Retail earnings: The best of times, the worst of times

This is a big earnings period for retailers. As the reports roll in, it’s increasingly clear that it’s both the best of times and the worst of times for retail.

While performance overall is, on average, much better than a year ago, what continues to come into sharper relief are three inescapable conclusions. First, as I have been saying for years, the idea that physical retail is dying is abject nonsense. Second, retailers that are stuck in a cycle of boring are getting crushed, and the middle is collapsing. Third, as our friends at Deloitte have recently outlined in depth, the bifurcation of retail is becoming more pronounced. The overall conclusion is that the difference between the haves and the have nots is ever more distinct.

On the first point, strong performance from multiple brick-and-mortar dominant retailers, including Target and Home Depot, underscores that stores are not only going to be around for a long time, they will continue to have the dominant share of retail in many categories for the foreseeable future.

On my second point, significant underperformance ( JC Penney ), store closings ( Sears Holdings ) and bankruptcies (Toys “R” Us) continue to be concentrated among those retailers that have failed to carve out a meaningful position toward the more value, convenience-oriented end of the spectrum or, conversely, to move in a more focused, upscale experiential strategic direction. Those that continue to swim in a sea of sameness edge ever closer to the precipice. Increasingly, it’s death in the relentlessly boring middle.

The great bifurcation point, of course, is related to this phenomenon. Despite the retail apocalypse narrative, solidly executing retailers at either end of the spectrum continue to perform well. Sales, profits and store openings are robust at TJX Companies , Walmart and many others that play on the value end. A similar story can be painted for the premium, service-oriented retail brands such as Nordstrom and Williams-Sonoma.

As the scorecards continue to come in, there are a few key things we should bear in mind. The most important is that better is not the same as good. While positive sales and expanding margins certainly beat the alternative, the improved performance at brands like Macy’s and Kohl’s should not reflexively make us think that all is now well. Their sales growth is more or less in line with overall category growth. So there isn’t any reason to believe they are growing relative market share, which is generally a pretty good proxy for improving customer relevance.

Second, we should expect decent earnings leverage with improved sales, given the relatively fixed cost nature of the business. It’s more important to put the margin performance in the context of “best in breed” competitors. Here, most in the gang of most improved still fall short.

Third, a rising tide tends to raise all ships. This happens to be a particularly good time for consumer spending. It’s anybody’s guess if, and how long, retail expenditures will meaningfully exceed the rate of inflation.

From a more strategic, longer-term perspective, we need to sort out what is at the core of improving outcomes. If it’s riding the wave of a particularly ebullient economic cycle, that’s wonderful but not likely sustainable. If it’s starting to realize more fully the benefits of major technology investments, asset redeployment and/or picking up share from a rash of store closings on the part of competitors, that’s also nice, but those gains are likely to plateau fairly quickly. If margin improvement comes from big cost reductions, those often are more one-time gains and may ultimately weaken a given retailer’s competitive position over time.

What really matters, of course, is that most of the gains are coming from fundamentally being more intensely relevant and remarkable than the customer’s other choices. Viewed from this lens, many retailers’ improved results are necessary but far from sufficient.

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.  

September 6th I will be in New York for the Retail Influencer Network Kick-off.  On September 19th I’ll be speaking at Total Retail Tech in Dallas. The following Monday I’m headed to Austin to do the opening keynote at the Next Conference.

Is this the beginning of a department store renaissance? Eh, not so much.

Nearly two weeks ago Macy’s beat quarterly sales and earnings expectations and many on Wall Street promptly lost their mind. Same story with Dillard’s. Then Kohl’s followed up with a similarly surprising upside report that led some to conclude that maybe, just maybe, the long-beleaguered department store sector might be seeing a resurgence or—dare we say it out loud?—the beginning of a renaissance.

Alas, this rising ebullience seems far more driven by a mix of hope, misunderstanding and a heaping side order of denial than any compelling evidence that the tide is turning in any meaningful or sustainable way. Once again we are in real danger of confusing better with good.

To be sure, both Macy’s and Kohl’s sales and profits were much improved over last year. Yet their performance must be viewed from the perspective of both short-term factors and longer-term realities. On the clearly positive side there is solid evidence that both struggling retailers are executing better. In Macy’s case, inventory looks to be well managed (yielding fewer markdowns) and efforts to capture cost efficiencies appear to be paying dividends. A few targeted strategic initiatives, including Kohl’s partnership with Amazon, seem to be driving some incremental business.

