Retail

Sears’ March Toward Bankruptcy: Gradually, Then Suddenly

I get the nostalgic love for Sears.

Sears was a pioneer in catalog shopping, the creation of the department store, the boom in suburban regional malls and the advent of powerful private brands. They even sold houses through the mail. Years ago, when I was an executive at Sears, I remember sitting in focus groups and hearing some customers talk glowingly about how Sears was the only company to give them a credit card when they got out of school and how nearly everything they bought for their first home came from Sears. Kenmore. Craftsman. Diehard. All iconic.

I get the disdain for Sears too.

Consumers have suffered through years of mismanagement and, at times, what seemed like episode after episode of willful neglect. Long-term employees have seen their pride turn to embarrassment and sorrow. Investors have endured a roller coaster, with each plunge from the top growing deeper and deeper.

What I don’t get is the wishful thinking.

Despite more than a decade of steady declines in performance, despite the absence of a coherent turnaround strategy, despite the massive operating losses, some investors return to the stock like they might return to a bad love affair. In fact, since the company stated last month it had substantial doubt about its ability to survive, the stock has rallied. And some pundits continue to opine on the various ways Sears could survive as a leaner, meaner version of its storied past. Don’t be fooled.

Since Eddie Lampert still has a few things to sell to raise the mountain of cash necessary to fund ongoing operations, it’s possible he can stave off bankruptcy a bit longer. But make no mistake, the end is in sight.

It turns out that Sears is having a hard time unloading some of its few remaining significant assets, most likely because potential buyers realize their value declines along with Sears fortunes and that they might, in fact, do better in bankruptcy court.

It turns out that Sears has been quietly closing even more stores than they previously announced.

It turns out that the idea that retailers can shrink to prosperity is typically the first sign of a death spiral.

It turns out Sears has been slowly liquidating itself for years. Dead brand walking.

I’d like nothing more than to see Sears survive as a vibrant and sustainable retailer. But, sadly, all the wishful thinking in the world will not change the inevitable.

Now, whenever I think of Sears, I’m reminded of what Hemingway wrote in The Sun Also Rises. When one of the characters is asked how he went bankrupt, he replies mournfully: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

 

 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.  
Omni-channel · Retail · Store closings

Wall Street’s Misguided (And Dangerous) Fascination With Retail Store Productivity

An unprecedented number of retail store locations are closing this year and more announcements are surely coming–though perhaps not quite as many as I suggested in my April Fool’s post.

Given the lack of innovation on the part of traditional retailers, rampant overbuilding and the disruptive nature of e-commerce, this ongoing and massive consolidation of retail space was both inevitable and overdue. Yet much of the way the investor community sees the need for even more aggressive store closings is wrong and, one could argue, pretty dangerous.

One of the more ridiculous ways Wall Street firms have tried to determine the “right” number of store closings is to calculate how many locations would need to be shuttered to return various chains to their 2006 store productivity levels. A somewhat more responsible, though still alarming, analysis comes from Cowen, which focused more on the need to more closely align retail selling space supply and demand.

The most obvious problem with this type of analysis is its focus on ratios. The fact is that many stores with below average productivity are still quite profitable, particularly department stores, given their low rent factors. So while closing a lot of locations may yield a temporary productivity boost it often has a direct and immediate negative impact on earnings, which is a far better indicator of a retailer’s health.

The bigger issue is an underlying misunderstanding of the role of brick & mortar stores in retail’s new world order. Just as “same-store” sales is an increasingly irrelevant metric, so are store productivity numbers. Yes, more stores need to close. Yes, many of the stores that remain need a major rethink with regard to their size and fundamental operations. But what many still fail to grasp is how a retailer’s store footprint drives a brand’s overall health and the success of its e-commerce operations.

A given store’s productivity can be below average and decline yet still contribute to a retailer’s overall success, particularly online. Stores serve as an important–and often low cost–channel to acquire new customers. Stores serve as showrooms that drive customers online. Stores serve as fulfillment points for e-commerce operations. Stores are billboards for a retail brand. Without a compelling store footprint, a brand’s relevance will likely decline and its e-commerce business almost certainly will falter. Stated simply, store productivity numbers, taken in isolation, no longer get at the heart of a brand’s overall performance in an omnichannel world.

