e-commerce · Omni-channel · The Amazon Effect

Here’s who Amazon could buy next, and why it probably won’t be Nordstrom

Since the Whole Foods deal, more than a few industry analysts and pundits have weighed in on which retailers might be on Amazon’s shopping list.

Various theories underpin the speculation. Some say Jeff Bezos wants to go deeper in certain categories, so Lululemon or Warby Parker get mentioned. Foursquare (is that still a thing?) crafted its own list from analyzing location data. The Forbes Tech Council came up with 15 possibilities. The always provocative, and generally spot-on, Scott Galloway of L2 and NYU’s Stern School of Business believes Nordstrom is the most logical choice.

Obviously no one has a crystal ball, and Amazon’s immediate next move could be more opportunistic than strategic. Given Amazon’s varied interests, there are several directions in which they could go. And clearly they have the resources to do multiple transactions, be they technology enabling, building their supply-chain capabilities out further, entering new product or service categories, or something else entirely. For my purposes, however, I’d like to focus on what makes the most sense to expand and strengthen the core of their retail operations.

Before sorting through who’s likely to be right and who’s got it wrong (spoiler alert: Scott), let’s briefly think about the motivating factors for such an acquisition. From where I sit, several things are critical:

  • Materiality. Amazon is a huge, rapidly growing company. To make a difference, they have to buy a company that either is already substantial or greatly accelerates their ability to penetrate large categories. This is precisely where Whole Foods fit in.
  • Fundamentally Experiential. There is an important distinction between buying and shopping. As my friend Seth reminds us, shopping is an experience, distinct from buying, which is task-oriented and largely centered on price, speed and convenience. Amazon already dominates buying. Shopping? Not so much.
  • Bricks And Clicks. It’s hard to imagine Amazon not ultimately dominating any category where a large percentage of actual purchasing occurs online. Where they need help is when the physical experience is essential to share of wallet among the most valuable customer segments. They’ve already made their bet in one such category (groceries). Fashion, home furnishings and home improvement are three obvious major segments where they are under-developed and where a major stake in physical locations would be enormously beneficial to gaining significant market share.
  • Strong Marginal Economics. We know that Amazon barely makes money in retail. What’s not as well appreciated is the inconvenient truth that much of the rest of e-commerce is unprofitable. Some of this has to do with venture-capital-funded pure-plays that have demonstrated a great ability to set cash on fire. But unsustainable customer acquisition costs and high rates of product returns make many aspects of online selling profit-proof. An acquisition that allows Amazon access to high-value customers it would otherwise be challenged to steal away from the competition and one that would mitigate what is rumored to be an already vexing issue with product returns could be powerfully accretive to earnings over the long term. Most notably this points to apparel, but home furnishings also scores well here.

So pulling this all together, here’s my list of probable 2018 acquisition targets, the basic rationale and a brief word on why some seemingly logical candidates probably won’t happen.

Not Nordstrom, Saks or Neiman Marcus

Scott Galloway is right that Nordstrom (and to a lesser degree Saks and Neiman Marcus) has precisely the characteristics that fit with Amazon’s aspirations and in many ways mirror the rationale behind the Whole Foods acquisition. Yet unlike Whole Foods, a huge barrier to overcome is vendor support. Having been an executive at Neiman Marcus, I understand the critical contribution to a luxury retailer’s enterprise value derived from the distribution of iconic fashion brands, as well as the obsessive (but entirely logical) control these same brands exert over distribution. Many of the brands that are key differentiators for luxury department stores have been laggards in digital presence, as well as actually selling online. Most tightly manage their distribution among specific Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus locations. If Nordstrom or the others were to be acquired by Amazon, I firmly believe many top vendors would bolt, choosing to further leverage their own expanding direct-to-consumer capabilities and doubling down with a competing retail partner, fundamentally sinking the value of the acquisition. While Amazon might try to assure these brands that they would not be distributed on Amazon, I think the fear, rational or otherwise, would be too great.

