Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer

“Retail disruption” has been a popular buzz phrase for several years now. In fact, most of the retail brands that have received out-sized mentions in the business press–and commanded the adoring attention of industry conference attendees–for the past 5 years or so are somehow or other leveraging digital innovation to fundamentally re-work the consumer experience, gobble up market share and attract truckloads of venture capital.

Amidst this transformative reshaping of the retail landscape three things are clear:

  • Consumers have benefitted substantially from the introduction of new business models through more convenience, greater product access and lower prices.
  • This profound shift in the consumer value equation has put enormous pressure on industry incumbents that lack either the cost structure or agility to respond effectively.
  • A dramatic rationalization is gaining momentum as traditional players are being forced out of business or pressured to close and or shrink the foot-print of their stores, make huge investments in “omni-channel” capabilities and lower costs across the board.

Unfortunately what is lost in tales of this evolution is that most of the “disruptive” pure-play e-commerce brands have completely unsustainable business models and mostly what is happening is that venture capitalists (and other investors) are funding a transfer of wealth to the consuming public. So, on behalf of my fellow consumers, thanks venture capitalists.

Alas, this is unlikely to last much longer.

While many people think digital retail is some sort of license to print money, it’s becoming clear that e-commerce is virtually profit proof in categories with low transaction values, owing primarily to the substantial supply chains costs (particularly when brands offer free shipping and returns). Moreover, while it can be relatively easy and cheap to build an initial following online through public relations,  social media and other forms of peer-to-peer marketing, scaling an e-commerce only brand turns out to be extremely costly. Many of the buzziest pure-plays are now investing heavily in expensive branding efforts (as well as opening their own stores) in the hopes that size engenders profitability. Accordingly, initial expectations of break-evens are now being pushed out several years.

As the ROI of these efforts starts to come into sharper relief, my bet is many funding sources will lose their patience.

I’ve been an on-the-record skeptic for several years now, going back to when I called into question the sustainability of the flash-sales market well before the meltdown. More recently, I’ve been pointing out E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem. So I’m not suprised that recent valuations of several once high flying players have collapsed. And more folks are starting to take notice. Professional smart guy (and noted wise ass) Scott Galloway agrees and has been on the “pure play doesn’t work” train for some time. Expect more to join us.

To be clear, a few digital-first brands will likely emerge as sustainable value creators. Brands with high enough average order values to overcome high delivery costs are better positioned (though Net-a-porter’s inability to make money after all these years underscores how difficult this is). Those that deftly merge online and offline experiences–think Warby Parker and Bonobos–also improve the odds (though, side-note, don’t be misled by the high productivity of their initial locations and comparisons to other brands’ productivity stats. We need to understand the four-wall profitability of these new stores and make comparisons to traditional retailers averages in like locations, not overall chain averages).

Mostly, however, we need to be careful to declare a brand successful without defining what we mean by success. If we define success as having grown revenues quickly and having been able to raise gobs of capital from investors to enable subsidizing consumers on a massive scale, than clearly Amazon and dozens of others are wildly successful. If we define success as creating enormous pricing pressure and raising the cost of doing business so as to push traditional players into a double-bind than, yes, mission accomplished.

But if we determine success as having demonstrated the ability to deliver a new and better customer experience AND earn a risk appropriate return on capital than I’m not sure any pure-play E-commerce player of any size is yet successful.

I will go on the record as saying far more pure plays will go bust in the next three years (or get sold at valuations well below their most recent funding) than will emerge as truly successful.

Until then, enjoy the low prices and the free shipping, and if you get some time, send the nice folks funding Jet.com and others a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” note.






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.





Growing share is retail’s new black

Nearly two years ago I wrote about what I saw as Retail’s zero-sum game.

My hypothesis was that, for the foreseeable future, top-line growth across most retail sectors was likely to be tepid at best. I also hinted at an upcoming slowdown in the once resilient luxury segment. Looks like I was being optimistic.

