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.

Retail earnings: The best of times, the worst of times

This is a big earnings period for retailers. As the reports roll in, it’s increasingly clear that it’s both the best of times and the worst of times for retail.

While performance overall is, on average, much better than a year ago, what continues to come into sharper relief are three inescapable conclusions. First, as I have been saying for years, the idea that physical retail is dying is abject nonsense. Second, retailers that are stuck in a cycle of boring are getting crushed, and the middle is collapsing. Third, as our friends at Deloitte have recently outlined in depth, the bifurcation of retail is becoming more pronounced. The overall conclusion is that the difference between the haves and the have nots is ever more distinct.

On the first point, strong performance from multiple brick-and-mortar dominant retailers, including Target and Home Depot, underscores that stores are not only going to be around for a long time, they will continue to have the dominant share of retail in many categories for the foreseeable future.

On my second point, significant underperformance ( JC Penney ), store closings ( Sears Holdings ) and bankruptcies (Toys “R” Us) continue to be concentrated among those retailers that have failed to carve out a meaningful position toward the more value, convenience-oriented end of the spectrum or, conversely, to move in a more focused, upscale experiential strategic direction. Those that continue to swim in a sea of sameness edge ever closer to the precipice. Increasingly, it’s death in the relentlessly boring middle.

The great bifurcation point, of course, is related to this phenomenon. Despite the retail apocalypse narrative, solidly executing retailers at either end of the spectrum continue to perform well. Sales, profits and store openings are robust at TJX Companies , Walmart and many others that play on the value end. A similar story can be painted for the premium, service-oriented retail brands such as Nordstrom and Williams-Sonoma.

As the scorecards continue to come in, there are a few key things we should bear in mind. The most important is that better is not the same as good. While positive sales and expanding margins certainly beat the alternative, the improved performance at brands like Macy’s and Kohl’s should not reflexively make us think that all is now well. Their sales growth is more or less in line with overall category growth. So there isn’t any reason to believe they are growing relative market share, which is generally a pretty good proxy for improving customer relevance.

Second, we should expect decent earnings leverage with improved sales, given the relatively fixed cost nature of the business. It’s more important to put the margin performance in the context of “best in breed” competitors. Here, most in the gang of most improved still fall short.

Third, a rising tide tends to raise all ships. This happens to be a particularly good time for consumer spending. It’s anybody’s guess if, and how long, retail expenditures will meaningfully exceed the rate of inflation.

From a more strategic, longer-term perspective, we need to sort out what is at the core of improving outcomes. If it’s riding the wave of a particularly ebullient economic cycle, that’s wonderful but not likely sustainable. If it’s starting to realize more fully the benefits of major technology investments, asset redeployment and/or picking up share from a rash of store closings on the part of competitors, that’s also nice, but those gains are likely to plateau fairly quickly. If margin improvement comes from big cost reductions, those often are more one-time gains and may ultimately weaken a given retailer’s competitive position over time.

What really matters, of course, is that most of the gains are coming from fundamentally being more intensely relevant and remarkable than the customer’s other choices. Viewed from this lens, many retailers’ improved results are necessary but far from sufficient.

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.  

September 6th I will be in New York for the Retail Influencer Network Kick-off.  On September 19th I’ll be speaking at Total Retail Tech in Dallas. The following Monday I’m headed to Austin to do the opening keynote at the Next Conference.

Macy’s acquires Story: Game changer or much ado about nothing?

Last week Macy’s announced it had acquired Story, a New York-based concept store, and appointed founder Rachel Shechtman to be its new “brand experience officer.” And, for the most part, enthusiastic gushing ensued. Let’s simmer down, people.

As I regularly write and speak on retailers’ need to innovate and embrace a culture of experimentation, I would be a complete hypocrite if I failed to applaud Macy’s (and newish CEO Jeff Gennette’s) willingness to take bold steps. Yet before we jump on the silver-bullet train we might wish to consider a few important points.

Is Story Successful Beyond Generating PR?

There is no question that Story is cool and innovative. There is no question that Story has punched way above its weight when it comes to generating industry and media attention. And the notion of “store as media” is an intriguing one that is appropriately starting to change the way brands must think about their brick & mortar experience.

