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.

purple cow

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.

Being Remarkable · e-commerce · Growth · The Amazon Effect

With Kenmore Deal Amazon Is A Winner. For Sears, Not So Much.

Investors reacted quite favorably to the news that Kenmore appliances will soon be sold through Amazon. For Amazon, it’s clearly an interesting opportunity. While online sales of major appliances are currently comparatively small, being able to offer a leading brand on a semi-exclusive basis gives Amazon a jump start in a large category where they have virtually no presence. On the other hand, for Sears, it smacks of desperation.

First, some context. Way back in 2003 I was Sears’ VP of Strategy and my team was exploring options for our major private brands. Despite years of dominance in appliances and tools, our position was eroding. Our analysis clearly showed that not only would we continue to lose share (and profitability) to Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy, but those declines would accelerate without dramatic action. Unfortunately, it was also clear that very little could be done within our mostly mall-based stores to respond to shifting consumer preferences and the growing store footprints of our competitors. Kenmore, Craftsman and Diehard’s deteriorating positions were fundamentally distribution problems.  And to make a long story a bit shorter, a number of recommendations were made, none of which were implemented in any significant way.

Flash forward to today, and Sears leadership in appliances and tools is gone. While in the interim some minor distribution expansion occurred, it was not material enough to offset traffic declines in Sears stores and the shuttering of hundreds of locations. More important is the fact that Kenmore and Craftsman still aren’t sold in the channels where consumers prefer to shop–and that train has left the station.

So last week’s announcement does expand distribution, but it does little, if anything, to fundamentally alter the course that Sears is on. Simply stated, making Kenmore available on Amazon will not generate enough volume to offset continuing sales declines in core Sears outlets, particularly as more store closings are surely on the horizon. Selling Kenmore on Amazon does not in any way make Sears a more relevant brand for US consumers. In fact, it will give many folks one more reason not to traffic a Sears store or sears.com.

Since 2013 I have referred to Sears as “the world’s slowest liquidation sale”, owing to Eddie Lampert’s failure to execute anything that looks remotely like a going-concern turnaround strategy, while he does yeoman’s work jettisoning valuable assets to offset massive operating losses. Earlier this year, Sears fetched $900 million by selling the Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker, one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of hand and power tools. So it’s hard to imagine that Sears did not try to do a similar deal with either a manufacturer of appliances (e.g. Whirlpool or GE) or one of the now leading appliance retailers. The Kenmore partnership with Amazon appears to have far less value than the Craftsman deal, despite being done just six months later–which speaks volumes to how far Sears has fallen and for how weak Sears’ bargaining position has become.

The cash flow from the Amazon transaction will do little to mitigate Sears operating losses and downward trajectory. In fact, it seems to be mostly the best way, under desperate circumstances, to extract the remaining value of the Kenmore brand given that no high dollar suitors emerged and Sears continues its march toward oblivion. Amazon, however, is able to take advantage of fire-sale pricing and create the valuable option to have Kenmore as a potentially powerful future private brand to build its presence in the home category.

Advantage Bezos.

dezhas8u0aac0fw

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

Growth · Retail · Winning on Experience

Assessing The Damage Of ‘The Amazon Effect’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

Digital · Mobile · Omni-channel · Retail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Customer Growth Strategy · Omni-channel · Retail

Is off-price the next retail sector to go off the rails?

Amidst all the pain that most of the retail industry has endured during the past few years, the “off-price” sector has been one of the few shining stars.

While most retailers struggle to eke out any top-line growth, the segment’s big four–TJX, Ross, Burlington and Nordstrom Rack–have delivered solid growth. While many retailers are closing stores in droves, the off-price leaders have been opening new outlets at a brisk pace while announcing plans to open hundreds of stores over the next several years. TJX, the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post, added nearly 200 stores this past year alone.

So while it’s easy to blame Amazon for department stores’ troubles, there is ample evidence that it’s been the major share grab on the part of the off-price and outlet sector that’s inflicted a great deal of the pain.

Of course, the bifurcation of retail has been going on for some time. Consumers have been steadily shifting their spending toward more price-oriented brands since the recession. In some cases it has been driven by an economic need to spend less. In other cases by a realization that strong value can be obtained at a lower price, whether that is from a traditional retailer (e.g. Walmart), a leading fast fashion brand (e.g. H&M and Zara), a newer business model (e.g. Gilt and Farfetch) or, of course, Amazon.

Yet there is growing evidence that the segment is beginning to mature and that future results may be quite different from the boom of recent years. In the most recent quarter, TJX saw same-store sales growth slow to 1%. Archrival Ross posted better results but struck a decidedly cautious note. Nordstrom Rack, which has been the star within Nordstrom, has seen its growth slow to below the industry average.

So while one or two quarters do not indicate cause for alarm, there are several reasons why investors might want to beware.

Sluggish apparel growth

Average unit prices for apparel continue to contract, the discounting environment shows no sign of abating and consumers continue to shift their spending away from products to experiences. This means most sales growth must come from stealing share. That’s not likely to come easily.

Growing competition.

Competition is always intense in retail, but with the number of new stores that are opening, the rapid growth of online competition and Amazon’s growing and intense focus on apparel and home products (including an almost certain big push into private fashion brands in the next couple of years), sales and margin pressures are certain to become more pronounced.

