Growing share is retail’s new black

Nearly two years ago I wrote about what I saw as Retail’s zero-sum game.

My hypothesis was that, for the foreseeable future, top-line growth across most retail sectors was likely to be tepid at best. I also hinted at an upcoming slowdown in the once resilient luxury segment. Looks like I was being optimistic.

Today’s dismal earnings announcement from Macy’s featured a quarterly sales decline of more than 7%. It’s yet another in a series of lackluster–and often frightening–reports from established retailers across just about every segment of the market. It certainly won’t be the last. Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The reality is that there are profound shifts in consumer behavior and the underlying economics of omni-channel retail that go way beyond Amazon’s impact or what’s rapidly becoming a digital-first retail world.

In case you haven’t noticed your customers now have the upper hand. More and more, consumers are valuing experiences over products, renting over buying, trading down instead of trading up, holding out for the best price and on and on. None of this bodes well for an expanding pie or a rising tide that raises all ships.

Your job then–plain and simple–is to gain share; to get more out of the same sized (or even shrinking) pie. And thus there are two things you need to be really, really good at: acquiring (and then retaining) customers at a disproportionate rate from your competitors and growing share of wallet among those existing customers that have the best potential for long-term profitability.

You can go on and on about bold omni-channel plans, your seamless shopping experience and your really cool Instagram strategy. But if you can’t articulate how you are going to be remarkable and relevant for your best customers and prospects at the point of acquisition and customer growth chances are you are focused on the wrong things.

And if you aren’t busting your hump to get those ideas into action, you had better step on the gas.






Umm, so then why aren’t your sales better?

You’ve probably heard quite a few retailers proclaim some version of “customers who shop across our multiple channels spend 2, 3, 4, even 6 times, that of our average customer.”

When I worked at Sears that is what we saw and that is what we said. Years later, when I headed up strategy and multichannel marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group, that was what our data showed and that is what we told the world. As “omni-channel” has become the clarion call of retail during the past several years, dozens of brands have employed this observation as a primary rationale for substantial investments in beefing up digital commerce and investing in cross channel integration.

But it raises an interesting question.

If it’s true that multichannel customers spend a whole lot more and all these companies have become much better at omni-channel, why aren’t their sales better?  In fact, why is it that most of the retailers who have made such statements–and invested heavily in seamless commerce–are barely able to eek out a positive sales increase?

Something doesn’t seem to add up. So what exactly is going on here?

The main thing to understand is the fallacy that becoming omni-channel somehow magically creates higher spending customers. A retailer’s best customers are almost always higher frequency shoppers who, obviously, happen to trust the brand more than the average person. When alternate, more convenient ways to shop emerge, they are most likely to try them first and, because they shop more frequently, it’s more likely that they will distribute their spending across multiple channels. Best customers become multichannel, not the other way around.

If it were true that traditional retailers are creating a lot more high spending customers by virtue of being more multichannel, the only way the math works is that they must at the same time be losing lots of other customers and/or doing a horrible job of attracting new customers–which somewhat undermines the whole omni-channel thesis. It’s also rather easy to do this customer analysis. I long for the day when I see this sort of discussion actually occur at an investor presentation or on an earnings call.

There WAS a time when being really good at digital commerce and making shopping across channels more seamless was a way for traditional retailers to acquire new customers, to grow share of wallet and to create a real point of competitive differentiation. Nordstrom is a great example of a company that benefitted from this strategy during the past decade, but is now starting to struggle to get newer investments to pay off as the playing field gets leveled.

So-called “omni-channel” excellence is quickly becoming the price of entry in nearly every category. Most investment in better e-commerce–or omni-channel functionality like “buy online pick-up in store”–is defensive; that is, if a brand doesn’t do it they risk losing share. But it’s harder and harder to make the claim that it’s going to grow top-line sales faster than the competition.

Retailers that find themselves playing catch up are primarily spending money to drive existing business from the physical channel to the web. That’s responsive to customer wants and needs, but it’s rarely accretive to earnings. It’s also a major reason we don’t see overall sales getting any better at Macy’s, Sears, Dick’s Sporting Goods and whole host of other brands that have invested mightily in all things omni-channel.

As we dissect customer behavior, as we understand the new competitive reality, as we wake up to the fact that most retailers are spending a lot of money to shift sales from one side of the ledger to the other, it’s clear that omni-channel is no panacea and that many of the promises of vendors, consultants and assorted gurus were no more than pipe dreams.

