Retail · The 8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail

Nordstrom: No good deeds go unpunished

Nordstrom–not only one of my favorite places to shop but also a brand I regularly feature in my keynotes on remarkable retail–recently reported strong quarterly operating performance and raised its outlook. So, naturally the stock promptly got whacked–and continues to be caught up in the market downdraft. To be sure, a non-recurring $72MM charge related to credit card billing errors does not inspire confidence. But unless this unexpected earnings hit suggests some underlying management issue it indicates nothing about the go-forward health of the business which, from where I sit, looks rather healthy.

It IS a confusing time for shares of most retailers. I’m not talking about JC Penney, Sears or legions of others hopelessly stuck in the boring middle. I’m referring to companies that are not only competitively well positioned but have also recently reported solid sales and earnings. Despite a strong consumer outlook, everyone from Amazon to Walmart to Macy’s to Home Depot to Target seems to be falling out of favor. Some of this is surely part of the broader market correction and lingering tariff concerns. But much of it is more than a bit mystifying.

In Nordstrom’s case, I remain bullish. The company is showing signs of maturity and is hardly immune from the competitive pressures brought on by industry over-building and digital disruption. Barring a wholly new and unexpected major growth initiative, the accessible luxury retailer has few new locations to open and already has a very well developed e-commerce and off-price business. Yet they seem to be executing well on most of my 8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail and that bodes well for the future. Let’s take a closer look.

  1. Digitally-enabled. For more than a decade Nordstrom has not only been building out best-in-class e-commerce capabilities (online sales now account for 30% of total company revenues!), but architecting its customer experience to reflect that the majority of physical stores sales start in a digital channel. Nordstrom complements its already excellent in-store customer service by arming many sales associated with tablets or other mobile devices.
  2. Human-centered. Being “customer-centric” sounds good, but most efforts fall short largely because brands do not actually incorporate empathetic design-thinking into just about everything they do. Nordstrom, like their neighbors up the street, are much closer to customer-obsessed than virtually all of their competition.
  3. Harmonized. This is my reframe of the over-used term “omni-channel.” But unlike the way many retailers have approached all things omni, it’s not about being everywhere, it’s showing up remarkably where it matters. And it’s realizing that customers don’t care about channels and it’s all just commerce. The key is to execute a one brand, many channels strategy where discordant notes in the customer experience are rooted out and the major areas of experiential delight are amplified. Nordstrom scores well on all key dimensions here–and has for some time. Nordstrom was a first mover in deploying buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS) and continues to elevate its capabilities by dedicating (and expanding) in-store service desks, among other points of seamless integration.
  4. Personal. With a newly improved loyalty program, private label credit card business and high e-commerce penetration, Nordstrom has a massive amount of customer data to make everything it does more intensely customer relevant. Its targeted marketing efforts are good and getting better and it has identified implementing “personalization at scale” as a strategic priority. Fine-tuning its one-to-one marketing efforts, introducing more customized products and experiences and further leveraging its personal shopping program represent additional upside opportunities.
  5. Mobile. Recognizing that a smart device is an increasingly common (and important) companion in most customers’s shopping journeys, Nordstrom has been building out its capabilities, including acquiring two leading edge tech companies earlier this year. Its increasingly sophisticated and useful app has helped earn the brand a top ratingin 2018 Gartner L2’s Digital IQ rankings.
  6. Connected. While there are opportunities to participate more actively in the sharing economy, Nordstrom’s overall social game is strong, earning it the leading US department store rating from BrandWatch.
  7. Memorable. While its department store brethren are swimming in a sea of sameness, Nordstrom excels on delivering unique and relevant customer service and product. It continues to strengthen its merchandise game by offering a well-curated range of price points across multiple formats. This offering is increasingly differentiated–either because the brands are exclusive to Nordstrom or are in limited distribution. Nordstrom’s plan to up the penetration of “preferred”, “emerging” and “owned” brands strengthens the brand’s uniqueness and should provide improved margin opportunities.
  8. Radical. Nordstrom is not quite Amazon-like in its commitment to a culture of experimentation and willingness to fail forward, but they have placed some pretty big equity bets in fast-growing brands like HauteLook, Bonobos and Trunk Club (whoops), in addition to being one of the first traditional retailers to launch an innovation lab (since absorbed back into the company). They are constantly trying new things online and in-store. Most interesting are their new Local concepts  Unlike some competitors who are trying smaller format stores mostly by editing out products and/or whole categories, Local is a completely re-conceptualized format emphasizing services and convenience. These stores have the potential to be materially additive to market share on a trade-area by trade-area basis.

As mentioned at the outset, Nordstrom is a comparatively mature brand with limited major growth pathways. But to view the company from the lens that is weighing on most “traditional” retailers does not appreciate the degree to which the company has outstanding real estate (~95% of full-line stores are in “A” malls), one of the few materially profitable and superbly-integrated digital businesses, strong customer loyalty and important differentiators in customer service and merchandise offerings. Moreover, most of its out-sized capital investments (including expansion into Canada and NYC) will soon be behind it.

