Slow motion crises

In the world of retail it’s pretty rare that brands get into trouble over night–much less over a matter of months or even years.

What will turn out to be the deathblow for Sears started with Walmart in the 1980’s, and was followed by Home Depot, Lowes and Best Buy chipping away at Sears core tools and appliance business as these insurgents opened new stores and improved their offerings over many, many years.

The ability to deliver books, music and other forms of entertainment digitally (or shipped directly to the consumer) just didn’t pop up one day. Blockbuster, Borders and Barnes & Noble had years to respond. They just didn’t in any especially powerful way.

Starbucks initiated its rapid store growth more than 20 years ago. And the broader reinvention of the retail coffee business by local independents, along with forays by Keurig, Nespresso and others, is hardly a recent phenomenon. Yet it’s hard to point to anything particularly innovative that industry leaders Folger’s and Maxwell House have done during this extended period, despite their brands continuing to lose sales and relevance.

As Macy’s, JC Penney, Dillards and other traditional department store players garner lots of negative press about their current struggles, we should remember that the department store sector has lost relative market share for more than two decades. Their problems are not simply a function of the growth of e-commerce. And even if they were, the best in class players were investing heavily in e-commerce–think Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom–more than 15 years ago.

Crises created by unforeseen events are one thing. Slow motion crises only reveal that we took our eyes off the ball, were too afraid to act or both.

The way to avoid a retail slow motion crisis is as follows:

  • Understand where customer value is being created on a go forward basis
  • Dissect your most valuable customer segments to understand where your brand is vulnerable and where you have potential leverage
  • Figure out where you can compete by modifying your core business and where you need to innovate outside of your core
  • Don’t be afraid to compete with yourself
  • Consider acquistions as way to build new capabilities quickly
  • Embrace a culture of experimentation
  • Spend more time doing, than studying.

 

 

 

 

Retail’s big reset

It’s been happening for a few years now, but the pace is accelerating.

Retailers waking up to the reality of a slow or no growth world.

Retailers beginning to understand that if you don’t garner share of attention, you have little or no shot at share of wallet.

Retailers starting to comprehend that it’s not about the silos of e-commerce, catalogs, social, mobile and physical stores. It’s about one brand, many channels.

Retailers seeing that it’s not only a digital first world, increasingly it’s a mobile first world.

Retailers coming to terms with having too many stores, and being confronted with the cold hard facts that the ones that should remain are often too large and, more importantly, too boring.

Retailers recognizing that continuing to offer up average products for average people is a recipe for either long-term mediocrity or inevitable bankruptcy.

Retailers realizing that most of their e-commerce growth is now coming from channel shift and that much of their “omni-channel” investments are proving unprofitable.

When historically strong brands like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus start taking a big whack at their corporate staffs and pulling back on capital investments, it’s hard to argue that this is just about low oil prices and weak foreign tourist traffic.

The big reset is upon us.

Some get it. But too many clearly don’t.

Change is happening faster and faster. Disruption is now just part of the ecosystem.

If you believe, as I do, that we are in for an extended period of muted consumer spending, that we are way over-stored in most major markets and that the power has shifted irretrievably to the consumer, then business as usual–and relentless, but vague promises to become “omni-channel”–will not cut it.

The discipline of the market will be harsh. Good enough no longer is.

If you aren’t worried, chances are you should be.

And if you aren’t in a hurry, you might want to pick up the pace.

 

 

The bullet’s already been fired 

I’m fascinated by our capacity to get stuck, the many ways we craft a narrative in a vain attempt to avoid change, the stories we buy into as we hope to keep above the fray. Far too often, the power of denial seems endemic to individuals and organizations alike.

Go back to the 80’s and 90’s and ponder how a slew of successful retailers mostly did nothing while Walmart, Home Depot, Best Buy–and a host of innovative discount mass merchandisers and category killers–moved across the country opening new stores and evolving their concepts to completely redefine industry segments. Somehow it took many years for the old regime to realize what was going on and how much market share was being shed. For many, any acceptance and action came far too late (RIP, Caldor, Montgomery Ward, et al).

Witness how digital delivery of books, music and other forms of entertainment came into prominence while Blockbuster, Borders and Barnes & Noble spent years mostly doing nothing of any consequence. Two of them are now gone and one is holding on for dear life.

Starbucks revolution of the coffee business hardly occurred overnight. But if you were the brand manager of Folger’s or Maxwell House you apparently were caught unawares.

