The two sides of ‘good enough’

It can be quite dangerous to believe that you are better than the competition when the customer evaluates your product offering in isolation and out of context. When I was at Sears our research regularly told us that our target consumers viewed us as the best provider of appliances and tools. Yet we continued to leak market share.

As it turns out, once customers checked out the appliance or tool offering at Home Depot and Lowes they learned that, while the product assortment wasn’t quite as good as ours, the prices were often better. And if they were doing a DIY home improvement project they could get everything they needed in one trip. Plus, having to jump back in the car and deal with the hassle of shopping in the mall added to the “cost” of buying from us. For many customers, at the moment of truth, Home Depot and Lowes were good enough.

The opposite side of good enough involves brands that managed to thrive for many years despite their mediocrity, despite their peddling rather average products for average people.

When consumers had few alternatives, little access to information about their options and weren’t all that demanding, they had little choice but to settle. Those days are rapidly disappearing. Today, in most instances, folks are faced with a virtually infinite amount of choice, information and access. This reality lays bear the deficiencies of any brand for all to see.

Good enough no longer is.

 

Retail’s museums of disappointment

The retail graveyard is already quite full. Sports Authority is on its way there and surely the Sears and Kmart that we used to know can’t be too far behind. They’ll hardly be the last.

In fact, considering the rapid shift in customer behavior and the blistering pace of retail disruption, one could readily argue that far more brands will disappear in the next decade than in the last one.

And it’s not just that brands are going away entirely. Malls, Main Streets, strip and power centers, are already littered with empty boxes, big and small. Some locations quite old and dated, others still bright and shiny, opened a mere few years ago, their carcasses now hollowed out, the result of a merger or, more likely, plain and simple irrelevance.

Maybe we can blame Amazon or the failed economic policies of the Bush administration. Perhaps we can put it all on Obamacare. Maybe some totally unanticipated event came out of left field. Maybe we were just unlucky. Maybe.

More often than not, by the time a brand is buried, there are few who truly will miss it. By the time the final padlock is secured after a store closes, most folks are hardly surprised.

Irrelevance rarely happens overnight. Most often, the brand and their stores have been disappointing customers for years.

Blame Amazon, blame the government, heck, blame Canada (NSFW). Just know that the reality is the symptoms of creeping irrelevance are almost always there if you actually pay attention and if you are willing to act upon what you see and learn.

Whether our stores and malls will become exciting destinations or simply museums of disappointment is, when all is said and done, nine times out of ten, a choice.

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Sears: The one thing that could have saved them

As much fun as it is to call out Eddie Lampert on his misguided, selfish and seemingly delusional decade-plus leadership of Sears Holdings, when the world’s slowest liquidation sale is ultimately complete–I’m guessing, for all intents and purposes, by this time next year–we should acknowledge that Sears fate was probably sealed well over 20 years ago, when Crazy Eddie was not even involved.

First a bit of context. I worked at Sears from 1991-2003 and my last job was head of strategy reporting to then CEO Alan Lacy. I also led the Lands’ End acquisition integration team. During my tenure, in addition to various operating and marketing assignments, I was either the #1 or # 2 strategy guy when we implemented the “Softer Side of Sears”, created and piloted The Great Indoors and Sears Grand concepts and launched or accelerated the growth of free-standing Sears Appliance and Sears Hardware stores. I worked on or led teams that evaluated the acquisition of Kmart, Lowes, Best Buy, Circuit City–and Builder’s Square and Eagle Hardware when they were still around. We also seriously assessed turning all Sears mall locations into home only stores (among other concepts) and, in 2003, analyzed selling Kenmore and Craftsman to Home Depot or Lowes. So it’s safe to say I have more than a passing knowledge of how Sears evolved (or more accurately devolved) over an extended period of time.

With the benefit of that experience (and a good amount of hindsight) my conclusion is this: the only thing that would have given Sears a chance to thrive–not merely survive–was to have either launched their own home improvement warehouse concept or to have acquired Home Depot or Lowes’s at a time when they were realistically affordable–and that’s probably prior to 1995.

The reasons are simple. First, well before Amazon was even a thing it was becoming abundantly clear that the moderate department store space was structurally challenged and that Sears weird mix of hardlines and apparel was not a winning formula. Even if the soft home and apparel business got significantly better that was neither a particularly good nor a sustainable outcome. Second, far and away what Sears had that WAS relevant, remarkable and highly profitable were its appliances and home improvement categories. Importantly, Sears also had several leading market share brands- Kenmore, Craftsman and Diehard–that were only available at Sears.

Yet by the early 90’s it was becoming increasingly clear that Home Depot and Lowes were transforming those categories by winning on more convenient locations, better pricing and the ability to serve a broader set of purchase occasions. As they rolled out their stores Sears share (and profits) in those markets dropped precipitously. And it was also clear–or should have been–that Sears could not mitigate those competitive advantages through its mall-based locations.