Nordstrom will never have the upside that Amazon (or even TJX) has. But it is one of the best positioned, well-executed retailers on the planet. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Maybe it’s time for a little bit more respect?

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.  

I’m honored to have been named one of the top 5 retail voices on LinkedIn.  Thanks to all of you that continue to follow and share my work.

Collapse of the middle · Embrace the blur · Retail

Strange bedfellows? Legacy retailer and disruptive brand partnerships are on the rise.

As the middle continues to collapse—and many well established retailers struggle to move from boring to remarkable—brands must continually seek new ways to become unique, more intensely relevant and truly memorable. One strategy that seems to be picking up steam involves so-called digitally native brands creating alliances with much larger legacy retail companies. Earlier this month, as just one example, Walgreen’s announced a partnership with fast growing online beauty brand Birchbox. An initial pilot will feature a Birchbox offering in 11 Walgreen stores.

The Walgreen’s and Birchbox deal is only the most recent of many business marriages forged in recent years. Target has been especially forward leaning, expanding its assortments via industry disruptors Casper (mattresses), Quip (ultrasonic toothbrushes) and Harry’s (razorblades), among more than a half dozen others. Nordstrom has been active as well, having added (and invested in) Bonobo’s (menswear) way back in 2012. More recently, it has augmented its offering with Reformation (women’s clothing) and Allbirds (shoes). Earlier this year Macy’s invested in and expanded the number of stores featuring b8ta’s store-within-a store concept and Blue Apron began testing distribution through Costco.

I first came to understand the potential power of these alliances when I worked on Sears’ 2002 acquisition of Lands’ End. While the roll-out of Lands’ End products at Sears was horribly botched (and hindered by Sears’ bigger problems), the strategic motivations are easy to grasp. For Sears, struggling to offer powerfully customer relevant brands that weren’t widely distributed at competing retailers, Land’s End held the promise of providing product differentiation, an image upgrade and acquiring new apparel shoppers. For Lands’ End, gaining access to hundreds of Sears stores provided substantially broadened customer reach, lower customer acquisition cost and improved product return rates. Importantly, Lands’ End management knew the biggest barrier to growing its customer base was making it easy for potential customers to experience the product in person—something only physical stores could help deliver. The Sears deal addressed this issue rapidly and at dramatically lower incremental capital investment.

More than 15 years later, the rationale for retailers with a large brick-and-mortar footprint and newer D2C brands to hook up is only stronger. In a world where consumers have nearly infinite product choices and it’s quite easy to shop on the basis of price, it’s never been more important for retailers to differentiate their assortments. Private brands (not “labels”) are one critically important element. Exclusive (or narrowly) distributed products is the other. Not only do these alliances present brands that are largely unique at retail, they can help boost a legacy brand’s overall image, attract new customers and drive incremental traffic.

For many fast-growing digitally native brands the appeal of such partnerships is compelling as well. While many of these brands are opening their own stores, some have used these partnership to test the waters prior to embarking on their own brick-and-mortar strategy. Some use wholesale distribution to drive incremental business in markets where their own stores won’t work. Others (Quip and Harry’s are prime examples) can expand their consumer reach when an owned store strategy simply won’t make sense given their particularly narrow products lines. The opportunity to dramatically expand customer awareness and trial with very little incremental marketing or capital investment is especially attractive.

Of course traditional retail and digitally native brands alike must be quite intentional about how strategic alliances advance their long-term goals. Yet done for the right reason and executed well, these partnerships can address real pain points for each and help accelerate growth. As Amazon continues to gobble up market share—and more and more tools are introduced to help consumers compare product features and prices from any and all retailers—retail brands will face increasing pressure to find meaningful and memorable points of differentiation. And, as the broader market is finally starting to accept, few disruptive direct-to-consumer brands can scale profitability without a material brick-and-mortar presence.

Seen in this light, the rise in these partnership is far from strange. Indeed, they often are quite logical. Which is why we are likely to see quite a few more in the very near future.

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.  

November 8th I’ll kick of the eRetailerSummit in Chicago. For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. 

Harmonized · Loyalty Marketing · Personal · Retail

Nordstrom ups the ante with new loyalty program

Last week Nordstrom, the U.S.-based fashion retailer, announced the launch of a new loyalty program. Despite its rather uninspired name, The Nordy Club is intended to broaden customer engagement while increasing earn rates by 50% for members paying with a Nordstrom credit card. The new program also offers more access to services and personalized offerings.

At first blush, Nordstrom seems to be emulating what brands as diverse as Neiman Marcus (Note: I worked on the InCircle redesign some 10 years ago), StarbucksUlta and others have long recognized. First, an engaging rewards program is a foundational element for gathering data and leveraging customer insight. Second, programs that have what amounts to a cash-back feature—as many do when they rely on gift cards as primary redemption vehicles—can often provide discounts more cost effectively than one-size-fits-all promotions. Third, reward points create a currency for highly targeted offers to drive specific desired outcomes for the retailer. Fourth, through the use of well designed tiers, the best loyalty programs provide “stretch” incentives that encourage customers to spend more to earn higher rewards and obtain access to unique services and experiences.