While there surely is merit in closing stores that drain cash and management attention, store closings can often make a bad situation worse. Ironically–as Kevin Hillstrom from MineThatData does a great job of illustrating–closings stores to respond to e-commerce growth can actually have the opposite effect. In fact, from my experience, massive store closings often initiate (or at least signal) a coming downward spiral.

Store closings are hardly the panacea that Wall Street seems to believe. And the notion that a brand can shrink its way to prosperity is typically horribly misguided. Macy’s, J.C. Penney and a host of others need to close more stores. And Sears and Kmart just need to go away. But, as I’ve said many times before, show me a retailer that is closing a lot of stores and you’ve likely shown me a retailer that doesn’t have too many stores, but a retail brand that is no longer relevant enough for the stores it has.

The danger of closing too many stores is increasingly real. The danger that struggling retailers will continue to appease Wall Street’s thirst for taking an ax to store counts instead of working on the underlying fault in their stores seems, sadly, clear and present.

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.  

Winning on Experience

Every Single Retail Store in the US To Close Permanently By Month’s End

In a surprise move that underscores the sweeping changes faced by the retail industry, the National Retail Federation, speaking on behalf of all of its members, announced today that every brick & mortar location of every retailer in the United States would close forever within the next few weeks. For nearly a decade “traditional” retailers have been struggling with profitability as sales shifted online and more consumers started to notice that many retailers appeared to have given up years earlier. Yet the move to close down every single store in America still came as a shock to most industry observers.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a CEO of one major retail brand remarked “I would have thought that the fact that 90% of all shopping is still done in physical locations would have been enough to warrant keeping at least a few stores around. I guess I was wrong.” Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was recently named Sears’ 13th CEO in as many months, seemed surprised as well. “Wait, most shopping is still done in stores? I guess maybe we should have worked on making our stores better rather than thinking that closing them down would somehow make things better? Oops.”

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, the brand that has benefitted the most from consumers’ growing love of e-commerce, was approached for comment after delivering his keynote at the annual World Hyperbole Conference in Geneva, but would not speak to reporters. He was, however seen high-fiving Elon Musk off stage and doing what some described as a “clumsy Irish jig” upon learning the news.

Other industry veterans were more circumspect. Ryan Gozzi, a prominent Wall Street analyst who has been pushing many retail brands to shutter locations to improve profitability, commented “honestly I think this just goes too far. I always envisioned retailers would cut and cut until they had just a handful of stores that did like $15,000 per square foot, you know like Warby Parker, Bonobos and Birchbox.” When asked what he thought of today’s announcement Ron Johnson, who oversaw a failed attempt to re-invent JC Penney, looked earnestly into the interviewer’s eyes and exclaimed “Apple. Apple. Target. Apple. Target. Apple. Apple,” then added “golly that’s big news. I was only able to decrease Penney’s sales by about 40%. So signing up for destroying 100% of sales is truly transformative. Gosh I’m impressed.”

The complete shut down of all stores comes after many retailers had aggressively explored new strategies to revive their fortunes. According to multiple sources, newly appointed Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette recently presented his Board with a bold plan to turn the storied retailer around. The strategy, developed with a team of 2nd year Wharton MBA students, was designed to transform the Macy’s culture and incorporate many of the components that have allowed so-called “digitally native” brands to grab market share away from traditional player while transferring billions of dollars from venture capitalists to consumers without anyone apparently noticing or caring.

The new plan reportedly called for the company to relocate its headquarters to a loft-building in the Pearl District of Portland where employees would receive complimentary Stumptown Coffee and Voodoo Donuts, in addition to an enhanced benefits package. Reports that corporate staff would be required to bring their dogs to work could not be independently confirmed. According to multiple sources, sales associates were to be re-named “customer service sensei’s” and the company would guarantee 15 minute delivery of any product anywhere in the continental United States for free. Initial plans also called for consumers to receive 1,500 Plenti points with every order over $50 but were dropped when research revealed that no one knew what Plenti points were.

According to insiders the plan hinged on four key elements:

  • Liberal use of the words “disruptive” and “transformative” in conversation, written communication and speeches at analyst meetings and conferences.
  • Getting on the cover of Fast Company.
  • A willingness to lose a cumulative $27 billion over the next 10 years.
  • A miracle happening in year 11.

