Bricks & Clicks · Embrace the blur · Innovation · Retail

Will Amazon 4-Star live up to its reviews?

After learning that Amazon might open up to 3,000 Go stores by 2021, the industry was still catching its collective breath when the retail behemoth opened an entirely new format in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood last week. Amazon 4-Star is the latest move into physical retail on the part of the once online-only retailer, joining Amazon Books and Whole Foods. If this keeps up, some might start to wonder whether the retail apocalypse narrative may not be entirely accurate (indeed, sarcasm is my superpower).

Just about anything Amazon does tends to be of keen interest and can often send shockwaves throughout the sector. Not only is the company often several steps ahead of the competition, but it possesses the culture and the spending capacity to try a lot of stuff and keep everyone on their toes, desperately trying to figure out what’s next. So at this point it’s anyone’s guess where this particular experiment could lead over time. Yet the idea behind this new concept, along with what I have observed in visiting Amazon’s growing fleet of bookstores, so far leaves me unimpressed.

The organizing principle of 4-Star seems similar to Amazon’s foray into physical book stores: edit down a vastly larger online assortment to a core of mostly “greatest hits” (best sellers, customer favorites and new & trending), add some cool technology, and layer on some of that omni-channel stuff we’ve all heard so much about. At one level, this seems eminently sensible. If we already know what the customer buys online, surely translating that to a physical store is not only the “right” product strategy, but will lead to excellent productivity. Unfortunately this left-brain driven translation from the digital world to brick and mortar can often be underwhelming. There are a few reasons for this.

Shopping online just isn’t the same as shopping in a store.

While e-commerce works well when we are on a mission, it’s not as good when we are engaged in discovery. Most websites are optimized for speed and conversion. Conversely, a really good brick-and-mortar experience can deliver an entirely different customer journey by leveraging displays, product adjacencies, sight lines to neighboring departments, in-person sales assistance, etc. Category management strategies that ultimately determine a brand’s success play out in fundamentally different ways in a physical store. The ability to see, touch and/or try on products requires that assortment strategies be tailored to the unique dynamics of a store shopping experience.

 

Optimizing our way to boring.

Best sellers, by definition, are what some comparatively mass audience has already voted on; the peak of the bell curve, not the extremes. Any student of retail knows what great merchants have done for centuries to create competitive differentiation and maximize long-term productivity—namely they curate an interesting combination of what already works along with offering up interesting items that add to the overall experience, supported by loss leaders that help spur traffic and complementary items that drive up basket size. Heavy reliance on carrying only the most popular items inevitably causes a regression to the mean, which can easily make for rather boring and/or disjointed stores.

Be careful what you wish for.

Among the many dumb things Sears has done over the years, there were two whoppers that speak to my thesis that I was also “blessed” to witness firsthand. The first happened some 15 years ago when the financial types started to have more influence than the merchants and store operators. This led to an initiative to improve our sagging financial performance where the driving logic was essentially to keep the best sellers and eliminate (or shrink) the products with below average financial performance. While mathematically that sounds appealing, back in the real world it had the effect of lowering traffic and reducing conversion as it made our stores even less customer relevant, while also ignoring the key ingredients to building profitable market-baskets and creating customer lifetime value.

The other little oopsy daisy came a year or so later when we acquired Lands’ End and were rolling out its product to hundreds of Sears stores. The Lands’ End merchants insisted that virtually all of their direct-to-consumer best sellers had to be included in the new Sears’ retail assortment. When translated to carrying a basic depth and breadth of sizes and colors the resulting offering not only didn’t make much sense in the context of other products we carried, it led to inventory levels that had no chance of being productive. But hey, what’s a few hundred million dollars of markdowns among friends?

The lesson, of course, is that a remarkable retail experience should be built from the customer’s perspective, be competitively unique and be mindful of leveraging the unique characteristics that only a physical store can deliver. Digital can be hugely important in informing the brick and mortar execution, but should not overwhelm the overall experience design..

In Amazon’s case, more times than not, it plays by a different set of rules, some of which other retailers would be wise to emulate, others that the competition can only dream about. Amazon’s 4-Star may turn out to be this generation’s Service Merchandise. More likely, however, it is the first of many iterations and merely the tip of the iceberg in a broader and more aggressive move into physical retail.

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.  

On October 16th I’ll be in San Antonio delivering the opening keynote at X/SPECS . November 8th I’ll kick of the eRetailerSummit in Chicago.

For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. 

Bricks and Mobile · Embrace the blur · Retail

Plot twist: Amazon’s future may soon be tied to physical stores

It’s hard to underestimate the success and increasing power of Amazon. Their market cap hovers just under $1 trillion. Their growth rates have been astounding. By most estimates Amazon now accounts for nearly 50% of all US e-commerce revenues, roughly 5% of all retail and is significantly bigger than their next 10 competitors combined. One study has some 55% of all online product searches starting at Amazon.