At their core, the best in breed reward programs focus on two components. First is transactional loyalty. Here the brand is simply providing a tangible value exchange for increased shopping behavior (and better access to customer data). Calling this “loyalty” is a bit misleading, as this is more akin to bribery. While this program feature incentivizes customers to increase their spending, many customers will respond because they are essentially leaving money on the table if they don’t. The more strategic program designs recognize that true loyalty is an emotion.  In this case leading programs typically use accelerated point accumulation and more experiential offerings to further engender a deeper connection to the brand. This typically includes preferential access to merchandise and events and special or enhanced services (free alterations, valet parking, etc). In this regard, Nordstrom isn’t breaking any new ground.

What does appear to be more on the leading edge, however, is how Nordstrom is leaning into at least 4 of what I call the “8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail.” And this provides the potential for meaningful competitive advantage if done right.

Harmonized. This is the idea that, regardless of how and where the customer chooses to shop, retailers must eliminate points of friction in the customer journey and deliver experiential elements that amplify relevance. In the press release, Nordstrom VP Dave Sims said “when thinking about this evolution, a guiding principle was to offer something for everyone, no matter…where they interact with us.”

Mobile. Many retailers have come to realize that customers no longer go online—they live online and their smart device is often a constant companion in the shopping journey. The new Nordy Club app looks set up to be a core component of how members will engage with the brand.

Personal. As I talk about in my current keynote, no customer wants to be average. More importantly, no customer has to be, given how the power has shifted to them. Making personalization a key aspect of the new rewards program is very responsive to what consumers want and what smart retailers need to do to be more relevant and unique.

Memorable. Today’s consumer is deluged with a tsunami of information and choices. To be the signal amidst all the noise, to truly command meaningful attention, all brands are challenged to become more unique, more relevant and more remarkable. A key way to do that is to create memorable experiences. It’s a bit difficult to ascertain at this point how truly unique some of the benefits will be for elite members (particularly since many of these will never be advertised), but I’m willing to bet that this program dimension will be dialed up substantially.

Of course it remains to be seen how well this new effort will work when fully deployed. Clearly Nordstrom is adding considerable cost to the program. Whether this turns out to generate a good ROI will take years to assess. Moreover, some aspects of what was just announced just bring the company to competitive parity and therefore can be viewed as largely defensive. Others may risk setting off a rewards point war. If that happens, that is a battle that customers win and investors lose.

More interesting for the long-term is how Nordstrom will evolve the harmonized, mobile, personal and memorable pieces of the program and how those will authentically resonate with the others aspects of the branded customer experience for which Nordstrom is justly well regarded. Here, much as they have done over the years staying on the leading edge of digital commerce and executing a well integrated “omnichannel” experience, Nordstrom does seem to be upping the ante and leading the way. How (or if) the competition responds will be the next thing to keep an eye on.

Note: For a far more comprehensive and insightful look at loyalty, I heartily recommend my fellow Forbes Contributor Bryan Pearson’s book The Loyalty Leap.

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.  

Over the next few weeks I’ll be in Austin, Chicago (twice!), Dallas, Toronto and San Antonio delivering an updated version of my keynote “A Really Bad Time To Be Boring.” For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. And stayed tuned for announcements on early 2019 speaking gigs and my new book.

Being Remarkable · Collapse of the middle · Retail

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.

Customer Experience · Reimagining Retail

For a growing number of retailers, small is the new black

It’s hardly news that the retail industry is going through significant contraction of selling space as an uptick in bankruptcies and outright liquidations forces hundreds of locations to close en masse. In addition, dozens of struggling retailers continue to shutter outlets hoping to improve profitability or avoid a similar fate. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that the number of store closings this year will exceed last year’s record pace. While there are plenty of new store openings, the net downsizing of retail space in certain categories is clearly significant (for a deeper dive I recommend this excellent report by Coresight Research).

Another factor that is starting to affect vacancy rates is that some brands are “right-sizing” their prototypical store, in what I affectionately label the “Honey, I shrunk the store” phenomenon. Some of this is a sure sign that the retailer has run out of ideas for the space it has and is hoping to shrink to prosperity. Good luck with that. Others are wisely optimizing their footprints to address the rise of e-commerce and other fundamental changes in shopping behavior. I fully expect the large scale thinning of the herd to continue apace through (at least) next year, while the evolution of store models will take multiple years to play out.

What’s new—and fundamentally more interesting for retail’s future—is the rise of much smaller and very much reimagined formats from well-established brands. I first delved into this last year writing about Nordstrom Local, the storied retailer’s new service-focused micro-concept. Nordstrom has since disclosed plans to open additional locations and hinted in its recent investor presentation that Local could be a key part of the company’s portfolio strategy to drive market share on a city-by-city basis. And just this week Ikea joined Sephora, Target and others who are hoping to spur outlet growth by announcing a smaller format that holds the potential to unlock many additional urban locations by having fundamentally different economics and site-location requirements.