The Board was reportedly initially intrigued, but the strategy lost support when one member pointed out that the plan was mostly just a description of Amazon’s strategy and that nothing was being done to improve the products Macy’s sold or the actual shopping experience. Ultimately a growing malaise crept over the Board despite plans to hold their Board dinner that evening at Masa. According to one long time Macy’s Director “while we were excited to dine together that night at arguably the best sushi restaurant outside of Japan, we couldn’t get past the realization that when it came to our business we had nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

While today’s announcement would seem to doom many once leading brands to the retail graveyard, some believe Walmart might come out ahead. The Bentonville, Arkansas based company recently began aggressively acquiring online-only brands in a bid to become “more customer relevant and digitally savvy.” Sean Spicer, Walmart’s newly appointed VP of Cash Incineration Initiatives, told the Wall Street Journal that the shuttering of all physical stores only validated what Walmart has been saying all along and that anyone who says otherwise is either stupid or lying. Challenged on that remark Spicer added: “Hold on, hold on, hold on. We’ve always maintained that the future of retail is selling cheap stuff that Americans need, shipping it to their house, losing money on every order and making it up on volume. If you can’t see that you haven’t been paying attention.” He then told reporters to direct any further questions to the Justice Department.

The economic impact of closings tens of thousands of stores and putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work remains unclear, but many were concerned it could lead to a recession. It also cast serious doubt on President Trump’s claim that ‘we would be winning so much we would get tired of winning.” Prior to today’s news a recent Gallup survey confirmed that most Americans weren’t remotely tired of winning.

Many commercial real estate investors also expressed concern that billions of square feet of vacant retail space coming on the market all at once would have a depressive effect on rents. Despite this widely shared belief, General Michael Flynn, recently named President of the Association for Commercial Real Estate Over-Capacity Denial” noted that the industry had gone through multiple down cycles over the years and that any excess supply would quickly be absorbed. “For every Home Depot or Target that closes there are plenty of Soul Cycles and expensive juice bars with that one employee awkwardly standing there to take their place” Flynn said.

 

For real stuff please follow me on Twitter and @Forbes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy

Relevance-light models are now retail’s big problem

So-called “asset-light” business models, where a company has relatively few capital assets compared to the overall size of its operations, have drawn increasing attention (and investor dollars) in recent years. Think Airbnb, Uber, Snap and many other essentially digital-only brands. The concept isn’t new. Brand licensing and many hotel management and franchise-based businesses have employed this formula for years.

In fact, the initial appeal of e-commerce was centered on the notion that a profitable business could be built without expensive physical stores loaded up with gobs of inventory. Then people started to learn that even with relatively little capital tied up in brick & mortar, both online-only brands and the e-commerce divisions of omni-channel retailers still have a hard time making money.

Recently, more and more traditional retailers have been drinking the asset-light Kool-Aid. Sears Holdings CEO Eddie Lampert has been jettisoning real estate and investing heavily in e-commerce while largely ignoring physical stores. Macy’s, HBC and other department and specialty stores have been closing and/or spinning off real estate assets galore. JCPenney is among a number of retailers that are bringing in outside entities to run parts of their business, effectively reducing the risk of a heavy commitment to physical space and inventory.

Clearly some of these moves may make sense as either savvy financial engineering strategies or targeted product/service offerings. Well, not for Sears, but perhaps for others.

Yet as we seek to understand what’s behind the headline grabbing announcements–with many more certain to come–we should grasp one key concept. The fundamental problem at Sears, Penney’s, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Dillard’s and a host of other long suffering retail brands is not that they have too many assets. The driving issue is that they have too little relevance for the assets they possess. In fact, we need look no further than last week’s strong earnings announcements from Home Depot and Walmart to see that retail companies can have enormous physical assets and still remain relevant.

Unfortunately, more times than not, focusing attention on driving down assets (the denominator of a success equation) instead of improving customer relevance (the numerator) only helps the investor math for a short time. This is not to say that store closings are not needed. But the evidence is clear that plenty of asset-heavy retailers have figured out how to make money without embracing the store closing panacea.

Leaders and Boards of struggling retailers may think they are pursuing a smart asset-light strategy. My fear is that most of them are only deepening their commitment to a relevance-light model. And that’s likely to end badly.

 

A version of this post appeared @Forbes where I have recently become a retail contributor. To see more click here.

Leadership · Omni-channel · Retail · Strategy

Sears: Is The End Finally In Sight For The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale?

