A really bad time to be boring · Being Remarkable · Reinventing Retail

Retail reality: It’s death in the middle

I first pointed to what I called “retail’s great bifurcation”literally two years ago today. Though it wasn’t the first time that I had observed what I saw as the impending collapse of the middle. I began writing and speaking about that during 2011.

As we emerged from the financial crisis it seemed clear to me that retail brands were faced with the proverbial fork in the road. A strategy of being just about everything to everybody–of selling average products to average people in an average experience–was becoming increasingly untenable. While it’s easy to credit the “Amazon effect,” or the overall rise of e-commerce, that’s only part of the story. The fact is many factors conspired to squeeze the middle, while, for the most part, the two ends of the spectrum continue to thrive.

For years now brands that execute well on price, dominant assortments, buying efficiency and convenience are winning. Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Home Depot, Costco and virtually all the off-price giants and dollar stores, are driving strong growth and profits. And–I hope you are sitting down for this–despite the silly retail apocalypse narrative, they are all opening stores–in some cases lots of them. Similarly, we find many success stories at the other end of the spectrum. Most established luxury brands are experiencing strong growth, as are higher-end specialty retailers who have a tight customer focus, offer a superior experience and provide a real emotional brand connection. Think Apple, Bonobos, Nordstrom, Sephora, Ulta, Warby Parker and many more. Somehow living in the age of Amazon and digital disruption has not come remotely close to creating an existential crisis for these retailers.

Of course, the story is very different for others in the great, mostly undifferentiated, wasteland of the middle. Most of the retailers that have recently made their way to the retail graveyard or find themselves at the precipice suffer from a decided lack of relevance and remarkability. They have decent prices, but not the best price. They have some service, but nothing to get excited about. Their product assortments and presentations are drowning in a sea of sameness. The overall experience is dull, dull, dull. It’s not surprising that a quick perusal of a store closing tracker features names like Sears, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Radio Shack; brands that staked out the moderate part of the market long ago and have failed to innovate in any material way. Most of these companies now lack the financial resources, time and organizational DNA to affect the necessary transformations. This will end badly.

While it’s tempting to blame Amazon for the deep troubles faced by mid-priced department stores, the category has been on the decline for more than two decades. Studies also show that the majority of market share lost by these players in recent years has gone to the off-price sector. To be sure, Amazon is putting pressure on most sectors of retail. Further, the rise of digital shopping has created a radical transparency that places the customer firmly in charge. In many respects what was once scarce–reliable product information, lower prices, access to products from across the country (and around the world), rapid delivery–no longer is. No customer wants to be average and today, in most instances, no customer has to be. And, for those brands that have seriously invested in deep customer insight and committed to a “treat different customers differently” strategy, there is no place for unremarkable competitors to hide. Good enough no longer is.

The bifurcation of retail is only going to become more pronounced. The fork in the road is more and more obvious. The collapse of the middle will only get worse.

It turns out it’s really bad time to be boring.

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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.  For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.

e-commerce · Omni-channel · The Amazon Effect

Here’s who Amazon could buy next, and why it probably won’t be Nordstrom

Since the Whole Foods deal, more than a few industry analysts and pundits have weighed in on which retailers might be on Amazon’s shopping list.

Various theories underpin the speculation. Some say Jeff Bezos wants to go deeper in certain categories, so Lululemon or Warby Parker get mentioned. Foursquare (is that still a thing?) crafted its own list from analyzing location data. The Forbes Tech Council came up with 15 possibilities. The always provocative, and generally spot-on, Scott Galloway of L2 and NYU’s Stern School of Business believes Nordstrom is the most logical choice.

Obviously no one has a crystal ball, and Amazon’s immediate next move could be more opportunistic than strategic. Given Amazon’s varied interests, there are several directions in which they could go. And clearly they have the resources to do multiple transactions, be they technology enabling, building their supply-chain capabilities out further, entering new product or service categories, or something else entirely. For my purposes, however, I’d like to focus on what makes the most sense to expand and strengthen the core of their retail operations.

