Sears tries small stores again and again. Here’s why they’ll fail once again.

Sears, aka “The World’s Slowest Liquidation Sale,” garnered a fair amount of attention recently with the announcement that they would open small stores featuring appliances and other home products called Home & Life. Perhaps having closed hundreds of stores over the past few years, the idea that Sears would “get off the mall” with new, more focused stores is interesting news and perhaps an early sign of resurrection? It’s neither.

Some of us may be old enough to remember that back in the ’90s and early 2000s Sears tried many iterations of exporting its signature home businesses into new formats that held the promise of being more competitive, convenient, customer relevant and sustainable. I’m one of those people. I was directly involved in many of them.

During my tenure—as well as before and after—we opened dozens of Sears Hardware Stores and acquired Orchard Supply Hardware. There were hundreds of so-called Dealer Stores that grew out of the original catalog business. At one point we operated more than 100 outlet stores. We tried various combinations of small-format tools, appliances and mattress stores. My team helped create and launch Sears Grand and The Great Indoors as large format off-the-mall stores where, among other things, Sears home brands were showcased in a more updated and convenient location. We also had the second-largest furniture business in the United States, which we tried to aggressively grow off mall. And, in a juicy bit of irony, those stores were called Homelife.

To varying degrees, and for various and sometimes complicated reasons, all of these efforts failed. While it may be interesting to debate what could have been done to assure better outcomes (spoiler alert: a lot), there are three powerful reasons a reboot of what is by now a very old strategy will almost certainly amount to zilch–plus or minus bupkis.

First, with the benefit of first-hand experience and a heaping spoonful of hindsight, I firmly believe that the one thing that could have saved Sears was to have created our own version of a home improvement warehouse or, even better, to have acquired Home Depot or Lowes at a time when Sears’ valuation would have made that realistic. Based on work we did during my tenure, it became increasingly obvious that the value in two businesses that drove most of Sears’ valuation (home appliances and tools) was migrating to these disruptive formats, and there was little we could do to stop it either with our mall-based format or through our powerful small stores. Without compelling participation in what is now by far the preferred way consumers buy these categories, Sears’ continued share loss—and long march to irrelevancy—was inevitable.

Second, what Sears is trying today is what I often refer to as attempting to be a slightly better version of mediocre.. Sure, some customers might find these more focused and better located stores a step up from the current Sears on-the-mall or online offering, but is that really delivering something truly relevant and remarkable? Of course not.

Third, even if these formats were able to gain some meaningful traction, Sears has little capacity to scale and has fallen so far below critical mass in many aspects of what is key to winning in today’s environment (marketing, sourcing and supply chain, most notably) that any positive momentum will be immaterial to any hoped for turnaround.

I, like so many other people, truly wish there were a better outcome for Sears. But as time goes on it seems increasingly obvious that the train left the station on those possibilities many, many years ago.

Today, sadly, all this thrashing is just lipstick on the pig. Dead brand walking.

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.  


Macy’s and JC Penney earnings offer evidence of the stall at the mall

On the basis of early results (and specious or unreliable indicators), many industry observers predicted this would be the best holiday season in a long time. It turns out, eh, not so much. In fact, at least one guy was pretty skeptical all along.

But you don’t have to be some sort of retail savant (I’m not) or have the gift of prophecy (I don’t) to have seen this coming. While the idiotic U.S. government shutdown, along with every retailer’s favorite scapegoat (the weather), had a largely unexpected dampening effect, anyone who was paying attention could have predicted that retailers with highly customer-relevant and remarkable offerings would do comparatively well and that those stuck in the boring middle would continue to struggle. Which brings me to Macy’s and JC Penney, the two mall-based department stores that reported earnings this week.

Under the newish leadership of Jeff Gennette, Macy’s has embarked on a number of new initiatives, which my fellow Forbes contributor Walter Loeb recently outlined. While I applaud the company’s willingness to try new things, its results continue to be decidedly uninspiring. As sales continue to go nowhere, Macy’s has resorted to what just about every other retailer that can’t seem to get on a path to being truly customer relevant does—namely, cut costs and close stores. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. w

JC Penney recently reported fourth-quarter earnings and managed to top analysts’ estimates. And when we say “top,” we mean they were not quite as horribly sucky as anticipated. Same-store sales were down “only” 4%, and operating losses were only somewhat awful. And, you guessed it, the company also announced it was going to close a bunch of stores.

Amid the generally bad news—which comes, I might add, as Sears (its neighbor in hundreds of locations) hemorrhages market share—was one bright spot: The company did manage to reduce bloated inventory levels by some 13%.

New CEO Jill Soltau also said that the company “has the capacity to produce improved results.” You know, kind of like I have the capacity to complete a triathlon. So good luck and Godspeed to us both.

