The outlet store long con

One of the hottest sectors in retail is the “off-price” or outlet segment. Established players like TJX, Ross and Nordstrom Rack continue to open stores at a solid clip while also expanding their e-commerce capabilities. Neiman Marcus, Saks and Macy’s have identified their outlet store strategy as a growth platform. Scores of fashion designers and other manufacturers have joined Ralph Lauren and Nike in filling up outlet centers across the globe. And despite their stumbles, so-called “flash-sales” sites like Gilt and HauteLook have developed significant market share.

Clearly there are aspirational customers at every price point, not to mention plenty of people who just simply hate to pay full price. For both types of customer segments the outlet store value proposition is straight-forward and compelling: well-known brand names at 20-60% off the regular price.

The appeal to brands can be compelling as well. An off-price strategy can be a sensible way of creating an “opening price” point format that generates incremental growth while bringing new customers into the brand’s eco-system. And to be completely transparent, I strongly advocated precisely this type of approach when I headed strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group–a version of which they have been implementing in recent years.

Yet with all the touted strategic benefits, not to mention all the hype that surrounds the sector, there is more and more deception and denial creeping in. I suspect it won’t be long before we see a major recalibration of the prospects for the sector and many of its participants. Here’s why.

The product con. While the industry tries hard to create the impression that the product in outlets is the same as the consumer would find in full-price stores, that is rarely the case. In fact, whether we are talking about Neiman Marcus’ Last Call Studio, Saks Off 5th or the Gap Factory Outlet stores, the vast majority of the merchandise carried is made specifically for those channels. For more on this check out this story on Racked.

The price con. So if most of the product was never for sale anywhere else how does the retailer come up with the  “compare at” price to calculate those big savings? Great question. Here’s the answer: They make it up–or as TJ Maxx likes to say,  it’s “estimated.”

The brand con. Any time a strong brand launches a derivative, lower-priced version they are entering treacherous waters. Done properly, the core brand suffers no loss of equity and benefits from a growing customer base. Done poorly, the effort can be highly dilutive, confusing and ultimately unprofitable. Nordstrom has done a masterful job of segmenting its customer base for the full-line and Rack stores and has been able, thus far, to make the strategy additive. But not every brand has been so disciplined (I’m looking at you Coach) and many are now opening outlet stores at such a rate–and out of proportion to their full-price business–that red flags need to be raised, even at Nordstrom.

The growth con. When the core business is stagnant, it’s easy for retailers to chase the growing bright shiny object. Yet it’s hard to escape the reality that North America is severely over-stored and that overall retail spending is barely growing above the rate of inflation. So for the many retailers opening many outlet stores over the next few years it’s mostly about grabbing market share. That’s fairly easy when it’s a few new locations. It’s not so easy when everyone is opening a lot of new stores and there are many new competing business models. When some of these new stores don’t make their numbers there will be pressure to “open the aperture” on product, pricing and promotion. And it’s Coach all over again.

Of course it’s fair to say that even if consumers knew the whole story they might not care. It’s fair to say that given the challenges to the traditional department store model, many of these retailers have no choice but to double down on outlet stores.

But it’s also fair to say that we’ve seen many of these companies overshoot the runway before. And it’s fair to say that in what’s becoming a zero-sum game not everyone can be a winner.

 

Competing with yourself

One of the biggest mistakes companies make strategically is failing to compete with themselves.

The only reason Sears is no longer the leader in the retail home improvement industry–and now on a slow slide into oblivion–was their unwillingness to build or buy an off-the-mall response to Home Depot when they had the chance. Having personally participated in 2 separate strategic studies in the early and mid 1990’s, I can tell you that the big hang up in making the plunge was leadership’s fear of sales diversion from the “core” mall-based department stores.

Whoops.

So it was refreshing yesterday to see Nordstrom’s acquisition of HauteLook, one of the leading flash-sales sites.

The luxury/fashion off-price market has exploded in the past 3 years with upstarts like HauteLook, GiltGroupe, RueLaLa, et al creating a $1 billion+ (and growing) sub-segment through daily online sales. And it’s clear that a lot of that business has come at the expense of traditional players like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks.

