JC Penney: The good, the bad and the ugly.

J.C. Penney recently announced its fourth quarter earnings as well as plans to shutter as many as 140 stores. To say the least, the announcement was a decidedly mixed bag.

On the good–or at least improving–side, earnings were a bit better than anticipated. Moreover, Penney’s comparable stores sales fell “only” 0.7%, materially better than their direct competitors, indicating some growth in relative market share. The company also continues to experience double-digit e-commerce growth with some 75% of online orders “touching” a physical store. While the picture is incomplete, this at least suggests that they are gaining much needed traction on their omnichannel initiatives. The retailer will continue to roll-out appliances, positioning them well for growth as Sears implodes and HHGregg appears headed for bankruptcy. And Penney’s should gain share in other key categories as Sears, Macy’s and others close stores and continue to struggle.

Given the huge revenue drop during the Ron Johnson era, the bad news continues to be that despite all the merchandising and operating improvements during the past three years, regaining material market share is proving nearly impossible. Moreover, the small amount of share that has been clawed back has come at high rates of couponing and promotional activity. Penney’s can never become a profitable retailer merely by closing a bunch of stores and maintaining an unprofitable level of discounting. Until Penney’s proves it can drive positive same store sales and a sustainable margin rate the turnaround remains teetering on the brink of life support.

The ugly centers on the increasingly dire picture these announcements paint for “traditional” department stores. Everything we have seen of late from the moderate department store players indicates that the sector’s decades long decline is not only accelerating but is reaching the tipping point where consolidation, store rationalization and fundamental business model restructuring must occur at a much faster and more dramatic pace. There is no scenario in which the available market these retailers compete for does not continue to shrink, thereby eviscerating the underlying economics of hundreds of physical locations. Pruning costs, rolling-out new merchandising strategies, offering “buy-on-line, pick-up-in-store”–and all the other turn-out plans outlined in the press releases–are all likely worthwhile. But they are not remotely close to sufficient.

With all the store closings already in the works–and more certain to follow–it will take some time for the dust to settle. The potential for a major acquisition or two may further cloud the picture this year. The only thing we know for sure is that the “profit pool” for the sector continues to contract and it’s very likely that one or more players won’t be around by this time next year. Until one or more of the remaining brands can demonstrate both improving margins and sustained comparable stores sales the sector starts to look one where no one can earn a decent return.

And maybe no one gets out of here alive.

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

Relevance-light models are now retail’s big problem

So-called “asset-light” business models, where a company has relatively few capital assets compared to the overall size of its operations, have drawn increasing attention (and investor dollars) in recent years. Think Airbnb, Uber, Snap and many other essentially digital-only brands. The concept isn’t new. Brand licensing and many hotel management and franchise-based businesses have employed this formula for years.

In fact, the initial appeal of e-commerce was centered on the notion that a profitable business could be built without expensive physical stores loaded up with gobs of inventory. Then people started to learn that even with relatively little capital tied up in brick & mortar, both online-only brands and the e-commerce divisions of omni-channel retailers still have a hard time making money.

Recently, more and more traditional retailers have been drinking the asset-light Kool-Aid. Sears Holdings CEO Eddie Lampert has been jettisoning real estate and investing heavily in e-commerce while largely ignoring physical stores. Macy’s, HBC and other department and specialty stores have been closing and/or spinning off real estate assets galore. JCPenney is among a number of retailers that are bringing in outside entities to run parts of their business, effectively reducing the risk of a heavy commitment to physical space and inventory.

Clearly some of these moves may make sense as either savvy financial engineering strategies or targeted product/service offerings. Well, not for Sears, but perhaps for others.

Yet as we seek to understand what’s behind the headline grabbing announcements–with many more certain to come–we should grasp one key concept. The fundamental problem at Sears, Penney’s, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Dillard’s and a host of other long suffering retail brands is not that they have too many assets. The driving issue is that they have too little relevance for the assets they possess. In fact, we need look no further than last week’s strong earnings announcements from Home Depot and Walmart to see that retail companies can have enormous physical assets and still remain relevant.