But lest anyone forget, Story launched in 2011 and has never expanded to another city, much less another location in the New York area. It’s pretty difficult to make the argument that Story has the potential to “reinvent retail” on any significant scale when after more than six years the number of customers it has validated its impact upon is teeny tiny. Every other truly interesting “disruptive” concept I can think of that launched around the same time (or even later) has attracted significant investment capital and is well into their expansion plans. So, to be blunt, there is far more evidence to suggest that Story is a way cool Manhattan phenomenon than there is to suggest it has any real ability to be relevant to Macy’s customers—and ultimately material to Macy’s strategy.

Do You Know How Much Macy’s Paid? 

No, I didn’t think so. So how can you say it’s a genius deal? I happen to own a pretty nice car. But if you were willing to pay me $100,000 for it you would be the opposite of a genius. Perhaps Macy’s paid less than it would cost to hire Shechtman as a consultant for a couple of years, in which case that sounds like a bargain. Maybe it paid millions for something it could have done itself years ago, in which case that sounds more dumb and desperate. Maybe we should say “who cares?” as regardless it’s probably chump change to a huge company like Macy’s. In any event, we just don’t know. So please hold your applause.

Macy’s Problems Run Deep

Macy’s has two huge and fundamental problems to address. First, it sits in a sector that has been in decades-long secular decline—and there is no reason to think that will change anytime soon. In fact, as Amazon and the off-price sector continues to expand aggressively in Macy’s core categories, it could easily get worse. Second, while Macy’s does a bit better than most of its department store brethren, it is still part of the epidemic of boring, struggling to carve out a sustainably relevant and remarkable position. It has a lot of expensive, risky and time-consuming work to do on both the customer-facing experiential parts of their business and their technological infrastructure. This all comes at a time when the company’s profits have stalled. That’s a very tall order and no one strategic initiative is likely to make a dent.

Does This Deal Fundamentally Change The Macy’s Story?

While Walmart paid silly amounts of money for Jet.com, Bonobos, et al., it now seems clear that the injection of “digitally native” senior talent has helped take the moribund retailer to an important new level. It also earned them some street cred. So acquisitions like Story can certainly contribute to an enterprise well beyond their straight discounted cash flows.

While some have referenced Macy’s earlier deal to buy Bluemercury as an analog, my guess is that if Story is to make a real difference it will be more similar to Nordstrom’s acquisition of Jeffrey over a decade ago. As that played out, it was founder Jeffrey Kalinsky’s impact on Nordstrom’s overall fashion strategy that was the source of value rather than the expansion of his eponymous stores.

The key in this situation will be whether Macy’s gives Shechtman the latitude to impact the trajectory of Macy’s brand to any material degree or whether the culture will eat her up and spit her out. And even if she gets that latitude, it is no easy task for even the most talented and experienced executive to make a big difference within an insular culture. There are far more examples of experiments that have gone awry than have worked out. We will have a far better idea about this critical dimension a year from now. Regardless, it won’t be easy.

The Opposite Is Risky

To be sure, retailers like Macy’s got into trouble because they mostly watched the last 20 years happen to them. Consciously or not, they acted as if deciding to embrace innovation was risky when, as it turns out, their reluctance to take chances was the riskiest thing they (and so many others) could have possibly done. The simple fact is, as Seth Godin reminds us, “if failure is not an option than neither is success.” The key is not to avoid failure, it’s to fail better.

Macy’s, like all those risking “death in the middle,” are desperately in need of a transformation. And that unequivocally means placing multiple bets in the hope of creating a vastly different future. Viewed from this lens, the acquisition of Story—and giving Shechtman a chance to impact the Macy’s culture and brand—is likely a pretty decent bet. As it’s highly unlikely to materially change Macy’s overall fortunes all by itself, it needs to be the first of many such wagers.

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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 May 17 I will be keynoting Kibo’s 2018 Summit in Nashville, followed the next week by Retail at Google 2018 in Dublin.