As Macy’s and JC Penney close the financial chapter on 2018 and try, yet again, to reset their overall cost base, there are five things that need to be kept front and center as we move forward.

1. The stall at the mall is real, and there is no going back. As I’ve written about many times, the moderate-department-store sector has been losing share for decades, first to discount mass merchants and category killers and then (mostly) to off-price retailers. The format is structurally disadvantaged. Accept the things you cannot change.

2. Stop blaming Amazon. To be sure, the growth of online, and Amazon in particular, has added extra challenges, but most of the share losses in the past decade have not been to online-only players, and as mentioned above, both these brands were struggling way before Jeff Bezos had impressive biceps. And by the way, I’m pretty sure there is no law against Macy’s and JC Penney having really good digital capabilities (see Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom et al.).

3. Get out of the boring middle. If you continue to swim in a sea of sameness, you are going to drown. If you continue to chase promiscuous shoppers, your margins will stay low. If you continue to try to be a slightly better version of offering average products for average people, your best-case outcome is average results. Better is not the same as good. You have to choose to be truly remarkable.

4. It’s a customer-relevance problem, not a cost problem. Given the structural issues facing mall-based retailers, as well as the broader shift to online shopping, we often jump to the conclusion that brands like Macy’s and JC Penney can shrink their way to prosperity. This is fundamentally wrong and, in most cases, ultimately destructive. It also belies the fact that plenty of “traditional” retailers have managed to thrive by opening stores and foregoing massive cost-cutting. Time and time again we see that brands that get into big trouble have a problem being customer relevant and memorable yet decide instead that they have a too-many-stores and too-much-staff problem. This is not to say that Macy’s and JC Penney can’t thrive with less square footage; they can and should optimize their store fleets. But there is plenty of business to be done directly in and, more importantly, by leveraging brick-and-mortar locations. As we move ahead, the overwhelming majority of Macy’s and JC Penney’s efforts must be about growing share with their target consumers through improved relevance.

5. Aggressive trade-area based goals. We need to get away from the hyper-focus on comparable-store sales and realize that online drives offline and vice versa—and that the store is the heart of most brands’ customer ecosystems. Accordingly, the metric we should pay most attention to is how retailers are gaining share (customer relevance) and profits on a trade-area by trade-area basis, regardless of channel. If Macy’s and JC Penney are going to be around for the long term, they likely need to be growing at least 3-5% in every trade area where they have stores and be growing faster than inflation overall. Closing many more locations risks impacting both customer relevance and necessary scale economies.

In the next year or two, things are likely to remain especially noisy as the long overdue correction in commercial real estate settles out and the weakest competitors make their way to the retail graveyard. And even if that were not true, both Macy’s and JC Penney face significant structural headwinds as well as daunting operating challenges making their way out of the boring middle—although, to be fair, Macy’s is definitely further along.

Despite the noise, from where I sit, one thing is clear: Neither brand will cost-cut or store-close their way to prosperity. If revenues don’t start to consistently grow faster than industry averages (and that’s likely to come with relatively flat physical-store sales and online growth of at least 15-20 %), then both chains will continue to lose relative customer relevance, and a downward spiral is likely inevitable.

A slightly better version of mediocre is rarely a winning strategy.

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.  

Sears lives to die another day

Against the odds—and over the objections of most creditors—Eddie Lampert has “saved” Sears, with a federal bankruptcy court judge approving the sale of the once-storied retailer to the billionaire hedge fund king.

At one level, we should admire the resilience of the former Sears CEO (and its principal shareholder, though ESL Holdings). Part Energizer bunny, part Michael Myers from the Halloween movies, part gag birthday cake candles, he just won’t die. At another level, it’s hard to imagine a bigger waste of time. Moreover, the idea that he is motivated to keep the company going to save some 45,000 jobs is laughable and undeniably cruel.

For more than a decade, we have witnessed the brand shrink and shrink. Under Lampert’s leadership, the majority of Sears and Kmart locations have been shuttered. Key brand assets have been sold off to keep the lights on. Comparable store sales have been down virtually every quarter since 2004, and e-commerce sales have consistently lagged the industry. Nothing in the latest Hail Mary move reverses a strong downward trajectory. In fact, the situation keeps going from bad to worse, and the current fragility presents growing challenges, as fellow Forbes.com contributor Warren Shoulberg highlights.

As I have touched on before, Sears has been in trouble for decades, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone could have restored the brand to its former glory, much less maintain it as a meaningfully profitable national retailer. While that may be an interesting thought piece or business school case study, the reality today is that Sears simply has no reason to exist in its current manifestation. Sears no longer offers anything that is remarkable to customers—and no strategic plan has been proffered to alter that. While there may be a few diehard fans (heh, heh) left, absent any nostalgic feelings, as a practical matter, no one will miss Sears when it is gone. There simply are plenty of better options to buy everything that Sears sells.

