Four truths and a lie from this year’s ShopTalk

Once again ShopTalk proved itself to be the must-attend retail event of the year. The 4th annual conference was both bursting with people and content, having grown to more than 8,000 attendees, five tracks and a solid number of prominent main-stage speakers across four action-packed days.

Most presentations and panels that I attended were strong. Yet a few speakers unfortunately hit speed bumps when their talks veered into shameless self-promotion, parroted trite expressions (“we put the customer at the center of everything we do”) or set forth declarations as bold new insight when they were merely observations that are obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention the past few years.

Nevertheless, as the dust settles, I came away with a few key points.

TRUTH: Embrace the blurThe delineation between physical and digital is increasingly a distinction without much of a difference . Most consumer’s shopping journeys involve a digital channel and the growing role of mobile makes the lines ever more blurry. While this has been true for years, many brands at ShopTalk seemed to finally be accepting this and taking necessary actions.

TRUTH: It’s about markets, not just physical locations. Just weeks after his brother Blake died, Nordstrom co-president Erik Nordstrom, in a refreshingly modest and honest fireside chat with CNBC’s Courtney Reagan, spoke of the company’s strategy to harness the power of stores and online to be more relevant on a market-by-market basis. He under-scored the reality that for many retail brands the store is the heart of an increasingly complex shopping ecosystem and that the customer is really the channel.

TRUTH: Physical retail isn’t dead. But it is very different. In some ways it seemed like attendees were officially cancelling the retail apocalypse. Sure many stores are closing: sometimes out of irrelevance, sometimes out of gross mismanagement or insanely leveraged capital structures, sometimes out of a needed correction to the ridiculous overbuilding of retail capacity. But Walmart, Target and many other brick & mortar centric retailers are showing new signs of life by treating their stores as assets, rather than liabilities. As just one example, investments in using the store as a key part of the supply chain (ship from store, order online/pick up or return in store, etc) are helping neutralize some of Amazon’s (and other’s) perceived superiority.

TRUTH: The problem is you think you have time. As many presentations centered on artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and the like, it seemed clear that the pace of technology adoption is only accelerating. Similarly, talks on shifting consumer behavior served as a stark reminder that customer wants and needs are growing ever more dynamic and more difficult to predict. And news of recent mass store closings and bankruptcies make it clear that those retailers that don’t move quickly and decisively are likely destined to die.

LIE: A slightly better version of mediocre is a compelling strategy. While I won’t name names, at least one retailer that featured prominently in the program may need more than a miracle on 34th Street to make them meaningfully relevant again. As the collapse of the middle continues apace, it seems increasingly obvious that some brands are making only incremental changes–or merely moving to where the puck is. What passes for innovation at some retailers might close competitive gaps, but whether it gets them to being truly remarkable is very much an open and critical question.

In addition to catching up with old and new friends, one of the things I like most about ShopTalk is the ability to get a robust and fairly comprehensive snapshot of where retail stands: the good, the bad, the ugly and, sometimes, the head-scratching. Regardless, I come away better educated, inspired and hoping that more retailers will see the light.

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.  

The stores strike back

Amidst all the retail apocalypse nonsense it turns out that physical retail isn’t dead after all.  Last year some 3,000 new stores were opened and physical retail continued to have positive growth in most major global markets. One of my 14 predictions for retail in 2019 is the notion that, despite the presumed death of physical retail, quite a few major brands are seeing a renaissance of sorts. In fact, stores are striking back against being made obsolete by online shopping in many different and important ways.

Amidst all the retail apocalypse nonsense it turns out that physical retail isn’t dead after all.  Last year some 3,000 new stores were opened and physical retail continued to have positive growth in most major global markets. One of my 14 predictions for retail in 2019 is the notion that, despite the presumed death of physical retail, quite a few major brands are seeing a renaissance of sorts. In fact, stores are striking back against being made obsolete by online shopping in many different and important ways.

A couple of years ago legacy retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, Target and Home Depot were often seen as laggards, soon to be made progressively more irrelevant by Amazon and others. Yet it turns out, to paraphrase noted retail strategist Mark Twain, reports of their death were greatly exaggerated.

A couple of years ago, beyond Amazon’s disruptive impact, the future was often thought to be concentrated in the large number of venture capital funded “digitally-native vertical brands” that could scale to massive value creation by avoiding pesky and asset intensive stores.  Yet, in a rather ironic twist, a large cohort of the once firmly “we’ll only grow online because physical retail is going the way of the dinosaurs” upstarts will collectively open more than 800 brick-and-mortar locations this year. Most are now experiencing most of their growth from good old fashioned stores.