In some cases these retailers are dealing with the harsh reality that their concepts are maturing and it’s becoming impossible to find locations where they can generate an ROI from their traditional format. Without reengineering their underlying economics, their store growth plans come to a screeching halt. In other cases they are mirroring aspects of the playbook employed by many digitally-native brands as they began opening physical stores: locate closer to where the target customers live or work, make services a key component of the value proposition, harmonize the experience across digital and physical channels, minimize inventory and use technology as a differentiator.

Over the years, many retailers have chased the notion of a smaller store as the key to spurring outlet growth (I’ve personally worked on several of these initiatives). Where most went wrong was delivering a watered-down version of what the brand was known for. Saks’ Main Street strategy is an expensive lesson in what not to do. The smaller box did encourage them to open in locations that could not financially accommodate a “real” Saks store. In theory, this strategy held the promise of increasing the luxury retailer’s store count by some 50%. Unfortunately customers were underwhelmed by the offering, seeing it as a “baby” Saks. Eventually all the expansion sites were closed.

What savvy brands know is to avoid creating a new concept that is merely a smaller version of the core value proposition, designed by pruning all the “non-essential” elements. This top-down approach is likely to be seen as a compromise. And who wants the customer to feel like she is settling? Instead, any new offering should be built by leveraging what the parent brand is known for, while taking a bottoms-up approach to eliminating customer pain points and finding new ways to be intensely customer relevant. This is one way a brand that’s running out of gas can go from boring to remarkable.

It’s increasingly clear that when we get beyond the outlet growth we see in the off-price/discount segment, a lot of new store openings are being driven by the Warby Parker’s, Casper’s and Indochino’s of the world who have made this way of thinking central to their store expansion strategies. For legacy retailers hoping to stay relevant, well thought out micro-concepts have the potential to jump start growth by reaching new customers and getting closer to the customers they already have, while providing a measure of protection against often more nimble new competition.

Many mature retailers would be wise to follow Nordstrom and Ikea’s lead. Small is starting to become big.

back-to-the-1970s-lets-get-small

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.  

 

Harmonized · Omni-channel · Retail

Many retailers still need a ‘Chief Silo-busting Officer’

For the last five years or so much of retail has been obsessed with becoming “omni-channel.” As I pointed out in Forbes piece last year, this ambition sounds good, but is often ill-defined and poorly focused. The point is not to be everywhere, but to eliminate friction and be remarkable and relevant in the places along the customer journey where it really matters. It’s why, as one of my 7 Steps to Remarkable Retail, I encourage brands to design and execute a “harmonized” shopping experience. Harmonized retail requires the important aspects of the customer’s journey to sing beautifully together, regardless of touchpoint or channel, completely devoid of discordant notes. It also requires that we let go of the dualistic notion of e-commerce and physical retail. In most cases, it’s all just commerce and the customer is ultimately the channel.

Beyond the semantics of “omni-channel,” “harmonized,” “unified” or “frictionless” commerce, it turns out that when brands garner deep customer insight around the shopping experience it’s not all that hard to figure out which pain points to eliminate and which product or experiential elements to amplify. Unfortunately many retailers have not even gotten all that far, as this recent eMarketer reportilluminates. That’s likely to end badly.

Yet even armed with this insight and a well articulated roadmap, many well intended “customer-centric” efforts fail. The primary culprit is usually the deeply ingrained silo-ed behavior endemic to many retailers’ operations. Most brick and mortar dominant retailers have developed intensely product-centric cultures where the merchandise (and merchant) is king. And if they had a catalog business it was run largely independently of the physical stores division. As e-commerce became a thing, it was typically bolted onto the existing mail order division (e.g. JC Penney, Neiman Marcus). For companies that needed to get into the direct-to-consumer world anew, the so-called dot-com business was often established as a completely separate entity, typically located away from the core business (in Sears’ case, for example, in a different part of its sprawling campus; in Walmart’s case, on the other side of the country). Either way, channel-centric silos were put in place or reinforced.

While there may have been initial merit to allowing the e-commerce business to get speed and traction absent the interference of the mother ship, over time the result is that executing against a well harmonized experience is fundamentally hindered by silos: silo-ed customer data. Silo-ed inventory. Silo-ed supply chains. Silo-ed metrics. Silo-ed incentives and compensation schemes.

As it turns out, most customer journeys that end up in a physical store transaction start in a digital channel. It turns out that some of the best enterprise customers get acquired in a physical store but then end up doing the bulk of their shopping online. In fact, it turns out that over the past 15 years, for every retailer where I have seen the actual data, customers that shop in multiple channels are the most profitable and loyal customers. And it turns out that customers don’t care about channels. Retailers that continue to organize, measure, pay and execute their operations as if this weren’t true are, unsurprisingly, falling further and further behind.