Last week a report that Amazon is considering opening up to 3,000 of their Amazon Go cashierless convenience stores by 2021 grabbed a lot of attention, despite their only having opened up a fourth location a few days ago. Advocates enthusiastically tout the concept’s potential ability to revolutionize shopping. Skeptics challenge the high capital cost, the reliability of the underlying technology and whether the stores really offer enough added value to take on well established players like 7-Eleven. I think both miss the larger point.

From a strictly pragmatic view, Amazon is not bound by the limitations of most retailers. They have patient investors who are much more focused on growth than short-term profits. Amazon has a strong commitment to innovation and has enormous capacity to invest for the long-term. While the economics of these stores do look rather challenging, the costs are certain to come down. And besides, at least for now, Amazon is not held to the conventional ROI hurdles that their traditional competitors face.

Whether or not the world sees 10 or 10,000 Amazon Go stores 5 years from now, what’s important to understand is that for Amazon to sustain anything remotely close to current growth rates over the long-term–much less defend against Walmart, Alibaba and others–they MUST significantly expand their physical store presence. You don’t have to possess a highly functioning crystal ball to see that one key to unlocking major growth in certain large product categories will require a substantial brick & mortar footprint. There are a few reasons for this.

The physical limitations of direct-to-consumer. Until someone invents a teleportation device (Elon, you on it?), considerable retail volume is impulsive driven, demands immediate gratification, is dependent on proximity to point of sale or is just stupid expensive to absorb the “last mile” delivery cost. Maybe Amazon is willing to have a robot or drone deliver a Slurpee to you, but that doesn’t make it a scalable business model.

The difference between buying and shopping. Amazon is really good at the “buying” process, i.e., those occasions where the customer values a highly efficient transaction, great pricing, vast (or very specifically curated) assortment and the particular convenience of direct-to-consumer delivery. “Shopping” on the other hand is less search and more discovery. It leans heavily on experience, be that the ability to interact in-person with a sales associate, see first hand the quality and/or fit of the product, figure out a broader, more complicated solution (like assembling an outfit or visualizing a re-decorating project) or simply to enjoy the social or entertainment dimensions that a brick & mortar location uniquely provides. While a customer “shopping” journey may be digitally informed, a physical dimension is often essential to conversion and customer delight.

When we understand this, it’s no surprise that most “shopping” dominant segments not only have much lower e-commerce share (groceries, prepared foods, furniture, home improvement, luxury fashion, etc.) but many digitally-native vertical brands (Warby Parker, Bonobos, Indochino, Casper) are investing in physical locations to reach consumers for whom pure online shopping is an obstacle to becoming frequent and profitable customers. Given the barriers to meaningful growth without a physical presence, Amazon will either have to place big brick & mortar bets (through their own formats and/or through acquisitions like Whole Foods) or accept a material deceleration of their growth rates over time.

Brick & mortar can be more profitable. Online shopping has two big profit drivers: the cost of acquiring (and retaining) customers with solid lifetime value and the per order dynamics of fulfilling orders. If the marginal cost of acquiring customers is greater than the marginal value of the lifetime value of those newly acquired customers the business model is unsustainable. This may well be the achilles heel of brands like Blue Apron and Wayfair. As many once online only brands are learning, it’s often cheaper to acquire a customer in a physical location than to pay the marketing tollbooth operators (Google, Facebook and, increasingly, Amazon) to target and convert the best prospects.

High fulfillment costs can make many e-commerce orders profit proof. There often is not enough gross profit per order for lower-priced items to offset the cost of picking, packing and shipping. This only gets worse when items are prone to high rates of returns or exchanges. This also helps explain why many online only brands are now opening stores and seeing their marginal fulfillment costs as a percentage of sales drop markedly. Amazon, on the other hand, is continuing to see fulfillment costs go in the wrong direction, thereby setting up a major headwind to improving lackluster margins. To reach more customers, improve marginal profitability and offset certain advantages of current (Walmart, Best Buy) and important future competitors (Nordstrom, Home Depot, Walgreens, Nebraska Furniture Mart)  a significantly expanded brick & mortar presence is not nice to have, but essential.

While important, it is by no means urgent for Amazon to make an immediate big move. There is still plenty of solid growth within their core business model, including tapping into international markets. They have their hands full figuring out Amazon Go and Whole Foods. But in my mind, the long-term math leads to one inevitable conclusion. If Amazon wants to be the world’s largest retailer and significantly improve their margins a lot more physical locations are virtually certain to be a big part of that future.

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.  

Over the next few weeks I’ll be in Chicago (twice!), Dallas, Toronto and San Antonio delivering an updated version of my keynote “A Really Bad Time To Be Boring.” For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. 

Embrace the blur · Frictionless commerce · Retail

Physical stores: Assets or liabilities?

Of course the obvious answer is “well, that depends.”

As the intersection of economic feasibility and consumers’ willingness to adopt new technology hit a tipping point, for retailers that had invested big bucks in the brick-and-mortar distribution of music, books and games, the answer changed rather dramatically. Today’s retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense. But it wasn’t so long ago that the tsunami of digital disruption very quickly turned the physical store network of Barnes & Nobles, Blockbuster, Borders and others into massive liabilities. While we can argue about whether any of those brands laid to waste by Amazon, Netflix et al. could have responded better (spoiler alert:the answer is “yes”), it’s hard to imagine a scenario for any of them that would have included a fleet of stores remotely resembling what was in place a decade ago.

