Sears: The one thing that could have saved them

As much fun as it is to call out Eddie Lampert on his misguided, selfish and seemingly delusional decade-plus leadership of Sears Holdings, when the world’s slowest liquidation sale is ultimately complete–I’m guessing, for all intents and purposes, by this time next year–we should acknowledge that Sears fate was probably sealed well over 20 years ago, when Crazy Eddie was not even involved.

First a bit of context. I worked at Sears from 1991-2003 and my last job was head of strategy reporting to then CEO Alan Lacy. I also led the Lands’ End acquisition integration team. During my tenure, in addition to various operating and marketing assignments, I was either the #1 or # 2 strategy guy when we implemented the “Softer Side of Sears”, created and piloted The Great Indoors and Sears Grand concepts and launched or accelerated the growth of free-standing Sears Appliance and Sears Hardware stores. I worked on or led teams that evaluated the acquisition of Kmart, Lowes, Best Buy, Circuit City–and Builder’s Square and Eagle Hardware when they were still around. We also seriously assessed turning all Sears mall locations into home only stores (among other concepts) and, in 2003, analyzed selling Kenmore and Craftsman to Home Depot or Lowes. So it’s safe to say I have more than a passing knowledge of how Sears evolved (or more accurately devolved) over an extended period of time.

With the benefit of that experience (and a good amount of hindsight) my conclusion is this: the only thing that would have given Sears a chance to thrive–not merely survive–was to have either launched their own home improvement warehouse concept or to have acquired Home Depot or Lowes’s at a time when they were realistically affordable–and that’s probably prior to 1995.

The reasons are simple. First, well before Amazon was even a thing it was becoming abundantly clear that the moderate department store space was structurally challenged and that Sears weird mix of hardlines and apparel was not a winning formula. Even if the soft home and apparel business got significantly better that was neither a particularly good nor a sustainable outcome. Second, far and away what Sears had that WAS relevant, remarkable and highly profitable were its appliances and home improvement categories. Importantly, Sears also had several leading market share brands- Kenmore, Craftsman and Diehard–that were only available at Sears.

Yet by the early 90’s it was becoming increasingly clear that Home Depot and Lowes were transforming those categories by winning on more convenient locations, better pricing and the ability to serve a broader set of purchase occasions. As they rolled out their stores Sears share (and profits) in those markets dropped precipitously. And it was also clear–or should have been–that Sears could not mitigate those competitive advantages through its mall-based locations.

So what Sears missed (or more accurately, was unwilling to act on) was that the only way to meaningfully counteract the inevitability of the dominance of the home improvement warehouse (and preserve or grow the value inherent in their proprietary brands and strong customer relationships) was to become a leader in that format. Instead, Sears spent the past 25 years wringing out costs (when it mostly had a revenue problem), vainly trying to grow its off-the-mall presence with too few (and way too mediocre) formats, investing in cool digital stuff while starving their physical stores to the point of irrelevance and embarrassment and, apparently, hoping that the Kardashians could somehow turn around an apparel business that has struggled for more than a decade to consistently get to a 30% gross margin and $100/sf in many stores (or what I like to call the “lame brand instead of name brand” strategy).

To be sure, one can argue that there were any number of things Sears could have done over the past 25 years to have meaningfully altered its course. Certainly had Sears not run its catalog into the ground they would not only have had more money to invest in the core business but would have been beautifully positioned to benefit from the dramatic rise in direct-to-consumer commerce. Without a doubt, virtually all of the new formats that were rolled out could have been much better executed. And some of the fantastic consumer interest created by the Softer Side of Sears campaign was not fulfilled by store and merchandising execution. The Lands’ End deal, while strategically sound and potentially transformative, was botched by a too aggressive store-rollout and mishandled marketing. And on and on.

Of course, we will never know for sure. But ultimately, from where I sit, it would all probably just have been lipstick on the pig.

In my view the real fault lies at the leadership all those many years ago that was too busy diversifying Sears into insurance, real estate and mutual funds, while taking their eye off of the customer and the core business and, thereby, letting Home Depot and Lowes (and to a lesser degree Best Buy) gain an insurmountable lead. And that’s a real shame, not to mention a heartbreaking disservice to all those men and women who worked so hard to make Sears a retail icon.

