hanging around and Lampert is still peddling his special brand of snake oil. How is this possible?

Let’s answer the easy question first. Sears has endured longer than they deserve to because they had enough assets to unload (real estate, private brands and fungible business units) to cover the massive operating losses they’ve racked up during the past decade. The fact that Sears has very low operating costs (partially because of favorable rents, partially because Lampert has cut overhead to the bone) has extended their life. But, make no mistake, they are very close to the end of the runway.

To answer the other question we must conclude that investors are either stupid or gullible–or at least Lampert is counting on it. Before we get to the most recent nonsense, it’s worth mentioning some of the whoppers we were supposed to believe over the years:

  • That Sears and Kmart would create some magical synergy
  • That Sears’ problems could be fixed by cutting costs rather than investing in the customer experience
  • That it made sense to have merchandise categories compete internally with each other, rather than focus on the customer and external competition
  • That Sears could disinvest in stores and profitably transition much of its business online
  • That selling once enormously valuable private brands like Kenmore, Craftsman and DieHard in off-the-mall formats and Ace Hardware Stores was a sufficient antidote to the massive share loss to Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy.

Today, the company continues to make a big deal about how it is a “member-driven” company, touting its “Shop Your Way” program and “ecosystem” as some sort of important differentiator and value contributor. The facts are that a) it is, at best, a mediocre loyalty program, b) customer engagement is driven almost exclusively by a high rate of discounting, c) margins have declined since its introduction and d) sales continue to slide. Referring to customers as “members” may sound good, but it connotes a strength of relationship and value that clearly does not exist. The program has always been an expensive gimmick to collect customer data. Suggesting anything else defies credulity.

In an apparent attempt to distract from the collapse of its mall-based stores, Sears Holdings also continues to announce “innovative” new store formats like an appliance & mattress store (which isn’t a new idea at all) and a DieHard Battery Center. These might be interesting formats to franchise when Sears ceases to be a significant retail operator, but the notion they will somehow be material to a turnaround is just silly.

More broadly–and most stupefyingly–Lampert continues to claim turnaround efforts are on track. This from a company that has had precisely one-quarter of positive sales growth in seven years, operating losses that continue to worsen, an acceleration in store closings and rampant departures of key executives. Moreover, the moves detailed in the most recent press release are all about financial restructuring and say nothing about actions to improve customer relevance. If Sears does not quickly and dramatically improve its performance with its customers nothing else matters. Period.

At one level, I get why Lampert apparently chooses to create the illusion that Sears can actually stay in business. He needs vendors to keep shipping product to mitigate a complete unraveling. He needs employees to keep the lights on and greet the few customers who might wander into the ever shrinking store fleet. He needs to avoid looking too desperate to dodge fire sale pricing on the few remaining assets he must unload to make it through the holiday season. And he needs creditors to give him more time to try to pull another rabbit out of his hat.

Yet, let’s be clear, to believe that Sears is somehow going to make it much longer as anything remotely resembling a national, fully operating retailer is beyond folly. I have no idea whether Lampert truly believes Sears can be saved. I hope not because that would be quite sad.

But for the rest of us, there is simply no reason to be stupid or gullible. The reality is there for all to see. A story and, most importantly, the one spinning the tale–only has power if we allow them.

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

Digital · Retail · Store closings

It’s the end of the mall as we know it . . . and I feel fine

For those promulgating the “retail apocalypse” narrative, a key component of their Chicken Little logic is that malls are dying. Moreover, much of the blame is cast squarely upon the growth of e-commerce. While hyperbole IS the greatest thing ever, there is a lot more to the story. So let’s try to put this all in a more fact-based, clear and nuanced perspective.

First, in aggregate, regional malls–and their department store anchors–have been on the decline for more than two decades. The first wave of disruption came from the advent and national expansion of big-box category killers and discount mass merchandisers. The most recent wave of disruption has come mostly from the rise of off-price and dollar stores. So while it’s convenient to blame Amazon, the ascent of online shopping is only a small piece of the puzzle. And due to rampant over-building, a correction was sure to come anyway.

Second, many dying malls are being killed by other malls. As growing retailers situate new stores in growing suburban areas with favorable demographics, we often witness a shift in an area’s “retail center of gravity.” A mall that was built in the 60’s or 70’s may lose relevance as more and more retailers locate closer to where a greater density of high spending shoppers now reside or work. In many instances, a new mall with more desirable tenants has been built during the past decade to capture those sales.

Third, many malls are actually doing very well.  The nation’s so-called “A” malls represent about 20% of locations, but generate about 75% of total mall volume. With few exceptions, these 270 or so malls have stellar (and growing) productivity and very low vacancy rates. Relatively few of these malls are being impacted by the closing of anchor tenants. And specialty store vacancies are typically snapped up quickly.