When I left Sears in 2003, I was quite pessimistic about the company’s long-term prospects. Some initiatives we had put in place during a two-year strategic re-positioning effort were gaining traction, but most key metrics were alarming. The apparel business was well below a sustainable productivity level. The appliance and home improvement segments–which accounted for roughly 50% of our enterprise value–were losing market share to better positioned competitors, mostly notably Home Depot and Lowes. And the one strategy that might have saved us was no longer a feasible option. My fear was that Sears’ slow death was inevitable.

The following year Eddie Lampert put two failing retailers together and promptly made a bad situation even worse. While Sears and Kmart both suffered from challenges driving revenue, Lampert focused on cutting costs. As leading brands realized that retail was moving to an era of greater customer experience and shopping integration, Lampert set up merchandise categories as warring factions. Next came the idea of starving the stores further to focus on making Sears more digitally savvy. Then he became enamored with an emphasis on making Sears “member-driven” by launching “Shop Your Way,” a frequency shopping scheme that only served to lower margins without restoring necessary sales growth.

After witnessing nearly a decade of flailing, in 2013 I publicly declared Sears “the world’s slowest liquidation sale” and suggested that they were a dead brand walking.

I have to admit that Sears has hung in there longer than I would have thought. The degree to which Lampert has been able to extract value from Sears assets has been surprising and remarkable. But he is rapidly running out of rabbits to pull out of his hat.

First, and most importantly, Sears has never laid out any realistic strategy to reverse a nearly perfect string of comp store declines for both the Sears and Kmart brands extending back to 2004. Sears cannot possibly cut enough costs to restore positive operating cash flow without growing top-line sales significantly.

Second, most store closings only make things worse. Contrary to popular belief, stores are needed to drive online sales, and vice versa. Sears’ fundamental problem is not too many stores, it is that is has become a brand that is no longer relevant enough for the assets and operating scale it has in place.

Third, with massive operating losses assured for the foreseeable future, Sears must raise a lot of cash to stay afloat. And it has already sold almost all the good stuff.

Yes, the presumably imminent sale of the Kenmore and DieHard brands may fetch in excess of a billion dollars. Yes, there is some real estate left to unload. Yes, the Home Services and Auto Centers retain some meaningful value. But don’t let the financial engineering strategies gloss over the fundamental point. There is no viable operating strategy to restore Sears to a profitable core of any material size. And unless the company can generate cash from operations before running out of assets to fund its staggering losses, it is not, in any practical sense, a going concern.

The company has been liquidating for many years now. It’s just that some of us are finally starting to notice.

 

This post originally appeared on Forbes where I recently became a contributor. You can check out more of my writing by going here.

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy · Leadership · Omni-channel

Working on the wrong problem

When we see a brand struggling–or we find ourselves working within a flailing or failing organization–the first order of business should be clear. We need to understand the root causes. Once we’ve become keenly aware of what’s driving our problem–and accepted the reality of the situation–we are then ready to move into developing and launching a course of action.

So if the path is clear and obvious, why do so many retailers–and scores of other types of organizations, for that matter–get it so very wrong, so very often?

We regularly see retail brands hyper-focused on cost reductions when by far the bigger issue is lack of revenue growth (I’m looking at you Sears).

We see brands falling prey to the store closing delusion when often it turns out that closing stores en masse only makes matters worse.

We see brands blindly chasing the holy grail of all things omni-channel when, in most cases, they are merely spending millions of dollars to transfer sales from one pocket to the other–often at a lower margin.

We brands engaging in price wars they can never possibly win or without regard to the possibility that their customers aren’t even interested in the lowest price.

We see brands chasing average, the lowest common denominator, the one-size-fits-all solution because it seems safe. Yet it is precisely the most risky thing they could do.

Far too often we fail to pierce the veil of denial.

Far too often we fall victim to conventional wisdom, what we’ve always done or what we think Wall Street wants.

Far too often we ascribe wisdom to shrewd salespeople or charismatic and clever charlatans.

Far too often we fail to do the work, to ask for help, to dig deep to understand what’s really going on.

We can work really hard. We can focus our energies and those of our teams we great alacrity and intensity. We can pile on the data, build persuasive arguments and rock a really slick PowerPoint presentation. We can tell ourselves a story that convinces us we must be right.

But if we aren’t working on the right problem that’s all a colossal waste of time.

 

 

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.

dept_store_sales_grwth_large

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.

dillards-2

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.

seth-godin-quote-1-800x397