So what Sears missed (or more accurately, was unwilling to act on) was that the only way to meaningfully counteract the inevitability of the dominance of the home improvement warehouse (and preserve or grow the value inherent in their proprietary brands and strong customer relationships) was to become a leader in that format. Instead, Sears spent the past 25 years wringing out costs (when it mostly had a revenue problem), vainly trying to grow its off-the-mall presence with too few (and way too mediocre) formats, investing in cool digital stuff while starving their physical stores to the point of irrelevance and embarrassment and, apparently, hoping that the Kardashians could somehow turn around an apparel business that has struggled for more than a decade to consistently get to a 30% gross margin and $100/sf in many stores (or what I like to call the “lame brand instead of name brand” strategy).

To be sure, one can argue that there were any number of things Sears could have done over the past 25 years to have meaningfully altered its course. Certainly had Sears not run its catalog into the ground they would not only have had more money to invest in the core business but would have been beautifully positioned to benefit from the dramatic rise in direct-to-consumer commerce. Without a doubt, virtually all of the new formats that were rolled out could have been much better executed. And some of the fantastic consumer interest created by the Softer Side of Sears campaign was not fulfilled by store and merchandising execution. The Lands’ End deal, while strategically sound and potentially transformative, was botched by a too aggressive store-rollout and mishandled marketing. And on and on.

Of course, we will never know for sure. But ultimately, from where I sit, it would all probably just have been lipstick on the pig.

In my view the real fault lies at the leadership all those many years ago that was too busy diversifying Sears into insurance, real estate and mutual funds, while taking their eye off of the customer and the core business and, thereby, letting Home Depot and Lowes (and to a lesser degree Best Buy) gain an insurmountable lead. And that’s a real shame, not to mention a heartbreaking disservice to all those men and women who worked so hard to make Sears a retail icon.

Dead brand walking.

 

 

Slow motion crises

In the world of retail it’s pretty rare that brands get into trouble over night–much less over a matter of months or even years.

What will turn out to be the deathblow for Sears started with Walmart in the 1980’s, and was followed by Home Depot, Lowes and Best Buy chipping away at Sears core tools and appliance business as these insurgents opened new stores and improved their offerings over many, many years.

The ability to deliver books, music and other forms of entertainment digitally (or shipped directly to the consumer) just didn’t pop up one day. Blockbuster, Borders and Barnes & Noble had years to respond. They just didn’t in any especially powerful way.

Starbucks initiated its rapid store growth more than 20 years ago. And the broader reinvention of the retail coffee business by local independents, along with forays by Keurig, Nespresso and others, is hardly a recent phenomenon. Yet it’s hard to point to anything particularly innovative that industry leaders Folger’s and Maxwell House have done during this extended period, despite their brands continuing to lose sales and relevance.

As Macy’s, JC Penney, Dillards and other traditional department store players garner lots of negative press about their current struggles, we should remember that the department store sector has lost relative market share for more than two decades. Their problems are not simply a function of the growth of e-commerce. And even if they were, the best in class players were investing heavily in e-commerce–think Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom–more than 15 years ago.

Crises created by unforeseen events are one thing. Slow motion crises only reveal that we took our eyes off the ball, were too afraid to act or both.

The way to avoid a retail slow motion crisis is as follows:

  • Understand where customer value is being created on a go forward basis
  • Dissect your most valuable customer segments to understand where your brand is vulnerable and where you have potential leverage
  • Figure out where you can compete by modifying your core business and where you need to innovate outside of your core
  • Don’t be afraid to compete with yourself
  • Consider acquistions as way to build new capabilities quickly
  • Embrace a culture of experimentation
  • Spend more time doing, than studying.

 

 

 

 

Umm, so then why aren’t your sales better?

You’ve probably heard quite a few retailers proclaim some version of “customers who shop across our multiple channels spend 2, 3, 4, even 6 times, that of our average customer.”

When I worked at Sears that is what we saw and that is what we said. Years later, when I headed up strategy and multichannel marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group, that was what our data showed and that is what we told the world. As “omni-channel” has become the clarion call of retail during the past several years, dozens of brands have employed this observation as a primary rationale for substantial investments in beefing up digital commerce and investing in cross channel integration.

But it raises an interesting question.

If it’s true that multichannel customers spend a whole lot more and all these companies have become much better at omni-channel, why aren’t their sales better?  In fact, why is it that most of the retailers who have made such statements–and invested heavily in seamless commerce–are barely able to eek out a positive sales increase?

Something doesn’t seem to add up. So what exactly is going on here?