Yes, chances are you need a compelling digital presence. Yes, you had better get good at mobile fast. Yes, you need to assure a frictionless experience across channels. Yes, your data will probably show that customers who shop in multiple channels spend more than your average shopper. But so what?

If you’ve invested heavily in omni-channel and your sales, profits and net promoter scores are not moving up, could it be your working on the wrong problem?







Attraction, not promotion (redux)

If you are familiar with 12-step recovery programs you know about the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which goes as follows: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.”

The obvious reason for this practice is that 12 Step programs have the anonymity of their attendees at their core. Moreover, AA–and its spin-off programs–reject self-seeking as a personal value. But it goes deeper.

Most people do not wish to sold to. If I have to hit you over the head again and again with my message, perhaps you are not open to receiving it. Or maybe what I’m selling just isn’t for you. Shouting louder and more often, or pitching all sorts of enticements, may be an intelligent, short-term way to drive a first visit, but all too often it’s a sign of desperation or lack of inspiration.

12 Step programs were among the first programs to go viral. They gained momentum through word of mouth and blossomed into powerful tribes as more and more struggling addicts learned about and came to embrace a recovery lifestyle. No TV. No radio. No sexy print campaigns. No gift cards. No ‘3 suits for the price of 1’. When it works it’s largely because those seeking relief want what others in the program have.

In the business world, it’s easy to see some parallels. Successful brands like Nordstrom, Apple and Neiman Marcus run very few promotional events and have little “on sale” most days of the year. And, it turns out, they sell a very large percentage of their products at full price and have low advertising to sales ratios. Customers are attracted to these brands because of the differentiated customer experience, well curated and unique merchandise and many, many stories of highly satisfied customers. Net Promoter Scores are high.

Contrast this with Macy’s, Sears and a veritable clown car of other retailers who inundate us with TV commercials, a mountain of circulars and endless promotions and discounts. Full-price selling is almost non-existent. How many of these brands’ shoppers go because it is truly their favorite place to shop? How many rave about their experience to their friends? Unsurprisingly, marketing costs are high, margins are low and revenues are stagnant or declining.

Migrating to a strategy rooted in attraction vs. promotion does not suit every brand, nor is it an easy, risk-free journey. Yet, I have to wonder how many brands even take the time to examine these fundamentally different approaches?

How many are intentional about their choices to go down one path vs. the other? How many want to win by authentically working to persuade their best prospects to say “I’ll have what she’s having” instead of beating the dead horse of relentless sales promotion and being stuck in a race to the bottom.

Maybe you can win on price for a little while. Maybe you can out shout the other guys for a bit. Maybe, just maybe, if you can coerce a few more suckers, er, I mean customers, to give you a try, you can make this quarter’s sales plan.

And sure we didn’t make any money, but we’re investing in the future, right?


Omni-channel’s migration dilemma: Holiday edition

Last year I wrote a post about what I called retail’s “omni-channel migration dilemma” wherein I observed that while the deployment of so-called omni-channel strategies–i.e. making it easier for consumers to shop anytime, anywhere, anyway–improves the customer experience immensely, the outcomes for most retailers were, thus far, not quite so wonderful.

At the heart of this argument were three core points:

  • With few exceptions, omni-channel retailers’ total revenues remain essentially flat, meaning that robust growth online is mostly cannabilizing brick & mortar sales;
  • In many cases, the profitability of e-commerce is actually worse than a physical store sale. This is particularly true for lower transaction value players like Walmart and Target.
  • In their quest to become “all things omni-channel”, retailers are investing enormous sums–and in some cases–getting distracted from arguably higher value-added activities.

You don’t have to be a math whiz to understand that spending a lot of money to end up–if you’re lucky–with basically the same total revenue at a lower margin is not exactly a genius strategy. But this is where we find Macy’s and many other retailers right now.

The omni-channel frenzy around the holiday shopping season only shines a harsher light on the issue. By launching sales earlier and earlier, by pushing deep discount events like Cyber Monday and by offering free shipping pretty much throughout the season, the tilt toward online sales is exacerbated and margins continue to shrink. Consumers win through great deals. And retailers lose, as overall sales are likely to go absolutely nowhere.