A couple of years ago, many analysts and “futurists” saw e-commerce getting to 50% share within a decade and questioned why anyone would invest in physical stores. But facts are stubborn things, and it’s clear we aren’t remotely on a glide-path to online getting to even 30%. Moreover, rather traditional retailers as diverse at TJX, Sephora, Ulta and Dollar General are openings dozens upon dozens of stores. We also have retailers like Tractor Supply and AtHome becoming large, growing and incredibly successful brands with an overwhelming focus on brick-and-mortar locations.

So how do we explain all this?

Not every customer is like you. You personally may love the ultra-convenience of e-commerce and hate going to stores. Good for you. But there is a reason 89% of all retail is still done in brick-and-mortar locations. Every retailer needs to respect the differences among consumers and their key purchasing drivers across different occasions. Repeat after me: treat different customers differently.

Brick and mortar trumps e-commerce in many respects. Shopping in physical stores is more emotional, social and connected. Shopping in physical stores allows customers to try stuff on, understand the real look of a given product and get a clearer sense of value. Shopping in physical stores offers immediate gratification. Shopping in physical stores makes it easier (usually) to put more complex solutions together, like a home project or assembling an outfit. It’s a digital-first world. Until it’s not.

E-commerce is often pretty unprofitable. It’s great that investors are willing to subsidize the poor profitability of many disruptive concepts, from Uber to WeWork to Amazon to Wayfair. It won’t last forever and many sophisticated companies are starting to lean into the lower cost acquisition and/or distribution costs of physical locations vs. direct-to-consumer. Accordingly their investment decisions and pricing are starting to reflect the underlying economic realities.

There is a big difference between buying and shopping. If you are on a largely search-based mission, item-focused and care mostly about price and convenience, e-commerce works really well.  Hence Amazon’s strong relative share in these “buying” occasions. You might even get all wild and crazy and use Alexa. But if you are more engaged in discovery, something more emotional and want a more holistic experience, then you are “shopping” and a physical store-centric (albeit digitally enabled) path is often your best bet.

Assets or liabilities? A brand that fundamentally sees their stores as liabilities typically seeks to optimize them–and a cycle of cost cutting and store closings begins, typically initiating a downward spiral.  If a brand see their stores as assets, they work on improving e-commerce and digital enablement capabilities and lean into making the stores more relevant. Contrast Sears strategy with Target’s. Sears disinvested in stores and will soon be gone. Target shifted many things about its store strategy and simultaneously upped its digital game, while plowing billions into store upgrades and omni-channel capabilities. So have Walmart, Home Depot and Best Buy. Nordstrom has continued its decade long strategy of doing so. It’s paying off.

It’s all one thing. Brands that are physical store dominant see their brick-and-mortar locations as the hub of a shopping ecosystem. They don’t get hung up on a phony battle between e-commerce and stores. The customer is the channel. Online drives stores and vice versa. Their mission is to leverage the best of each customer touchpoint, eliminate the friction, harmonize the experience and amplify the “wows.” Rinse and repeat.

Sure, there is plenty of doom and gloom in the retail industry. And the collapse of the boring middle is real–and not about to go away.

Yet there is plenty of hope as well for those that do the work, reimagine the opportunities and are willing to act decisively.

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 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.

We’ve created a monster: Retail’s growing returns problem

At the beginning of the year I published “A Baker’s Dozen Of Provocative Retail Predictions For 2018.” In No. 11, I opined that the industry’s problem with returns would soon start to get the attention it deserves. For awhile now I have seen the growing rate of costly product returns as a ticking time bomb—particularly as e-commerce garners greater share. As we’ve gone through this year, stories of retailers tightening their return policiestracking “serial” returners and going after returns fraud have become more common. Last month, Axios joined in the chorus, calling attention to the problem of e-commerce returns in particular. Unfortunately, despite greater awareness, the issue is likely to get worse before it gets better. But eventually something has to give.

Product returns and exchanges have been the nemesis of the direct-to-consumer industry going back to the mail-order catalog days. For products that are fit and/or fabrication sensitive (think fashion, intimate apparel, shoes) returns often exceed 30%, and rates north of 40% are not unheard of. Back in the good old days, while high return rates were definitely an area of concern, the fact that the customer often paid “shipping & handling” costs helped soften the damage to the bottom line. In fact, for some brands, shipping & handling was actually a profit center.

Today? Well, not so much.

More and more free shipping is becoming the norm. Many “disruptive” brands have made free shipping “both ways” an intrinsic part of their business model. And as the holiday season approaches we are about to enter a period where free shipping offers will practically be tables stakes. In fact, Target has already announced that it will offer free two-day shipping beginning November 1. None of this bodes well for turning the tide on returns.

