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.

 

The end of e-commerce

We’ve gotten pretty used to talking about e-commerce and brick & mortar retail as if they were two entirely separate things operating in parallel universes. In fact, industry commentators often treat the “on-line shopper” as some sort of new species.

Yet more and more the notion of e-commerce as a channel unto itself is collapsing. A distinction without a difference.

Yes, some on-line only businesses like Amazon will continue to thrive, and no doubt we will continue to see purely digital retailers launched. Some will carve out profitable niches.

But with few exceptions, the real action–and the biggest source of future growth–lies with omni-channel retailers, that is, those brands with a compelling presence in brick & mortar and on the web (and mobile, and social, etc.).

When the media quotes the rapid growth of e-commerce, don’t forget that much of that growth is fueled by the digital operations of traditional brick and mortar players such as Macy’s, Best Buy and Neiman Marcus.

The reasons for this are simple. Consumers think brand first, channel second. Consumers use multiple touch points on their purchase decision journey. More and more, consumers value the unique convenience of on-line shopping, but often will appreciate the unique benefits of a physical store.

Forward thinking omni-channel retailers like Nordstrom have stopped breaking out the sales of their e-commerce division and their brick and mortar stores because they accept the idea that the distinction is increasingly meaningless. More importantly, they act on this insight and have worked hard (and invested mightily) to eliminate shopping friction and make their brand available anytime, anywhere, anyway.

So forget e-commerce and brick & mortar. Stop with the separate P&L’s, non-sensical incentives and channel-centric customer analysis.

Put the customer at the center of everything you do, and build from there. Rinse and repeat.