Consider how consumer behavior has been shifting strongly toward online shopping and the utilization of shopping data through digital channels for well over a decade. Yet many companies are seemingly just now waking up to this reality. And by the way, Amazon didn’t just spring out of nowhere. They will celebrate their 22nd anniversary this summer.

And lastly, examine how the elite players of the luxury industry have largely resisted embracing e-commerce–and most things digital–believing that somehow they were immune to the inexorable forces of consumer desires and preferences. Apparently they failed to notice, as just one example, Neiman Marcus’ rise to having 30% of their sales come from online and more than 60% of physical store sales now being influenced by digital channels.

More often than we care to admit, the bullet’s been fired, it just hasn’t hit us yet.

The good news is that while the pace of change is increasing in retail, we have a lot more time to react than we do in a gunfight.

The bad news is that the impact can be just as deadly if we are not prepared.

 

 

Umm, so then why aren’t your sales better?

You’ve probably heard quite a few retailers proclaim some version of “customers who shop across our multiple channels spend 2, 3, 4, even 6 times, that of our average customer.”

When I worked at Sears that is what we saw and that is what we said. Years later, when I headed up strategy and multichannel marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group, that was what our data showed and that is what we told the world. As “omni-channel” has become the clarion call of retail during the past several years, dozens of brands have employed this observation as a primary rationale for substantial investments in beefing up digital commerce and investing in cross channel integration.

But it raises an interesting question.

If it’s true that multichannel customers spend a whole lot more and all these companies have become much better at omni-channel, why aren’t their sales better?  In fact, why is it that most of the retailers who have made such statements–and invested heavily in seamless commerce–are barely able to eek out a positive sales increase?

Something doesn’t seem to add up. So what exactly is going on here?

The main thing to understand is the fallacy that becoming omni-channel somehow magically creates higher spending customers. A retailer’s best customers are almost always higher frequency shoppers who, obviously, happen to trust the brand more than the average person. When alternate, more convenient ways to shop emerge, they are most likely to try them first and, because they shop more frequently, it’s more likely that they will distribute their spending across multiple channels. Best customers become multichannel, not the other way around.

If it were true that traditional retailers are creating a lot more high spending customers by virtue of being more multichannel, the only way the math works is that they must at the same time be losing lots of other customers and/or doing a horrible job of attracting new customers–which somewhat undermines the whole omni-channel thesis. It’s also rather easy to do this customer analysis. I long for the day when I see this sort of discussion actually occur at an investor presentation or on an earnings call.

There WAS a time when being really good at digital commerce and making shopping across channels more seamless was a way for traditional retailers to acquire new customers, to grow share of wallet and to create a real point of competitive differentiation. Nordstrom is a great example of a company that benefitted from this strategy during the past decade, but is now starting to struggle to get newer investments to pay off as the playing field gets leveled.

So-called “omni-channel” excellence is quickly becoming the price of entry in nearly every category. Most investment in better e-commerce–or omni-channel functionality like “buy online pick-up in store”–is defensive; that is, if a brand doesn’t do it they risk losing share. But it’s harder and harder to make the claim that it’s going to grow top-line sales faster than the competition.

Retailers that find themselves playing catch up are primarily spending money to drive existing business from the physical channel to the web. That’s responsive to customer wants and needs, but it’s rarely accretive to earnings. It’s also a major reason we don’t see overall sales getting any better at Macy’s, Sears, Dick’s Sporting Goods and whole host of other brands that have invested mightily in all things omni-channel.

As we dissect customer behavior, as we understand the new competitive reality, as we wake up to the fact that most retailers are spending a lot of money to shift sales from one side of the ledger to the other, it’s clear that omni-channel is no panacea and that many of the promises of vendors, consultants and assorted gurus were no more than pipe dreams.

Yes, chances are you need a compelling digital presence. Yes, you had better get good at mobile fast. Yes, you need to assure a frictionless experience across channels. Yes, your data will probably show that customers who shop in multiple channels spend more than your average shopper. But so what?

If you’ve invested heavily in omni-channel and your sales, profits and net promoter scores are not moving up, could it be your working on the wrong problem?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am the captain now 

For a long time brands had the upper hand.

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

Today? Well not so much.

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

Yet still some brands remain seemingly unconscious and horribly stuck.

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

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

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

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A few inconvenient truths about e-commerce

It’s easy to feel like e-commerce is eating the world. It’s not.