Most of the so-called digitally native vertical brands that are disrupting retail today—think Warby Parker, Bonobos, Indochino—started with the premise that not only were physical stores unnecessary, they would soon become totally irrelevant. In fact, about six years ago, I remember asking the founder of one of these brands when they were going to open stores. He looked at me with the earnest confidence of someone who had just received a huge check with a Sand Hill Road address on it and said, “we’re never opening stores.” Clearly, at the time, he saw stores as liabilities. He wasn’t alone. Everlane’s CEO made a similar, but more public statement.

So for several years scores of startups attracted massive amounts of venture capital on the belief that profitable businesses could scale rapidly without having to invest in physical retail outlets. A key part of the investment thesis was that stores were undesirable given the high cost of real estate, inventory investment and operational support. Clearly the underlying premise was that stores were inherent liabilities. So it’s more than a little bit ironic, dontcha’ think, that my friend’s company has since opened dozens of stores, that Everlane just opened its second location (with more to follow I’m sure) and that many other once staunchly online only players are now seeing most of their future growth coming from brick-and-mortar locations.

For legacy retailers, particularly as e-commerce took off, many acted as if much of their investment in physical real estate was turning into a liability—or at least an asset to be “rationalized” or optimized. This underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening. Too many stayed steeped in channel-centric, silo-ed thinking and action. They saw e-commerce as a separate channel, with its own P&L. Because of this, they underinvested (or went way too slowly) because they couldn’t see their way clear to making the channel profitable. Before long they got the worst of both worlds: They found themselves not participating in the upside growth of online shopping while losing physical store sales to Amazon or traditional retailers that were pursuing a robust “omni-channel” strategy.

To be sure, the overbuilding of commercial real estate was going to lead to a shakeout at some point. Digital shopping growth enables many retailers to do the same (or more) business with fewer locations or smaller footprints. Yet I would argue that most of the retailers that find themselves with too many stores (or stores that are way over-spaced) rarely have a fundamental real estate problem—they have a brand problem. The retailers that consistently deliver a remarkable retail experience, regardless of channel, are closing few if any stores. In fact, brands as diverse as Apple, Lululemon, Ulta—and dozens of others—have strong brick-and-mortar growth plans.

What sets most of these winning retailers apart is that they deeply understand the unique role of a physical shopping experience in a customer’s journey and act accordingly. They know that digital drives physical and vice versa. They started breaking down the silos in their organizations years ago—or never set them up in the first place. They accept that talking about e-commerce and brick and mortar is mostly a distinction without a difference and know that it’s all just commerce. And they embrace the blur that shopping has become. They see their stores as assets. Different and evolving assets certainly, but assets all the same.

On the heels of recent strong retail earning reports (and an increase in store openings) some are starting to pivot from the narrative that physical retail is dying to one that is closer to all is now well. Both lack nuance. We can chalk up some positive momentum to the fact that a rising economic tide tends to lift all ships. We can peg some of the ebullience to Wall Street waking up to facts that were plain to see for quite some time.

What is most important over the longer-term, however, is to understand the root causes of why and where physical retail works and why and where it doesn’t. Whether it’s Casper, Glossier, Warby Parker, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, Sephora or many others, the formula is pretty much the same. Deeply understand the customer journey, and whether it’s a digital channel or physical channel, root out the friction and amplify the most relevant and memorable aspects of the customer experience.

When we do this we see the unique role a physical presence can (and often should) play in delivering something remarkable. The answer will be different depending on a brand’s customer focus and value proposition. But armed with this understanding we can design the business model (and ultimately the physical retail strategy) knowing that the channels complement each other and the desire is to harmonize them. At this point the question is not whether stores are an asset or a liability, it’s which aspects of brick and mortar’s unique advantages to lean into and leverage.

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.  

Over the next few weeks I’ll be in Dallas, Austin, Chicago, Toronto and San Antonio delivering an updated version of my keynote “A Really Bad Time To Be Boring.” For more info on my speaking and workshops go here.

Customer Growth Strategy · Digital Disruption · Retail

Here’s what investors are missing about the Sears-Amazon partnership

Shares of Sears Holdings spiked last week on news that the beleaguered retailer had expanded its tire partnership with Amazon. Once again, the optimism — or is it outright gullibility? — of some investors astonishes me.

Over four years ago, I wrote (admittedly more than a little bit provocatively) that Sears investors would do far better with a liquidation of the company than with a perpetuation of the charade that there was any hope for a real turnaround. More recently, I opined on the 2017 Amazon-Kenmore deal, as well as the initial Amazon-Sears tire partnership announced in May. My view was that these deals do little, if anything, to stave off the inevitable for Sears. Moreover, I believe they are ultimately of greater value to Amazon.