Dead brand walking.

 

 

Slow motion crises

In the world of retail it’s pretty rare that brands get into trouble over night–much less over a matter of months or even years.

What will turn out to be the deathblow for Sears started with Walmart in the 1980’s, and was followed by Home Depot, Lowes and Best Buy chipping away at Sears core tools and appliance business as these insurgents opened new stores and improved their offerings over many, many years.

The ability to deliver books, music and other forms of entertainment digitally (or shipped directly to the consumer) just didn’t pop up one day. Blockbuster, Borders and Barnes & Noble had years to respond. They just didn’t in any especially powerful way.

Starbucks initiated its rapid store growth more than 20 years ago. And the broader reinvention of the retail coffee business by local independents, along with forays by Keurig, Nespresso and others, is hardly a recent phenomenon. Yet it’s hard to point to anything particularly innovative that industry leaders Folger’s and Maxwell House have done during this extended period, despite their brands continuing to lose sales and relevance.

As Macy’s, JC Penney, Dillards and other traditional department store players garner lots of negative press about their current struggles, we should remember that the department store sector has lost relative market share for more than two decades. Their problems are not simply a function of the growth of e-commerce. And even if they were, the best in class players were investing heavily in e-commerce–think Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom–more than 15 years ago.

Crises created by unforeseen events are one thing. Slow motion crises only reveal that we took our eyes off the ball, were too afraid to act or both.

The way to avoid a retail slow motion crisis is as follows:

  • Understand where customer value is being created on a go forward basis
  • Dissect your most valuable customer segments to understand where your brand is vulnerable and where you have potential leverage
  • Figure out where you can compete by modifying your core business and where you need to innovate outside of your core
  • Don’t be afraid to compete with yourself
  • Consider acquistions as way to build new capabilities quickly
  • Embrace a culture of experimentation
  • Spend more time doing, than studying.

 

 

 

 

The bullet’s already been fired 

I’m fascinated by our capacity to get stuck, the many ways we craft a narrative in a vain attempt to avoid change, the stories we buy into as we hope to keep above the fray. Far too often, the power of denial seems endemic to individuals and organizations alike.

Go back to the 80’s and 90’s and ponder how a slew of successful retailers mostly did nothing while Walmart, Home Depot, Best Buy–and a host of innovative discount mass merchandisers and category killers–moved across the country opening new stores and evolving their concepts to completely redefine industry segments. Somehow it took many years for the old regime to realize what was going on and how much market share was being shed. For many, any acceptance and action came far too late (RIP, Caldor, Montgomery Ward, et al).

Witness how digital delivery of books, music and other forms of entertainment came into prominence while Blockbuster, Borders and Barnes & Noble spent years mostly doing nothing of any consequence. Two of them are now gone and one is holding on for dear life.

Starbucks revolution of the coffee business hardly occurred overnight. But if you were the brand manager of Folger’s or Maxwell House you apparently were caught unawares.

Consider how consumer behavior has been shifting strongly toward online shopping and the utilization of shopping data through digital channels for well over a decade. Yet many companies are seemingly just now waking up to this reality. And by the way, Amazon didn’t just spring out of nowhere. They will celebrate their 22nd anniversary this summer.

And lastly, examine how the elite players of the luxury industry have largely resisted embracing e-commerce–and most things digital–believing that somehow they were immune to the inexorable forces of consumer desires and preferences. Apparently they failed to notice, as just one example, Neiman Marcus’ rise to having 30% of their sales come from online and more than 60% of physical store sales now being influenced by digital channels.

More often than we care to admit, the bullet’s been fired, it just hasn’t hit us yet.

The good news is that while the pace of change is increasing in retail, we have a lot more time to react than we do in a gunfight.

The bad news is that the impact can be just as deadly if we are not prepared.

 

 

Small is the new interesting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

back-to-the-1970s-lets-get-small

The alternative reality of retail “sales improvement”

According to many, including management, sales at JC Penney improved in the just reported quarter. They were down 12%.