Wayfair, StitchFix And Pure-Play E-commerce’s Scaling Problem

Late last month, Wayfair, the leading online-only furniture brand, reported dramatic sales growth and yet year-over-year profits fell significantly. Unsurprisingly the stock took a steep hit. In its most recent earnings announcement, Stitch Fix, the online styling subscription service, reported sales up over 25%, yet profits were essentially flat. When they signaled that profits were expected to get worse as they grew, their stock also took a beating. Several non-public online-only retailers are said to be facing similar issues of growing sales and non-existent profits. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Not too long ago it seemed like e-commerce was going to eat the world. Pundits, equity analysts and venture capital seeking entrepreneurs alike declared the death of physical retail. Many even predicted online shopping would surpass 50% of all retail sales by 2025 (spoiler alert: it will be lucky to break the 20% mark by then).

What got lost in the hype were two fundamental things. First, in many instances, brick-and-mortar locations actually add value to the shopping experience. It turns out lots of consumers prefer going to a physical store for all sorts of reasons and for all sorts of products and services. So it’s hardly shocking that once digital-only brands are now opening stores and that many “traditional” retailers continue to add to their store fleets as well. Second, and more importantly, a great deal of e-commerce remains unprofitable and often struggles from significant diseconomies of scale. This latter factor likely helps explain what’s going on underneath the surface of recent earnings concerns, including from brands as disparate as Blue Apron and Walmart.

Without access to internal data it’s impossible to say for sure, but having analyzed several pure-play brands’ customer metrics over the years I can hazard a guess at the challenges these brands are facing. Here’s a typical growth pattern for a pure-play online brand and why most eventually hit a wall, some never to recover.

Phase 1: The Liftoff

Having identified an interesting market niche and put together a solid business model, the brand launches. The first tranche of customers are acquired relatively easily as they quickly “get” the new concept and are already comfortable shopping online. They tend to be acquired inexpensively as they are the quintessential “heavy users” who are apt to learn about the brand through social media and word-of-mouth. Accordingly, many are likely the perfect fit customers, likely to be loyal and less reliant on discounting. Lifetime value is very high, cost of acquisition low. Bingo!

Phase 2: Momentum Builds

With success in Phase 1, the buzz starts to build, and flush with a big round of VC money the website gets optimized, investments in branding are made and marketing is expanded. Growing awareness leads to the relative ease of aquiring “look-alike” customers at a generally attractive cost of acquisition. It may take a bit more promotion to incentivize trial, but hey you got to fuel the rocket ship right?

Phase 3: Time To Go Find Customers

In this phase it becomes readily apparent why building an online-only brand isn’t so easy. Here, in order to sustain hyper-growth, the brand must start moving beyond its obsessive bullseye core customer to the outer rings where, on average, the customer spends less per year, is less loyal and is more promotionally driven. There also tends to be more direct competition as a brand expands. It also turns out that to break through all the marketing noise and gain the attention (and first sale) from these more promiscuous shoppers, the brand has to start spending more on expensive highly targeted marketing channels (i.e., Google and Facebook). Cost of customer acquisition starts to escalate, gross margins start to be depressed and the average lifetime value of the marginal customer acquired declines.

Phase 4: ‘Ruh ‘Roh

Here despair starts to set in for many as it becomes apparent that the cost of acquiring a marginal customer is often greater than the lifetime value of the customers being acquired. In the initial stages of Phase 4, the best brands are playing around with their marketing mix, finetuning their assortments and generally optimizing all manner of things to try to see if they can change this trajectory and convince investors that they aren’t throwing good money after bad. Some conclude that the only way to sustain growth and have a chance at profitability is to open physical stores (oh, irony, you are a cruel mistress). This is also often the time someone calls Bentonville or other deep-pocketed “strategic partner” in hopes of securing a lifeline.

Phase 5: Crossroads

Quick, name the pure-play e-commerce brands that made it through Phase 4 and came out alive (it doesn’t count if they got acquired by Walmart). To be fair, it is still too early to say whether many of the brands that find themselves at this difficult crossroad will make it out alive or join the many others in the retail graveyard. And to be sure it’s certainly not unusual for customers that get added later in a company’s growth cycle to be less profitable. What is different for pure-play e-commerce brands is that it is almost impossible to avoid rapidly escalating marginal customer acquisition costs (which is only like to get worse as Instagram and Pinterest figure out how to raise their prices for targeted ads). Rising cost of acquisition with declining lifetime value is a difficult equation to work through.

When it starts to look like every incremental customer that gets added to a brand makes profits worse, investors might want to start think about heading for the door.

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.  

For information on keynote speaking and workshops please go here.