I’m going to build a wall and I’m going to get Amazon to pay for it

As I sift through recent retailer earnings reports and reflect on the various (largely excellent) sessions I’ve attended at the inaugural ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas, it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. That elephant is, of course, named Amazon.

Story after story–presenters and panelists alike–are quick to remind us of Amazon’s tremendous growth, the staggeringly large percentage of online revenue they account for and the dampening effect their strategy has on pricing, store traffic and other measures of competitiveness.

Apparently it sucks to be us.

So unless we want to totally ignore this harsh reality, we have a couple of decisions to make.

The first is to decide whether we will accept it and focus instead on the things we can change. From where I sit, I see way too many brands knee-deep in denial and choosing a path that involves a lot of whining. Ugh, so much whining.

The second decision is whether we will try to out-Amazon Amazon. There is plenty of advice on how to counter the Amazon effect. Most of it is terrible.

It’s terrible because it suggests that retailers with higher costs than Amazon can possibly win a price war. It’s terrible because it pre-supposes that merely offering free shipping or “buy online pick-up in store” is enough to counter Amazon’s dominance in product assortment and delivery convenience. It’s terrible because it’s based on a hope that Amazon will follow the same profit and investment calculations that long-established retailers do. It’s terrible because even if some of these efforts manage to gain some traction it presumes Amazon won’t respond aggressively or find some other way to grab market share in their areas of focus.

So, in virtually all cases, the decision to take on Amazon directly is a decision to lose. It’s a decision to invest a lot of time, resources and energy in the vain hope that it will work for you and hurt them. It’s a decision to set a pile of money on fire.

The only decision then is to double down on (or lean into) those things that make your brand more relevant, more remarkable, more sustainable and more profitable.

For retailers that still garner most of their sales from their physical stores that means appreciating and nurturing the unique advantages of brick & mortar locations: personal service, product presentation, merchandise curation, social experiences, instant gratification and the like. It’s about complementing the in-store experience with a well integrated online offering. It’s about understanding how digital (and, increasingly, mobile in particular) is the new front-door for your brand and working to make that experience as compelling and customer-centric as possible.

It is possible that your business may shrink in the process? It is. Is it possible that you will get a lot of heat on why you aren’t taking on Amazon more directly? Of course. It’s also possible you will be a hell of a lot more profitable than the path you are currently on. You also stand a far better chance of being in a business a few years from now.

You aren’t going to build a wall and get Amazon to pay for it.

 

 

 

 

Retail’s new front door

In a “brick & mortar first” world, retailer’s embraced the old adage: location, location, location.

Once the site was determined, a lot of time and money went into the design of the store–with a particular emphasis on making it as strong a magnet for consumer traffic as budget and inspiration would allow. Then the visual and marketing teams went to work, creating attractive window displays and generating eye-catching promotional signage, all with the goal of capturing the customer’s attention as she walked or drove by. If these marketing strategies worked, they would lure her across the threshold and the retailer would have a chance at a sale.

Today, it’s rapidly becoming a “digital first” retail world. More retailers are reporting that the majority of customers start their consumer decision journey online. More and more brands are discovering that a very high (and growing) percentage of new customer acquisition is occurring through a digital channel, not a physical one. And when we say “digital”, it’s increasingly likely we mean some sort of smart mobile device. The power of the traditional store front is waning.

In the vast majority of categories, brick & mortar is not going away. As I like to say, physical retail will be different, not dead. In many cases, stores will remain critical to generating sales, but their role in acquiring a new customer, generating repeat business or building on-going customer engagement and loyalty is diminishing–and, in many cases, quite rapidly.

Right now, for many brands, for many consumers, for many shopping occasions, retail’s new front door is a smart mobile device.

So if your brand’s mobile experience isn’t compelling, the odds of capturing a new customer aren’t that great. If the mobile experience doesn’t help reduce friction for an existing customer (in or out of a store), good luck getting that repeat business. If the mobile experience doesn’t position your brand well in those key decision points that my friends at Google call “micro-moments”,  there’s a pretty good chance you aren’t making that sale.