Before sorting through who’s likely to be right and who’s got it wrong (spoiler alert: Scott), let’s briefly think about the motivating factors for such an acquisition. From where I sit, several things are critical:

  • Materiality. Amazon is a huge, rapidly growing company. To make a difference, they have to buy a company that either is already substantial or greatly accelerates their ability to penetrate large categories. This is precisely where Whole Foods fit in.
  • Fundamentally Experiential. There is an important distinction between buying and shopping. As my friend Seth reminds us, shopping is an experience, distinct from buying, which is task-oriented and largely centered on price, speed and convenience. Amazon already dominates buying. Shopping? Not so much.
  • Bricks And Clicks. It’s hard to imagine Amazon not ultimately dominating any category where a large percentage of actual purchasing occurs online. Where they need help is when the physical experience is essential to share of wallet among the most valuable customer segments. They’ve already made their bet in one such category (groceries). Fashion, home furnishings and home improvement are three obvious major segments where they are under-developed and where a major stake in physical locations would be enormously beneficial to gaining significant market share.
  • Strong Marginal Economics. We know that Amazon barely makes money in retail. What’s not as well appreciated is the inconvenient truth that much of the rest of e-commerce is unprofitable. Some of this has to do with venture-capital-funded pure-plays that have demonstrated a great ability to set cash on fire. But unsustainable customer acquisition costs and high rates of product returns make many aspects of online selling profit-proof. An acquisition that allows Amazon access to high-value customers it would otherwise be challenged to steal away from the competition and one that would mitigate what is rumored to be an already vexing issue with product returns could be powerfully accretive to earnings over the long term. Most notably this points to apparel, but home furnishings also scores well here.

So pulling this all together, here’s my list of probable 2018 acquisition targets, the basic rationale and a brief word on why some seemingly logical candidates probably won’t happen.

Not Nordstrom, Saks or Neiman Marcus

Scott Galloway is right that Nordstrom (and to a lesser degree Saks and Neiman Marcus) has precisely the characteristics that fit with Amazon’s aspirations and in many ways mirror the rationale behind the Whole Foods acquisition. Yet unlike Whole Foods, a huge barrier to overcome is vendor support. Having been an executive at Neiman Marcus, I understand the critical contribution to a luxury retailer’s enterprise value derived from the distribution of iconic fashion brands, as well as the obsessive (but entirely logical) control these same brands exert over distribution. Many of the brands that are key differentiators for luxury department stores have been laggards in digital presence, as well as actually selling online. Most tightly manage their distribution among specific Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus locations. If Nordstrom or the others were to be acquired by Amazon, I firmly believe many top vendors would bolt, choosing to further leverage their own expanding direct-to-consumer capabilities and doubling down with a competing retail partner, fundamentally sinking the value of the acquisition. While Amazon might try to assure these brands that they would not be distributed on Amazon, I think the fear, rational or otherwise, would be too great.

Macy’s, Kohl’s or J.C. Penney 

Amazon has its sights set on expanding apparel, accessories and home but is facing some headwinds owing to a relative paucity of national fashion brands, likely lower-than-average profitability (mostly due to high returns) and a lack of a physical store presence. Acquiring one of these chains would bring billions of dollars in immediate incremental revenues, improved marginal economics and a national footprint of physical stores to leverage for all sorts of purposes. All are (arguably) available at fire-sale prices. Strategically, Macy’s makes the most sense to me, both because of their more upscale and fashion-forward product assortment (which includes Bloomingdale’s) and because of their comparatively strong home business. But J.C. Penney would be a steal given their market cap of just over $1 billion, compared with Macy’s and Kohl’s, which are both north of $8 billion at present.

Lowe’s

The vast majority of the home improvement category is impossible to penetrate from a pure online presence. Lowe’s offers a strong value proposition, dramatic incremental revenues, already strong omni-channel capabilities, and a vast national network of stores. The only potential issue is its valuation, which at some $70 billion is hardly cheap, but is dramatically less than Home Depot’s.

A Furniture Play

Home furnishings is a huge category where physical store presence is essential to gaining market share and mitigating the high cost of returns. But it is also highly fragmented, so the play here is less clear as no existing player provides a broad growth platform. Wayfair, the online leader, brings solid incremental revenue and would likely benefit from Amazon’s supply chain strengths. But without a strong physical presence their growth is limited. Crate & Barrel, Ethan & Allen, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma and a host of others are all sizable businesses, but each has a relatively narrow point of view. My guess is Amazon will do something here — potentially even multiple deals — but a big move in furniture will likely not be their first priority in 2018.

As I reflect on this list (as well as a host of other possibilities), I am struck by three things.

First, despite all the hype about e-commerce eating the world, the fact remains that some 90% of all retail is done in physical stores, and that is because of the intrinsic value of certain aspects of the shopping experience. For Amazon to sustain its high rate of growth, a far greater physical presence is not a nice “to do” but a “have to do.”

Second, the battle between Amazon and Walmart is heating up. While they approach the blurring of the lines between physical and digital from different places, some of their needs are similar, which could well lead to some overlapping acquisition targets. That should prove interesting.

Lastly, the business of making predictions is inherently risky, particularly in such a public forum. So at the risk of stating the obvious, I might well be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it surely won’t be the last.

But why not go out on a limb? I hear that’s where the fruit is.

