Digital · e-commerce · Omni-channel

An inconvenient truth about e-commerce: It’s largely unprofitable

The disruptive nature of e-commerce is undeniable. Entirely new business models are revolutionizing the way we buy. The transformative transparency created by all things digital has revolutionized product access, redefined convenience and lowered prices across a wide spectrum of merchandise and service categories. The radical shift of spending from brick & mortar stores to online shopping is causing a massive upheaval in retailers’ physical footprint, which looks to continue unabated.

But the inconvenient (and oft overlooked) truth is that much of e-commerce remains unprofitable–in many cases wildly so–and many corporate and venture capital investments have no prospect of earning a risk-adjusted ROI.

While it was once thought that the economics of selling online were vastly superior to operating physical stores, most brands–start-ups and established retailers alike–are learning that the cost of building a new brand, acquiring customers and fulfilling orders (particularly if product returns are high) make a huge percentage of e-commerce transactions fundamentally profit proof. Slowly but surely the bloom is coming off the rose.

Despite the hype–and a whole lot of VC funding–it’s increasingly clear that most of pure-play retail is dying, as L2’s Scott Galloway lays out better than I can. We have already seen the implosion of the flash-sales sector and the collapsing valuations of once high-flying brands like Trunk Club and One King’s Lane. Just the other day Walmart announced it was acquiring ModCloth, reportedly for less than the cumulative VC investment. A broader correction appears to be on the horizon and I suspect we will see a number of high-profile, digitally native brands get bought out at similarly discounted prices. And, ironically, we will continue to witness a doubling down of efforts by many of these same brands to expand their physical footprints, some of which is certain to end badly.

The challenges for traditional retailers and their “omni-channel” efforts are even more vexing. Walmart, Pier 1, H&M and Michaels are among the many retailers that have been criticized for their slowness to embrace digital shopping. Yet I suspect their seemingly lackadaisical approach owes more to their understanding of e-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem than corporate malfeasance. Alas, more and more retailers are increasing their investment in online shopping and cross-channel integration only to experience a migration of sales from the store channel to e-commerce, frequently at lower profit margins. Moreover, this shift away from brick & mortar sales is causing these same retailers to shutter stores, with no prospect of picking up that volume online. The risk of a downward spiral cannot be ignored.

Given the trajectory we are on it’s inevitable that more rational behavior will creep back into the market. But with Amazon’s willingness to lose money to grow share and investor pressure on traditional retailers to “rationalize” their store fleets, I fear it will take several years for the dust to truly settle.

In the meantime, e-commerce continues to be a boon for consumers and a decidedly mixed bag for investors.

A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.

 

Customer Growth Strategy · Digital · Omni-channel · Retail

Does e-commerce suck?

Well it certainly isn’t bad for consumers. In fact, it’s been a bonanza.

The advent and enormous growth of e-commerce has dramatically expanded the availability of products, making nearly anything in the world readily accessible, 24/7. Product and pricing information that was previously scarce and unreliable is now easily obtainable. Prices are down, in many cases, dramatically. Digital tools and technologies have ushered in a new era of innovation making shopping far more convenient, easy and personalized.

For retail brands and investors the picture is much less clear and increasingly bleak. The fact is e-commerce is mostly unprofitable–and that’s not about to change anytime soon.

Amazon, which is both far bigger than any other retailer’s web business and growing faster than the overall channel, has amassed huge cumulative losses. The high cost of direct-to-consumer fulfillment and so-called omni-channel integration has made virtually every established retailer’s e-commerce business a major cash drain. And more and more, it’s becoming clear that most of the “disruptive” venture capital funded pure-plays are ticking time bombs. Quite a few major write-downs have already occurred (e.g. Trunk Club, Nasty Gal and just about every flash-sales business) and more are surely on the way (I’m looking at you Jet.com and Dollar Shave Club).