Embracing the notion that mobile is becoming your brand’s new front door can be profound.

It forces process redesign and budget re-allocation. It requires breaking down the silos that exist in the channel-centric thinking, organization and metrics that persist in so many retailers. It causes us to admit that if we don’t win in a digital channel it barely matters where our stores are located, how good they look, what products we carry or whether we’ve got great salespeople. Heresy, some might say.

It’s apparent that there are quite a few retailers that get this new reality and are acting accordingly–and often boldly. For them, the precise end-game is anything but clear, the path is hardly smooth, but they are in the arena, taking risks, investing where they need to be.

Yet far too many others are merely treading water or paying lip service to this new world order. Sadly they are crippled by legacy thinking and systems, burdened by a store-first culture, unwilling to let go of the past, even when it’s obvious it’s not working. Unless they pivot soon and decisively it’s fairly certain that this will end badly.

 

 

Attraction, not promotion (redux)

If you are familiar with 12-step recovery programs you know about the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which goes as follows: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.”

The obvious reason for this practice is that 12 Step programs have the anonymity of their attendees at their core. Moreover, AA–and its spin-off programs–reject self-seeking as a personal value. But it goes deeper.

Most people do not wish to sold to. If I have to hit you over the head again and again with my message, perhaps you are not open to receiving it. Or maybe what I’m selling just isn’t for you. Shouting louder and more often, or pitching all sorts of enticements, may be an intelligent, short-term way to drive a first visit, but all too often it’s a sign of desperation or lack of inspiration.

12 Step programs were among the first programs to go viral. They gained momentum through word of mouth and blossomed into powerful tribes as more and more struggling addicts learned about and came to embrace a recovery lifestyle. No TV. No radio. No sexy print campaigns. No gift cards. No ‘3 suits for the price of 1’. When it works it’s largely because those seeking relief want what others in the program have.

In the business world, it’s easy to see some parallels. Successful brands like Nordstrom, Apple and Neiman Marcus run very few promotional events and have little “on sale” most days of the year. And, it turns out, they sell a very large percentage of their products at full price and have low advertising to sales ratios. Customers are attracted to these brands because of the differentiated customer experience, well curated and unique merchandise and many, many stories of highly satisfied customers. Net Promoter Scores are high.

Contrast this with Macy’s, Sears and a veritable clown car of other retailers who inundate us with TV commercials, a mountain of circulars and endless promotions and discounts. Full-price selling is almost non-existent. How many of these brands’ shoppers go because it is truly their favorite place to shop? How many rave about their experience to their friends? Unsurprisingly, marketing costs are high, margins are low and revenues are stagnant or declining.

Migrating to a strategy rooted in attraction vs. promotion does not suit every brand, nor is it an easy, risk-free journey. Yet, I have to wonder how many brands even take the time to examine these fundamentally different approaches?

How many are intentional about their choices to go down one path vs. the other? How many want to win by authentically working to persuade their best prospects to say “I’ll have what she’s having” instead of beating the dead horse of relentless sales promotion and being stuck in a race to the bottom.

Maybe you can win on price for a little while. Maybe you can out shout the other guys for a bit. Maybe, just maybe, if you can coerce a few more suckers, er, I mean customers, to give you a try, you can make this quarter’s sales plan.

And sure we didn’t make any money, but we’re investing in the future, right?

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Omni-channel’s migration dilemma: Holiday edition

Last year I wrote a post about what I called retail’s “omni-channel migration dilemma” wherein I observed that while the deployment of so-called omni-channel strategies–i.e. making it easier for consumers to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway–improves the customer experience immensely, the outcomes for most retailers were, thus far, not quite so wonderful.

