Fashion · Luxury · Retail

A tough agenda faces Neiman Marcus’ new CEO

Late last week the Neiman Marcus Group named former Ralph Lauren executive Geoffroy van Raemdonck as their new CEO, replacing company veteran Karen Katz (full disclosure: once my boss). While not terribly surprising given the company’s struggles under a mountain of debt, extremely rocky “NMG One” systems implementation and largely stagnant growth, the move does come at a critical time for North America’s leading luxury retailer.

As van Raemdonck takes the helm next month (and Katz moves to a Board position), he will be faced with addressing several important and vexing challenges. As I was SVP of strategy, business development & multi-channel marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group from 2004-08 (most of that time reporting to then CEO Burt Tansky) I have a somewhat unique perspective on what requires intense and urgent focus. Here’s my take:

Growing share in a mature and shifting market

As I wrote nearly a year ago, much of luxury retail has hit a wall. Many brands, including Neiman Marcus and its most direct competitor Saks Fifth Avenue, have struggled to grow both top and bottom line as core customers “age out” of peak spending years and very few new store locations exist. Neiman’s also has one of the highest e-commerce’s penetration in the industry and much of that growth is now merely channel shift.

Competition is also intensifying. In addition to the myriad online competitors, many of Neiman’s key vendors wisely continue to invest in direct-to-consumer growth strategies as they recognize the advantages of forging a direct relationship with consumers, the strategic brand control that operating their own stores and website affords and the opportunity for greater margins. Some are even pulling back from wholesale selling to create more exclusivity and more tightly managed distribution.

Affluent consumer behavior is also evolving markedly. After the financial crisis fewer customers seem willing to spend as conspicuously as before– despite a booming stock market and growing wealth inequality. Moreover, younger customers are starting to represent a growing percentage of the potential target market and clearly they are more digitally savvy, less logo conscious and don’t (yet?) seem to value the core elements of the luxury department store experience. All these factors create strong headwinds for Neiman Marcus’ hopes to restore significant revenue growth.

An overplayed hand

The work my customer insight team did on customer segment performance in 2007-08 revealed several alarming trends. While we were doing well with the uber-wealthy who tended to pay full price and were largely impervious to our raising average unit prices 7-9% per year, the rest of our business was weakening considerably and steadily. For customers who represented more than 2/3 of our profits, we were experiencing decreasing customer counts and lower transaction levels every year. In fact, literally all of our comparable store growth in the prior 5 years could be explained by the growth in average unit retail. While this was tolerated (and maybe even appreciated) by our very best customers, we were leaking business to Nordstrom (and others) as many very good customers found our ever increasing prices to be too high and our customer experience frequently lacking.

The strategy that had gotten Neiman’s to a leadership position was starting to run out of gas. Until the financial crisis hit (and Burt Tansky retired) little of substance was done to address this growing issue. While Karen Katz has made some inroads during her tenure, the brand still suffers from too narrow a customer base and little demonstrated ability to grow customer and transaction counts. This is the single biggest strategic challenge facing the company over the long term.

Unsustainable debt load

Neiman’s private equity owners paid way too much and saddled the company with a debt level that, unaddressed, will bring the company to its knees. There is simply no way for the brand to earn its way out of the problem. It is merely a matter of time before a significant restructuring of some sort must take place. The sooner this gets resolved the better, but thus far, despite the obviousness of the issue, neither the equity or debt holders have been willing to take the necessary haircut. Hope is not a strategy.

Limited degrees of freedom and flexibility

While Neiman’s has seen their operating performance improve somewhat, macro-economic factors explain much of it and there can be no certainly of that continuing. The fact is that the only way Neiman’s performance improves markedly is for them to start gaining significant share in a mostly flat market. That will almost certainly require substantial investment in new technology, re-inventing the customer experience at retail and extending their digital capabilities. Saddled with large debt and interest payments, the company will be severely constrained in having the cash to do what it will take.