While there can be no question of e-commerce’s continued growing importance and its often disruptive nature–particularly in categories like books and music–I’m both amused and amazed at the lack of perspective many in the industry often seem to have. So here are what I believe to be a few important, albeit at times inconvenient, truths.

Physical retail will continue to dominate. Estimates vary, but brick & mortar retail still accounts for over 90% of all sales. While e-commerce will continue to grow, physical stores will be different but not dead.

Pure-play retail is dying. Scott lays this out better than I can, but once you back Amazon out of the equation, it’s becoming ever more obvious that aside from (perhaps) a few niche exceptions, e-commerce only business models are unsustainable owing primarily to uneconomic customer acquisition costs and overly expensive logistics.

A great deal of e-commerce growth is channel shift among traditional brands. Overall growth of e-commerce will be greater than 10% for the foreseeable future, but much of this comes from major retail brands (e.g. Macy’s, Nordstrom, Walmart) transferring business from their physical stores to their improving digital channels.

Much of e-commerce remains unprofitable and economically unsustainable. Let’s remember that Amazon has never consistently demonstrated an ability to make money outside of its web service business. Let’s remember that virtually none of the massively funded pure-plays has ever turned a profit. Let’s remember that traditional brands are spending mightily to improve their omni-channel capabilities while being lucky to achieve flat overall sales. Let’s remember that many retailers experience such high returns and supply chain costs that a large percentage of e-commerce transactions are profit proof. Let’s remember that just about every omni-channel retailer has had to cut prices and offer free-shipping to try to keep pace with upstart competitors who are subsidized by often irrational investment.

Of course even while accepting these truths, many brands find themselves in a real bind. As long as investors are willing to irrationally fund certain companies, consumers are the big beneficiaries and traditionally funded brands are either forced to respond to remain competitive or get pummeled in the markets by not playing the game, however self-destructive.

The good news is that reality is slowly creeping into the market. Some bubbles have burst–witness the recent deflation of the once ridiculously hyped flash-sales market. Perhaps even today’s hammering of Amazon’s stock suggests investors’ patience is beginning to wane. But it’s difficult to predict and count on the vicissitudes of either the public or venture capital markets. But there are a few things to do right now.

First, don’t blindly pursue all things omni-channel. With consumer demands and expectations changing no brand can possibly remain idle. But a disciplined approach to investing is essential. Conducting a friction audit is a great way to uncover and to prioritize the areas of leverage and greatest near-term ROI.

Second, understand marginal unit economics. Averages aren’t very helpful, yet many companies rely on them for decision-making all the time.  At any kind of basic scale, e-commerce is mostly a variable cost business. Brick and mortar is mostly a fixed cost one. If you don’t understand the differences–and the interplay–you’re going to do something dumb. Don’t be that guy or gal.

Lastly, go deep on the customer insight and customer profitability analysis. It’s one thing to have a few unprofitable transactions within a mix of purchases for a customer that has overall great lifetime value. It’s another to have your customer portfolio laden with high cost-to-serve, low margin, low average transaction value customers who return stuff all the time. Do the math. Don’t chase your tail. Rinse and repeat.

 

Bailing doesn’t fix the hole

So often it seems that when we find ourselves or our organization in trouble, we pounce on the safe, the familiar, the obvious, while ignoring the root cause.

When I was an executive at Sears I remember how senior management spent the better part of a year working on ways to close stores, slash expenses and prune unproductive product lines. Much of this needed to be done–and we had been through this sort of exercise before–but the overwhelming reason that we were sinking was not because our expenses were too high, but rather because our sales productivity was abysmal and our growth potential was non-existent. Bailing doesn’t fix the hole.

Today, driven primarily by the growing influence of e-commerce, leadership at just about every retail brand is struggling with “right-sizing” their overall store count and determining how big–or more accurately, how small–their stores should be.

Again, this can be a worthwhile endeavor. Yet for many retailers the reason they feel compelled to take an axe to their retail footprint has more to do with a weak value proposition than it does with having fundamentally too many stores or because individual locations can’t be productive at their current square footage. For some, closing certain locations and scaling back the size of existing units will only serve to accelerate their decline. Bailing doesn’t fix the hole.

Eating better and getting regular exercise beats any binge diet.

A customer lost is almost impossible to win back.

Brands can rarely can cost cut their way to prosperity.

As it turns out, prevention is better than remediation.

Eventually we need to address the root cause of our lack of buoyancy.

Of course that presumes we don’t run out of time.