As others have pointed out, digitally-native brands that have moved into physical retail have largely avoided the silo issue, and therefore are often perceived as having an advantage over legacy retailers. Conceptually they do have an edge: partially because they did not have a culture to undo, partially because they had better customer data from the outset and partially because their technical infrastructure was built with a digital-first orientation. It’s also important that they decided to add stores because many now understand the amplification power of physical and digital convergence.

But let’s be clear. You don’t have to be some new disruptive brand like Warby Parker or Indochino to get this, act on it and perform well. Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, REI and a number of other decades-old retail brands never established the silos in the first place as they moved from direct-to-consumer into multi-channel. Nordstrom operated in a more silo-ed way in the early days of e-commerce. Yet more than a decade ago, they made the decision to break down the silos and began implementing process and technology changes necessary to lead in customer-centric, channel-agnostic, harmonized retail. As far as I can tell, they are the only multi-line mall-based retailer to gain meaningful share during the past decade. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Now it’s true that plenty of retailers have put senior executives in charge of “omni-channel.” Others have named chief digital, chief customer or chief experience officers. Good for them. Necessary perhaps, but hardly sufficient if those executive don’t have the authority to break down the silos and drive the major cultural, process and technology changes that delivering on a harmonized retail experience demands.

The fact is that to survive, much less thrive, under-performing retailers need a “chief silo-busting officer.” And until the CEO sees that as his or her job, fully supported by the Board, all the talk about omni-channel, customer-centricity or a seamless shopping experience is really just that. Talk.

Silos belong on farms.

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.  

 

Reimagining Retail · Retail

Nordstrom and retail’s growing urgency to rethink performance metrics

Last week Cowen and Co. retail analyst Oliver Chen downgraded Nordstrom shares, and the stock promptly tumbled. Among the concerns he cited were declining comparable store sales at both Nordstrom’s full-line department stores and the Rack off-price division. There’s a real risk to misunderstanding what is really going on.

One of the things were going to need to get used to, not only with Nordstrom but with many other brick-and-mortar-dominant retailers, is a new way of thinking about performance — and much of this has to do with letting go of comparable stores sales as a key indicator while fundamentally thinking differently about the role of physical stores.

We know that e-commerce is growing much faster than physical retail. That’s not changing anytime soon, if ever. But there is a huge difference between online brands stealing share from industry incumbents and sales that are transferred within channels of “omni-channel” retailers. Nordstrom is a great case in point.

It’s hard to make a case that Nordstrom has been appreciably damaged by the disruptive impact of e-commerce. It’s easy to make the case that the company has done a heck of a job responding to these changes and capturing the digital-first customer, both by developing superior online shopping capabilities and executing a well-harmonized experience across digital and physical channels.

While most of its department store brethren are losing market share, experiencing significantly compressed margins and closing stores in droves, Nordstrom has consistently driven strong overall results despite being a rather mature brand. In recent years, this has mostly played out in strong e-commerce growth and tepid physical store performance.

A world of declining traffic

Last year I posed the question “what if traffic declines last forever?” While I was intentionally being provocative, for many retailers it is far more reasonable to assume that this will be the case going forward than not. There will always be hot retail concepts that will go through a growth cycle of opening plenty of locations and experiencing strong same-store sales growth. The off-price segment is a great example of that right now. But for the most part, the shift away from brick-and-mortar to online shopping will continue unabated. And that means most retail brands, particularly those that are relatively mature, are looking at an almost impossible task of driving consistent positive same-store sales as e-commerce gains share.

So what? 

It’s one thing for physical store sales to go to an online competitor; it’s another to transfer sales to your own captive websites, as Nordstrom has been able to do (for the most part). The problem with the relentless focus on comparable store sales as a key metric is it treats the store as a discrete economic entity, which it clearly is not. This in turn drives the nonsense around closing stores as the silver bullet for fixing what ails traditional retailers. It’s certainly reasonable to assume that physical assets can be better configured to deal with changing shopper behavior and the shift to online selling. And clearly, when a retailer is losing massive share to competitors, a wholesale re-think is in order. But the idea that comparable store sales are the best indicator for a retailer’s brick-and-mortar deployment is simply no longer valid in most cases.

A new role for the store: the heart of a brand’s ecosystem

For most traditional retailers, we must stop thinking about stores as liabilities but rather as assets that, yes, in many cases need to be transformed — often radically. But we must acknowledge that from Target to Kohl’s to Sephora to Neiman Marcus and beyond, the store is typically the heart of a brand’s ecosystem. This means that for many, if not most, if the store goes away many customers’ relationships — and therefore future spending — will be compromised. It’s not brick-and-mortar or e-commerce. It’s both, together, that ultimately drive customer loyalty.

In many categories, physical locations perform key roles in the shopping journey that online simply cannot duplicate or come close to mimicking — at least with current technology. For retailers that put a premium on creating a harmonized experience across channels, e-commerce is a sales channel, but it is also a major complement to the stores, and vice versa. It is therefore not surprising to discover that many brands that have shuttered stores have seen their e-commerce get worse in the trade areas once served by a closed location.