Attracting younger customers and executing the ‘customer trapeze’

While demographically oriented strategies are typically overly simplistic, demographics ARE destiny over the long-term. For Neiman Marcus to thrive in the future they must navigate what I like to call the ‘customer trapeze.’  They must deftly do their best to optimize value from their historical high spending core customers–who tend to be older, love the traditional in-store shopping experience and prefer the highest end brands– while simultaneously doing a much better job of attracting new customers who are largely “digital first” shoppers, prefer more relaxed and democratic personal service and tend to spend considerably less on average. Getting this portfolio right isn’t easy and will require Neiman’s to literally take significant share away from some very formidable competitors whose brands’ are currently better aligned with younger, more aspirational shoppers’ needs and values.

An inevitable merger with Saks?

Many people believe that both Neiman’s and Sak’s fundamentally have too many stores. They are wrong. Because of incredibly favorable rent deals and developer capital contributions, the break-even volumes for most stores are very reasonable. Even if their physical stores were to lose 10% of their volume you could count the number of stores that would be cash negative on one hand. More importantly, stores are critical to helping support the online business, which is nearly a third of Neiman Marcus’ total volume. We understood this relationship well when I worked there–and this dynamic has only gotten far stronger. Closing stores, for the most part, would weaken the brand, not help it.

Having said that, a long rumored merger with Saks holds the potential for value creation. There are some geographies where having Saks and Neiman Marcus duke it out directly only leads to mediocre profits for both, particularly as more business moves online. Rationalizing locations would increase the overall profit pool. Opportunities for eliminating redundant overhead are hardly trivial. Alas, the challenges of both companies’ current capital structures make this conceptually valid merger more complex than it might otherwise be.

Cultural pushback

When I joined the Neiman Marcus executive team one of the first things I noticed was how strong the culture was. This was good and bad. The good part was that most folks had worked together for a long time and the company was a well oiled execution machine. The bad parts were exactly the same thing. Strategy played second fiddle to execution, many senior managers lacked the requisite external perspective and, consequently, there were many blindspots.

Innovation as a discipline was also incredibly under-valued. Karen Katz deserves praise for moving the company forward on many of these fronts, but some of what is needed to take the company to the next level is not inherent to its DNA. van Raemdonck is the first outsider to run the company in some time. I expect a rocky road generally, as well as some departures of high level, long-tenured executives.

Unlike many decades old brands that are struggling mightily, Neiman has many strong core elements. And that’s clearly an advantage as van Raemdonck sets his agenda. Unfortunately, Neiman’s historical strengths are also at the center of many of its go-forward challenges. Until the debt issue is resolved, even under a best case scenario, their new leader will likely be hamstrung to move as quickly as he would like, not to mention at the pace that the company desperately needs.

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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Fashion · Luxury · Omni-channel · Retail

Should Hudson Bay Buy Neiman Marcus? The Case For And Against.

Tuesday morning the Neiman Marcus Group reported another quarter of disappointing financial results and announced that it was going to “explore strategic alternatives.”

To be sure, some of Neiman’s problems are idiosyncratic, largely owing to a botched systems implementation and a now crushing debt load taken on in a 2013 private equity buyout. Yet the brand’s continuing struggles also underscore how luxury retail has hit the wall and how it now seems increasingly likely that the storied company may need to run into the arms of yet another owner.

Recent reports have suggested that the Hudson’s Bay Company was hot on the trail of Macy’s. Yet to many, the notion that HBC would acquire a badly wounded company several times its size, seemed a bit crazy. But the rationale for HBC–the owner of Saks Fifth Avenue and Gilt–to acquire Neiman’s seems, at least at face value, more strategically sound and (perhaps) more easily financed.

When I worked for Neiman Marcus as the head of strategy and corporate marketing we took a hard look at acquiring Saks. Years later, many of the pros and cons of combining the #1 and #2 luxury department stores remain the same.

The Case For

It seems increasingly obvious that the luxury department store sector is quite mature. While e-commerce is growing (now representing 31% of Neiman’s total revenues), most of that is now merely channel shift. Moreover, there are virtually no new full-line store opportunities for either Saks or Neiman’s, and the jury remains out whether or not US brands can find a meaningful number of store openings outside their home markets. Shifting demographics also do not bode well for long-term sector growth.