It remains to be seen whether the price Nordstrom paid was sensible. And time will tell how well they will be able to leverage their capabilities and customer database to accelerate HauteLook’s growth and profitability. But one thing is clear. The other industry incumbents have been slow to react–or have responded with utterly unremarkable tactics–and have let many start-up companies steal market share and attract new customers in a space they could have easily dominated.

Retailers are pretty good at firing people when they don’t make their seasonal sales plan or manage their budgets well. When they let hundreds of millions of dollars of potential shareholder value slip through their hands by failing to act on business that is rightfully theirs, you rarely hear a peep.

That needs to change.

And you need to be willing to compete with yourself. Last time I checked you don’t any credit for your competition’s sales.

 

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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The Private Flash Sales Sites Jump the Shark

On April 19 I posted about my belief that the luxury off-price market was about to hit the wall, largely owing to a squeeze between a growing customer base seeking out great deals, and a diminishing supply of first quality branded merchandise.   I suggested that the various players in the space were going to have to evolve their winning formulas substantially to sustain their growth.

Well this seems to be playing out with the various high-end flash-sales sites (Gilt Groupe, RueLaLa, HauteLook, Ideeli and BeyondTheRack and the myriad wanna-bees).   In fact, what made these new concepts so great–and allowed them to gobble up market share–is rapidly being watered down.  Whether you call this “jumping the shark” or “nuking the fridge”, it’s a cause for concern.

All these companies have grown rapidly, attracting both legions of members and significant investment capital.  Their original value proposition was simple: offer well-known, high end brands at unbelievably low prices, and make them available in limited quantities during a short sale period.   This was an innovative re-imagining and up-scaling of QVC–or a blatant ripoff of Europe’s Vente Privee–depending on where you sit on the cynicism scale.  Regardless, during late 2008 and well into 2009, customers signed up in droves and feasted on high demand fashion brands at steep discounts.  Of course the rocket fuel during this time was the substantial amount of surplus inventory that both manufacturers and retailers were desperate to turn into cash.

A review of the flash-sale sites’ offerings today reveals quite a different story than even six months ago.

The first obvious thing is the paucity of true high demand luxury brands.  Tomorrow’s sale on RueLaLa features one true luxury brand (Pratesi), but also Andrew Marc, L. Spaace, Tailor Vintage and Cuddlestone.   BeyondTheRack has some Gucci, Prada and Robert Cavalli–though it’s sunglasses and wallets–not ready-to-wear or handbags.  The rest of their offering is Jonathan Marche, Ninety, SpyZone Exchange, CC Skye and Italgen.   Not exactly household names.  A check of Ideeli and Hautelook reveals the same smattering of brands you have heard of, while the rest is decidedly second tier or no-name.  Gilt Groupe, on the other hand, does seem to consistently have a much broader offering of true high end and fashion brands.

The second item of note is that the discounting is not nearly as extreme as last year.  And this is not surprising.  Last year, when manufacturers were stuck with mountains of unsold inventory, they were often willing to sell first quality product below their production cost.  Today, more and more product is not distressed, but rather made specifically to be sold in these channels; and that means the manufacturer needs a mark-up.  If your product acquisition cost goes up, the retail price goes up (i.e. the lower % discount to the consumer).

The other noteworthy change is the growing mix of product that is not fashion merchandise.  All these sites are starting to feature travel, wine and even bicycles.  On the one hand, this is a smart growth strategy: find more things to offer to your existing clientele.  For others, it smacks of desperation.

All this adds up to a model that, despite being barely two years old, is rapidly evolving and will likely look quite different by this time next year.  My guess is that by then several of these sites will be gone, bought out or struggling mightily, while a short list will leverage deep customer insight and new capabilities reinvent themselves and thrive.  Given that the big guys–Neiman Marcus, Saks and Nordstrom–have yet to do anything meaningful in this arena (and really why is it taking them so long?) we can only expect the competitive environment to become even more intense.

Any guesses on who will be standing tall versus who will become chum?
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