Today’s dismal earnings announcement from Macy’s featured a quarterly sales decline of more than 7%. It’s yet another in a series of lackluster–and often frightening–reports from established retailers across just about every segment of the market. It certainly won’t be the last. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The reality is that there are profound shifts in consumer behavior and the underlying economics of omni-channel retail that go way beyond Amazon’s impact or what’s rapidly becoming a digital-first retail world.

In case you haven’t noticed your customers now have the upper hand. More and more, consumers are valuing experiences over products, renting over buying, trading down instead of trading up, holding out for the best price and on and on. None of this bodes well for an expanding pie or a rising tide that raises all ships.

Your job then–plain and simple–is to gain share; to get more out of the same sized (or even shrinking) pie. And thus there are two things you need to be really, really good at: acquiring (and then retaining) customers at a disproportionate rate from your competitors and growing share of wallet among those existing customers that have the best potential for long-term profitability.

You can go on and on about bold omni-channel plans, your seamless shopping experience and your really cool Instagram strategy. But if you can’t articulate how you are going to be remarkable and relevant for your best customers and prospects at the point of acquisition and customer growth chances are you are focused on the wrong things.

And if you aren’t busting your hump to get those ideas into action, you had better step on the gas.






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.



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.


Small is the new interesting

It’s been at least 20 years now that most value creation in retail has been driven by big. Big stores–both physical and digital. Big assortments. Big advertising.

Walmart and Target. Home Depot and Lowes. Amazon and eBay. Best Buy, Ikea, Office Depot and on and on. Superstores, category killers and the “endless aisle” online guys have won big (heh, heh) on scale, efficiency and low prices.

There’s a lot to be said for pushing the frontiers of big. When your goal is to be the “we have everything store” your marching orders are pretty clear. When you have to be the winner in a price war, your focus is obvious.

The problem is that big has its limits. And a closer examination of many “winning” retailers’ strategies reveals that big is losing momentum.

It turns out that a strategy of big eventually faces diminishing returns. It turns out that most of the winners of the past decade or so are running out of new stores to build. It turns out that many of the mass promotions that drive incremental business lose money. It turns out that for most of these brands e-commerce growth is unprofitable. But mostly it turns out that big is boring. And consumers are starting to notice.

There’s no question that big is here to stay. There’s little doubt that for many consumers–and a vast number of purchase occasions–the quest for dominant product selection, convenience and great prices will remain paramount. But that doesn’t mean that’s where the future opportunities lie or that your strategy shouldn’t shift.

Shift happens. And it’s a shift away from mass marketing to becoming more personalized. Away from overwhelming assortments to editing and curation. Away from products that everybody has to items and experiences that the consumer creates. Away from the seemingly inevitable regression towards the mean to a deliberate choice to eschew the obvious and explore the edges.

Many brands will have a hard time breaking out of the pursuit of big. They are too vested in building scale, too scared of Wall St.’s reaction to a strategy pivot, too addicted to mass advertising.

Of course, therein lies our opportunity. Maybe it’s time to embrace small while the rest of those guys continue to flog big.


Whose idea of stupid?

Since we seem to be a society that judges quickly, we often waste little time affixing all sorts of labels to all sorts of people and all sorts of situations.

That guys a loser (not to mention low energy).

We tried that before.

This will never work.

Your idea is stupid.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of dumb ideas. Yet sometimes stupid wins.

Facebook and Amazon were once pilloried as concepts that couldn’t possibly work. When Google started it was the 20th search engine to launch and completely lacked a revenue model. It also followed in the footsteps of several high-profile flameouts.

Tesla, Instagram and PayPal were all once seen as pretty ridiculous business models by just about everybody.

Psychologists talk about “projection”–the notion that when we feel the need to point out the failings of others it’s often rooted in our own insecurities. “If you spot it, you got it” as some like to say.

Sometimes there is stupidity in the world that needs to be called out and confronted.

But sometimes it’s better to judge slowly.

Sometimes it’s better to realize innovation frequently happens at the razor’s edge of stupidity.

And sometimes you just need to consider the source.