Macy’s, Kohl’s or J.C. Penney 

Amazon has its sights set on expanding apparel, accessories and home but is facing some headwinds owing to a relative paucity of national fashion brands, likely lower-than-average profitability (mostly due to high returns) and a lack of a physical store presence. Acquiring one of these chains would bring billions of dollars in immediate incremental revenues, improved marginal economics and a national footprint of physical stores to leverage for all sorts of purposes. All are (arguably) available at fire-sale prices. Strategically, Macy’s makes the most sense to me, both because of their more upscale and fashion-forward product assortment (which includes Bloomingdale’s) and because of their comparatively strong home business. But J.C. Penney would be a steal given their market cap of just over $1 billion, compared with Macy’s and Kohl’s, which are both north of $8 billion at present.

Lowe’s

The vast majority of the home improvement category is impossible to penetrate from a pure online presence. Lowe’s offers a strong value proposition, dramatic incremental revenues, already strong omni-channel capabilities, and a vast national network of stores. The only potential issue is its valuation, which at some $70 billion is hardly cheap, but is dramatically less than Home Depot’s.

A Furniture Play

Home furnishings is a huge category where physical store presence is essential to gaining market share and mitigating the high cost of returns. But it is also highly fragmented, so the play here is less clear as no existing player provides a broad growth platform. Wayfair, the online leader, brings solid incremental revenue and would likely benefit from Amazon’s supply chain strengths. But without a strong physical presence their growth is limited. Crate & Barrel, Ethan & Allen, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma and a host of others are all sizable businesses, but each has a relatively narrow point of view. My guess is Amazon will do something here — potentially even multiple deals — but a big move in furniture will likely not be their first priority in 2018.

As I reflect on this list (as well as a host of other possibilities), I am struck by three things.

First, despite all the hype about e-commerce eating the world, the fact remains that some 90% of all retail is done in physical stores, and that is because of the intrinsic value of certain aspects of the shopping experience. For Amazon to sustain its high rate of growth, a far greater physical presence is not a nice “to do” but a “have to do.”

Second, the battle between Amazon and Walmart is heating up. While they approach the blurring of the lines between physical and digital from different places, some of their needs are similar, which could well lead to some overlapping acquisition targets. That should prove interesting.

Lastly, the business of making predictions is inherently risky, particularly in such a public forum. So at the risk of stating the obvious, I might well be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it surely won’t be the last.

But why not go out on a limb? I hear that’s where the fruit is.

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

For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · e-commerce · Strategy

Going private: Here comes Amazon’s next big wave of disruption and dismantling

While Amazon is often falsely blamed for all of retail’s woes, the “Amazon Effect” is both profound and well-documented. While the company’s overall market share is relatively low (under 5%), Amazon now accounts for nearly half of all e-commerce sales and its pricing and supply chain supremacy continues to put margin pressure across many categories of retail.

Yet, lost among the stories about the showdown between Amazon and Walmart or the impact of the Whole Foods acquisition or the company’s many stymied attempts to become a major fashion player is potentially an even bigger and more interesting narrative. What should be added to the list of things that keep both manufacturers and retailers up at night is Amazon’s rapidly evolving private brand strategy. The massive potential for a “go private” thrust to be another key component in what L2’s Scott Galloway has called Amazon’s systemic dismantling of retail and brands is huge.

Here’s why:

Private brands can have powerful consumer appeal. A well-executed private brand strategy allows for equal (or even better) quality products to be delivered at much lower prices. Store brands have moved well beyond the generic product days into being desired brands in their own right and have become significant lines of business for many retailers.

Private brands typically have greater margins. By controlling both the product design and supply chain–and avoiding the need for large marketing and trade allowance budgets–proprietary store brands can deliver a better price to the consumer and better gross margins for the retailer. Therefore the brand owner has a greater incentive to push its captive brands over national brands.

Amazon has already created a solid base of private brands. It turns out that Amazon already has a solid stable of proprietary brands. Some are more basic commodity items sold under the Amazon name. Some have their own identity, like Mama Bear and Happy Belly. Others tilt toward the more fashionable. With the Whole Foods acquisition, the company also controls the 365 Everyday Value brand which, rather unsurprisingly, is now available at Amazon. Recent reports suggest they are jumping into the athletic wear business.

Amazon’s private brands are on fire. While specific financial data is relatively sparse, most indications are that the company is thus far yielding strong performance with its own products. According to one report, many of these brands are experiencing hyper-growth.

