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.  

Fashion · Luxury · Omni-channel · Retail

Should Hudson Bay Buy Neiman Marcus? The Case For And Against.

Tuesday morning the Neiman Marcus Group reported another quarter of disappointing financial results and announced that it was going to “explore strategic alternatives.”

To be sure, some of Neiman’s problems are idiosyncratic, largely owing to a botched systems implementation and a now crushing debt load taken on in a 2013 private equity buyout. Yet the brand’s continuing struggles also underscore how luxury retail has hit the wall and how it now seems increasingly likely that the storied company may need to run into the arms of yet another owner.

Recent reports have suggested that the Hudson’s Bay Company was hot on the trail of Macy’s. Yet to many, the notion that HBC would acquire a badly wounded company several times its size, seemed a bit crazy. But the rationale for HBC–the owner of Saks Fifth Avenue and Gilt–to acquire Neiman’s seems, at least at face value, more strategically sound and (perhaps) more easily financed.

When I worked for Neiman Marcus as the head of strategy and corporate marketing we took a hard look at acquiring Saks. Years later, many of the pros and cons of combining the #1 and #2 luxury department stores remain the same.

The Case For

It seems increasingly obvious that the luxury department store sector is quite mature. While e-commerce is growing (now representing 31% of Neiman’s total revenues), most of that is now merely channel shift. Moreover, there are virtually no new full-line store opportunities for either Saks or Neiman’s, and the jury remains out whether or not US brands can find a meaningful number of store openings outside their home markets. Shifting demographics also do not bode well for long-term sector growth.

Faced with this reality, consolidation makes a lot of sense. If Saks were to merge with Neiman’s there would be considerable cost savings from combining many areas of operations. Rationalization of the supply chain would yield material savings as well. Managing the two brands as a cohesive portfolio would allow for optimization of marketing spending and promotional activity. There might even be some benefits from combining buying power to extract greater margins from vendors. Less tangible, but potentially meaningful, is the ability to cascade best practices from each organization.

The more interesting benefits could come from addressing store overlaps. As the market matures and more sales move online, there will be a growing number of trade areas (and specific mall locations) where Saks and Neiman’s going head-to-head only waters down the profitability of each respective location. Selectively closing stores and redeploying that real estate could drive up the remaining locations’ profitability dramatically, while unlocking the underlying real estate value of certain locations. All of which certainly plays into Richard Baker’s (HBC’s Chairman) strengths.

The Case Against

By far the most challenging element of any buyout of Neiman’s by HBC (or by anyone for that matter) would be the price and the related financing. Neiman’s was sold in 2013 for $6 billion dollars and still carries about $5 billion in debt. Since the buyout the company’s EBITDA has gone south, with no prospect for an imminent major turnaround. Given the maturity of the sector and the company’s recent weak operating performance, it’s hard to see why anyone would pay the sort of multiple that would make the current equity and/or debt owners whole.

Unless the real estate value can be unlocked in a transformative way, the only rationale for a merger hinges on the ability to generate operational efficiencies and optimize trade area by trade area market performance. With regard to the former, this isn’t trivial. The Saks and Neiman’s cultures are very different. To say one is very New York and the other is very Texas merely hints at the challenges. It’s easy to sketch out the synergies on paper. Making them actually happen is another thing entirely.

With regard to the latter, the fact is that Saks and Neiman’s are very similar concepts (though Neiman’s historically has been operated far better). When I was at Neiman’s we struggled with how we would operate two virtually identical brands often operating in the same mall–or in places like San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Boston and Chicago–just down the street. Even if we could get out of a lease (or sell the store), would closing a shared location actually be accretive to earnings? If we continued to go head-to-head could we shift the positioning of each brand enough to actually grow market share and profits. Ultimately, other issues trumped this particular concern, but this issue isn’t trivial either and the degree to which it is important mostly comes back to the ultimate price to get a deal done.

Without access to proprietary data it’s impossible to completely assess the likelihood of an HBC/Neiman’s deal. But it seems increasingly likely that something dramatic needs to happen with Neiman’s capital structure and it’s difficult to imagine how another leveraged buyout gets done with private equity sponsors. And it’s hard to see another strategic buyer that makes much sense. More and more, HBC looks like the only game in town.

