What if retail traffic declines last forever?

The results keep pouring in and they don’t bode well for brick & mortar retail. Across just about every sector and virtually every time period, traffic to physical stores continues to decline.

Of course, for the most part, we aren’t buying less, we are shopping differently. The obvious dominant trend is the explosion of e-commerce, and the one player accounting for the most growth is Amazon. Yet the real news for everyone else is how shoppers are diversifying the channels in which they research purchases and ultimately transact. This so-called “omni-channel” world is wreaking havoc with traditional retailers’ underlying economics and, like most things, the future will not be evenly distributed.

The vast majority of retailers have now likely entered a period where comparable store traffic will never increase again for any sustained period of time.

That’s profound. And more than a bit scary.

Drops in store traffic almost always dictate sales declines. Given that physical stores have relatively high fixed costs (rent, inventory, staffing, etc.) a material drop in revenue deleverages operating costs and profits fall disproportionately. This long-term (and increasingly widespread) trend is causing a great deleveraging across many retail segments and is the primary reason so many stores are being closed. It’s also causing brands to rethink the size and operating nature of the stores that remain or they plan to open. These shifts will prove seismic.

While there is a belief that e-commerce’s economics are superior to brick & mortar stores, that frequently is not the case, primarily owing to challenging supply chain costs, high product returns and compressed margins. As traditional retailers invest heavily in building their digital operations–and creating the much vaunted seamlessly integrated shopping experience–many are merely spending a lot of money to move sales from one channel to the other, often at lower profitability. Even brands such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and, to a lesser degree, Macy’s, that are often touted as omni-channel pioneers and have industry leading online penetration, have seen profit growth stall despite massive investments.

Roughly 90% of all retail is still done in physical stores. Yet the growth of e-commerce will continue unabated and the resulting drop in store traffic is an undeniable and unrelenting force. With rare exception, there is little any retailer can do to stem this tide. One key focus must therefore be on right-sizing store counts and the remaining stores’ footprints and operating costs. But the far more important strategy is to create a remarkable customer experience across all channels that reflects how consumers shop today and the intersectionality of digital and physical channels. Ultimately the key is to maximize customer growth, loyalty and profitability irrespective of where the customer decides to transact.

The pain of store traffic declines is inevitable.

The degree of suffering from it remains optional.

 

This post originally appeared on Forbes where I recently became a contributor. You can check out more of my writing by going here.

Stop blaming Amazon for department store woes

Given Amazon’s staggering growth and willingness to lose money to grab market share it’s easy to blame them for everything that is ailing “traditional” retail overall–and the  department store sector in particular.

In fact, with announcements last week from Macy’s to Kohl’s and Sears to JC Penney that could only charitably be called “disappointing” many folks that get paid to understand this stuff reflexively jumped on the “it’s all Amazon’s fault” bandwagon. Too bad they are mostly wrong.

The fact is the department store sector has been losing consumer relevance and share for a long, long time–and certainly well before Amazon had even a detectable amount of competing product in core department store categories.

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The fact is it’s just as logical to blame off-price and warehouse club retailer growth–which is almost entirely done in physical locations, by the way–for department stores’ problems.

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The fact is that, despite other challenges along the way, Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus have maintained share by transitioning a huge amount of their brick & mortar business to their online channels and have closed only a handful of stores in the last few years. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus now both derive some 25% of their total sales from e-commerce.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Amazon isn’t stealing business from the major department store players. Clearly they are. And as Amazon continues to grow its apparel business they will grab more and more share.

But the underlying reason for department stores decades long struggle is the sector’s consistent inability to transform their customer experience, product assortments, marketing strategies and real estate to meet consumers’ evolving needs.

More recently, those brands that have been slow to embrace digital first retail are scrambling to play catch up. Those that still haven’t broken down the silos that create barriers to a frictionless shopping experience will continue to hemorrhage customers and cash.

Most importantly those that think they can out Amazon Amazon are engaged in a race to the bottom. And as Seth reminds us, the problem with a race to the bottom is that you might win.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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