Customer Growth Strategy · Omni-channel · Retail

Is off-price the next retail sector to go off the rails?

Amidst all the pain that most of the retail industry has endured during the past few years, the “off-price” sector has been one of the few shining stars.

While most retailers struggle to eke out any top-line growth, the segment’s big four–TJX, Ross, Burlington and Nordstrom Rack–have delivered solid growth. While many retailers are closing stores in droves, the off-price leaders have been opening new outlets at a brisk pace while announcing plans to open hundreds of stores over the next several years. TJX, the parent company of T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods and Sierra Trading Post, added nearly 200 stores this past year alone.

So while it’s easy to blame Amazon for department stores’ troubles, there is ample evidence that it’s been the major share grab on the part of the off-price and outlet sector that’s inflicted a great deal of the pain.

Of course, the bifurcation of retail has been going on for some time. Consumers have been steadily shifting their spending toward more price-oriented brands since the recession. In some cases it has been driven by an economic need to spend less. In other cases by a realization that strong value can be obtained at a lower price, whether that is from a traditional retailer (e.g. Walmart), a leading fast fashion brand (e.g. H&M and Zara), a newer business model (e.g. Gilt and Farfetch) or, of course, Amazon.

Yet there is growing evidence that the segment is beginning to mature and that future results may be quite different from the boom of recent years. In the most recent quarter, TJX saw same-store sales growth slow to 1%. Archrival Ross posted better results but struck a decidedly cautious note. Nordstrom Rack, which has been the star within Nordstrom, has seen its growth slow to below the industry average.

So while one or two quarters do not indicate cause for alarm, there are several reasons why investors might want to beware.

Sluggish apparel growth

Average unit prices for apparel continue to contract, the discounting environment shows no sign of abating and consumers continue to shift their spending away from products to experiences. This means most sales growth must come from stealing share. That’s not likely to come easily.

Growing competition.

Competition is always intense in retail, but with the number of new stores that are opening, the rapid growth of online competition and Amazon’s growing and intense focus on apparel and home products (including an almost certain big push into private fashion brands in the next couple of years), sales and margin pressures are certain to become more pronounced.

Here comes e-commerce–and its challenges.  

The off-price industry was slow to get into digital commerce. Some of this was for good reason: it’s almost impossible to make money online in apparel with low transaction values and high rates of returns. But given consumer demand, the convergence of channels and pressure from growing competition, none of these brands have a choice but to invest heavily. But as e-commerce becomes an important growth driver, much of that growth will come through diversion of sales from a brand’s own physical stores–and often at a lower profit margin (what I call “the omnichannel migration dilemma”). As e-commerce becomes a more important piece of the overall business, the economics of physical stores will become more challenging, calling into question the reasonableness of the current store opening pace.

Brand dilution and saturation. 

The key driver of the off-price business has been offering major brand names at deeply discounted prices. While this is a bit of a con, the consumer is either blissfully ignorant or doesn’t care–at least so far. But as more brands grow through heavily discounted channels the risk of brand dilution goes up. And we’ve already seen several major brands pull back from factory outlet channels and tighten their distribution to wholesale channels where discounting was rampant. As Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Saks, Macy’s and Bloomingdales emphasize off-price growth (both physical store openings and online) the brand dilution concern to their “parent brands” looms large.

Overshooting the runway on store growth.

The over-expansion of most major retail chains is plaguing much of the retail industry right now. So far the off-price sector has escaped this fate, largely because the sector has been gaining share. But if growth continues to moderate and a greater share of the business moves to e-commerce, today’s store opening plans seem awfully aspirational. This is not a 2017 issue, and probably not one for 2018 either. But if I were a betting person, I’d wager that in 2019 we will view today’s plans as incredibly optimistic.

While the off-price sector is unlikely to experience the shockwaves of disruption pummeling its retail brethren anytime soon, we should remember that no business is immune from fundamental forces. And no business maintains above average growth forever. Investors would be wise to take a more cautious approach.

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

Being Remarkable · Customer-centric · Digital · Frictionless commerce · Omni-channel · Winning on Experience

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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Customer Growth Strategy · Retail

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.