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.
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.