A Sears store in Hackensack, N.J. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Despite being a former Sears executive, I now only wish the insanity would stop. There is no plausible scenario in which Sears does not keep shrinking into oblivion. There are few assets left to fund operating losses. The company will struggle to get creditors to ship it product. Its management team is in tatters. It has no clear target customer groups or compelling value proposition. It has little cash to invest in the areas that desperately need improvement—most notably its remaining stores. And the competition only continues to grow stronger and have greater scale to apply against any resurgence.

So the world’s slowest liquidation sale has entered yet another chapter. I will leave it to others to debate whether this particular move is merely a “scheme to rob Sears and its creditors of assets” or whether it is a good-faith effort to keep Sears as a going concern. Regardless, it is good news for the many thousands of Sears associates who get to keep their jobs for a bit longer. Sadly, though, for most of them, it only delays the inevitable.

As the former Sears CEO (and my former boss) Alan Lacy recently said, “We know how this movie ends; I’m just not sure how many more minutes are left.” Dead brand walking.

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.  

On February 25th I will be doing the opening keynote at New Retail ’19 in Melbourne, Australia, followed the next week by ShopTalk in Las Vegas where I will be moderating an expert panel and participating in other events.

Dead brand walking: Sears is going out with a bang

In the weird irony that is often part of retail (and life in general), Sears Holdings recently announced its first quarter of comparable sales growth in many years—and I believe only its second or third since I left the retailer in 2003! It turns out that the liquidations sales being held in the many Sears and Kmart locations that were closing during the quarter finally brought out customers in droves. Better late than never, I suppose.

Of course, the world’s slowest liquidation sale is not yet over, but it’s hard to take this dead cat bounce as a positive indication of anything substantive.

Last week also brought two other pieces of Sears news. In a classic “you broke it, maybe you want to own it” moment, the hedge fund led by Sears Chairman Eddie Lampert offered to buy the nearly dead retailer. In a statement that seems certain to guarantee Lampert’s fast track admission to the reality distortion field Hall of Fame was this gem: “Sears is an iconic fixture in American retail and we continue to believe in the company’s immense potential to evolve and operate profitably as a going concern with a new capitalization and organizational structure.” In related news, I set fire to a big pile of cash.

The other big story was that Sears cancelled the auction designed to improve upon Service.com’s $60 million “stalking horse” offer when the effort failed to generate a single additional bid. The lack of interest in this once sizable and profitable unit (which was valued at many hundreds of millions of dollars during my Sears tenure) is yet another sign of how far Sears has fallen during the past decade and how little residual value the market sees in many of its pieces.

It may turn out that Lampert and his investors will do reasonably well when all is said and done in the sad saga of Sears’ demise. I’m not smart enough to figure out exactly how all the financial engineering and picking at Sears carcass will ultimately benefit them. But two things are clear: First, during his nearly 15 years at the helm of the bad marriage that is Sears and Kmart, Lampert has never once articulated a compelling and remarkable strategy to guide the retailer. Instead, we’ve had an endless parade of nonsensical tactics, relentless cost cutting and seemingly self-interested asset stripping. In return the company has sustained well over a decade of precipitous market share declines and massive operating losses. In fact, despite operating in one of the best quarters in recent U.S. history, despite closing hundreds of “bad” locations and despite taking an axe to other operating costs, Sears still managed to lose nearly $1 billion on barely over $2.7 billion in revenue this quarter.

Second, the notion that anything can be done to save Sears in a way that remotely resembles its once iconic status is absurd, particularly as Lampert holds on to the idea that the brand can shrink its way to prosperity. Sears has never fundamentally had a cost problem. It has, for at least 20 years, had a huge customer relevance and remarkability problem. Closing more stores and shrinking and/or leasing out the ones that remain may temper losses, but it will never do anything to address the core issue which, simply stated, is having enough customers that want to buy the stuff they sell.

I am certain that over the coming months there will more stories of asset sales, store closings and largely random new program offerings designed to return Sears to its former glory. It’s all just noise, far more like the like gasps of a dying man than a glimmer of hope for any form of resurrection.

Dead brand walking.

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.  

Nordstrom: No good deeds go unpunished

Nordstrom–not only one of my favorite places to shop but also a brand I regularly feature in my keynotes on remarkable retail–recently reported strong quarterly operating performance and raised its outlook. So, naturally the stock promptly got whacked–and continues to be caught up in the market downdraft. To be sure, a non-recurring $72MM charge related to credit card billing errors does not inspire confidence. But unless this unexpected earnings hit suggests some underlying management issue it indicates nothing about the go-forward health of the business which, from where I sit, looks rather healthy.

