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.

 

“Faux Clearance”: Do Outlet Store Customers Care?

One of the hottest retail segments right now is the outlet or off-price market.  Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus are opening more “clearance” stores than full-line stores.  Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor have recently announced plans to open their own off-price formats.  Hundreds of manufacturers’ outlet stores from Ralph Lauren to Coach to Nike can be found throughout the country.

As I have learned in recent conversations with everyone from neighbors to business reporters to industry analysts, very few customers realize that the vast majority of product in most of these stores is NOT manufacturers’ overstocks or unsold merchandise from the full-price retail stores, but is in fact produced specifically for these stores.  I call this “faux clearance.”

Certainly these stores benefit from the impression that the reason you are getting such a great deal is that they had too much merchandise and had to mark it down to move it.   Their promotional material trumpets 30%, 40% (up to 70%!!!!)  off to reinforce that notion, when in fact in most cases that identical product has never been available anywhere at the “manufacturer’s suggested retail” or “compare at” price.  Deceptive? You decide.

With the retail outlet segment exploding–and the dramatic growth of “flash-sales” sites like Gilt and Rue La La–the reality is that the percentage of directly made for the channel product will only continue to rise.

So if you buy my premise that most customers of these store and sites do not understand the origin of the product in these channels–and btw if anyone has seen good data on this send it my way–would knowing actually change their behavior?

My guess is no, and here’s why.   The players that have been really successful in this market–one great example is Nordstrom Rack–understand that the core customer for these formats is a different customer than their full-line stores and have built the business model accordingly.  This is why Nordstrom can build a Rack store across the street or down the way from their full-line store and still thrive.  This is why we decided to accelerate the growth of our Last Call stores at Neiman Marcus and began work on a new concept.

The challenge going forward will be to consistently execute a compelling value proposition–and that means delivering an experience that complements the parent brand without diluting it and reliably offering great value in the product assortment.  This latter factor is not so easy, particularly as the demands of this channel increase dramatically.

But ultimately if these formats offer compelling price value in their assortments and a great customer experience, why should the customer care exactly why the product is being offered for sale?

[tweetmeme source= stevenpdennis http://www.URL.com%5D