Now some have argued that omni-channel is ruining retail. They are wrong. They’re wrong not only because it is pointless to fight reality, but also because efforts that are fundamentally rooted in the desire to improve the customer experience are rarely misguided. The key is not to confuse necessary with sufficient, nor “the what” with “the how.”

So we should not get distracted by analysts who try to extrapolate one or two days of sales as part of some trend.

And we should bear in mind that online sales for most omni-channel retailers remain far less than 10% of their total business. So even healthy e-commerce growth is not likely to offset seemingly small declines in physical stores sales. You don’t have to trust me on this. Do the math.

But mostly we should remember that the story is not about all things omni-channel, nor what happens on Black Friday, Cyber Monday or the few weeks that comprise the holiday shopping season.

It IS about which retailers are breaking through the sea of sameness with remarkable product AND a remarkable experience. It is about which retailers are eliminating friction for the consumers that matter the most in the places that matter most. It is about which retailers are eschewing one-size-fits-all strategies in favor of a “treat different customers differently” philosophy. It is about retailers that know where to focus and how to properly sequence their omni-channel initiatives, not blindly chase everything some consultant has pitched them.

Clearly, the future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed.

Don’t be blinded by the hype.

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.


The outlet store long con

One of the hottest sectors in retail is the “off-price” or outlet segment. Established players like TJX, Ross and Nordstrom Rack continue to open stores at a solid clip while also expanding their e-commerce capabilities. Neiman Marcus, Saks and Macy’s have identified their outlet store strategy as a growth platform. Scores of fashion designers and other manufacturers have joined Ralph Lauren and Nike in filling up outlet centers across the globe. And despite their stumbles, so-called “flash-sales” sites like Gilt and HauteLook have developed significant market share.

Clearly there are aspirational customers at every price point, not to mention plenty of people who just simply hate to pay full price. For both types of customer segments the outlet store value proposition is straight-forward and compelling: well-known brand names at 20-60% off the regular price.

The appeal to brands can be compelling as well. An off-price strategy can be a sensible way of creating an “opening price” point format that generates incremental growth while bringing new customers into the brand’s eco-system. And to be completely transparent, I strongly advocated precisely this type of approach when I headed strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group–a version of which they have been implementing in recent years.

Yet with all the touted strategic benefits, not to mention all the hype that surrounds the sector, there is more and more deception and denial creeping in. I suspect it won’t be long before we see a major recalibration of the prospects for the sector and many of its participants. Here’s why.

The product con. While the industry tries hard to create the impression that the product in outlets is the same as the consumer would find in full-price stores, that is rarely the case. In fact, whether we are talking about Neiman Marcus’ Last Call Studio, Saks Off 5th or the Gap Factory Outlet stores, the vast majority of the merchandise carried is made specifically for those channels. For more on this check out this story on Racked.

The price con. So if most of the product was never for sale anywhere else how does the retailer come up with the  “compare at” price to calculate those big savings? Great question. Here’s the answer: They make it up–or as TJ Maxx likes to say,  it’s “estimated.”

The brand con. Any time a strong brand launches a derivative, lower-priced version they are entering treacherous waters. Done properly, the core brand suffers no loss of equity and benefits from a growing customer base. Done poorly, the effort can be highly dilutive, confusing and ultimately unprofitable. Nordstrom has done a masterful job of segmenting its customer base for the full-line and Rack stores and has been able, thus far, to make the strategy additive. But not every brand has been so disciplined (I’m looking at you Coach) and many are now opening outlet stores at such a rate–and out of proportion to their full-price business–that red flags need to be raised, even at Nordstrom.

The growth con. When the core business is stagnant, it’s easy for retailers to chase the growing bright shiny object. Yet it’s hard to escape the reality that North America is severely over-stored and that overall retail spending is barely growing above the rate of inflation. So for the many retailers opening many outlet stores over the next few years it’s mostly about grabbing market share. That’s fairly easy when it’s a few new locations. It’s not so easy when everyone is opening a lot of new stores and there are many new competing business models. When some of these new stores don’t make their numbers there will be pressure to “open the aperture” on product, pricing and promotion. And it’s Coach all over again.

Of course it’s fair to say that even if consumers knew the whole story they might not care. It’s fair to say that given the challenges to the traditional department store model, many of these retailers have no choice but to double down on outlet stores.

But it’s also fair to say that we’ve seen many of these companies overshoot the runway before. And it’s fair to say that in what’s becoming a zero-sum game not everyone can be a winner.