At the heart of this argument were three core points:

  • With few exceptions, omni-channel retailers’ total revenues remain essentially flat, meaning that robust growth online is mostly cannabilizing brick & mortar sales;
  • In many cases, the profitability of e-commerce is actually worse than a physical store sale. This is particularly true for lower transaction value players like Walmart and Target.
  • In their quest to become “all things omni-channel”, retailers are investing enormous sums–and in some cases–getting distracted from arguably higher value-added activities.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that spending a lot of money to end up–if you’re lucky–with basically the same total revenue at a lower margin is not exactly a genius strategy. But this is where we find Macy’s and many other retailers right now.

The omni-channel frenzy around the holiday shopping season only shines a harsher light on the issue. By launching sales earlier and earlier, by pushing deep discount events like Cyber Monday and by offering free shipping pretty much throughout the season, the tilt toward online sales is exacerbated and margins continue to shrink. Consumers win through great deals. And retailers lose, as overall sales are likely to go absolutely nowhere.

Now some have argued that omni-channel is ruining retail. They are wrong. They’re wrong not only because it is pointless to fight reality, but also because efforts that are fundamentally rooted in the desire to improve the customer experience are rarely misguided. The key is not to confuse necessary with sufficient, nor “the what” with “the how.”

So we should not get distracted by analysts who try to extrapolate one or two days of sales as part of some trend.

And we should bear in mind that online sales for most omni-channel retailers remain far less than 10% of their total business. So even healthy e-commerce growth is not likely to offset seemingly small declines in physical stores sales. You don’t have to trust me on this. Do the math.

But mostly we should remember that the story is not about all things omni-channel, nor what happens on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or the few weeks that comprise the holiday shopping season.

It IS about which retailers are breaking through the sea of sameness with remarkable product AND a remarkable experience. It is about which retailers are eliminating friction for the consumers that matter the most in the places that matter most. It is about which retailers are eschewing one-size-fits-all strategies in favor of a “treat different customers differently” philosophy. It is about retailers that know where to focus and how to properly sequence their omni-channel initiatives, not blindly chase everything some consultant has pitched them.

Clearly, the future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed.

Don’t be blinded by the hype.

When cheap rules

In case you haven’t noticed, the retail apparel market is kind of a hot mess. Sales are going nowhere. Profits are waning. Many store closings have occurred, with more on the horizon. And for two basic reasons.

First, we aren’t buying as many items. It turns out that we actually don’t need so much stuff. It also turns out that, more and more, we are starting to value experiences over things. As Millennials become more important contributors to the market–which, after all, is merely the passage of time–this likely only gets worse.

Second, the average unit price of what customers are buying is declining. Some of this is due to the frenzy of discounting that most retailers can’t seem to break out of. But mostly it’s a substitution effect: people trading down from Neiman Marcus to Nordstrom, or from department stores to off-price stores, or from specialty stores to places like H&M, Zara and Primark.

In many cases, the consumer is saying “no” to excess, unwilling to pay a lot merely for status. Still others are reticent to support a high markup that goes to what they have come to see as needless frills and overhead.

As leaders of brands we are powerless over the first factor. But when it comes to the second we have choices. Many of us are trying to solve for this market shift by cutting expenses and closing stores. Others have launched discount versions of their core brand and are aggressively investing behind this cheaper version of themselves. Some of us are doing a combination of both.

When cheap rules it’s certainly fair game (and simply good management) to look at our cost structure, to consider rebalancing our assortments, to seek ways to become more effective and efficient.

But as leaders–as a matter of strategy–we face the proverbial fork in the road. Do we chase cheap or do we seek reasons other than price for consumers to choose us over the competition? Do we risk entering a race to the bottom or do we choose to become more personal, more relevant, more remarkable? Do we go with the flow (and what Wall St. seems to demand) or do we confidently embrace a stance of “yeah, we’re more expensive, here’s why and we’re worth it.”

Every brand is different, so the right answer must be situation specific. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a choice. We shouldn’t forget that once a brand trades-down there is usually no turning back. And we should always remember that the biggest problem with a race to the bottom is that we might win.