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

For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go 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

For information on speaking gigs please go here.

Retail · Store closings · The Amazon Effect

Department store quarterly performance: Better isn’t the same as good

Last week we had five major department stores report their quarterly earnings: Macy’sKohl’sNordstromDillard’s and JCPenney. It was a decidedly mixed bag relative to both expectations and absolute performance. Yet many observers seemed encouraged by the overall improvement in sales trend. Yet the overall sector is still losing market share, just not at quite as fast a rate. Which begs the question, is less bad somehow good?

It’s clear that one must pull out of a dive before an ascent can begin. It’s also obvious that reducing the rate of descent is no guarantee of a resurrection. Better is simply not the same as good. So to understand whether recent results provide a dose of optimism or are merely noise, it’s worth looking more closely at a few key considerations.

More rationalization must occur. The sector has been in decline for two decades–and not because of Amazon or e-commerce. The main reason is that department stores failed to innovate. They focused on expense reduction and excessive promotions, instead of being more remarkable and relevant. That won’t be fixed easily or quickly. So, in the meantime, there is simply too much supply chasing contracting consumer demand. Sector profitability isn’t going to improve much until Sears goes away and additional location pruning on the part of remaining players occurs.

Yet physical retail is not going away. Brick & mortar retail is becoming very different, but it’s far from dead. There is no fundamental reason why any given department store cannot not have a viable operation with hundreds of physical locations, particularly when we realize that some 80% of all products in core department store categories are purchased offline.

You can’t shrink to prosperity. Wall Street seems to think that store closings are a panacea. They’re wrong. It’s one thing to right-size both store counts and individual store sizes in response to overbuilding and shifting consumer preferences. It’s another thing to make a brand’s value proposition fundamentally more relevant and remarkable. Department stores must spend more time working on giving consumers reasons to shop in the channels they have (note: excessive discounting doesn’t count) and abandon the idea that shuttering scores of locations is a silver bullet.

Same-store sales are an increasingly irrelevant metric. Wall Street needs to let go of its obsession with same-store performance as the be-all-end-all performance indicator. Any decent “omni-channel” retailer should be on its way to–or as is already true with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus well past–more than 20% of its overall sales coming from e-commerce. So unless a retailer is gobbling up market share most of that business is coming from existing stores. The reality is that shifting consumer preferences are going to make it nearly impossible for many retailers (of any kind) to run positive store comps. That does not mean a brand cannot grow trade area market share and profits. And it doesn’t mean that a given store is not productive even if sales keep trending down. Stores drive online, and vice versa. Smart retailers understand this and focus on customer segment and trade area dynamics, not merely individual store performance in isolation.

It is going to take more than a couple of quarters to fully understand whether the department store sector has stabilized, much less turned the corner. As we look ahead, of the five that reported, Nordstrom is clearly the best positioned, both from the standpoint of having relevant and differentiated formats and possessing physical and digital assets that are the closest to being “right-sized” for the future. And call me crazy, but I sense that JC Penney is actually starting to gain some meaningful traction. Dillard’s is a mess and Macy’s and Kohl’s remain very much works in progress.

Regardless, with tepid consumer demand and over-capacity, no department store brand (and I’d include Neiman Marcus and Saks in the mix as well) does especially well until we see further consolidation. And even when that occurs, if department stores keep swimming in a sea of sameness and engaging in a promotional race to the bottom, they have zero chance of getting back to a sustainable, much less interesting, level of performance. Better is nice. Encouraging even. But it is simply not the same as good.

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.

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy

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.

Retail

JC Penney: Better isn’t the same as good

I bought some JC Penney shares on Thursday in advance of their earnings announcement.

I almost never buy individual stocks, but this was an easy decision. Penney’s execution has improved dramatically since Ron Johnson’s departure. Two major competitors–Sears and Kohl’s–are flailing. The year-over-year comparison is absurdly easy. Inventory seems to be tightly managed, which virtually guarantees a solid lift in gross margin. But mostly importantly, negative Wall Street sentiment has been fueled by much fundamental misunderstanding–as evidenced by the large amount of short interest.

My hunch was right. Penney’s reported better than expected performance. And the stock has popped some 15%.

Yet I am keenly aware that better is not the same as good. Penney’s has a huge amount of work to do just to get back to the performance level of the pre-Johnson era which, frankly, was solidly mediocre. The moderate department store sector has basically become a zero sum game where top-line growth must come from stealing share from the competition. And competition is, and will remain, intense.