The Amazon chokehold. Ponder for a moment the amount and quality of customer data Amazon can leverage to both design and target its own stable of higher margin products. Consider that more than 55% of all online product searches start at Amazon. Reflect on the reality that Alexa’s algorithms already give preference to Amazon’s private brands. Contemplate how easy it will be for Amazon to systematically design its website to feature the brands it wants to promote. Meditate on the freedom Amazon has to pursue the long game given its strong cash flow and Wall Street’s current willingness to value growth over profits.

Because of its sheer size, as well as the need to feed the growth beast, Amazon must both grab more market share in categories where it already has a material position, while also entering and penetrating significant new opportunity areas. At some point, Amazon will also have to demonstrate that it can make some decent money outside of its Amazon Web Services business. The opportunity in private brands serves both Amazon’s long-term revenue and margin objectives.

For the most part, Amazon’s private brand aspirations have operated under the radar. But from where I sit, it won’t be long before they reach critical mass in many key categories. And when they are ready to truly step on the gas–both from their organic efforts, as well as from what I believe will be at least one more major brick & mortar acquisition–another wave of brands (both wholesale and retail) will get caught in the wake.

For the competition, it’s time to be afraid. Very afraid.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Digital · Omni-channel

The End Of E-Commerce? These Days, It’s All Just Commerce

Given the continued rapid growth of online shopping, it might seem crazy to suggest that the era of e-commerce is coming to an end. Yet while we are used to talking about e-commerce as a separate thing — and isolating statistics for digital transactions versus brick-and-mortar same-store sales — it’s increasingly clear that these are becoming distinctions without much of a difference. For consumers, it’s simply “commerce,” and retailers that want to thrive, or survive, need to fully embrace a one brand, many channels strategy.

I recently attended shop.org, the annual conference historically focused on digital commerce. What struck me most (beyond the dwindling attendance) was that speakers mostly ignored online shopping as a stand-alone concept. Instead, many emphasized the importance of brick-and-mortar stores in delivering a remarkable customer experience. Moreover, the majority of technology providers in the expo offered solutions that were very much anchored in online/offline integration or leverage, not e-commerce optimization, as was true in the past. Rather than buying into the retail apocalypse narrative and seeing brick-and-mortar stores as liabilities, most were clearly in the camp of believing that stores were (wait for it) assets. Physical retail might be different, but it clearly is not dead.

Notably, Mark Lore from Walmart/Jet spoke of the need for retailers to be channel agnostic and highlighted how Walmart’s stores give the brand a distinct advantage. TechStyle CEO Adam Goldenberg showcased statistics on how Fabletic’s overall brand performance has been enhanced through the opening of stores and on how the merging of cross-channel data gives them an edge. Kohl’s spoke of the role of mobile as a constant companion in the shopper’s journey from online to offline (and vice versa). While using somewhat different language, numerous other speakers acknowledged that customers shop everywhere and the best retailers need to meet them where they are. Clearly, more and more, it’s just commerce now.

Of course, the lines have been blurring for years, and study after study shows that a well-integrated shopping experience across channels (what some call “omni-channel” and what I prefer to call “harmonized retail”) is what customers desire and what often determines a brand’s ultimate success. The increasing investments in physical stores byAmazon and other digitally native brands serve to underscore this growing reality. Those of us who are familiar with retailers’ customer data know that, typically, a brand’s best customers are those who shop and/or are heavily influenced in both digital and physical channels. We also know that opening stores drives increases in e-commerce in that store’s trade area, just as closing a store often leads to dramatic declines in online shopping. It’s all just commerce.

This realization does not negate the fact that a meaningful percentage of shopping occurs in a purely digital fashion (particularly downloading books, music and games). It does not minimize that Amazon has achieved a total share of retail rapidly approaching 5% almost entirely without a physical presence. But as we move ahead, it’s important to realize the significant contributions to what we label “e-commerce” that are derived from traditional retailers’ online divisions. It’s important to recognize that Amazon will struggle to maintain outsized growth without deepening its investment in brick and mortar. It’s critical to grasp that digitally influenced physical-stores sales far exceed sales rung up online.

And ultimately it’s essential to realize that it is rarely an online-vs.-offline battle, but a struggle that is won when we accept that it’s all just commerce and strive to bring the best of offline and online together on behalf of the customer.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Customer Insight · Reinventing Retail

Discount Nation, Promiscuous Shoppers And The Sucker Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

The Retail Apocalypse And The Urgent Quest For Remarkable

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

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

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

By now, a few things should be abundantly clear:

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

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

Stop blaming Amazon.