As is so often the case, Amazon remains the 800-pound gorilla here, particularly as free shipping is core to the Prime value proposition. And while Amazon charges for this privilege, its total fulfillment costs continue to grow as a percent of sales. While the company does not share much detail about the underlying drivers of this escalation, it’s hard to imagine that product returns are not a key contributor.

Some argue that fast, easy and inexpensive returns are all just part of being customer-centric or staying competitive. And certainly that is true. Yet it’s also true that the growing problems are largely self-inflicted and, in many cases, distorted by the increasing popularity of e-commerce. Online shopping can be incredibly convenient. At the same time it’s next to impossible for most consumers to be sure of fit, color accuracy, product quality, etc. sight unseen. So given there is no additional direct cost, it’s not surprising that many customers buy 2, 3 or 4 of the same item in different colors and/or sizes, fully expecting to return all the rest for credit. In the quest to be customer-friendly many companies have radically changed their cost structure. And not in a good way. We have met the enemy and he is us.

In “normal times”—and for any number of reasons it’s clear these are far from normal times—such liberal and wildly unprofitable practices would have long been tamed by market forces. But as many investors have been willing to value growth over profit, the consumer has seen a huge benefit, while many brands continue to see their margins shrink.

Confronted with this reality, smart retailers are not only refining their policies and adjusting their pricing, but also turning to new technology and/or partners like Happy ReturnsOptoro (which raised $75 million earlier this year) and others that seek to help brands deal more effectively with this rising tide. At some level, returns and exchanges are simply an inherent part of the retail business. Seeking to make the best of a necessary, but costly, part of the retail equation is eminently sensible.

Real progress on reducing the overall incidence of returns, however, must focus on the root causes. Many retailers have made significant progress on reducing returns due to product damage, shipping errors and the like. Taming the monster of returns that have nothing to do with delivery quality, and everything to do with intentional customer decisions, is far more vexing.

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.  

November 8th I will be doing the opening keynote eRetailerSummit in Chicago. For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. 

Strange bedfellows? Legacy retailer and disruptive brand partnerships are on the rise.

As the middle continues to collapse—and many well established retailers struggle to move from boring to remarkable—brands must continually seek new ways to become unique, more intensely relevant and truly memorable. One strategy that seems to be picking up steam involves so-called digitally native brands creating alliances with much larger legacy retail companies. Earlier this month, as just one example, Walgreen’s announced a partnership with fast growing online beauty brand Birchbox. An initial pilot will feature a Birchbox offering in 11 Walgreen stores.

The Walgreen’s and Birchbox deal is only the most recent of many business marriages forged in recent years. Target has been especially forward leaning, expanding its assortments via industry disruptors Casper (mattresses), Quip (ultrasonic toothbrushes) and Harry’s (razorblades), among more than a half dozen others. Nordstrom has been active as well, having added (and invested in) Bonobo’s (menswear) way back in 2012. More recently, it has augmented its offering with Reformation (women’s clothing) and Allbirds (shoes). Earlier this year Macy’s invested in and expanded the number of stores featuring b8ta’s store-within-a store concept and Blue Apron began testing distribution through Costco.

I first came to understand the potential power of these alliances when I worked on Sears’ 2002 acquisition of Lands’ End. While the roll-out of Lands’ End products at Sears was horribly botched (and hindered by Sears’ bigger problems), the strategic motivations are easy to grasp. For Sears, struggling to offer powerfully customer relevant brands that weren’t widely distributed at competing retailers, Land’s End held the promise of providing product differentiation, an image upgrade and acquiring new apparel shoppers. For Lands’ End, gaining access to hundreds of Sears stores provided substantially broadened customer reach, lower customer acquisition cost and improved product return rates. Importantly, Lands’ End management knew the biggest barrier to growing its customer base was making it easy for potential customers to experience the product in person—something only physical stores could help deliver. The Sears deal addressed this issue rapidly and at dramatically lower incremental capital investment.

More than 15 years later, the rationale for retailers with a large brick-and-mortar footprint and newer D2C brands to hook up is only stronger. In a world where consumers have nearly infinite product choices and it’s quite easy to shop on the basis of price, it’s never been more important for retailers to differentiate their assortments. Private brands (not “labels”) are one critically important element. Exclusive (or narrowly) distributed products is the other. Not only do these alliances present brands that are largely unique at retail, they can help boost a legacy brand’s overall image, attract new customers and drive incremental traffic.