Everywhere. And nowhere.

You’ve probably read the admonishments. You must be everywhere your customer is: online, bricks & mortar, mobile, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and on and on.

You’re told the future is now and that future is all about allowing the consumer to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway.

You’re urged to create a seamless experience across all channels and touch-points.

And much of this is valid. If you don’t meet your customer where she is (and is headed), you’re very likely to be yesterday’s news (RIP Radio Shack). More and more, the consumer IS everywhere and channel hop is becoming the norm.

But for those who think that all they need is a little omni-channel pixie dust and a side order of frictionless commerce, think again.

In the rush to embrace all things digital, integrated and omni-channel, far too many brands have lost sight of the need to be relevant and remarkable. Most of the capabilities that industry white papers wax eloquent about–and consultants relentlessly peddle–are merely the new table-stakes. And, quite frankly, your mileage will vary. Perhaps a lot.

Sears has made huge investments to create powerful digital and integrated commerce capabilities. In fact, they are regularly recognized for their leadership position in many aspects of what industry pundits describe as the holy grail of everywhere commerce. So how’s that working out? Oh yeah, they forgot to sell stuff people want in the way people want it. This is certain to end badly.

On the other hand, Amazon has managed to become a retail industry behemoth, crushing competitors in its wake and continuing to gobble up market share, all without physical stores and, in many cases, putting forth a pretty lackluster mobile and social presence. Their lack of “omni” doesn’t seem to be slowing them down too much.

As I’ve pointed out before, the future of omni-channel will not be even distributed. For those brands that rush eagerly into the “everywhere retail” world without a clear view of the customers they wish to serve and how they wish to serve them in a relevant and remarkable way, don’t be surprised when you don’t get the ROI you hoped for.

It’s quite possible to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Zombie retailers

As we enter the home-stretch of the holiday shopping season, the winners and losers grow more obvious by the day.

Also increasingly obvious is a sub-category of retail brands that can best be labeled “zombies.”  This sad lot includes brands that may appear to be alive, but for all intents and purposes are already dead. Radio Shack and Sears find themselves at the top of this list, but they are hardly alone.

The retail graveyard is filled with well-known and formerly sizable brands that once had customers beating a path to their doors. Borders, Linens & Things, Blockbuster, CompUSA, just to name a few, have all disappeared in recent years. Coldwater Creek and Delia’s are two once successful companies that have initiated liquidation procedures just in the last six months. The new year will surely bring a raft of store closings and bankruptcy filings.

Much more recently founded pure-play e-commerce sites aren’t immune from this phenomenon either. Many once seemingly promising ventures have gone under or seen their valuations pummeled (I’m looking at you Fab.com and Ideel). Many more are struggling mightily to find a pathway to profitability and are starting to see their venture capital sugar daddies lose patience. As it turns out, selling at a loss and trying to make it up on volume doesn’t work on the internet either. Their “zombie-ness” may not yet be apparent, but it’s there.

The seismic changes affecting the entire retail world are so profound and, in many cases, have come on so quickly, that it has been impossible for even the leaders to respond effectively. Yet, the brands that have gone under, and those that are not far behind, have all made a few common mistakes:

  • They either lacked deep customer insight or were unwilling to act on what that insight told them
  • They were afraid to compete with themselves by aggressively embracing (organically or through acquisitions) new formats and concepts that were gobbling up market share
  • They became overly focused on cost-cutting and store closings as the path to prosperity rather than doubling-down on customer engagement and growth
  • They protected their older, core customers while failing to acquire a sufficient number of new customers
  • They often chased revenue without an eye on profitability
  • They didn’t realize that customers buy experiences and solutions, not just the products that comprise them.

I suspect that when the post-mortem is done on next year’s zombies that transcend to the great beyond our autopsy will reveal similar patterns.

Clearly–and sadly–many retail brands are now beyond repair. For those that are struggling but still have hope, the real question is how many of these very familiar mistakes they will keep making.