I am, however, optimistic about the immediate-term. The self-inflicted wounds of the Johnson era are gone. Marketing and merchandising are moving in the right direction. Appropriate attention is now being placed on e-commerce and omni-channel capabilities. As Sears sinks into oblivion, JCP is poised to gain market share and leverage their real estate position. Mike Ullman’s back-to-basics strategy is appropriately conservative and should result in steadily improving gross margins.

It’s also important to note that a year ago Penney’s had done virtually everything one could think of to chase customers away. Importantly, a significant percentage of their stores were off-line in preparation for the home re-launch. Gross margins were getting pummeled by clearance markdowns. Lastly, retail remains a relatively high fixed cost business. As sales improve (both in-store and on-line) Penney’s will start to see tremendous operating leverage.

So for me, better is a virtual certainty for Penney’s–at least for the next few quarters. And those who see the brand at the brink and in need of massive store closings are going to be disappointed (and, as an aside, they also fail to understand the importance of physical stores in driving the online business and overall omni-channel strategy).

Better is easy.

Good? That’s a whole different question.

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy · Customer Insight · Retail

Yes, But You’re Still Ugly . . .

Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who had known each other for several months.  Over time, the man had grown quite fond of the woman and one day he finally got up the nerve to ask her out.  “I’m sorry” she told him, “you seem like a very nice guy, but I just don’t find you physically very attractive.”

The man was disheartened at first, but soon he was energized by the rejection. The very next day he started hitting the gym, and that weekend he got a new haircut at the most expensive salon in town.  Over the next several weeks he continued his workout regimen and spent a fair amount of his paycheck to update his wardrobe.  He even went to get a manicure and facial.

After about a month of his self-improvement plan, he went to the woman and asked her out again.  “I’m sorry” she once again told him, “I can see that you’ve really taken steps to improve your appearance, but there is still just not enough of a physical attraction for me to decide to go out with you.”

While one can certainly challenge the shallowness of this woman’s decision-making process, we can certainly see how businesses, finding themselves in the same situation as the hapless gentleman of this story, adopt the same line of thinking as they seek to improve themselves.

When I was at Sears nearly ten years ago, we had a new senior executive who spent hours and hours digesting the mounds of consumer research that laid bare the challenges we faced in regaining our competitive position.  He was struck by the analysis the showed how our target consumers rated us on important dimensions versus tough competitors like Kohl’s and JC Penney.   “I now see exactly what we need to do” he told us dramatically at an early morning strategy session.  “If we can just focus on closing these gaps, we can really make some progress.”

As I left the meeting–with strong visions of needing to update my resume dancing in my head–one of my direct reports turned to me and said quite sarcastically, albeit accurately: “great, our new strategy is to suck less.”

Better is not necessarily good.  Simply getting closer to what the customer truly values doesn’t engender loyalty and brand evangelism.  “New and improved” does not guarantee a win.

So are you going to be spend your time and resources merely closing the gap with your competition?  Or are you going to innovate, take a risk and leapfrog the pack to do something truly remarkable and-dare I say-beautiful?
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Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy · Customer Insight

Defying the Sea of Sameness

Any business school course on strategy will devote significant time to the importance of competitive differentiation.  We attend marketing conferences where speakers pontificate on the need to have a unique value proposition.  Excellent books like Seth Godin’s Purple Cow preach the benefits of being remarkable to separate yourself from the herd.

Yet any visit to the mall or surfing of the internet quickly reveals an often numbing “sea of sameness.”

This has long been true for many retailers.  But I believe the recession has made it worse.  As retailers have slashed inventory, desperate to demonstrate inventory productivity progress to investors, merchandise assortments have become less interesting, less differentiated, decidedly less remarkable.

By now it should be apparent that a full recovery is going to be slow in coming.  That means revenue growth must come primarily from stealing market share.

Now is the time to go on the offensive.  Now is the time to commit to deeply understanding your target customers’ needs, compromises and preferences and to find ways to innovate, to be truly remarkable.

For some companies, this means embracing the trusted agent role, going out into the market and curating a unique offering for a discerning clientele.  This is what the best specialty boutiques do.

For others, it means finding more exclusive products in the market, leveraging existing vendor relationships to construct a unique offering and/or developing their own compelling private brands.  This is happening across the price spectrum.  Kohl’s recently reported that 47% of revenues now come from exclusive products.  Saks Fifth Avenue is aggressively working to significantly increase its percentage of private label and national brand exclusives to differentiate itself in a challenging luxury market.

I think two basic principles are at work here.  First, a willingness to move away from a product-centric, gross margin rate maximization mind-set to embrace customer-centricity and all that entails.  Second, an acceptance that it is actually more risky to play it safe and swim in the sea of sameness.

Someone in your industry will decide to break away from the herd and gobble up share while the competition is on their heels.  What’s your choice?
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