A really bad time to be boring · Store closings

Dead brand walking: Sears is going out with a bang

In the weird irony that is often part of retail (and life in general), Sears Holdings recently announced its first quarter of comparable sales growth in many years—and I believe only its second or third since I left the retailer in 2003! It turns out that the liquidations sales being held in the many Sears and Kmart locations that were closing during the quarter finally brought out customers in droves. Better late than never, I suppose.

Of course, the world’s slowest liquidation sale is not yet over, but it’s hard to take this dead cat bounce as a positive indication of anything substantive.

Last week also brought two other pieces of Sears news. In a classic “you broke it, maybe you want to own it” moment, the hedge fund led by Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert offered to buy the nearly dead retailer. In a statement that seems certain to guarantee Lampert’s fast track admission to the reality distortion field Hall of Fame was this gem: “Sears is an iconic fixture in American retail and we continue to believe in the company’s immense potential to evolve and operate profitably as a going concern with a new capitalization and organizational structure.” In related news, I set fire to a big pile of cash.

The other big story was that Sears cancelled the auction designed to improve upon Service.com’s $60 million “stalking horse” offer when the effort failed to generate a single additional bid. The lack of interest in this once sizable and profitable unit (which was valued at many hundreds of millions of dollars during my Sears tenure) is yet another sign of how far Sears has fallen during the past decade and how little residual value the market sees in many of its pieces.

It may turn out that Lampert and his investors will do reasonably well when all is said and done in the sad saga of Sears’ demise. I’m not smart enough to figure out exactly how all the financial engineering and picking at Sears carcass will ultimately benefit them. But two things are clear: First, during his nearly 15 years at the helm of the bad marriage that is Sears and Kmart, Lampert has never once articulated a compelling and remarkable strategy to guide the retailer. Instead, we’ve had an endless parade of nonsensical tactics, relentless cost cutting and seemingly self-interested asset stripping. In return the company has sustained well over a decade of precipitous market share declines and massive operating losses. In fact, despite operating in one of the best quarters in recent U.S. history, despite closing hundreds of “bad” locations and despite taking an axe to other operating costs, Sears still managed to lose nearly $1 billion on barely over $2.7 billion in revenue this quarter.

Second, the notion that anything can be done to save Sears in a way that remotely resembles its once iconic status is absurd, particularly as Lampert holds on to the idea that the brand can shrink its way to prosperity. Sears has never fundamentally had a cost problem. It has, for at least 20 years, had a huge customer relevance and remarkability problem. Closing more stores and shrinking and/or leasing out the ones that remain may temper losses, but it will never do anything to address the core issue which, simply stated, is having enough customers that want to buy the stuff they sell.

I am certain that over the coming months there will more stories of asset sales, store closings and largely random new program offerings designed to return Sears to its former glory. It’s all just noise, far more like the like gasps of a dying man than a glimmer of hope for any form of resurrection.

Dead brand walking.

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

Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail · Store closings

Department stores aren’t going away, but 3 big things still need to happen

It’s been a long, slow slide for department stores. Starting some two decades ago, the major chains began leaking share to the big-box, off-the-mall players. Just as that started to stabilize somewhat, Amazon and other e-commerce pure-plays began chipping away at the sector’s once dominant position in apparel, accessories and home products. Most recently, in addition to the ongoing threat from online shopping, off-price chains have benefitted from a growing legacy of major chain mediocrity.

Unsurprisingly, investors have treated the sector like the plague. The market values of Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears, Dillard’s and Kohl’s have all plummeted. Even Nordstrom, which has performed relatively well, has seen its market value halved in the past couple of years. Just this past week J.C. Penney saw its shares, which were already off some 80% since 2013, plunge further after a surprise earnings warning. In addition, Sycamore looks to be picking at the carcass of Bon-Ton Stores and Lord & Taylor is selling its iconic Manhattan flagship to WeWork. And on and on.

For many, this unrelenting parade of bad news leads them to believe that department stores are toast. But just as the retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense, so is the notion that department stores are going away. I am willing to go out on a limb to say that a decade from now there will still be hundreds of large, multi-category brick-and-mortar stores operating in the United States and throughout the world. But despite this conviction, things are virtually certain to get worse before they get better and three major things must happen before any sort of equilibrium can be reached and decent profits can return.

Major space rationalization/consolidation. The overall retail industry is still reeling from decades of overbuilding, as well as the abject failure of most department store anchors to innovate to stay remotely relevant and remarkable. While the idea that major chains can shrink to prosperity is fundamentally misguided, it’s clear that a) most chains still have too many stores, b) the stores they have are, on average, larger than they need and c) there is no compelling reason for Sears, Kmart, Bon-Ton (and perhaps a few others) to exist at all. Many dozens, if not hundreds, of locations are certain to be whacked after the holiday season. And despite the liquidation sales that will put pressure on earnings in the first half of the calendar year, there is actually a real chance for year-over-year margin improvement by the time the holiday season rolls around this time next year.