For what it’s worth, when I wrote (and appeared on CNBC) with my “liquidate ASAP” thesis, Sears’ stock was in the low $40s. When I posted the Kenmore piece, Sears’ shares were down to about $9. My first tire article was written about three months ago when the shares had a bit of an inexplicable run-up, hitting nearly $4. On the day of the announcement SHLD was up 12%, closing at $1.24. Draw your own conclusions, but certainly don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

While on one level I appreciate the audacity of hope displayed by certain eager investors, I believe those who display ebullience in the face of these sort of deals are missing three essential things.

Dead brand walking. The overwhelming issue is that there is no plausible scenario in which Sears remains a viable national retailer. In fact, with Sears having closed hundreds of stores, with many more to follow after the holidays (if not sooner), one could argue it is no longer a real force on the national stage today. The only thing that keeps Sears afloat is Eddie Lampert and ESL’s willingness to fund a seemingly never-ending stream of massive operating losses. The idea that Sears can shrink to prosperity is ridiculous. For all intents and purposes, they are winding down the business. The particular relevance to the Amazon-Sears tire deal is that the points of distribution will continue to contract, perhaps dramatically.

Hardly moves the dial. It’s hard to see material profit contribution from this deal. First, tire installation is tiny in the scheme of Sears’ overall business. This particular offering is solely focused on customers who are willing to buy their tires online and have them shipped to a nearby Sears store so that, a couple of days later, they can have them installed. So to be meaningfully relevant to customers, first the customer has to be willing to wait. Given that a lot of the tire-replacement market is driven by an emergency (i.e., a flat tire) a big chunk of the available market is not addressable. Second, even if waiting isn’t a big deal, there are still likely to be many local competing outlets, many of which are going to be more conveniently located (particularly as Sears continues to shutter locations) and have the tire in stock, ready to install right away. Third, Sears actually stocks a lot of tires, so if you are willing to have your tires installed at Sears, it makes more sense for most people to take a step out of the process and just see if Sears has the tire in stock. In many cases it will. This is a long way of saying that the market opportunity seems quite small. When you further factor in the lower margin given Amazon’s cut, it’s hard to come up with a scenario where this moves the dial in any profound way.

Amazon’s Trojan Horse. Sears is desperate. Amazon is patient, smart and willing to try lots of stuff. Sears has few arrows left in its quiver. Amazon can use this partnership to explore the convergence between digital and physical in a large category, acquire some new customers and continue to probe potential private brand opportunities with DieHard and other Sears brands. Sears need to show Wall Street it still has some life in it. Amazon needs to learn how to get deeper into under-penetrated categories (auto and installed services) to help sustain a robust growth story. For Sears, every little bit seems to count. For Amazon, this is a rounding error even if it turns out to be a disaster. So who’s likely to be getting the better deal?

To be sure, as is true with the potential sale of Kenmore, Sears has very few decent options left. So there is nothing inherently wrong at this point in the company’s decidedly ragged history to executing this particular transaction. But the idea that this materially improves the value of the Sears brand seems just plain silly to me.

See you on the other side of $1.

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.  

Retail · The Amazon Effect · Voice commerce

Sorry, Alexa: Voice shopping is still mostly hype

Voice-activated shopping—and Amazon’s anticipated dominance of the platform via Alexa-enabled devices—has been touted as one of the next big things in retail. In fact, a simple Google search with any combination of the relevant keywords reveals a large number of bold predictions about the revolutionary nature of the technology. Go ahead and give it a try. I’ll wait.

So, given the large number of pundits, publications and consultancies reveling in the future thrill of a world dominated by voice-driven shopping, should we believe the hype? Well, as it turns out, maybe not so much. At least not yet.

In a report released last week by The Information, it appears that only about 2% of Alexa owners have ever used the device for shopping. Even more startling is the finding that of those that had bought via voice, a mere 10% did so again. As you probably know, repeat purchase rates are often a good indication of customer delight and can provide valuable insight into future sales momentum. So, if true, this doesn’t bode well for rapid adoption.

To be fair, a study by Narvar suggests higher adoption rates and considerable customer interest. Amazon has also disputed the numbers in the report, responding that “millions of customers use Alexa to shop.” Of course, when you do the math, given the installed base of Alexa devices, that’s not definitive proof that purchase incidence is a whole lot greater than 2%. Whether the actual data reveals a considerably different picture or Amazon is simply obfuscating a disappointing outlook is anyone’s guess. And just because momentum might be relatively slow right now doesn’t mean the rate won’t pick up considerably as the technology improves and consumers become more familiar. But I’d be cautious. Here’s why.

First, there is an aspect of the technology that is solving a problem I’m guessing relatively few customers have. Shopping on Amazon (and most other sites) via a mobile device, laptop or desktop is pretty easy, fast and well optimized. At the margin, in some instances, Alexa can save a little time and solve an immediate need. But it’s not like it’s a step function in improved convenience.

Second, voice-activated commerce, at least as it’s currently delivered, can involve significant experiential comprises. While I have not seen specific data, my own personal and industry experience suggests that visual cues are central to many purchases, and the ability to see options—and navigate through them—is highly useful for many purchase occasions. In these situations “regular” online shopping is clearly superior.