Fourth, while the closing of department stores is hitting “B” and “C” malls disproportionately hard, it’s not all bad news for mall owners. Sears has been a dead brand walking for more than a decade. Many JC Penney and Macy’s locations have been chronic under-performers for years. As long as these albatross tenants continue operating, the mall operator receives paltry rent from big chunks of their leasable space while generating little incremental traffic. So in reality the loss of poorly performing retailers is often creating new, more profitable opportunities. One scenario is a transformation of tenant mix, often a dramatic shift to more entertainment venues and/or professional office use.  Sometimes, non-traditional retail tenants (think Dick’s Sporting Goods or Target) become anchors. Yet another is a complete re-purposing of the entire center to more lucrative multi-use development.

This is not to say that some malls won’t die a painful death, never to return from the ashes. But the apocalyptic vision painted by some is far from accurate. Most higher-end malls will continue to thrive with an approach that looks rather familiar. Many others will evolve to be quite different, but will remain far from hurting, much less dead. Others will be radically transformed to something with a vastly higher and better use.

Either way, with few exceptions, investors, customers and employees are going to be just fine.

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

Growth · Retail · Winning on Experience

Assessing The Damage Of ‘The Amazon Effect’

Since I anticipate being labeled a Luddite, a Socialist and a hypocrite by some, let me acknowledge that I firmly believe that Amazon has done a lot of good for consumers by expanding choice, making shopping far more convenient and by delivering extraordinary product value. I recognize that many retailers were long overdue for a swift kick in their strategy. I also remain a very good and loyal Amazon customer. And I anticipate that the Whole Foods acquisition will ultimately result in lower prices, an enhanced shopping experience and maybe even improve the availability of more healthful food options. These are all good things.

Yet, we can’t–and shouldn’t–ignore the profound effect that Amazon is having on just about every corner of the retail world they set their sights on. Amazon is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla. Their entry into a market segment reshapes shopping dynamics, upsets the supply chain and exerts tremendous pricing and margin pressure. Books came first and we know how that played out. But, one by one, other categories followed and the dominoes continue to fall. Store closings. Bankruptcies. Once proud and dominant retailers teetering on the brink. Now you can add small “natural” grocery chains to the list of established retailers that may well get Amazon-ed (which is the most polite way to say it.)

To be fair, we should not blame department store woes on Amazon. Clearly many malls and quite a few retailers were well on their way to oblivion before Amazon cracked the $25 billion mark. And the grocery market share that Amazon will pick up with the Whole Foods acquisition is a drop in the bucket, even when combined with Amazon’s existing volume. We also know that not everything Amazon touches turns to gold (I’m guessing you are unlikely to be reading this on your Amazon Fire).

Still it’s hard to underestimate the magnitude of the Amazon effect. E-commerce represents about 10% of all U.S. retail and Amazon is by far the largest player, with an estimated share of 43%. Last year, Amazon accounted for 53% of all the incremental growth of online shopping, which means they are only growing their dominance. To underscore how much Amazon has infiltrated the shopping zeitgeist, one study indicates that more than half of all product searches start on Amazon.

It’s also hard to underestimate the fundamentally different rules Amazon plays by. First and foremost, Amazon isn’t required by its investors to make any real money. In fact, despite being in business more than 20 years, Amazon only recently surpassed Kroger and Priceline (not the sexiest of retailers) in total annual profits.

As a core strategy to gobble up market share, Amazon (or more accurately its shareholders) provides huge subsidies to its delivery operation. According to one analysis, Amazon lost $7.2 billion on shipping costs last year alone. While this is clearly great for consumers, it puts many retailers in the untenable position of choosing between ceding market share to Amazon or lowering their prices to uneconomic and unsustainable levels. Most have chosen the latter strategy and are paying the price. The fallout is far from over.

It’s hard to argue against innovation. It’s hard to argue against greater choice, more convenience and lower prices. And clearly, long-term investors in Amazon have few arguments, while those that have hung in with Macy’s, JC Penney and the like are licking their wounds.

Maybe Amazon can sell all this stuff at a loss and make it up on volume. Maybe once they help put many, many retailers out of business and play a big role in the “rationalization” of commercial real estate, Amazon will continue to reduce prices, rather than exploit their emerging monopoly-like power. Maybe we’ll all be happy with fewer choices in retail brands. Maybe Amazon’s dominance will encourage a new wave of different and more interesting retail models to counter-act the homogenization of retail we are in the midst of.

Maybe.

On the other hand, perhaps we should all be careful what we wish for. Perhaps we should consider that the problem with a race to the bottom is that we might win.

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

Digital · Mobile · Omni-channel · Retail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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