A true commitment to be more focused, more innovative and more remarkable. It turns out department stores, like every other struggling retail brand, picked a really bad time to be so boring. It turns out that deferred innovation is even more crippling than deferred maintenance. It turns out that trying to be everything to just about everybody means being mostly irrelevant to a lot of folks. Given the certain continuing contraction of the sector, the only hope for remaining brands is to gain significant amounts of market share. And that only happens to any material degree by embracing intense customer-centricity to become more relevant to a tighter customer set and by consistently executing a far more remarkable experience than the competition. Continued flogging of me-too products, one-size fits all advertising, boring presentation and chasing the promiscuous shopper through promotion on top of promotion won’t cut it. Period. Full stop. The hard part is that most of the flailing brands are woefully far behind, lack a culture of innovation and simply don’t have the cash to do what it will take to right the ship.

Amazon needs to place its bet. It’s clear that Amazon has its sights set on being a much bigger player in apparel, accessories and home products. And it’s hard to see how Amazon gets speed, adds the necessary volume and addresses the vexing returns/supply chain issues without a major physical presence in the moderate and higher-end softlines arena. For that reason, I’m also willing to go out on a limb and predict that Amazon will buy a major department store player in 2018. And just as its acquisition of Whole Foods is transformative for the grocery industry, so too will be a much deeper brick-and-mortar (and omnichannel) presence in the department store sector. In fact, it’s hard to underestimate how a big move by Amazon here will reshape just about every imaginable facet.

While 2017 has brought more than its fair share of department store news–and we’re hardly finished–I see 2018 as being chock-a-block with not only profound news but likely representing the year when the future of the sector will become far more clear. Stay tuned.

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

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Being Remarkable · Retail

Retail’s museums of disappointment

The retail graveyard is already quite full. Sports Authority is on its way there and surely the Sears and Kmart that we used to know can’t be too far behind. They’ll hardly be the last.

In fact, considering the rapid shift in customer behavior and the blistering pace of retail disruption, one could readily argue that far more brands will disappear in the next decade than in the last one.

And it’s not just that brands are going away entirely. Malls, Main Streets, strip and power centers, are already littered with empty boxes, big and small. Some locations quite old and dated, others still bright and shiny, opened a mere few years ago, their carcasses now hollowed out, the result of a merger or, more likely, plain and simple irrelevance.

Maybe we can blame Amazon or the failed economic policies of the Bush administration. Perhaps we can put it all on Obamacare. Maybe some totally unanticipated event came out of left field. Maybe we were just unlucky. Maybe.

More often than not, by the time a brand is buried, there are few who truly will miss it. By the time the final padlock is secured after a store closes, most folks are hardly surprised.

Irrelevance rarely happens overnight. Most often, the brand and their stores have been disappointing customers for years.

Blame Amazon, blame the government, heck, blame Canada (NSFW). Just know that the reality is the symptoms of creeping irrelevance are almost always there if you actually pay attention and if you are willing to act upon what you see and learn.

Whether our stores and malls will become exciting destinations or simply museums of disappointment is, when all is said and done, nine times out of ten, a choice.

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Being Remarkable · Retail · Winning on Experience

Sears: The world’s slowest liquidation sale

“I see dead people…they only see what they want to see.  They don’t know they’re dead.”

– Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense

There probably was a time when Eddie Lampert honestly believed that Sears and Kmart could be resurrected as competitive retailers. But the concept of putting together a mediocre (and declining) department store, with an also-ran to Walmart and Target, was failed from the start.

In the intervening nine (!!!) years, Lampert has never once articulated a strategy for fundamentally improving the value proposition of either brand that made any sense.

On the contrary, he organized product and business unit teams into “competing” merchandise categories despite overwhelming evidence that consumers wanted more integration, not less. He required that every individual product earn a competitive ROI when every winning retailer on the planet understood the notion of category management and market-basket profitability. He starved both nameplates of capital when each was already woefully behind best-in-class competitors. He cut expenses to the bone when it was clear that both Sears and K-mart had a revenue problem, not a cost problem. He closed dozens of stores, further exacerbating both brands’ lack of critical mass in many markets.

Of late, he’s been pushing two ridiculous notions. The first is the idea that Sears is becoming a “membership” company. Please. This is mostly a transparent customer data grab. The value proposition of “Shop Your Way” is weak and the idea that being a member conveys any real sense of brand loyalty, engagement or fundamental profitability would be laughable if the whole endeavor weren’t so sad.

Crazy Eddie’s other big idea is transforming Sears into an “integrated digital platform.” For this to work you have to believe that Sears can compete effectively with Amazon–not to mention a whole host of leading multi-channel retailers–or that you can somehow win in an omni-channel world with a crappy, declining and shrinking brick and mortar base. Both defy basic logic.

Whether Lampert is delusional or not remains irrelevant. Whether by design or desperation, Sears has been liquidating for years.

Sears can certainly create liquidity for a bit longer by continuing to off load assets. But any realistic hope that Sears can pull out of this dive has, sadly, long since passed.

Dead brand walking.