Here comes e-commerce–and its challenges.  

The off-price industry was slow to get into digital commerce. Some of this was for good reason: it’s almost impossible to make money online in apparel with low transaction values and high rates of returns. But given consumer demand, the convergence of channels and pressure from growing competition, none of these brands have a choice but to invest heavily. But as e-commerce becomes an important growth driver, much of that growth will come through diversion of sales from a brand’s own physical stores–and often at a lower profit margin (what I call “the omnichannel migration dilemma”). As e-commerce becomes a more important piece of the overall business, the economics of physical stores will become more challenging, calling into question the reasonableness of the current store opening pace.

Brand dilution and saturation. 

The key driver of the off-price business has been offering major brand names at deeply discounted prices. While this is a bit of a con, the consumer is either blissfully ignorant or doesn’t care–at least so far. But as more brands grow through heavily discounted channels the risk of brand dilution goes up. And we’ve already seen several major brands pull back from factory outlet channels and tighten their distribution to wholesale channels where discounting was rampant. As Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Macy’s and Bloomingdales emphasize off-price growth (both physical store openings and online) the brand dilution concern to their “parent brands” looms large.

Overshooting the runway on store growth.

The over-expansion of most major retail chains is plaguing much of the retail industry right now. So far the off-price sector has escaped this fate, largely because the sector has been gaining share. But if growth continues to moderate and a greater share of the business moves to e-commerce, today’s store opening plans seem awfully aspirational. This is not a 2017 issue, and probably not one for 2018 either. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager that in 2019 we will view today’s plans as incredibly optimistic.

While the off-price sector is unlikely to experience the shockwaves of disruption pummeling its retail brethren anytime soon, we should remember that no business is immune from fundamental forces. And no business maintains above average growth forever. Investors would be wise to take a more cautious approach.

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.  

Being Remarkable · Innovation · Retail

Macy’s: After Big Earnings Whiff, Here’s What It Needs To Do

Last week Macy’s missed its revenue and earnings forecast for the first quarter, sending its shares tumbling.

While the talk of a retail apocalypse is just so much hype, the intense waves of digital disruption and shifting consumer preferences assure that the future of retail–and the impact on many large and lumbering players like Macy’s–will not be evenly distributed.

We now live in a digital-first world where the line between brick & mortar sales and e-commerce is mostly a distinction without a difference. Fellow retail analyst Doug Stephens describes this new landscape as “phygital.” But whatever you label it, the consumer’s path to purchase has changed substantially–and with it the role of the store. And, increasingly, same-store sales are a largely irrelevant metric.

Nevertheless, the continuing overall poor performance of Macy’s is concerning and underscores the problems faced by many legacy brands. To get back on track, Macy’s needs to aggressively address several fundamental problems.

  • Eschew the sea of sameness. Macy’s, like so many other retailers, picked a really bad time to be so boring. Redundant, repetitive and fundamentally uninteresting product has become the norm. If customers don’t have a compelling reason (other than price) to traffic either their website or store, Macy’s will continue to hemorrhage market share.
  • It’s the experience stupid! Having remarkable and relevant products is critically important and a necessary foundation, but it’s hardly sufficient. If Macy’s continues to provide me-too visual presentation, marketing that is indistinguishable from every other department store and lackluster customer service they will continue to make price the deciding factor for most consumers.
  • Omni-channel is dead, at least in the way many have been pursuing it. Macy’s spent a lot of time and money trying to be all things to all people. Channel ubiquity with continued mediocrity is pointless. All retailers need to think about how to best harmonize and simplify the shopping across the moments of truth that matter the most for customers. Otherwise we’re just spending a lot of money to move customers between channels, not gaining relevance, share of wallet and profits.
  • Strategically re-imagine the store and the store footprint. Analysts are going to keep pushing Macy’s to close stores. And to be sure, shrinking of both store counts and store size is probably required. But the reason this is even a talking point has much more to do with the weakness of Macy’s value proposition, not their sheer number of stores. Online helps stores and stores help online. Period. Mediocre retailers that close a lot of stores are likely starting a downward spiral from which they will never return. The key is to understand the store as the hub of an ecosystem for the brand, not an asset to be merely fine-tuned for productivity. Focus on being remarkable instead of mediocre and focus on how stores strategically drive online (and vice versa) and the store closing discussion recedes into the background.
  • Don’t start a price war. With pricing pressures from Amazon, outlet stores and all the off-price players there might be a tendency to get overly focused on pricing. But don’t forget, the problem with a price war is you might win.
  • Become a testing machine. It’s easy to blame Amazon for the troubles facing the industry. But by far the biggest reason retailers are in trouble is their abject failure to innovate. Every retailer needs an R&D budget and every retailer needs to test, fail and test again. Retailers were too scared to fail and now their failing because of it. As Seth reminds us “if failure is not an option, than neither is success.”

Of course all of this is more easily said than done, particularly as Wall Street pushes for short-term fixes and Amazon continues to lower its thin margin hammer on most sectors of retail. Yet it’s hard to escape the fact that more of the same at Macy’s will only yield more of the same.

What Macy’s needs is a lot more innovation.

What investors need is just a bit more patience.

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.