Sales improved at Best Buy too, declining 0.4%.

Of course what they really mean is that the negative trend improved. Things are bad. Just not quite as much as last time.

But improvement in the sense of growing market share, being more relevant to consumers, having more money to pay the bills–you know that sort of trivial stuff–the cold splash of reality is that it’s still not happening.

So if you are on a plane hurtling toward the earth, you might take some comfort in learning that the dive is no longer so steep. More time to pray, more time to reflect on your life and more time for the pilot (hopefully!) to pull out before you smash into the ground.

If you are trying to lose weight you might be somewhat happier that this week you “only” gained two pounds, rather than last week’s five. But no matter what you tell yourself, you are still further away from your goal.

Or if your 401K was down 25% last year and you are only down 12% this year, you might feel just a bit less badly about your needing to work until you’re 80  (until you realize that it will take a 47% gain just to get back to even–which, coincidentally, is the same increase that Penney’s need to get back to the start of the Ron Johnson era).

Don’t get me wrong, obviously when a trend has been relentlessly negative, an improvement in that decline sure beats the alternative. And a less steep descent provides the promise of a potential ascent.

Just don’t confuse better with good.

And don’t forget as long as you are growing more slowly than your best competitor, you are still losing ground.

Your boat may not be drifting as badly, but you are still miles from the shore.

 

 

Blaming the hole

None of the top 10 retail profit leaders in 1970 remain on the list today, and only half are still around at all.

Leading brands like Best Buy and Barnes & Noble, that just a few years ago were building stores as fast as good sites could be found, are dramatically shrinking their store base and scrambling to re-imagine the customer experience.

Smart phones and tablets, that barely existed 5 years ago, are putting unprecedented power in the hands of consumers and blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds.

More and more people are finding that what worked for them in the past isn’t getting the job done today. Sometimes painfully so.

That feeling of being a round peg in a square hole isn’t going away. Call it the “New Normal” or whatever you want, but it’s here to stay.

You can scream that this isn’t fair, or you can accept that there is no such thing as fairness. There is simply reality.

You can hang on to the illusion that you can control the way the universe unfolds, or you can get to work on the things that matter than you can actually affect.

You can stop blaming the hole.

Holes are going to change in size and number and complexity. New holes will emerge all the time. And probably at a faster rate than ever imagined.

But let’s be clear. If you find yourself being a round peg in a square hole, it’s the peg that’s the problem.

 

Honey, I shrunk the store

Until Amazon–and a handful of other pure-play concepts–emerged as power-house brands, a retail growth strategy largely consisted of two major components: build bigger stores and create a bigger retail footprint.

Whether you were Walmart, Office Depot, Coach or Lowe’s, your strategy was mostly about pushing the limits of market dominance: expanding your assortments to cover every related purchase occasion and expanding locations to cover every trade area perceived to be viable.

Then digital happened, and if a large part of your product offering could be delivered without the need of a physical location (think Best Buy, Blockbuster or Borders–and that’s just the “B’s”) this has proved to be a big problem indeed.

And show-rooming happened, and if you were in categories where the consumer likes the research service found in a brick and mortar location, but ultimately buys on price, you were losing a lot of business to direct-to-consumer players not burdened by your overhead structure.

Then there’s the emergence of omni-channel retailing, and if you aren’t making it frictionless for your customer to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway, you were losing share to those who have truly embraced customer-centric retailing.

Last, but not least, the recession happened, and many of the consumers you were counting on–you know, the ones that had become weapons of massive consumption fueled by easy credit–suddenly pulled back big time, and many of the locations you opened in the last five years or so are dead in the water.

So for most, it’s time to shrink.

Fewer, more productive stores. New, smaller formats that resonate more strongly with today’s blended channel realities and that can work in different kinds of trade areas.

But if you think getting smaller is just about physical space, think again.

When you think smaller, think more intimate. Become more personalized, more intensely relevant. Treat different customers differently.

In the future the customer shouldn’t walk away from interacting with your brand thinking that you have down-sized. They should feel that you know them, you get them and that your brand was built with them at the center of all that you do.