It IS a confusing time for shares of most retailers. I’m not talking about JC Penney, Sears or legions of others hopelessly stuck in the boring middle. I’m referring to companies that are not only competitively well positioned but have also recently reported solid sales and earnings. Despite a strong consumer outlook, everyone from Amazon to Walmart to Macy’s to Home Depot to Target seems to be falling out of favor. Some of this is surely part of the broader market correction and lingering tariff concerns. But much of it is more than a bit mystifying.

In Nordstrom’s case, I remain bullish. The company is showing signs of maturity and is hardly immune from the competitive pressures brought on by industry over-building and digital disruption. Barring a wholly new and unexpected major growth initiative, the accessible luxury retailer has few new locations to open and already has a very well developed e-commerce and off-price business. Yet they seem to be executing well on most of my 8 Essentials of Remarkable Retail and that bodes well for the future. Let’s take a closer look.

  1. Digitally-enabled. For more than a decade Nordstrom has not only been building out best-in-class e-commerce capabilities (online sales now account for 30% of total company revenues!), but architecting its customer experience to reflect that the majority of physical stores sales start in a digital channel. Nordstrom complements its already excellent in-store customer service by arming many sales associated with tablets or other mobile devices.
  2. Human-centered. Being “customer-centric” sounds good, but most efforts fall short largely because brands do not actually incorporate empathetic design-thinking into just about everything they do. Nordstrom, like their neighbors up the street, are much closer to customer-obsessed than virtually all of their competition.
  3. Harmonized. This is my reframe of the over-used term “omni-channel.” But unlike the way many retailers have approached all things omni, it’s not about being everywhere, it’s showing up remarkably where it matters. And it’s realizing that customers don’t care about channels and it’s all just commerce. The key is to execute a one brand, many channels strategy where discordant notes in the customer experience are rooted out and the major areas of experiential delight are amplified. Nordstrom scores well on all key dimensions here–and has for some time. Nordstrom was a first mover in deploying buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS) and continues to elevate its capabilities by dedicating (and expanding) in-store service desks, among other points of seamless integration.
  4. Personal. With a newly improved loyalty program, private label credit card business and high e-commerce penetration, Nordstrom has a massive amount of customer data to make everything it does more intensely customer relevant. Its targeted marketing efforts are good and getting better and it has identified implementing “personalization at scale” as a strategic priority. Fine-tuning its one-to-one marketing efforts, introducing more customized products and experiences and further leveraging its personal shopping program represent additional upside opportunities.
  5. Mobile. Recognizing that a smart device is an increasingly common (and important) companion in most customers’s shopping journeys, Nordstrom has been building out its capabilities, including acquiring two leading edge tech companies earlier this year. Its increasingly sophisticated and useful app has helped earn the brand a top ratingin 2018 Gartner L2’s Digital IQ rankings.
  6. Connected. While there are opportunities to participate more actively in the sharing economy, Nordstrom’s overall social game is strong, earning it the leading US department store rating from BrandWatch.
  7. Memorable. While its department store brethren are swimming in a sea of sameness, Nordstrom excels on delivering unique and relevant customer service and product. It continues to strengthen its merchandise game by offering a well-curated range of price points across multiple formats. This offering is increasingly differentiated–either because the brands are exclusive to Nordstrom or are in limited distribution. Nordstrom’s plan to up the penetration of “preferred”, “emerging” and “owned” brands strengthens the brand’s uniqueness and should provide improved margin opportunities.
  8. Radical. Nordstrom is not quite Amazon-like in its commitment to a culture of experimentation and willingness to fail forward, but they have placed some pretty big equity bets in fast-growing brands like HauteLook, Bonobos and Trunk Club (whoops), in addition to being one of the first traditional retailers to launch an innovation lab (since absorbed back into the company). They are constantly trying new things online and in-store. Most interesting are their new Local concepts  Unlike some competitors who are trying smaller format stores mostly by editing out products and/or whole categories, Local is a completely re-conceptualized format emphasizing services and convenience. These stores have the potential to be materially additive to market share on a trade-area by trade-area basis.

As mentioned at the outset, Nordstrom is a comparatively mature brand with limited major growth pathways. But to view the company from the lens that is weighing on most “traditional” retailers does not appreciate the degree to which the company has outstanding real estate (~95% of full-line stores are in “A” malls), one of the few materially profitable and superbly-integrated digital businesses, strong customer loyalty and important differentiators in customer service and merchandise offerings. Moreover, most of its out-sized capital investments (including expansion into Canada and NYC) will soon be behind it.

Nordstrom will never have the upside that Amazon (or even TJX) has. But it is one of the best positioned, well-executed retailers on the planet. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Maybe it’s time for a little bit more respect?

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.  

I’m honored to have been named one of the top 5 retail voices on LinkedIn.  Thanks to all of you that continue to follow and share my work.