Does e-commerce suck?

Well it certainly isn’t bad for consumers. In fact, it’s been a bonanza.

The advent and enormous growth of e-commerce has dramatically expanded the availability of products, making nearly anything in the world readily accessible, 24/7. Product and pricing information that was previously scarce and unreliable is now easily obtainable. Prices are down, in many cases, dramatically. Digital tools and technologies have ushered in a new era of innovation making shopping far more convenient, easy and personalized.

For retail brands and investors the picture is much less clear and increasingly bleak. The fact is e-commerce is mostly unprofitable–and that’s not about to change anytime soon.

Amazon, which is both far bigger than any other retailer’s web business and growing faster than the overall channel, has amassed huge cumulative losses. The high cost of direct-to-consumer fulfillment and so-called omni-channel integration has made virtually every established retailer’s e-commerce business a major cash drain. And more and more, it’s becoming clear that most of the “disruptive” venture capital funded pure-plays are ticking time bombs. Quite a few major write-downs have already occurred (e.g. Trunk Club, Nasty Gal and just about every flash-sales business) and more are surely on the way (I’m looking at you Jet.com and Dollar Shave Club).

Investors have been throwing money at business models with no chance of ever making money for years. Analysts and pundits regularly excoriate traditional brands that are slow to “invest” tens of millions of dollars in all things digital and omni-channel while spewing nonsense about physical stores going away. Much of this is incredibly misguided.

It’s time for everyone to be more clearheaded and, dare I say, responsible.

Industry analysts and the retail press need to stop with the breathless pronouncements about the demise of physical stores. They need to back off the notion that retailers can cost cut their way to prosperity. They also need to quit labeling disruptive businesses as “successful” merely based upon revenues and rapid growth and take the time to really understand the economics of e-commerce and omni-channel (hint: it’s mostly about supply chain and customer acquisition costs).

More established retailers need to stop chasing all things omni-channel and prioritize investments based upon consumer relevance, long-term competitive advantage and ROI. They also need to realize that if they feel the urge to close a lot of stores or drastically cut expenses they are probably working on the wrong problem.

Venture capital investors need to start caring more about building a business based upon fundamentals, not just pricing everyone else out of the market and/or hoping that some idiot big corporation will come along and write a huge check. Also, have we forgotten that selling at a loss and making it up on volume has never been a viable strategy?

Of course, by far the single biggest thing that would restore an element of sanity to the overall market would be if Amazon were to decide to not treat most of their e-commerce business as a loss leader. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

So if you are a consumer, enjoy the ride and the subsidies.

If you are retailer, yeah, that definitely sucks.

 

Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer

“Retail disruption” has been a popular buzz phrase for several years now. In fact, most of the retail brands that have received out-sized mentions in the business press–and commanded the adoring attention of industry conference attendees–for the past 5 years or so are somehow or other leveraging digital innovation to fundamentally re-work the consumer experience, gobble up market share and attract truckloads of venture capital.

Amidst this transformative reshaping of the retail landscape three things are clear:

  • Consumers have benefitted substantially from the introduction of new business models through more convenience, greater product access and lower prices.
  • This profound shift in the consumer value equation has put enormous pressure on industry incumbents that lack either the cost structure or agility to respond effectively.
  • A dramatic rationalization is gaining momentum as traditional players are being forced out of business or pressured to close and or shrink the foot-print of their stores, make huge investments in “omni-channel” capabilities and lower costs across the board.

Unfortunately what is lost in tales of this evolution is that most of the “disruptive” pure-play e-commerce brands have completely unsustainable business models and mostly what is happening is that venture capitalists (and other investors) are funding a transfer of wealth to the consuming public. So, on behalf of my fellow consumers, thanks venture capitalists.

Alas, this is unlikely to last much longer.

While many people think digital retail is some sort of license to print money, it’s becoming clear that e-commerce is virtually profit proof in categories with low transaction values, owing primarily to the substantial supply chains costs (particularly when brands offer free shipping and returns). Moreover, while it can be relatively easy and cheap to build an initial following online through public relations,  social media and other forms of peer-to-peer marketing, scaling an e-commerce only brand turns out to be extremely costly. Many of the buzziest pure-plays are now investing heavily in expensive branding efforts (as well as opening their own stores) in the hopes that size engenders profitability. Accordingly, initial expectations of break-evens are now being pushed out several years.

As the ROI of these efforts starts to come into sharper relief, my bet is many funding sources will lose their patience.

I’ve been an on-the-record skeptic for several years now, going back to when I called into question the sustainability of the flash-sales market well before the meltdown. More recently, I’ve been pointing out E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem. So I’m not suprised that recent valuations of several once high flying players have collapsed. And more folks are starting to take notice. Professional smart guy (and noted wise ass) Scott Galloway agrees and has been on the “pure play doesn’t work” train for some time. Expect more to join us.

To be clear, a few digital-first brands will likely emerge as sustainable value creators. Brands with high enough average order values to overcome high delivery costs are better positioned (though Net-a-porter’s inability to make money after all these years underscores how difficult this is). Those that deftly merge online and offline experiences–think Warby Parker and Bonobos–also improve the odds (though, side-note, don’t be misled by the high productivity of their initial locations and comparisons to other brands’ productivity stats. We need to understand the four-wall profitability of these new stores and make comparisons to traditional retailers averages in like locations, not overall chain averages).

Mostly, however, we need to be careful to declare a brand successful without defining what we mean by success. If we define success as having grown revenues quickly and having been able to raise gobs of capital from investors to enable subsidizing consumers on a massive scale, than clearly Amazon and dozens of others are wildly successful. If we define success as creating enormous pricing pressure and raising the cost of doing business so as to push traditional players into a double-bind than, yes, mission accomplished.

But if we determine success as having demonstrated the ability to deliver a new and better customer experience AND earn a risk appropriate return on capital than I’m not sure any pure-play E-commerce player of any size is yet successful.

I will go on the record as saying far more pure plays will go bust in the next three years (or get sold at valuations well below their most recent funding) than will emerge as truly successful.

Until then, enjoy the low prices and the free shipping, and if you get some time, send the nice folks funding Jet.com and others a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” note.