With a bit more context, however, these results aren’t really all that stellar. And they most definitely are not yet strong indicators of any substantive turnaround. Notably, both retailers’ sales benefitted significantly from the move of a major promotional event into the quarter. Without this shift, same-store sales would have increased only about 1.7% at Macy’s, and Kohl’s would have been more or less flat (not that this metric is all that useful anymore anyway). That is neither keeping up with inflation nor maintaining pace with the overall growth of the broader categories in which they compete. The optimist might see losing market share at a slightly slower rate as a win. The realist opines that there is a lot more work to do to go from decidedly lackluster to objectively good.

The other thing to bear in mind is that J.C. Penney and Sears (and now Bon-Ton) have been leaking volume through store closings and comparable store sales declines. It’s hard to imagine that Macy’s and Kohl’s have not benefitted materially from this dynamic. While J.C. Penney’s future is increasingly uncertain, any upside from Bon-Ton will be short-lived. Sears looks to be the gift that keeps giving, though likely for only a few quarters more as I expect that Sears will close substantially all of its full-line stores within the next year. While this creates one-time market share gaining opportunities and fixed cost leverage, once the dust settles two factors will come into sharper relief.

The first is the contributions from a strong economy. Recent macro-economic factors have been generally positive for the product categories in which Macy’s and Kohl’s compete. Whether there will continue to be some wind beneath the sails of U.S. retail more broadly—and for the moderate-priced apparel, accessories and home categories in particular—remains to be seen. Clearly my crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s—and maybe worse. But my best guess is that both the economy and the jump ball for market share occasioned by department store consolidation peaks within the next few quarters.

The second factor that looms large seems to be the one Wall Street forgets. The moderate department store sector has been in decline for a long, long time. Some of this has to do with evolving customer trends. Some with stagnant income growth. Some with the rise of superior competing business models: initially category killers, then off-price and dollar stores and now, increasingly, Amazon. And some with more than a fair share of self-inflicted wounds. Regardless, the entire moderate sector, to varying degrees, is stuck in the vast, undifferentiated and boring middle. A somewhat better version of mediocre may the first step on an eventual path to greatness, but it may be just that: a first step.

Lift the veil from a quarter or two of slightly above average performance and the drivers of broader share losses (and related widespread shuttering of stores) continue unabated. Off-price and dollar stores, which in recent years have accounted for the biggest drain on Macy’s, Kohl’s et al., are opening up hundreds of new stores at the same time they are starting to turn up their digital game. Amazon is becoming a bigger factor everyday—and it has yet to make a big push into physical stores. Even if any of the leading department stores miraculously became more innovative and customer relevant they would continue to face significant headwinds. Bottom line: show me someone who believes that a transformation of mid-priced department stores is possible in the foreseeable future and you’ve probably clued me into who has been providing Eddie Lampert with his strategic consulting advice.

As the middle continues to collapse, it is now completely a market-share game. The near-term good news is that Macy’s and Kohl’s competition has made it relatively easy to grab some share. The near-term good news is that a generally healthy economy tends to raise the tide for all. The near-term good news is that Macy’s and Kohl’s operating discipline allows them to convert relatively small sales increases into nice incremental profit opportunities.

The bad news is neither one of them goes from incrementally better to demonstrably good until they make much more substantive and fundamental strategic changes that move them from mostly boring to truly remarkable. Neither brand has spelled out what that looks like in any compelling fashion. And once designed, getting there from here is no small task. Until then, it is way too early to declare victory.

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.  

On June 15 I will be doing a keynote at The Shopper Insights & Retail Activation Conference in Chicago. Contact me for a special discount. For more on my speaking and workshops go here.

Better is not the same as good for department stores stuck in the middle

As most U.S. department stores reported earnings recently, a certain level of ebullience took hold. Macy’sKohl’s and even Dillard’s, for crying out loud, beat Wall Street expectations, sending their respective shares higher. J.C. Penney, which has failed to gain any real traction despite Sears’ flagging fortunes, continued to disappoint, suggesting that I probably need to revisit my somewhat hopeful perspective from last year. And in the otherworldliness that is the stock market, Nordstrom — the only department store with a truly distinctive value proposition and objectively good results — traded down on its failure to live up to expectations.

Given how beaten down the moderate department store sector has been, a strong quarter or two might seem like cause for celebration–or at least guarded optimism. I beg to differ.

First, we need to remember that the improved performance comes mostly against a backdrop of easy comparisons, an unusually strong holiday season and tight inventory management. There is also likely some material (largely one-time) benefit from the significant number of competitive store closings and aggressive cost reduction programs that most have put in place.