Faced with this reality, consolidation makes a lot of sense. If Saks were to merge with Neiman’s there would be considerable cost savings from combining many areas of operations. Rationalization of the supply chain would yield material savings as well. Managing the two brands as a cohesive portfolio would allow for optimization of marketing spending and promotional activity. There might even be some benefits from combining buying power to extract greater margins from vendors. Less tangible, but potentially meaningful, is the ability to cascade best practices from each organization.

The more interesting benefits could come from addressing store overlaps. As the market matures and more sales move online, there will be a growing number of trade areas (and specific mall locations) where Saks and Neiman’s going head-to-head only waters down the profitability of each respective location. Selectively closing stores and redeploying that real estate could drive up the remaining locations’ profitability dramatically, while unlocking the underlying real estate value of certain locations. All of which certainly plays into Richard Baker’s (HBC’s Chairman) strengths.

The Case Against

By far the most challenging element of any buyout of Neiman’s by HBC (or by anyone for that matter) would be the price and the related financing. Neiman’s was sold in 2013 for $6 billion dollars and still carries about $5 billion in debt. Since the buyout the company’s EBITDA has gone south, with no prospect for an imminent major turnaround. Given the maturity of the sector and the company’s recent weak operating performance, it’s hard to see why anyone would pay the sort of multiple that would make the current equity and/or debt owners whole.

Unless the real estate value can be unlocked in a transformative way, the only rationale for a merger hinges on the ability to generate operational efficiencies and optimize trade area by trade area market performance. With regard to the former, this isn’t trivial. The Saks and Neiman’s cultures are very different. To say one is very New York and the other is very Texas merely hints at the challenges. It’s easy to sketch out the synergies on paper. Making them actually happen is another thing entirely.

With regard to the latter, the fact is that Saks and Neiman’s are very similar concepts (though Neiman’s historically has been operated far better). When I was at Neiman’s we struggled with how we would operate two virtually identical brands often operating in the same mall–or in places like San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Boston and Chicago–just down the street. Even if we could get out of a lease (or sell the store), would closing a shared location actually be accretive to earnings? If we continued to go head-to-head could we shift the positioning of each brand enough to actually grow market share and profits. Ultimately, other issues trumped this particular concern, but this issue isn’t trivial either and the degree to which it is important mostly comes back to the ultimate price to get a deal done.

Without access to proprietary data it’s impossible to completely assess the likelihood of an HBC/Neiman’s deal. But it seems increasingly likely that something dramatic needs to happen with Neiman’s capital structure and it’s difficult to imagine how another leveraged buyout gets done with private equity sponsors. And it’s hard to see another strategic buyer that makes much sense. More and more, HBC looks like the only game in town.

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

Being Remarkable · Luxury · Retail

Luxury retail hits the wall

For a long time, the conventional wisdom has been that the luxury market was largely impervious to the ups and down of the economy. Yet recent results suggest otherwise and even with an improving macro-economic picture and booming stock market, most U.S.-based luxury retail brands continue to struggle.

A little over a week ago, reports surfaced that Neiman Marcus was looking to restructure its debt after a series of disappointing quarters. While Neiman Marcus faces unique challenges owing to high leverage from its 2013 buyout and a botched systems implementation, they are also being hit by a general malaise affecting the sector. HBC’s Saks Fifth Avenue division revenues have stalled during the past year. Nordstrom, which was once a shining star in the retail pantheon, has seen five straight quarters of declines in its full-line stores. Tiffany and Kors are among other brands facing similar declines. So what’s going on here?