For many fast-growing digitally native brands the appeal of such partnerships is compelling as well. While many of these brands are opening their own stores, some have used these partnership to test the waters prior to embarking on their own brick-and-mortar strategy. Some use wholesale distribution to drive incremental business in markets where their own stores won’t work. Others (Quip and Harry’s are prime examples) can expand their consumer reach when an owned store strategy simply won’t make sense given their particularly narrow products lines. The opportunity to dramatically expand customer awareness and trial with very little incremental marketing or capital investment is especially attractive.

Of course traditional retail and digitally native brands alike must be quite intentional about how strategic alliances advance their long-term goals. Yet done for the right reason and executed well, these partnerships can address real pain points for each and help accelerate growth. As Amazon continues to gobble up market share—and more and more tools are introduced to help consumers compare product features and prices from any and all retailers—retail brands will face increasing pressure to find meaningful and memorable points of differentiation. And, as the broader market is finally starting to accept, few disruptive direct-to-consumer brands can scale profitability without a material brick-and-mortar presence.

Seen in this light, the rise in these partnership is far from strange. Indeed, they often are quite logical. Which is why we are likely to see quite a few more in the very near future.

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.  

November 8th I’ll kick of the eRetailerSummit in Chicago. For more info on my speaking and workshops go here. 

For a growing number of retailers, small is the new black

It’s hardly news that the retail industry is going through significant contraction of selling space as an uptick in bankruptcies and outright liquidations forces hundreds of locations to close en masse. In addition, dozens of struggling retailers continue to shutter outlets hoping to improve profitability or avoid a similar fate. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that the number of store closings this year will exceed last year’s record pace. While there are plenty of new store openings, the net downsizing of retail space in certain categories is clearly significant (for a deeper dive I recommend this excellent report by Coresight Research).

Another factor that is starting to affect vacancy rates is that some brands are “right-sizing” their prototypical store, in what I affectionately label the “Honey, I shrunk the store” phenomenon. Some of this is a sure sign that the retailer has run out of ideas for the space it has and is hoping to shrink to prosperity. Good luck with that. Others are wisely optimizing their footprints to address the rise of e-commerce and other fundamental changes in shopping behavior. I fully expect the large scale thinning of the herd to continue apace through (at least) next year, while the evolution of store models will take multiple years to play out.

What’s new—and fundamentally more interesting for retail’s future—is the rise of much smaller and very much reimagined formats from well-established brands. I first delved into this last year writing about Nordstrom Local, the storied retailer’s new service-focused micro-concept. Nordstrom has since disclosed plans to open additional locations and hinted in its recent investor presentation that Local could be a key part of the company’s portfolio strategy to drive market share on a city-by-city basis. And just this week Ikea joined Sephora, Target and others who are hoping to spur outlet growth by announcing a smaller format that holds the potential to unlock many additional urban locations by having fundamentally different economics and site-location requirements.

In some cases these retailers are dealing with the harsh reality that their concepts are maturing and it’s becoming impossible to find locations where they can generate an ROI from their traditional format. Without reengineering their underlying economics, their store growth plans come to a screeching halt. In other cases they are mirroring aspects of the playbook employed by many digitally-native brands as they began opening physical stores: locate closer to where the target customers live or work, make services a key component of the value proposition, harmonize the experience across digital and physical channels, minimize inventory and use technology as a differentiator.

Over the years, many retailers have chased the notion of a smaller store as the key to spurring outlet growth (I’ve personally worked on several of these initiatives). Where most went wrong was delivering a watered-down version of what the brand was known for. Saks’ Main Street strategy is an expensive lesson in what not to do. The smaller box did encourage them to open in locations that could not financially accommodate a “real” Saks store. In theory, this strategy held the promise of increasing the luxury retailer’s store count by some 50%. Unfortunately customers were underwhelmed by the offering, seeing it as a “baby” Saks. Eventually all the expansion sites were closed.

What savvy brands know is to avoid creating a new concept that is merely a smaller version of the core value proposition, designed by pruning all the “non-essential” elements. This top-down approach is likely to be seen as a compromise. And who wants the customer to feel like she is settling? Instead, any new offering should be built by leveraging what the parent brand is known for, while taking a bottoms-up approach to eliminating customer pain points and finding new ways to be intensely customer relevant. This is one way a brand that’s running out of gas can go from boring to remarkable.

It’s increasingly clear that when we get beyond the outlet growth we see in the off-price/discount segment, a lot of new store openings are being driven by the Warby Parker’s, Casper’s and Indochino’s of the world who have made this way of thinking central to their store expansion strategies. For legacy retailers hoping to stay relevant, well thought out micro-concepts have the potential to jump start growth by reaching new customers and getting closer to the customers they already have, while providing a measure of protection against often more nimble new competition.

Many mature retailers would be wise to follow Nordstrom and Ikea’s lead. Small is starting to become big.

back-to-the-1970s-lets-get-small

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.