The big move of once-online-only brands into brick-and-mortar locations reinforces the unique and important role of physical stores. Most of these brands are approaching the limits of online growth and see stores as a way to acquire customers more inexpensively, serve them in unique ways and forge more comprehensive relationships through the unique combination that digital and physical can provide. One Warby Parker customer, for example, might be completely comfortable buying a new pair of glasses online, but will turn to a brick-and-mortar location for an optician’s adjustment. Another Warby Parker customer might need to see and physically try on their first pair in a store, but will make future purchases online going forward.

The reinvention of retail demands new metrics

In light of the differing underlying economics and category dynamics faced by any given retailer, there is no one-size-fits-all metric to perfectly define success. But it should be clear that same-store sales is an increasingly irrelevant metric. As it gets harder and harder to truly credit a particular channel for a sale or its role in acquiring, growing and retaining a particular customer, the delineation of channels becomes more of a blur. Retailers (and the analysts who love them) need to evolve their measurement focus.

Since customers typically do most of their shopping (whether online or in store) in a relatively narrow geographic region, there is a strong case to be made for seeing a trade area as the more relevant economic entity compared with a store or e-commerce in isolation. Given what was discussed earlier, and knowing that e-commerce sales tend to go up in a trade area when a brand opens a new store, we cannot ignore the inherent interdependence of the channels in retailer metrics any longer.

Spoiler alert: Many brand are already looking at performance this way internally. It’s time for Wall Street to catch up. Here’s my and Euclid’s Brent Franson’s suggestion on some other things to consider.

Of course, none of this is to say that Nordstrom doesn’t have some work to do or that its shares were not overvalued. Yet the inexorable shift to digital and the resulting difficulty in driving what gets counted as comparable store sales does not get addressed in any useful way by defaulting to store closings, leasing out excess space or hyper-focusing on misleading metrics.

Nordstrom is only the latest retailer to be misunderstood. More are sure to follow.

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.  

Just  announced: I will be keynoting the NEXT Conference in Austin, TX on September 24.

Innovation · Retail · Winning on Experience

Macy’s acquires Story: Game changer or much ado about nothing?

Last week Macy’s announced it had acquired Story, a New York-based concept store, and appointed founder Rachel Shechtman to be its new “brand experience officer.” And, for the most part, enthusiastic gushing ensued. Let’s simmer down, people.

As I regularly write and speak on retailers’ need to innovate and embrace a culture of experimentation, I would be a complete hypocrite if I failed to applaud Macy’s (and newish CEO Jeff Gennette’s) willingness to take bold steps. Yet before we jump on the silver-bullet train we might wish to consider a few important points.

Is Story Successful Beyond Generating PR?

There is no question that Story is cool and innovative. There is no question that Story has punched way above its weight when it comes to generating industry and media attention. And the notion of “store as media” is an intriguing one that is appropriately starting to change the way brands must think about their brick & mortar experience.

But lest anyone forget, Story launched in 2011 and has never expanded to another city, much less another location in the New York area. It’s pretty difficult to make the argument that Story has the potential to “reinvent retail” on any significant scale when after more than six years the number of customers it has validated its impact upon is teeny tiny. Every other truly interesting “disruptive” concept I can think of that launched around the same time (or even later) has attracted significant investment capital and is well into their expansion plans. So, to be blunt, there is far more evidence to suggest that Story is a way cool Manhattan phenomenon than there is to suggest it has any real ability to be relevant to Macy’s customers—and ultimately material to Macy’s strategy.

Do You Know How Much Macy’s Paid? 

No, I didn’t think so. So how can you say it’s a genius deal? I happen to own a pretty nice car. But if you were willing to pay me $100,000 for it you would be the opposite of a genius. Perhaps Macy’s paid less than it would cost to hire Shechtman as a consultant for a couple of years, in which case that sounds like a bargain. Maybe it paid millions for something it could have done itself years ago, in which case that sounds more dumb and desperate. Maybe we should say “who cares?” as regardless it’s probably chump change to a huge company like Macy’s. In any event, we just don’t know. So please hold your applause.

Macy’s Problems Run Deep

Macy’s has two huge and fundamental problems to address. First, it sits in a sector that has been in decades-long secular decline—and there is no reason to think that will change anytime soon. In fact, as Amazon and the off-price sector continues to expand aggressively in Macy’s core categories, it could easily get worse. Second, while Macy’s does a bit better than most of its department store brethren, it is still part of the epidemic of boring, struggling to carve out a sustainably relevant and remarkable position. It has a lot of expensive, risky and time-consuming work to do on both the customer-facing experiential parts of their business and their technological infrastructure. This all comes at a time when the company’s profits have stalled. That’s a very tall order and no one strategic initiative is likely to make a dent.

Does This Deal Fundamentally Change The Macy’s Story?

While Walmart paid silly amounts of money for Jet.com, Bonobos, et al., it now seems clear that the injection of “digitally native” senior talent has helped take the moribund retailer to an important new level. It also earned them some street cred. So acquisitions like Story can certainly contribute to an enterprise well beyond their straight discounted cash flows.