Third, as Scott Galloway from New York University and L2 humorously illuminated, Alexa does not always present most of the available product options and, shockingly, might have a bit of a bias towards Amazon’s own private brands. While it would take a large study to really understand how prevalent this pattern is, it strikes me that voice-activated shopping can work quite well when you know exactly what you want and aren’t especially open to considering alternatives. In all the other situations (which might well be the vast majority), it’s far from clear it’s meeting consumers’ needs in a highly relevant, compelling and unbiased manner.

Fourth is the trust factor, which extends beyond voice-activated commerce in particular to the general adoption and use of Alexa and similar devices. Some of the things I’ve mentioned already speak to the trust of shoppers getting the experiential outcome they desire. The other aspect is whether some of the suspicions about how these devices invade privacy get adequately addressed over time. Stories like the one about a woman’s conversation being recorded by Alexa and then being sent to a random contact don’t exactly inspire confidence. Whether these concerns are all that profound and whether a significant number of customers remain cautious about using such devices remains to be seen. Certainly the technology will continue to evolve, if only because of Amazon and Google’s massive commitment to their adoption.

As I don’t possess a working crystal ball, I’m reluctant to predict that voice-activated commerce won’t someday be retail’s next big thing. Right now, however, it seems much more of a cool technology still in search of addressing a real customer need at scale.

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.  

e-commerce · Retail

Amazon Prime Day: Don’t fall for the hype

It would be hard to calculate the crazy amount of media and analyst time spent anticipating, covering and then trying to dissect the implications of this year’s Amazon Prime Day event. In fact, each year it seems like the breathless coverage moves closer and closer to the media frenzy that surrounds Black Friday. It’s mostly a complete waste of time.

Here’s the thing: Going into this year’s Prime Day, there were a few outcomes we could easily predict. First, it was going to be a record day. Second, knowing virtually nothing, you could reasonably guess that the year-over-year growth was going to be materially higher than the general trajectory Amazon has been on this year. Why? Well that’s what happened each of the last several years, and that’s what almost always happens when any brand intensifies promotions around a particular event. Third, Amazon was going to distort efforts toward the strategic areas it’s focused on building (i.e., voice-activated commerce, its private brands and generally anything that reinforces why everyone on the planet should be a Prime member). Why? C’mon, you can answer that question for yourself. Fourth, major competitors were going to dial up their efforts to protect marketshare. Why? Because that’s what retailers always do, whether it’s rational or not.

The last major thing we knew going into Prime Day is that, post-event, Amazon was not going to share anything especially useful or specific about its actual category or financial performance.

And, yes, that’s precisely what happened. Apparently my crystal ball remains in good working order.

So here we are looking back at the event, reading, watching or listening to folks like me — and hopefully some real journalists from time to time — trying to make sense of it all, which leaves me inclined to ask three questions. First, did we learn anything substantive that we didn’t already know beforehand? Second, more specifically, does any of the information gleaned from Prime Day help us make a more accurate prediction about what’s next? Third, if you work at a retailer (or supplier), now that are you armed with any incremental and actionable knowledge gained, are you going to do anything different in the future?

Now here’s where I need to briefly make the comparison to Black Friday. Since I’ve worked in retail, which is now more than 25 years, Black Friday has become a bigger and bigger deal, both in terms of the media attention it garners and the time and energy most retailers put against it. And the two things that have become clear over time is that most of what happens on Black Friday is completely predictable in advance and that actual performance on Black Friday is a poor indicator of how the industry will do that overall holiday season and how any given retailer’s results will turn out. In other words, it’s mostly much ado about nothing.

So with regard to my first two questions, I’m struck by how Prime Day is becoming more and more like Black Friday — and, for that matter, the unfortunately named Cyber Monday. Sure, they will be huge volume days. Sure, they will rack up bigger numbers than last year. But did we really learn anything that we didn’t already know, other than it turns out Amazon’s website also crashes from time to time?

Which brings me to a follow-on to the third question I posed: As a retail leader (or someone who provides services to the industry), regardless of whether you actually gained any new knowledge and insight this week, what is it you are actually doing to fight and win in the age of Amazon?

From where I sit, many of us (myself included) spend way too much time watching things happen, rehashing things we already know and staying stuck in judgement and critique.

Don’t fall for the hype. Don’t get sucked into the media vortex. It may feel like it’s useful to watch the talking heads on CNBC. You might feel like you are learning something poring over various articles and newsletters. But it’s a distraction and a trap. Most of us already know what we need to do.

The hard part isn’t the analysis. The hard part is the doing.

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.  

On October 3 I’ll be doing a keynote at the ICSC Canadian Convention in Toronto. Hope to see you there.

A really bad time to be boring · Innovation · Retail

Will Macy’s ignite a new era of legacy retailer innovation?