Unfortunately, more times than not, focusing attention on driving down assets (the denominator of a success equation) instead of improving customer relevance (the numerator) only helps the investor math for a short time. This is not to say that store closings are not needed. But the evidence is clear that plenty of asset-heavy retailers have figured out how to make money without embracing the store closing panacea.

Leaders and Boards of struggling retailers may think they are pursuing a smart asset-light strategy. My fear is that most of them are only deepening their commitment to a relevance-light model. And that’s likely to end badly.

 

A version of this post appeared @Forbes where I have recently become a retail contributor. To see more click here.

Stop blaming Amazon for department store woes

Given Amazon’s staggering growth and willingness to lose money to grab market share it’s easy to blame them for everything that is ailing “traditional” retail overall–and the  department store sector in particular.

In fact, with announcements last week from Macy’s to Kohl’s and Sears to JC Penney that could only charitably be called “disappointing” many folks that get paid to understand this stuff reflexively jumped on the “it’s all Amazon’s fault” bandwagon. Too bad they are mostly wrong.

The fact is the department store sector has been losing consumer relevance and share for a long, long time–and certainly well before Amazon had even a detectable amount of competing product in core department store categories.

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The fact is it’s just as logical to blame off-price and warehouse club retailer growth–which is almost entirely done in physical locations, by the way–for department stores’ problems.

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The fact is that, despite other challenges along the way, Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus have maintained share by transitioning a huge amount of their brick & mortar business to their online channels and have closed only a handful of stores in the last few years. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus now both derive some 25% of their total sales from e-commerce.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Amazon isn’t stealing business from the major department store players. Clearly they are. And as Amazon continues to grow its apparel business they will grab more and more share.

But the underlying reason for department stores decades long struggle is the sector’s consistent inability to transform their customer experience, product assortments, marketing strategies and real estate to meet consumers’ evolving needs.

More recently, those brands that have been slow to embrace digital first retail are scrambling to play catch up. Those that still haven’t broken down the silos that create barriers to a frictionless shopping experience will continue to hemorrhage customers and cash.

Most importantly those that think they can out Amazon Amazon are engaged in a race to the bottom. And as Seth reminds us, the problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

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No new stores ever!

What if your company could never open another store? I’m not talking about relocations. I mean a truly new unit that adds top-line growth for your brand.

That’s pretty much the case in the US department store sector. Macy’s, JC Penney, Dillard’s and Sears (obviously) are closing far more full-line stores than they will open.

The generally more resilient luxury sector isn’t exactly booming. Nordstrom will open only 3 new stores in the US over the next 3 years. Neiman Marcus will open 2 full-line stores over 4 years. Saks is probably done finding viable new locations. It’s hard to imagine how this current outlook will get better.

Major sectors like office supplies and specialty teen are going through wrenching consolidations and hemorrhaging sites. And for every Dollar General, Charming Charlies and Dick’s Sporting Goods that have decent opportunities for regional expansion and market back-fill, there are far more that have overshot the runway.

“But Steve”, you say, “we’re seeing great growth in our online business. That’s our future.” That may be true, but how much of that is actually incremental growth? For most “omni-channel” retailers–particularly those that aren’t playing catch up in basic capabilities (I’m looking at you JC Penney)–more and more of what gets reported as digital sales is merely channel shift.

In fact, you don’t have to be Einstein to understand what’s going on when brands report strong e-commerce growth, yet overall sales growth is barely positive. For a great discussion of this check out Kevin’s blog post on hiding the numbers.

The fact is we have too many stores and most consumers have too much stuff.

The fact is the retailers that operate the most stores and sell the most stuff are rapidly reaching the point where, for all practical purposes, they will never open a new store.

The fact is very few large retailers are experiencing much incremental growth from e-commerce and, either way, that growth is small relative to their base and beginning to slow substantially.

The fact is, going forward, most brands will only grow the top-line above the rate of inflation by developing strategies that steal market share. And the me-too tactics and one-size-fits all customer strategies that currently account for the bulk of most brands time and money simply won’t cut it.

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All about that base?

