Unsustainable Customer Acquisition Costs Make Much Of Ecommerce Profit Proof

As much attention as both the growth and disruptive nature of e-commerce receives, few observers seem realize that often the economics of selling online are terrible (what I often refer to as “the inconvenient truth about e-commerce”). The fact is only a handful of venture capital funded “pure-plays” have (or will ever) make money and most are now embarked on a capital intensive foray into physical retail that even Alanis Morissette would find deeply ironic. Amazon, which accounts for about 45% of all US e-commerce,  has amassed cumulative losses in the billions, and even after more than 20 years still operates at below average industry margins. And while I have yet to see a comprehensive breakout, it’s clear that the e-commerce divisions of many major omni-channel retailers run at a loss–or at margins far below their brick & mortar operations.

So why is this?

Last month I wrote a post pointing out how high rates of returns, coupled with the growing prevalence of free shipping “both ways”, makes certain online product categories virtually profit proof. While the impact of this factor tends to be isolated to categories with relatively low order values and a high incidence of returns or exchanges (e.g. much of apparel), a different dynamic has wider ranging implications and profit killing power. I’m referring to the increasingly high cost of acquiring (and retaining) customers online.

Investors have been lured (some might say “suckered”) into supporting “digitally-native” brands because of what they believed to be the lower cost, easily scaled, nature of e-commerce. Seeing how quickly Gilt, Warby Parker, Bonobos and others went from nothing to multi-million dollars brands, encouraged venture capital money to pour in. What many failed to understand were the diseconomies of scale in customer acquisition. As it turns out, many online brands attract their first tranche of customers relatively inexpensively, through word of mouth or other low cost strategies. Where things start to get ugly is when these brands have to get more aggressive about finding new and somewhat different customers. Here three important factors come into play:

  • Marketing costs start to escalate. As brands seeking growth need to reach a broader audiencethey typically start to pay more and more to Facebook, Google and others to grab the customer’s attention and force their way into the customer’s consideration set. Early on customers were acquired for next to nothing; now acquisition costs can easily exceed more than $100 per customer.
  • More promotion, less attraction. As the business grows, the next tranches of customers often need more incentive to give the brand a try, so gross margin on these incremental sales comes at a lower rate. It’s also the case that typically these customers get “trained” to expect a discount for future purchases, making them inherently less profitable then the initial core customers for the brand.
  • Questionable (or lousy) lifetime value. It’s almost always the case that customers that are acquired as the brand scales have lower incremental lifetime value, both because on average they spend less and because they are inherently more difficult to retain. It’s becoming increasingly common for fast growing online dominant brands to have large numbers of customers that are projected to have negative lifetime value.

So it’s easy to see how an online only brand can look good at the outset, only to have the profit picture deteriorate despite growing revenues. The marginal cost of customer acquisition starts to creep up and the average lifetime value of the newly acquired customer starts to go down, often precipitously. Accordingly it’s not uncommon for some of the sexiest, fastest growing brands to have many customers that are not only unprofitable, but have little or no chance of being positive contributors ever.

While it’s not the only reason, this challenging dynamic explains in large part the collapse of valuations in the flash-sales market in total, as well as several major flameouts like One Kings Lane. It also helps explain why so many pure-plays are investing heavily in physical locations. To be sure, opening stores attracts new customers that are reticent to buy online. But another key factor is that customers can often be acquired in a store more cheaply than they can be by paying Facebook or Google.

Slowly but surely the world is starting to wake up to this phenomenon. The nonsense that is the meal-kit business model is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves as people start to question whether Blue Apron is a viable business if it spends $400 to acquire new customers. Spoiler alert: the answer is “no.” Increasingly, many “sophisticated” investors are backing off the high valuations that digitally-native brands are seeking to fuel the next stage of their growth, leaving these companies to thank their lucky stars that Walmart seems to relish its role as a VC bailout fund. More folks are starting to realize that physical retail is definitely different, but far from dead. And, in another bit of irony, some even are starting to see that many traditional brands (think Best Buy, Nordstrom, Home Depot and others) are actually well positioned to benefit from their stores and improving omni-channel capabilities.

It may take some time, but eventually the underlying economics tell the tale.

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

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An inconvenient truth about e-commerce: It’s largely unprofitable

The disruptive nature of e-commerce is undeniable. Entirely new business models are revolutionizing the way we buy. The transformative transparency created by all things digital has revolutionized product access, redefined convenience and lowered prices across a wide spectrum of merchandise and service categories. The radical shift of spending from brick & mortar stores to online shopping is causing a massive upheaval in retailers’ physical footprint, which looks to continue unabated.

But the inconvenient (and oft overlooked) truth is that much of e-commerce remains unprofitable–in many cases wildly so–and many corporate and venture capital investments have no prospect of earning a risk-adjusted ROI.

While it was once thought that the economics of selling online were vastly superior to operating physical stores, most brands–start-ups and established retailers alike–are learning that the cost of building a new brand, acquiring customers and fulfilling orders (particularly if product returns are high) make a huge percentage of e-commerce transactions fundamentally profit proof. Slowly but surely the bloom is coming off the rose.