The moderate department store sector has been struggling for some two decades; first losing share to category killers and discount mass merchants, then to off-price retailers and now, increasingly, to Amazon. Since 2008, department stores’ share of total retail has sunk from 2.8% to about 1.7%. Over 1,000 stores have been shuttered during the past few years with more sure to follow. J.C. Penney and Sears have seen their market values collapse, while Kohl’s, Dillard’s and Macy’s have significantly underperformed the market.

Recently, however, a certain ebullience has returned to the sector as financial performance has improved. Some observers now see a rebirth, while others are a bit more skeptical. It may well turn out that the past few months’ gains are more dead cat bounce than renaissance. Yet Macy’s has garnered considerable attention by stepping up its growth efforts under CEO Jeff Gennette. The first big step was announcing its Growth 50 Strategy earlier this year. Then, in just the past six weeks, two significant deals were announced. In early May, the company acquired Story, the Manhattan-based concept store, and made its founder Rachel Shechtman Macy’s new “chief brand experience officer.” And then just over a week ago Macy’s entered into a strategic alliance with b8ta, the experiential retailer and technology platform.

It remains to be seen whether these initiatives help relieve the epidemic of boring that struck Macy’s and its brethren years ago. Materially and fundamentally altering Macy’s stuck in the middle trajectory will take more than a couple of deals that look to affect a small percentage of its total business. The operational, experiential and product changes that are part of Growth 50 appear solid, but are far more evolutionary than revolutionary. And all of this comes against a backdrop of increasing competition from off-price retailers that are opening substantial number of stores (and aren’t yet close to mastering digital commerce), along with Amazon’s growing push into fashion.

Macy’s improved financial performance has to be put in the context of the broader market (Macy’s is barely keeping pace) and these innovation moves must be put in the context of their potential materiality (they aren’t likely to be). Still, Macy’s is to be applauded for its willingness to act and to embrace what I call a “culture of experimentation.” Given that the sector Macy’s competes in is virtually certain to keep shrinking, the only way for Macy’s to drive consistent, material profitable growth will be for them to steal significant market share. That will take more than incremental improvements or a random set of experiential pilots. These moves seem like a good, albeit limited, start.

While it’s easy to blame Amazon (and others) for the troubles that have befallen so many legacy retailers, the reality is that most of the wounds are self-inflicted. Too many of these retailers, including Macy’s, watched the last 15 or 20 years happen to them. They seemed to be believe that they could cost cut their way to prosperity and that mere tweaks to their product offering and customer experience would move the dial. Now, as many of them inch closer to the precipice, a few are acting—some rather more boldly than others.

The fact is they have no choice. The middle is collapsing under the weight of boring product, boring marketing and boring experiences. And you could not have picked a worse time to be boring. The only way out is to be dramatically more customer-relevant and to deliver a remarkable experience at scale. Being digital-first, offering a seamless customer experience, along with all the other buzzwords the pundit class likes to throw around (myself included) are fast becoming table-stakes. Necessary, but far from sufficient.

Traditional retailers are often pretty good at following others’ leads. I suspect that as Macy’s makes additional moves, many will be emulated by competitors. Yet the idea that legacy retailers will finally wake up to the need to be fundamentally more innovative seems unlikely. They mostly watched when it was clear that e-commerce was going to revolutionize shopping. They mostly stuck to channel-centric thinking and silo-ed behavior when it became clear that the customer was the channel. They mostly remained rooted in one-size-fits-all marketing strategies when it was obvious that we needed to treat different customers differently. And they continue to rely on store closings as a silver bullet, when the real problem is operating a brand that is not big enough for the stores they have.

Adding to my dire and admittedly cynical outlook is that many of the retailers that need to innovate the most still have no clue how to do it and, even if they did, lack the cash flow to make it happen. Sadly, for many, this will end badly.

For them, as the saying goes, the biggest problem is that they think they have time.

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 more on my speaking and workshops go here.

Being Remarkable · Reimagining Retail · Retail

Is this the beginning of a department store renaissance? Eh, not so much.

Nearly two weeks ago Macy’s beat quarterly sales and earnings expectations and many on Wall Street promptly lost their mind. Same story with Dillard’s. Then Kohl’s followed up with a similarly surprising upside report that led some to conclude that maybe, just maybe, the long-beleaguered department store sector might be seeing a resurgence or—dare we say it out loud?—the beginning of a renaissance.

Alas, this rising ebullience seems far more driven by a mix of hope, misunderstanding and a heaping side order of denial than any compelling evidence that the tide is turning in any meaningful or sustainable way. Once again we are in real danger of confusing better with good.

To be sure, both Macy’s and Kohl’s sales and profits were much improved over last year. Yet their performance must be viewed from the perspective of both short-term factors and longer-term realities. On the clearly positive side there is solid evidence that both struggling retailers are executing better. In Macy’s case, inventory looks to be well managed (yielding fewer markdowns) and efforts to capture cost efficiencies appear to be paying dividends. A few targeted strategic initiatives, including Kohl’s partnership with Amazon, seem to be driving some incremental business.