When politicians start a campaign one of the first questions they ask is how they can appeal to the base. Mainstream candidates lock into the usual suspects for rally turnout and fund-raising. The reformers struggle for voter attention and ways to tap into the key PAC’s and the Koch’s and Soros’ of the world.

Traditional brand marketers usually start here as well. We focus on more and better ways of activating existing consumers where the investment to acquire them is sunk and where we already know that they like us and buy often. It seems like a perfectly logical place to concentrate our efforts.

Except where those cohorts are aging out of maintaining their spending. Think Sears.

Except where their needs have shifted and we are no longer their brand or store of choice. Think Barnes & Noble.

Except where a new disruptive model has come along and is doing things we can’t while gobbling up our core customers’ share of wallet. Think Warby Parker and LensCrafters.

Except where we are not replenishing defectors or downward migrators with enough new profitable customers. Think JC Penney.

Good customer analysis always starts with the base. Better customer analysis is focused on a deep understanding of the leverage and limitations inherent in our core segments and yields the insight required to know where to go next and how urgent and powerful any shifts need to be.

It’s all about that base, until it isn’t.

 

 

The problem with saying “no”

During the past 25 years Sears had at least three opportunities to transform itself by entering the home improvement warehouse business (I worked on two of them). This was probably the only way Sears was going to ultimately survive and unlock the value of its franchise Kenmore and Craftsman brands. Each time the answer was “no.”

When I headed up strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group (2004-08), we evaluated building a leadership position in omni-channel by consolidating our disparate inventory systems, we recommended moving from a channel centric marketing organization to a customer and brand focused one, we proposed aggressively expanding our off-price format and, having understood the share lost to competitors like Nordstrom, we analyzed improvements to our merchandising and service models to become a bit more accessible. Ultimately we said “no” to moving ahead on all of these. Years later, these strategies were ultimately resurrected. But the opportunity to establish and extend a leadership position may have been lost.

Obviously there are plenty of times when either the smart or moral thing to do is to say ‘no.” Obviously it’s easy to look back and say “I told you so.”

Yet systemically, most organizations are set up to reward the status quo (often cost containment and driving incremental improvement) and punish the well intended experiment. So it’s easy to say “yes” to the historically tried and true and “no” to just about everything else.

Of course we don’t have to look very hard to come up with brands that have been struggling for many, many years (Sears, JC Penney, Radio Shack) or have completely imploded (Borders, Blockbuster, etc.). All of these said “no’ to any number of potentially game-changing strategies along the way. Care to hazard a guess at how many long-term Board Members of these perennial laggards and outright losers got pushed out for saying grace over a series of crippling “no’s”? How many CEO’s had their compensation whacked for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

In a world where change is coming at us faster and faster, we need to be challenged just as much on what we are saying ‘no” to as we are on what gets a “yes.”

And If you think there is always time to fix the wrong “no” decision, you might want to think again.

You can’t own ‘discount’

As we enter the holiday season, retailers are already guns ablazin’ with sales and promotions. Like all price wars, this will end badly for just about everybody. Spoiler alert: if you don’t have the lowest cost position you can’t win a price war.

Now don’t get me wrong, I get that promotional marketing is part and parcel of most retailers’ business models. I’ve been around the block a time or two (or three). You may recall that I was in that Johnson guy’s face big time for pulling the plug on discounts at JC Penney. Sales and promotions aren’t going away any time soon, nor should they.

And I certainly understand that retail competitive dynamics are such that if you aren’t aggressive early and often you risk losing out on market share, which is critical in a largely fixed cost business where slow-moving inventory may start to lose value rapidly.

Yet if you look at most retail marketing–particularly during the holidays–you’d think that % off was the entire basis for competition.

The simple fact is that very few players can successfully build their brand positioning around having the lowest prices or the most aggressive sales. Very few.

If you aren’t in this elite group, the bottom line is that you can’t own discount. And chance are you’re just chasing your tail when, instead, you should be laser focused on other dimensions where you have the potential be relevant and remarkable and to build a differentiated, defensible position.

No you can’t own discount. But discount can sure own you.