The most common explanations for faltering performance have been the strong dollar’s impact on foreign tourism and a weak oil market. To be sure, these factors have not been helpful. But the problems in the luxury market go deeper, particularly among the department store players. Even an improvement in foreign tourism or the oil market are unlikely to return the sector to its former glory. Here’s why:

  • Little new customer growth. Other than through e-commerce, luxury retailers have had a tough time with customer acquisition for many years. With e-commerce maturing–and most recent reported gains merely channel shift–unfavorable demographics (see below) and very few new store openings, luxury brands are struggling to replace the customers they are losing.
  • Little or no transaction growth. While not widely appreciated, most of the comparable store growth in luxury retail has come through prices increases, not growth in transactions. To change this dynamic companies need to appeal to a wider range of customers and that’s proven difficult to execute in an intensely competitive environment. Brands must be also be careful not to dilute their brand relevance and differentiation in an attempt to cast a wider net.
  • Unfavorable demographics. Affluent baby boomers have propped up the sector for more than a decade. But as customers get older they tend to spend less overall, and quite a bit less on luxury in particular. Baby boomers are slowly but surely aging out of the segment. Gen X is a smaller cohort and there is little evidence they will spend as much as the boomers. Over the longer term, millennials will need to make up for the boomers who, to put it bluntly, will be dying off. Most studies suggest millennials will be more price-sensitive and less status conscious then then the cohorts ahead of them. This is a major long-term headwind.
  • Growing competition. Strict control over distribution largely insulates the luxury market from intense price competition and having to go head-to-head with Amazon. Nevertheless, full-price luxury is increasingly being cannibalized by retailers’ own growing off-price divisions. Luxury brand manufacturers are also aggressively investing in their own direct-to-consumer efforts by improving their e-commerce operations and continuing to open their own stores. Luxury websites like Net-a-Porter are gaining share of a no longer expanding pie.
  • Shifts in spending. Affluent consumers continue to value experiences and services over things–and are allocating their spending accordingly. Perhaps this multi-year trend will start to reverse itself. Perhaps.
  • The omni-channel migration dilemma. Luxury retailers are spending mightily on all things omni-channel, as they must to remain competitive. But it’s incredibly expensive to create a more integrated customer experience. The better a retailer becomes at this, the more business shifts from physical stores to digital. Most often this is not accretive to earnings as brick & mortar economics get deleveraged and online shopping is plagued by high returns and expensive logistics.
  • Looming over-capacity. While the luxury sector does not face the pressure to close stores that the broader market does, stagnant sales and a continued shift to digital channels will start to put more and more pressure on full-line store economics. Moreover, there is growing evidence that the high-end off-price sector is approaching saturation. The rationale for a Saks and Neiman merger may start to make more sense and some pruning of locations seems inevitable.

Notwithstanding the capital structure issues Neiman Marcus must deal with, the luxury market does not face nearly the same immediate challenges that many parts of retail must address. Nevertheless, there is mounting evidence that the sector’s struggles go beyond foreign currency woes and the vagaries of the oil market.

Profound change is coming to luxury as well and most of the headwinds simply aren’t going away.

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

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy · Innovation

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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Fashion · Growth · Luxury

Out of Barneys’ rubble: What’s next for luxury fashion’s biggest boutique

Yesterday Barneys New York averted yet another trip to bankruptcy court through a major restructuring deal that converted most of their debt to equity (http://bloom.bg/IUyHir).

Unless you work at Istithmar–the PE firm that paid more than $940MM for Barneys in 2007 (oops!)–or owned Barneys debt, this is a big deal (pun intended). Barneys no longer has to divert the majority of its cash to service debt and now has greater capacity to improve existing operations and focus resources on growth.

So we’re good now, right? Not so fast.

To be sure, buying a marquee brand at fire sale prices sets up Barneys new class of equity owners for potentially high returns. And newish CEO Mark Lee has done a solid job of executing the basics and going after the proverbial low-hanging fruit. But we need to deal with a few facts.

We should not forget that Barneys recent improved performance comes at a time when virtually all luxury brands have performed well as the US market recovers from the devastating effects of the recession. As the market returns to 2007 levels–and we’re pretty much there–the reality is that the US luxury market is pretty mature.  Maintaining outsized revenue growth in the future is mostly going to need to come from market share gains and/or new stores.

The more looming reality is that Barneys is basically a 2 1/2 store chain. It’s no big secret that the New York and Beverly Hills stores drive the majority of profits while the Chicago flagship is a solid, but way less significant contributor. But expansions of flagship stores to markets like Scottsdale and Dallas have been disasters, and the Co-op stores have had decidedly mixed results.