Second, and more importantly, we cannot escape the fact that mid-priced department stores in the U.S. (and frankly, much of the developed world) all continue to suffer from an epidemic of boring. Boring assortments. Boring presentation. Boring real estate. Boring marketing. Boring customer service. And on and on. For the most part, they are all swimming in a sea of sameness at a time when the market continues to bifurcate and it’s increasingly clear that, for many players, it’s death in the middle. It’s nice that some are doing a bit better, but as I pointed out last summer, we should not confuse better with good.

To actually be good — and to offer investors a chance for sustained equity appreciation — a lot more has to happen. And while being less bad may be necessary, it is far from sufficient. Most critically, all of the major players still need to amplify their points of differentiation on virtually all elements of the shopping experience. It’s comparatively simple to close cash-draining stores, root out cost inefficiencies and tweak assortments. It’s another thing entirely to address the fundamental reasons that department stores have been ceding market share to the off-price, value-oriented, fast-fashion and more focused specialty players for more than a decade. And now with apparel and home goods increasingly in Amazon’s growth crosshairs, there has never been a more urgent need to not only to embrace radical improvement, but to really step on the gas.

Without a complete re-imagination of the department store sector — and frankly who even knows what that could actually look like — near-term improvements only pause the segment’s long-term secular decline.

It’s unclear how much the eventual demise of Sears and the inevitable closing of additional locations on the part of other players will benefit those still left standing. It’s unclear whether the current up-cycle in consumer spending will be maintained for more than another quarter or two. What is crystal clear, however, is that incremental improvement in margin and comparable sales growth rates merely a point or two above inflation never makes any of these mid-priced department stores objectively good.

Ultimately, without radical change, it all comes down to clawing back a bit of market share and squeezing out a bit more efficiency in what continues to be a slowly sinking sector riddled with mediocrity. Boring, but true.

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.  

bridges_down_01

NOTE: March 19 – 21st I’ll be in Las Vegas for ShopTalk, where I will be moderating a panel on new store design as well as doing a Tweetchat on “Shifting eCommerce Trends & Technologies.”  

Department Store Shares Are Up. Your Hopes Shouldn’t Be.

Amidst reports that holiday spending was up nearly 4.9%, some optimism about the American moderate department store sector has started to creep back in. In fact, right after these reports shares of Macys, Dillards, Kohls and JC Penney spiked. It’s all a bit baffling.

On the one hand, if I were a betting person, I expect that these brands will report decent, maybe even objectively good, numbers this quarter. Consumer confidence is strong, the stock market is up and many regular folks (mistakenly) believe that their income will be up materially on the heels of the new tax bill. From a retailer perspective, the burst of cold weather bodes well for sales of seasonal items. Tighter inventories, store closings and other expense reductions should lead to year-over-year profit improvements.

On the other hand, none of this fundamentally changes the relative competitive positions of these retailers. And that means until several other things change, the overall outlook for the sector remains pretty gloomy.

As I pointed out several months ago, at least two major things must happen before any optimism about the prospects of any of the middle market department store brands is warranted.

First, there is still too much capacity chasing a shrinking pie of spending. While it may turn out that these chains picked up a bit of market share over the holidays, the sector remains in overall decline and any blip in consumer spending ebullience isn’t very likely to continue into 2018. More store closings need to occur to get supply better in line with sustained demand. As Sears sinks into oblivion, and the remaining big four close additional locations early next year, there is some hope for the future. For now though, capacity remains out of whack.

More importantly, the major moderate department stores have picked a really bad time to be boring. They remain stuck in the vast, largely undifferentiated middle, drowning in a sea of sameness. And, unfortunately, it’s death in the middle. These major chains all have considerable work to do to create a more harmonious shopping experience, to up there game on personalization and to find places in both their assortment strategies and customer experience to be more relevant and remarkable. They remain overly attached to competing on price, when fundamentally that is deciding to compete in a race to the bottom which–spoiler alert–they will never win.

The notion that department stores are fundamentally doomed is just as silly as the retail apocalypse narrative. So too is the idea that Amazon is solely to blame for department store woes. Yet the structural reasons for the declining state of the sector remain intact. The only way any of these brands deserve stock appreciation is for more rationalization to occur (which is inevitable) and for them to truly embrace more innovation and to have the courage to become more intensely relevant and remarkable.

Then again, there is always the hope they get bought out by Amazon.

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.

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.

bridges_down_01

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.