Investors have been throwing money at business models with no chance of ever making money for years. Analysts and pundits regularly excoriate traditional brands that are slow to “invest” tens of millions of dollars in all things digital and omni-channel while spewing nonsense about physical stores going away. Much of this is incredibly misguided.

It’s time for everyone to be more clearheaded and, dare I say, responsible.

Industry analysts and the retail press need to stop with the breathless pronouncements about the demise of physical stores. They need to back off the notion that retailers can cost cut their way to prosperity. They also need to quit labeling disruptive businesses as “successful” merely based upon revenues and rapid growth and take the time to really understand the economics of e-commerce and omni-channel (hint: it’s mostly about supply chain and customer acquisition costs).

More established retailers need to stop chasing all things omni-channel and prioritize investments based upon consumer relevance, long-term competitive advantage and ROI. They also need to realize that if they feel the urge to close a lot of stores or drastically cut expenses they are probably working on the wrong problem.

Venture capital investors need to start caring more about building a business based upon fundamentals, not just pricing everyone else out of the market and/or hoping that some idiot big corporation will come along and write a huge check. Also, have we forgotten that selling at a loss and making it up on volume has never been a viable strategy?

Of course, by far the single biggest thing that would restore an element of sanity to the overall market would be if Amazon were to decide to not treat most of their e-commerce business as a loss leader. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

So if you are a consumer, enjoy the ride and the subsidies.

If you are retailer, yeah, that definitely sucks.

 

Being Remarkable · Customer Growth Strategy · Customer Insight · Omni-channel · Personalization · Winning on Experience

Let’s get physical

Amidst all the breathless pronouncements about the inexorable decline of brick and mortar retail emerges an interesting phenomenon: some of the fastest growing and most exciting internet-only brands are opening stores.

Recently, Bonobos raised $55MM largely to accelerate its foray into “Guideshops.” Other e-commerce innovators such as Warby Parker, Trunk Club, Nasty Gal and Bauble Bar are all expanding into physical store fronts. Expect more announcements soon, not only from earlier stage companies, but from larger direct-to-consumer brands as well. This seemingly counter-intuitive trend reflects a few realities.

First, most of these venture capital funded darlings have thrived in their first few years by exploiting a highly specific customer niche and leveraging the heck out of the advantages of a direct-to-consumer model. Alas, the number of customers who are willing to buy product sight unseen, without working directly with a sales person and lacking the instant gratification that physical stores provide, is comparatively small when it comes to product categories where fit, material quality and fabrication are important. For these brands to continue to grow–and have a chance for material profitability–physical locations aren’t a nice-to-do, they are a necessity.

Second, brick and mortar retail is different, not dead. In most product categories, for many, many years to come, the overwhelming majority of sales and profits will continue to come from, or be influenced directly by, physical locations. Regardless of whether a brand started as an actual store or as a virtual entity, the ones that will ultimately win will offer a tightly integrated experience across their various channels and touch-points. They will eschew traditional mass, one-size fits all strategies and embrace more personalized missions. There remains plenty of business to be done in brick and mortar locations–if you have something remarkable and meaningfully customer relevant.

Finally, when we think about the market or the customer we inevitably get it wrong. Global pronouncements about industry dynamics or the “typical” consumer are rarely particularly illuminating and almost never sufficiently actionable. The brands that are winning–the ones that are stealing share from you–go beyond the averages and the mega-trends. They understand how to apply technology to create frictionless commerce. They delve into data and apply customer insights that inform stronger acquisition, growth and retention tactics. They are committed to experimentation. They treat different customers differently. And on and on. None of this is fundamentally rooted in how a brand started or whether trends tend to favor its success.

Of course it’s far from certain that these previously web-only brands will successfully transition to an omni-channel world. Some will stumble mightily. A few will fail completely. Others will see their growth stall at only a handful of profitable locations.

The one thing for certain is that for quite a lot of customers, the benefits of physical shopping are here to stay. For traditional players the rush to close and down-size their store base may have some merit. But it’s equally likely the problem isn’t just the real estate portfolio.