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

Digital

E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem

Online-only retailers have attracted huge amounts of investment capital during the past decade. Flash-sales sites such as Gilt and RueLaLa have collectively raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Rather small, but rapidly growing, specialty players like Bonobo’s, Warby Parker, One Kings Lane and Birchbox have all recently raised tens of millions of dollars and now have valuations approaching $1 billion or more. Net-a-porter, perhaps the strongest global fashion e-tailer, was purchased by luxury powerhouse Richemont for more than $500 million in 2010 and is reportedly being shopped for a multi-billion dollar price tag.

And on and on.

The pesky little problem–the seriously nagging and increasingly pressing issue, is that the vast majority of even the most established players don’t make any money and few have any prospect of doing so any time soon.

The bulls say that all trends point to the eventual dominance of e-commerce and that these brands must invest heavily in critical infra-structure, acquiring new customers and building their brands. Today’s heavy losses will yield category dominance and ungodly riches just a few years down the road. While I’m fairly certain that this will be true for a handful of today’s industry darlings, for most it’s likely to end badly.

Aside from consumer preference shifting toward online shopping, e-commerce seems to have important economic advantages, most notably avoidance of capital investment in physical real estate. In addition, by centralizing inventory in a few locations–or having a “buy it only when you sell it” model–the potential to streamline logistics costs and generate very high inventory productivity is significant. Digital-only marketing strategies also create the opportunity to serve customers more cost effectively than traditional sales and marketing tactics.

But here’s where reality starts to set in and why many e-commerce only models are profit-proof at any kind of reasonable scale.

While fixed costs are lower for pure-plays, marginal costs can be very high. Most hyper-growth companies find it initially fairly easy and cost-effective to acquire their “best fit”and most loyal customers. Consumers that are prone to gravitate to a disruptive business model often “get it” quickly and are great at spreading the word. They tend to return fewer items and aren’t as likely to need a deep discount to spur a purchase.

Unfortunately, growing beyond what I call the obsessive core, tends to be much more expensive and difficult. Acquisition costs rise dramatically. Big discounts are needed to drive conversion. Return rates are much higher. Assortments need to expand to create greater interest. Cost and complexity follows. Many of the new customers that contribute to higher sales, never have the potential to be profitable.

In fact, one of the reasons we are seeing many of these high growth brands now aggressively investing in physical stores is that they are finding it too difficult and expensive to acquire and serve new customers purely online.

So while it’s true that fixed costs are favorable in a pure-play model, it’s the dynamics of marginal profitability (and the associated variable costs) that ultimately determine the long-term viability of an e-commerce brand. And this will prove to be the Achilles Heel for many of today’s highly valued players.

It’s easy to extol the wonderful customer service delivered by Zappos, the incredible marketing and design from Bonobos or the overall awesomeness of Amazon. But lest we forget, it’s not that hard to be awesome if you aren’t required to make any money. It’s one thing to love these brands for the experience they deliver (which I do). It’s an entirely different thing to earn a return for the risk you are taking as an investor.

So far, the only winners from the advent and rapid growth of pure-play online shopping have been consumers and a small group of investors and entrepreneurs lucky enough to cash out at the right time.

Certainly Amazon could be profitable tomorrow if they wanted to (well, more accurately, if they could deal with a collapsing multiple). And a few e-commerce only companies ARE building strong brands and appeal to enough target consumers to eventually make real money. For this short list it is, in fact, just a matter of time.

But for the rest, don’t believe the hype. And proceed with caution.

 

 

 

 

 

Growth · Innovation · Leadership · Retail · Uncategorized

Taking Pitches

In baseball we often see a batter “take a pitch.”  In other words, before the ball is thrown the batter decides he’s not going to swing regardless of how good the pitch is.  Sometimes this is a tactic to tire his competition–the pitcher–out.  Sometimes it’s an attempt to draw a walk because that’s the best the batter can hope for under the circumstances.  Sometimes it’s a strategy to wait things out, figuring a better opportunity will present itself later.

Lots of businesses take pitches.

When Sears allows discounters and category killers to erode their core customer base and chip away at their dominant market share, they are taking pitches.

When Blockbuster fails to mount a compelling response to NetFlix and Redbox, they are taking pitches.

When Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom allow flash-sales sites like Gilt and RueLaLa to build brands with significant market value, they are taking pitches.

When dozens of companies deny the future of social networking and location-based marketing, they are taking pitches.

Of course there are times when it makes sense to wait things out–to study and analyze before placing a big bet.    Customer-centric companies know who their most important customers and prospects are, and when the metrics on those customers deteriorate, they dig in to understand the drivers and take action.

You don’t always need to swing for the fences, but it’s hard to win without a few hits.

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Engagement · Fashion · Loyalty Marketing · Luxury · Retail

Members only? Or “Members Only” jacket?

A powerful component of customer engagement is providing scarce, exclusive and relevant experiences that reinforce your brand positioning.

“Members Only” or “By Invitation Only” marketing programs can be compelling messages that tell your customer that you truly appreciate their business.   For years leading luxury retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Barney’s have feted their best customers with private lunches, exclusive parties or access to fashion designer “meet and greets.”  More accessible retailers like J. Crew and Nordstrom use their loyalty programs to reward members with unique privileges such as free alterations, early notice of new merchandise arrivals or special shopping hours.  In all cases, the customer is granted access based upon some meaningful qualification, typically spending level or loyalty.

But another kind of marketing seems to be gaining momentum, and it’s best illustrated by the flash-sales sites such as GiltGroupe, HauteLook and BeyondTheRack.  These businesses are growing dramatically–RueLaLa recently reported that their sales doubled year over year–and one of their hooks is that their low prices are for “members only.”   So what does one have to do to qualify to be a member?  Having a legitimate e-mail address is just about all it takes.

In the early 1980’s “Members Only” jackets quickly became all the rage.  If you wanted the world to know how cool you were, a “Members Only” jacket gave you quick access to an exclusive club.  But it wasn’t long before just about everybody had one and what propelled the brand soon eviscerated it.

There is ample evidence that, for a while, you can get away with hooking customers with faux exclusivity.  But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Deep levels of engagement and loyalty are not built on smoke and mirrors; rather they are built on forging relationships rooted in respect and trust.

Authenticity matters.

Does your marketing look more Members Only or more “Members Only” Jacket?

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Customer Growth Strategy · Fashion · Retail

“Faux Clearance”: Do Outlet Store Customers Care?

One of the hottest retail segments right now is the outlet or off-price market.  Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus are opening more “clearance” stores than full-line stores.  Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor have recently announced plans to open their own off-price formats.  Hundreds of manufacturers’ outlet stores from Ralph Lauren to Coach to Nike can be found throughout the country.

As I have learned in recent conversations with everyone from neighbors to business reporters to industry analysts, very few customers realize that the vast majority of product in most of these stores is NOT manufacturers’ overstocks or unsold merchandise from the full-price retail stores, but is in fact produced specifically for these stores.  I call this “faux clearance.”

Certainly these stores benefit from the impression that the reason you are getting such a great deal is that they had too much merchandise and had to mark it down to move it.   Their promotional material trumpets 30%, 40% (up to 70%!!!!)  off to reinforce that notion, when in fact in most cases that identical product has never been available anywhere at the “manufacturer’s suggested retail” or “compare at” price.  Deceptive? You decide.

With the retail outlet segment exploding–and the dramatic growth of “flash-sales” sites like Gilt and Rue La La–the reality is that the percentage of directly made for the channel product will only continue to rise.

So if you buy my premise that most customers of these store and sites do not understand the origin of the product in these channels–and btw if anyone has seen good data on this send it my way–would knowing actually change their behavior?

My guess is no, and here’s why.   The players that have been really successful in this market–one great example is Nordstrom Rack–understand that the core customer for these formats is a different customer than their full-line stores and have built the business model accordingly.  This is why Nordstrom can build a Rack store across the street or down the way from their full-line store and still thrive.  This is why we decided to accelerate the growth of our Last Call stores at Neiman Marcus and began work on a new concept.

The challenge going forward will be to consistently execute a compelling value proposition–and that means delivering an experience that complements the parent brand without diluting it and reliably offering great value in the product assortment.  This latter factor is not so easy, particularly as the demands of this channel increase dramatically.

But ultimately if these formats offer compelling price value in their assortments and a great customer experience, why should the customer care exactly why the product is being offered for sale?

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