With a bit more context, however, these results aren’t really all that stellar. And they most definitely are not yet strong indicators of any substantive turnaround. Notably, both retailers’ sales benefitted significantly from the move of a major promotional event into the quarter. Without this shift, same-store sales would have increased only about 1.7% at Macy’s, and Kohl’s would have been more or less flat (not that this metric is all that useful anymore anyway). That is neither keeping up with inflation nor maintaining pace with the overall growth of the broader categories in which they compete. The optimist might see losing market share at a slightly slower rate as a win. The realist opines that there is a lot more work to do to go from decidedly lackluster to objectively good.

The other thing to bear in mind is that J.C. Penney and Sears (and now Bon-Ton) have been leaking volume through store closings and comparable store sales declines. It’s hard to imagine that Macy’s and Kohl’s have not benefitted materially from this dynamic. While J.C. Penney’s future is increasingly uncertain, any upside from Bon-Ton will be short-lived. Sears looks to be the gift that keeps giving, though likely for only a few quarters more as I expect that Sears will close substantially all of its full-line stores within the next year. While this creates one-time market share gaining opportunities and fixed cost leverage, once the dust settles two factors will come into sharper relief.

The first is the contributions from a strong economy. Recent macro-economic factors have been generally positive for the product categories in which Macy’s and Kohl’s compete. Whether there will continue to be some wind beneath the sails of U.S. retail more broadly—and for the moderate-priced apparel, accessories and home categories in particular—remains to be seen. Clearly my crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s—and maybe worse. But my best guess is that both the economy and the jump ball for market share occasioned by department store consolidation peaks within the next few quarters.

The second factor that looms large seems to be the one Wall Street forgets. The moderate department store sector has been in decline for a long, long time. Some of this has to do with evolving customer trends. Some with stagnant income growth. Some with the rise of superior competing business models: initially category killers, then off-price and dollar stores and now, increasingly, Amazon. And some with more than a fair share of self-inflicted wounds. Regardless, the entire moderate sector, to varying degrees, is stuck in the vast, undifferentiated and boring middle. A somewhat better version of mediocre may the first step on an eventual path to greatness, but it may be just that: a first step.

Lift the veil from a quarter or two of slightly above average performance and the drivers of broader share losses (and related widespread shuttering of stores) continue unabated. Off-price and dollar stores, which in recent years have accounted for the biggest drain on Macy’s, Kohl’s et al., are opening up hundreds of new stores at the same time they are starting to turn up their digital game. Amazon is becoming a bigger factor everyday—and it has yet to make a big push into physical stores. Even if any of the leading department stores miraculously became more innovative and customer relevant they would continue to face significant headwinds. Bottom line: show me someone who believes that a transformation of mid-priced department stores is possible in the foreseeable future and you’ve probably clued me into who has been providing Eddie Lampert with his strategic consulting advice.

As the middle continues to collapse, it is now completely a market-share game. The near-term good news is that Macy’s and Kohl’s competition has made it relatively easy to grab some share. The near-term good news is that a generally healthy economy tends to raise the tide for all. The near-term good news is that Macy’s and Kohl’s operating discipline allows them to convert relatively small sales increases into nice incremental profit opportunities.

The bad news is neither one of them goes from incrementally better to demonstrably good until they make much more substantive and fundamental strategic changes that move them from mostly boring to truly remarkable. Neither brand has spelled out what that looks like in any compelling fashion. And once designed, getting there from here is no small task. Until then, it is way too early to declare victory.

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.  

On June 15 I will be doing a keynote at The Shopper Insights & Retail Activation Conference in Chicago. Contact me for a special discount. For more on my speaking and workshops go here.

e-commerce · Retail · The Amazon Effect

Is Amazon finally getting serious about retail profitability?

There seems little doubt that Amazon.com AMZN -0.27% is crushing it and Macy’s is flailing. So who has the best profitability? Well, it’s not even close.

Macy’s operating margin is just over 6%. In recently reporting what was widely seen as a blowout quarter, Amazon is just now approaching a whopping 2% in its non-Amazon Web Services business. By just about any comparison, in most categories, Amazon’s margin performance appears to be anywhere from lousy to lackluster, despite its vast capabilities and more than 20 years of working hard at most of it.

One particularly disturbing trend is rising shipping and fulfillment costs. With Amazon’s massive scale, you might think this would be a growing source of profit leverage. You’d be wrong. Logistics costs continue to rise faster than revenues.

This is not terribly surprising. The structure of Amazon’s Prime program (which recently surpassed 100 million members) essentially encourages customers to overuse “free” shipping for frequent small orders—which generally have low (or non-existent) profits. Amazon also continues to aggressively push same-day delivery, which, at current scale, has terrible marginal economics.

Amazon’s growing success in apparel may be great for the top line, but returns and exchanges tend to be much higher than average, pushing supply chain costs further in the wrong direction.

Before anyone quibbles with my high-level analysis, I will state that I know the company has been making substantial investments for the long term. I realize that there are many instances where Amazon could make more money but it continues to prioritize market share gains over decent (or any) near-term returns. And I understand that Wall Street clearly values growth over profits. Yet against this backdrop, it does seem as if there is a subtle shift in focus.