The main thing to understand is the fallacy that becoming omni-channel somehow magically creates higher spending customers. A retailer’s best customers are almost always higher frequency shoppers who, obviously, happen to trust the brand more than the average person. When alternate, more convenient ways to shop emerge, they are most likely to try them first and, because they shop more frequently, it’s more likely that they will distribute their spending across multiple channels. Best customers become multichannel, not the other way around.

If it were true that traditional retailers are creating a lot more high spending customers by virtue of being more multichannel, the only way the math works is that they must at the same time be losing lots of other customers and/or doing a horrible job of attracting new customers–which somewhat undermines the whole omni-channel thesis. It’s also rather easy to do this customer analysis. I long for the day when I see this sort of discussion actually occur at an investor presentation or on an earnings call.

There WAS a time when being really good at digital commerce and making shopping across channels more seamless was a way for traditional retailers to acquire new customers, to grow share of wallet and to create a real point of competitive differentiation. Nordstrom is a great example of a company that benefitted from this strategy during the past decade, but is now starting to struggle to get newer investments to pay off as the playing field gets leveled.

So-called “omni-channel” excellence is quickly becoming the price of entry in nearly every category. Most investment in better e-commerce–or omni-channel functionality like “buy online pick-up in store”–is defensive; that is, if a brand doesn’t do it they risk losing share. But it’s harder and harder to make the claim that it’s going to grow top-line sales faster than the competition.

Retailers that find themselves playing catch up are primarily spending money to drive existing business from the physical channel to the web. That’s responsive to customer wants and needs, but it’s rarely accretive to earnings. It’s also a major reason we don’t see overall sales getting any better at Macy’s, Sears, Dick’s Sporting Goods and whole host of other brands that have invested mightily in all things omni-channel.

As we dissect customer behavior, as we understand the new competitive reality, as we wake up to the fact that most retailers are spending a lot of money to shift sales from one side of the ledger to the other, it’s clear that omni-channel is no panacea and that many of the promises of vendors, consultants and assorted gurus were no more than pipe dreams.

Yes, chances are you need a compelling digital presence. Yes, you had better get good at mobile fast. Yes, you need to assure a frictionless experience across channels. Yes, your data will probably show that customers who shop in multiple channels spend more than your average shopper. But so what?

If you’ve invested heavily in omni-channel and your sales, profits and net promoter scores are not moving up, could it be your working on the wrong problem?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attraction, not promotion (redux)

If you are familiar with 12-step recovery programs you know about the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which goes as follows: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.”

The obvious reason for this practice is that 12 Step programs have the anonymity of their attendees at their core. Moreover, AA–and its spin-off programs–reject self-seeking as a personal value. But it goes deeper.

Most people do not wish to sold to. If I have to hit you over the head again and again with my message, perhaps you are not open to receiving it. Or maybe what I’m selling just isn’t for you. Shouting louder and more often, or pitching all sorts of enticements, may be an intelligent, short-term way to drive a first visit, but all too often it’s a sign of desperation or lack of inspiration.

12 Step programs were among the first programs to go viral. They gained momentum through word of mouth and blossomed into powerful tribes as more and more struggling addicts learned about and came to embrace a recovery lifestyle. No TV. No radio. No sexy print campaigns. No gift cards. No ‘3 suits for the price of 1’. When it works it’s largely because those seeking relief want what others in the program have.

In the business world, it’s easy to see some parallels. Successful brands like Nordstrom, Apple and Neiman Marcus run very few promotional events and have little “on sale” most days of the year. And, it turns out, they sell a very large percentage of their products at full price and have low advertising to sales ratios. Customers are attracted to these brands because of the differentiated customer experience, well curated and unique merchandise and many, many stories of highly satisfied customers. Net Promoter Scores are high.

Contrast this with Macy’s, Sears and a veritable clown car of other retailers who inundate us with TV commercials, a mountain of circulars and endless promotions and discounts. Full-price selling is almost non-existent. How many of these brands’ shoppers go because it is truly their favorite place to shop? How many rave about their experience to their friends? Unsurprisingly, marketing costs are high, margins are low and revenues are stagnant or declining.

Migrating to a strategy rooted in attraction vs. promotion does not suit every brand, nor is it an easy, risk-free journey. Yet, I have to wonder how many brands even take the time to examine these fundamentally different approaches?

How many are intentional about their choices to go down one path vs. the other? How many want to win by authentically working to persuade their best prospects to say “I’ll have what she’s having” instead of beating the dead horse of relentless sales promotion and being stuck in a race to the bottom.

Maybe you can win on price for a little while. Maybe you can out shout the other guys for a bit. Maybe, just maybe, if you can coerce a few more suckers, er, I mean customers, to give you a try, you can make this quarter’s sales plan.

And sure we didn’t make any money, but we’re investing in the future, right?

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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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