While some have referenced Macy’s earlier deal to buy Bluemercury as an analog, my guess is that if Story is to make a real difference it will be more similar to Nordstrom’s acquisition of Jeffrey over a decade ago. As that played out, it was founder Jeffrey Kalinsky’s impact on Nordstrom’s overall fashion strategy that was the source of value rather than the expansion of his eponymous stores.

The key in this situation will be whether Macy’s gives Shechtman the latitude to impact the trajectory of Macy’s brand to any material degree or whether the culture will eat her up and spit her out. And even if she gets that latitude, it is no easy task for even the most talented and experienced executive to make a big difference within an insular culture. There are far more examples of experiments that have gone awry than have worked out. We will have a far better idea about this critical dimension a year from now. Regardless, it won’t be easy.

The Opposite Is Risky

To be sure, retailers like Macy’s got into trouble because they mostly watched the last 20 years happen to them. Consciously or not, they acted as if deciding to embrace innovation was risky when, as it turns out, their reluctance to take chances was the riskiest thing they (and so many others) could have possibly done. The simple fact is, as Seth Godin reminds us, “if failure is not an option than neither is success.” The key is not to avoid failure, it’s to fail better.

Macy’s, like all those risking “death in the middle,” are desperately in need of a transformation. And that unequivocally means placing multiple bets in the hope of creating a vastly different future. Viewed from this lens, the acquisition of Story—and giving Shechtman a chance to impact the Macy’s culture and brand—is likely a pretty decent bet. As it’s highly unlikely to materially change Macy’s overall fortunes all by itself, it needs to be the first of many such wagers.

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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.  

On May 17 I will be keynoting Kibo’s 2018 Summit in Nashville, followed the next week by Retail at Google 2018 in Dublin.

e-commerce · Innovation · Retail

E-Commerce May Be ‘Only’ 10% Of Retail, But That Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story

It seems as if those who spend a lot of time worrying about the future of retail have fallen into one of two camps. There are the “retail apocalypse” proselytizers who would have us believe that virtually all shopping will eventually be done online, that most brick-and-mortar stores are doomed and that anyone who says otherwise is a dinosaur. At the other end of the spectrum are the disruption deniers who acknowledge that the retail climate is indeed changing but who take comfort in the fact that physical retail is still growing and, more notably, that e-commerce represents “only” about 10% of all retail.

They are both more wrong than they are right, and neither provides a point of view that is useful or actionable to brands or investors seeking to make critical decisions.

Let’s be clear. Physical retail is far from dead. There is no “retail apocalypse.” E-commerce is not eating the world. Every mall is not closing. And many of the brands we all know and love are likely to be around for a long time.

The facts are clear. In most major markets, physical retail continues to grow, albeit at a far slower rate than online shopping. Lots of stores continue to be opened, including by quite a few brands that are hardly new or “digital-first” (think Dollar General or Aldi). And it is true that physical stores account for roughly 90% of all retail sales (at least in North America). Five years from now, by most estimates, that number is still likely to be well over 80%.

But in most cases, taking any solace from the “e-commerce is only 10% of all retail” narrative is — and, well, there is simply no nice way to say this — just plain dumb.

First of all, that percentage is an industry-wide average, an amalgamation of many different categories. The percentage of e-commerce sales varies markedly by product segment, from around 2% for grocery to more than 20% for apparel to the overwhelming majority of sales in categories where products can be digitally delivered, like music, books and games. So perhaps folks in the supermarket business might justly not be completely freaked out by the growth and relative market share of e-commerce today, but I doubt you’d get the same reception from the executives at Borders and Blockbuster who failed to see the wave of digital disruption a decade ago and were given the gift of “spending more time with their families.”

Think of it this way: If you live in the U.S. or China or any nation with greatly varying climates, you wouldn’t decide what clothing to wear based upon the average temperature in the country. So why would one even think about driving the urgency and direction of their company’s corporate strategy based upon broad industry averages?

The other big problem with the “only 10%” argument is that it ignores the marginal economic impact of how a loss (or transfer) of physical-store sales to digital channels affects financial returns under specific retailer circumstances. A brand that has done a good job of “harmonizing” the customer experience across physical and digital channels might have kept most of the potential shift away from physical to digital within their corporate umbrella. Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom (as just two examples) may have struggled to grow comparable stores sales across the last several years, but their e-commerce business has been strong and now accounts for over 25% of total revenues. So clearly it can make a big difference, regardless of the category average for e-commerce, whether a brand captures much of the shift versus very little of it — as many other legacy retailers have failed to do.

Unfortunately, if one works in a business where margins are already below average and there are large fixed costs of operating stores and the marginal economics of online shopping aren’t good (likely owing to lower average order values and/or high rates of products returns) and the brand is not capturing its fair share of the shift away from physical stores to e-commerce, then relatively small revenue loss to online shopping can severely worsen overall economics. The moderate store department sector is a good example of this phenomenon and what is increasingly looking like a downward spiral.