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

It’s not just about e-commerce. 

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

You can’t out-Amazon Amazon. 

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

Choose remarkable. 

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

Be prepared to blow stuff up. 

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

Hurry.

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

The big problem is we think we have time.

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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Being Remarkable · 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.

Customer experience · e-commerce · Omni-channel

Many unhappy returns: E-commerce’s Achilles heel

It’s a common misconception that e-commerce is inherently more profitable than brick & mortar retail. The fact that very few online dominant brands’ profit margins exceed those of “traditional” retailers is one clue that this isn’t true. But a better way to understand the longer-term outlook is to look at the underlying economic drivers.

Above a basic level of scale, online retail is largely a variable cost business, whereas physical stores succeed by driving sufficient revenue to leverage their mostly fixed costs. At the risk of oversimplification, this means that to make money online gross profit/order needs to exceed the variable costs associated with that order. The reason that many eCommerce companies (or the e-commerce divisions of “omni-channel” retailers) don’t make money is that the marginal cost of acquiring a customer, plus the supply chain cost of fulfilling that order, exceeds the gross profit (essentially, revenue less the cost of goods).

The challenges of profitably acquiring customers online is an article for another day. But even where that hurdle can be overcome, e-commerce is often unprofitable due to high supply chain costs–and a huge driver is the high rate of returns. Consider this quote from Michael Kors’ CEO John Idol in a 2016 Bloomberg story: “Unfortunately today, e-commerce generates a lower operating profit for us than four-wall, brick-and-mortar. We think over time that will reverse itself but…when the consumer requires free delivery, free return, wonderful packaging, plus there’s a new trend that people are buying multiple sizes of things to try them at home and then return them, that all is a negative headwinds for us.” Bear in mind, this comes from a brand with significant consumer awareness, a sizable online operation and a high average transaction value.

While returns are not an issue for products that can be delivered digitally–or for many commodity items–in categories like apparel, accessories, footwear and home furnishings, where fit, coloration, fabrication and the like determine whether the consumer ultimately keeps the product, return rates between 25 and 40% are often the norm. When retailers pay for free shipping & exchanges handling costs can quickly erode any chance for a profitable transaction. We must also consider that returned or exchanged product often cannot be sold at the original gross margin, either because it is shop-worn (or otherwise “defective”) or because by the time it comes back the retailer has taken seasonal markdowns.

Some analysts have taken certain retail brands to task for their failure to aggressively invest in e-commerce. Yet many dragged their feet (or were rather deliberate about how they invested) quite intentionally because they understood that aggressive online growth was detrimental to their profitability. The fact is that unless returns rates can be mitigated significantly and/or the cost of handling returns can be lowered dramatically, some retailers will continue to suffer from what I call “omni-channel’s migration dilemma.”

While outside observers may gloss over this phenomenon, brands that face this growing profitability menace are taking action. One trend flies in the face of the retail apocalypse narrative. It turns out that physical stores can be incredibly helpful in lowering both the rate of returns and supply chain costs. While it is not the only reason that formerly digital-only retailers like Bonobos, UNTUCKit! and others are opening stores, it is a key driver. Large omni-channel brands have also tried to make it easier to return online orders in their brick & mortar locations. Not only are handling costs typically lower, but–surprise, surprise!–driving store traffic often leads to incremental sales.

Another avenue for taming the returns monster is using new technology and processes. TrueFit is a venture-funded company that uses artificial intelligence (among other tools) to help consumers choose the right product during the ordering process. Happy Returns is a more recent start-up that has also attracted solid VC funding. This expanding brand focuses on reducing consumer friction in the returns process and helping lower the cost of eCommerce returns for brands by operating “return bars” in major malls. The malls may also benefit by seeing incremental traffic.

Clearly e-commerce will continue to grow at much faster rates than physical retail. And with Amazon and newer disruptive brands helping drive the share of apparel, accessories and home furnishings that is sold online, the impact of high returns rates will become a bigger and bigger issue for many brands. Industry analysts would be wise to dig into this more deeply. Consumers can continue to enjoy the free ride until some rationality takes hold. Retailers would be well served to not gloss over this growing problem.

Taj Sims

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.