Despite the hype–and a whole lot of VC funding–it’s increasingly clear that most of pure-play retail is dying, as L2’s Scott Galloway lays out better than I can. We have already seen the implosion of the flash-sales sector and the collapsing valuations of once high-flying brands like Trunk Club and One King’s Lane. Just the other day Walmart announced it was acquiring ModCloth, reportedly for less than the cumulative VC investment. A broader correction appears to be on the horizon and I suspect we will see a number of high-profile, digitally native brands get bought out at similarly discounted prices. And, ironically, we will continue to witness a doubling down of efforts by many of these same brands to expand their physical footprints, some of which is certain to end badly.

The challenges for traditional retailers and their “omni-channel” efforts are even more vexing. Walmart, Pier 1, H&M and Michaels are among the many retailers that have been criticized for their slowness to embrace digital shopping. Yet I suspect their seemingly lackadaisical approach owes more to their understanding of e-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem than corporate malfeasance. Alas, more and more retailers are increasing their investment in online shopping and cross-channel integration only to experience a migration of sales from the store channel to e-commerce, frequently at lower profit margins. Moreover, this shift away from brick & mortar sales is causing these same retailers to shutter stores, with no prospect of picking up that volume online. The risk of a downward spiral cannot be ignored.

Given the trajectory we are on it’s inevitable that more rational behavior will creep back into the market. But with Amazon’s willingness to lose money to grow share and investor pressure on traditional retailers to “rationalize” their store fleets, I fear it will take several years for the dust to truly settle.

In the meantime, e-commerce continues to be a boon for consumers and a decidedly mixed bag for investors.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.

 

Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer

“Retail disruption” has been a popular buzz phrase for several years now. In fact, most of the retail brands that have received out-sized mentions in the business press–and commanded the adoring attention of industry conference attendees–for the past 5 years or so are somehow or other leveraging digital innovation to fundamentally re-work the consumer experience, gobble up market share and attract truckloads of venture capital.

Amidst this transformative reshaping of the retail landscape three things are clear:

  • Consumers have benefitted substantially from the introduction of new business models through more convenience, greater product access and lower prices.
  • This profound shift in the consumer value equation has put enormous pressure on industry incumbents that lack either the cost structure or agility to respond effectively.
  • A dramatic rationalization is gaining momentum as traditional players are being forced out of business or pressured to close and or shrink the foot-print of their stores, make huge investments in “omni-channel” capabilities and lower costs across the board.

Unfortunately what is lost in tales of this evolution is that most of the “disruptive” pure-play e-commerce brands have completely unsustainable business models and mostly what is happening is that venture capitalists (and other investors) are funding a transfer of wealth to the consuming public. So, on behalf of my fellow consumers, thanks venture capitalists.

Alas, this is unlikely to last much longer.

While many people think digital retail is some sort of license to print money, it’s becoming clear that e-commerce is virtually profit proof in categories with low transaction values, owing primarily to the substantial supply chains costs (particularly when brands offer free shipping and returns). Moreover, while it can be relatively easy and cheap to build an initial following online through public relations,  social media and other forms of peer-to-peer marketing, scaling an e-commerce only brand turns out to be extremely costly. Many of the buzziest pure-plays are now investing heavily in expensive branding efforts (as well as opening their own stores) in the hopes that size engenders profitability. Accordingly, initial expectations of break-evens are now being pushed out several years.

As the ROI of these efforts starts to come into sharper relief, my bet is many funding sources will lose their patience.

I’ve been an on-the-record skeptic for several years now, going back to when I called into question the sustainability of the flash-sales market well before the meltdown. More recently, I’ve been pointing out E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem. So I’m not suprised that recent valuations of several once high flying players have collapsed. And more folks are starting to take notice. Professional smart guy (and noted wise ass) Scott Galloway agrees and has been on the “pure play doesn’t work” train for some time. Expect more to join us.

To be clear, a few digital-first brands will likely emerge as sustainable value creators. Brands with high enough average order values to overcome high delivery costs are better positioned (though Net-a-porter’s inability to make money after all these years underscores how difficult this is). Those that deftly merge online and offline experiences–think Warby Parker and Bonobos–also improve the odds (though, side-note, don’t be misled by the high productivity of their initial locations and comparisons to other brands’ productivity stats. We need to understand the four-wall profitability of these new stores and make comparisons to traditional retailers averages in like locations, not overall chain averages).

Mostly, however, we need to be careful to declare a brand successful without defining what we mean by success. If we define success as having grown revenues quickly and having been able to raise gobs of capital from investors to enable subsidizing consumers on a massive scale, than clearly Amazon and dozens of others are wildly successful. If we define success as creating enormous pricing pressure and raising the cost of doing business so as to push traditional players into a double-bind than, yes, mission accomplished.

But if we determine success as having demonstrated the ability to deliver a new and better customer experience AND earn a risk appropriate return on capital than I’m not sure any pure-play E-commerce player of any size is yet successful.

I will go on the record as saying far more pure plays will go bust in the next three years (or get sold at valuations well below their most recent funding) than will emerge as truly successful.

Until then, enjoy the low prices and the free shipping, and if you get some time, send the nice folks funding Jet.com and others a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” note.