Regardless of where a given brand falls within the digital category share numbers, the potential de-leveraging of its physical-store fixed costs and whether it faces what I call the “omni-channel migration dilemma” mandate a hard look at particular situations and dynamics. Relying on averages seldom works under any circumstances. An individual retailer’s mileage will, without question, vary.

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.  

My next speaking gig is in Madrid on Tuesday at the World Retail Congress.  On May 2 I will be keynoting the Retail Innovation Conference in NYC.

Fashion · Luxury · Retail

Going Private Could Be The Best Thing To Ever Happen To Nordstrom; With One Big Caveat

Recently a roughly $8.4 billion offer from the Nordstrom family to take the namesake retailer private was rejected as inadequate. The deal now seems at risk as the special committee in charge of evaluating a potential transaction indicated that the price needed to be “substantially” and “promptly” improved upon or they would terminate further discussions.

While there is one major concern that looms large in any such deal, my hope is that the Nordstroms can get this done. While as a brand Nordstrom faces most of the same challenges that confront just about all retailers in this era of digital disruption, allowing the company to operate without the harsh and impatient glare of Wall Street could be a major long-term win. Here are a few key benefits to going private:

Avoiding the obsession with growth. The fact is that Nordstrom is fast becoming a relatively mature business. It has few new store openings to execute within its core concepts, it is very well penetrated in e-commerce, and there are not a ton of readily accessible wholly new categories (or geographies) to expand into. The Street’s obsession with growth for growth’s sake often pushes maturing brands to expand their core business too far (think Gap and J. Crew’s fashion missteps, Michael Kors’ distribution overexpansion, or Coach’s — and many others’ — over reliance on the outlet channel).

Minimizing the focus on largely irrelevant metrics. As I’ve been suggesting for many years, same (or comparable) store sales is an increasingly irrelevant metric, and as Brent Franson and I tackled more recently, the shifting nature of retail demands a whole new set of performance measures. Not having to be as concerned about monthly and quarterly reports will free Nordstrom to worry less about pleasing equity investors in the short term and enable greater focus on what they need to do to win over the long term.

Freedom to invest in physical retail. Despite the retail apocalypse narrative, physical retail is not dead; boring retail is. Fortunately Nordstrom has crafted a compelling digital presence, a well executed store model and a harmonious experience across channels. For the most part, Nordstrom full-line and Rack stores are in excellent real estate and it’s unlikely that they will have many store closings on the horizon despite the carnage around them. Nordstrom understands well that physical retail drives e-commerce and vice versa. The challenge is to continue evolving to address changing consumer demands, the emerging importance of younger shoppers and the convergence of digital and physical channels. To thrive Nordstrom must have both a remarkable digital experience and a remarkable brick & mortar experience. Despite what some in the investment community think, for some retailers additional investment in physical retail is not only necessary to keep pace, it is essential to maintain competitive advantage. Nordstrom is firmly in this category.

Ability to think long term and take prudent risks. While some investors are willing to take big bets on silly moon shots (but enough about Wayfair), those that invest in “traditional” retail tend to be more short-term focused and risk averse. Yet we live in a world where the future is getting harder and harder to predict and what will ultimately pay off may take years to become clear. Few retailers will survive, much less thrive, without leaning into more risk and establishing a strong test and learn culture. Historically Nordstrom has shown a willingness to be more innovative than most of its peers, including testing new formats (such as Nordstrom Local), buying emerging concepts (Haute Look and Trunk Club), as well as acquiring two technology companies just last week. While Nordstrom is largely past the capital intensive nature of their major investments in omni-channel infrastructure and expansion into Canada and New York City, there is every reason to believe that the future will require considerable investment and a greater tolerance for risk in order to stay truly remarkable.

Unlike most others in the largely undifferentiated department store space, Nordstrom already has a lot going for it and is not burdened with a crushing debt load like Neiman Marcus. Which brings me to the one big caveat.

Quite a few retailers have gotten into trouble by taking on too much debt through a private equity buyout. Unlike Toys R Us and others, which were struggling with the fundamentals of their core value proposition when they took on considerable leverage, the Nordstrom business model is fundamentally sound, the real estate portfolio is solid, and the management team is excellent and deeply experienced. Nevertheless, financial flexibility, as well as strategic and operating agility, will be key to navigating retail’s future. As mentioned above, Nordstrom is fortunate to have already done much of the heavy lifting where plenty of others are struggling to catch up. Yet, layering on substantial debt and interest payments may limit the company’s ability to make acquisitions and/or the technology investments to stay on the leading edge.

Fortunately the debt levels that are currently being contemplated don’t put the Nordstrom deal into the territory that ToysRUs and Neiman’s now find themselves. But obviously if the buyout price increases substantially it is likely the debt burden will as well. Investors also need to mindful of how well any company with considerable leverage would fare in a major economic downturn.

With any luck, a reasonable compromise can be achieved.

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.  

My next speaking gig is in Madrid at the World Retail Congress.  Check out the speaking tab on this site for more on my keynote speaking and workshops.