Yes, Barneys expanded to markets like Las Vegas at precisely the worst time and yes, there have been execution follies along the way. But the bigger issue is that Barneys, as currently envisioned, is basically a big boutique. Unlike Neiman Marcus and Saks, which play in a full-range of affluent customer price points and target multiple lifestyles, Barney’s is tightly focused on a more specific customer from both a fashion point of view and price range.  In huge fashion markets like New York and LA, they can thrive. In smaller markets, faced with long-standing department store and boutique competition, it’s much, much harder.

Barneys has tried to correct for this by building smaller stores. While the stores are beautiful and contain a lot of great product, they mostly end up looking like a smaller boutique concept trying to fill up too big a space. So far, in markets like Dallas and Scottsdale, customers seem to agree.

For Barneys to profitably and meaningfully move beyond more than a handful of cities they are going to have to address a wider market while still maintaining a strong sense of their unique DNA and brand image. Faced with strong omni-channel competition like Saks, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom–not to mention a whole host of e-commerce only players and local boutiques–that is no easy task.

 

 

Growth · Innovation · Retail · Social Media

Twitter’s birthday: Blow out the candles, step on the gas.

You probably heard that Twitter celebrated its 5th birthday yesterday.

The flash-sales model pioneered in the US by GiltGroupe is about 3 1/2 years old.

Groupon was founded in November of 2008, not even 2 1/2 years ago.

While it remains unclear whether Twitter will go the way of a MySpace or a Facebook, it’s hard to question that they have forever changed the way people communicate and engage.

The collective valuation of the flash-sale sites launched in the US is likely already greater than that of Saks Fifth Avenue, a pretty powerful brand that is more than 100 years old.

Groupon turned down an offer from Google to be bought for $6 billion and is rumored to be seeking a $25 billion valuation in an IPO later this year.

These innovative new business models are rapidly gaining share from industry incumbents who are slow to go through the cycle of awareness, acceptance and action.

If it hasn’t happened to your industry yet, rest assured it will.

So let’s all wish Twitter a Happy Birthday.

And then, go figure out whether you are driving the right car or not.

Either way, get ready to step on the gas.

 

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy · Customer Insight

Defying the Sea of Sameness

Any business school course on strategy will devote significant time to the importance of competitive differentiation.  We attend marketing conferences where speakers pontificate on the need to have a unique value proposition.  Excellent books like Seth Godin’s Purple Cow preach the benefits of being remarkable to separate yourself from the herd.

Yet any visit to the mall or surfing of the internet quickly reveals an often numbing “sea of sameness.”

This has long been true for many retailers.  But I believe the recession has made it worse.  As retailers have slashed inventory, desperate to demonstrate inventory productivity progress to investors, merchandise assortments have become less interesting, less differentiated, decidedly less remarkable.

By now it should be apparent that a full recovery is going to be slow in coming.  That means revenue growth must come primarily from stealing market share.

Now is the time to go on the offensive.  Now is the time to commit to deeply understanding your target customers’ needs, compromises and preferences and to find ways to innovate, to be truly remarkable.

For some companies, this means embracing the trusted agent role, going out into the market and curating a unique offering for a discerning clientele.  This is what the best specialty boutiques do.

For others, it means finding more exclusive products in the market, leveraging existing vendor relationships to construct a unique offering and/or developing their own compelling private brands.  This is happening across the price spectrum.  Kohl’s recently reported that 47% of revenues now come from exclusive products.  Saks Fifth Avenue is aggressively working to significantly increase its percentage of private label and national brand exclusives to differentiate itself in a challenging luxury market.

I think two basic principles are at work here.  First, a willingness to move away from a product-centric, gross margin rate maximization mind-set to embrace customer-centricity and all that entails.  Second, an acceptance that it is actually more risky to play it safe and swim in the sea of sameness.

Someone in your industry will decide to break away from the herd and gobble up share while the competition is on their heels.  What’s your choice?
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