Given the significant headwinds from growing logistic costs, the fact that profits improved dramatically suggests that both product margins and non-logistics operating costs are starting to be leveraged in more powerful ways. Moreover, in what some see as a risky move—but I see fundamentally as an acknowledgement of customer loyalty, pricing power and a growing need to offset spiraling delivery costs—Amazon is raising the price of Prime membership by $20. Despite customer protestations, I am willing to bet that Amazon comes out way ahead on this move.

Another sign of Amazon’s seriousness toward pursuing profitability is its growing investment in private brands. Amazon already has more than 70 proprietary brands, and more are sure to follow. Done right, increasing the mix of its own brands can further drive market share gains by offering strong additional value to its customers and drive gross margins higher. Expect to hear more about the significant contributions these new brands are making within the next few quarters.

When it comes to buying versus shopping, Amazon holds more and more of the cards. More than 50% of all online product searches start at Amazon. Amazon is fast closing in on owning nearly 50% of the U.S. e-commerce market and is racking up significant share in many global markets. Prime membership tends to lock consumers into a virtuous shopping cycle where, at the margin, Amazon becomes the default choice for a growing basket of stuff. As Amazon gets deeper into physical stores (organically or through another major acquisition), even the “shopping” side starts to come more seriously into view—much of which should actually help expand margins. And personally I think Amazon has yet to take anywhere close to full advantage of its powerful customer data and insight assets.

Given the complexity of its operations—and the overlapping cycle of major investments in the next wave of growth—it’s often hard to discern the underlying dynamics of Amazon’s retail operations in any given quarter. Yet a few things seem clear.

First, Amazon likely never gets to decent operating margins without addressing the supply chain cost issue. Second, private brands will soon become a more important part of the story. Third, in the not too distant future, a more aggressive brick-and-mortar strategy is likely needed to continue to drive outsized growth. Lastly, Amazon still has a lot of levers to pull to leverage its data and take advantage of its growing customer loyalty. For the most part, improved profitability can likely come at a time and date of Amazon’s own choosing.

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.  

On May 17 I will be keynoting Kibo’s 2018 Summit in Nashville, followed the next week by Retail at Google 2018 in Dublin.

A really bad time to be boring · Reinventing Retail · Retail

Retail 2018: Now Comes The Real Reckoning

There is some dispute over whether more stores opened during 2017 than were closed. IHL says yes. Fung Retail Tech says no. Mostly I say “who cares”?

Either way, it’s clear that the retail landscape is changing rapidly, causing some retailers to prune their store counts, shutter locations en masse or liquidate entirely. What’s unfortunate–and not the least bit useful–is the tendency to declare that physical retail is dying and that we are going through some sort of “retail apocalypse.” The facts clearly do not support this notion. Similarly devoid of substance and nuance is the proclamation that e-commerce is eating the world and that virtually all “traditional” retailers are falling victim to the “Amazon Effect.”

What IS occurring at the macro-level is three-fold. First, the irrational expansion of retail space during the past two decades is finally correcting itself. Second, as retailers better understand the physical requirements to support a world where online is a significant and growing sales channel, many are optimizing their footprints to better align space with demand. Third, and far more important, is that retail brands that failed to innovate and create a meaningfully relevant and remarkable value proposition are rapidly going the way of the horse-drawn carriage.

A look at either the IHL or the FRT data reveals precisely the same picture. Lots of physical stores are being opened on the part of brands that have a winning formula, both in the value sector (think TJX, Aldi, Costco, Dollar General) and at the other end of the spectrum (think Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta). Overwhelmingly, the retailers that are closing large number of stores are those that have operated in the vast undifferentiated middle. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s death in the middle.

Physical retail is not dead. Boring retail is.

I believe the majority of over-capacity from excessive building has now been dealt with (or will be as retailers do typical post-holiday store closings). I believe most sophisticated retailers have a clear understanding of the go-forward physical requirements to best support a harmonized (what some prefer to call “omni-channel”) strategy.  They get the critical role that physical stores play in supporting the online business and vice versa. This implies that retailers that have fundamentally sound value propositions won’t be closing very many stores this year. And the best positioned brands will defy the bogus retail apocalypse narrative and continue opening stores–in some cases large numbers of them.

The flip side is that retailers with unremarkable concepts will continue their march toward oblivion. Some will hang around longer than they should–I’m looking at you Sears–because they have assets to sell off to raise cash, all the while delaying the inevitable. Store closings are a panacea, not a fix.

Similarly, many pure-play online brands with unsustainable economics will either figure out a viable bricks & clicks strategy (e.g. Warby Parker), get acquired by the digitally-native brand bail out fund known as Walmart or go ‘buh ‘bye having burned through both their cash and all the greater fools.

For me, last year was a large scale, inevitable pruning away of the brush. Now in 2018, with the obvious losers having been closed in 2017, we get to see far more clearly the brands that truly have longevity, be they omni-channel” or pure-plays.

Now we get to witness the real reckoning.

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.