My 13 ‘provocative’ retail predictions for 2018: So how’d I do?

‘Tis the season for annual retail predictions and, fear not dear reader, I will be sharing mine early in the New Year. Yet amidst all the prognostication nary a modern day Nostradamus gets fact checked on how well-honed their gift of prophecy actually turns out to be. I don’t want to be that guy.

So here’s a mostly objective–and decidedly self-indulgent–assessment of my Baker’s Dozen Of Provocative Retail Predictions For 2018.

  1. Physical retail isn’t dead. Boring retail is. This phrase later turned into a Forbes piece, which became my most popular post of the year. And the phrase itself started to catch on, sometimes with attribution, sometimes not (thanks Nike!). Regardless, as 2018 unfolded it seemed increasingly obvious that the retail apocalypse narrative was bogus. Sales in brick & mortar stores are up solidly this year, thousands of stores have opened, digitally-native brands like Warby Parker and Casper are accelerating the pace of their physical presence and Target, Walmart, Best Buy and many other largely brick & mortar-centric retailers have delivered strong results.
  2. Consolidation accelerates. Precise comparisons on mergers & acquisition activity and store closings are not yet available, but by any measure the pace of merger & acquisition activity was brisk. Macy’s, Target, Amazon, Nordstrom, Albertson’s, Kroger and Walmart were among the large players that scooped up one or more earlier stage, largely tech-driven companies. As growth stalls among mature brands, we’re seeing deals like Kors acquisition of Versace take center stage. The vast over-storing of US retail is also moving closer to equilibrium as thousands of surplus real estate shutters or gets repurposed.
  3. Honey, I shrunk the store. As predicted, 2018 brought a lot more activity here. Target, Ikea and Sam’s Club, among others, got more serious about opening scaled down versions of their big stores to squeeze into urban centers. Nordstrom announced that it would expand its totally re-imagined, service-centric “micro-concept” called Local. Less interesting–and potentially more perilous–were efforts on the part of over-spaced (i.e. under-customer relevant) retailers to sub-lease parts of their stores in a vain hope to shrink to prosperity.
  4. The difference between buying and shopping takes center stage. In my view, this trend becomes more obvious by the day, particularly as e-commerce keeps gaining share of “buying” (i.e. a more mission-focused customer journey where price, speed and convenience are especially valued), yet generally struggles with “shopping” (i.e. more discovery-based and tactile journeys where a more immersive experience is desired and face-to-face sales help may be important). Strategically this may have moved to center stage for more retailers (see Amazon’s moves into physical below), but there still is a general lack of understanding and appreciation here.
  5. Amazon doubles down on brick & mortar. Amazon hasn’t gone quite as far as I expected here (yet), but in addition to making some big changes within Whole Foods (their biggest physical store bet thus far) they introduced the Amazon 4 Star concept, expanded Amazon Books and Amazon GO (while hinting at thousands more to come) and continued to experiment with other expressions of Amazon in the physical realm, like their partnership with Kohl’s.
  6. Private brands and monobrands shine. The biggest acceleration came from Amazon, as they are on their way to a stable of more than 100 private brands. Traditional retailers continued to accelerate their own brands and/or largely exclusive offerings as an antidote to Amazon. Digitally-native vertical brands continued to shine, announcing plans to open more than 800 new stores. And Nike, among other manufacturers making a big push into direct-to-consumer, debuted their amazing new NYC flagship and Nike Live.
  7. Digital and analog learn to dance. Legacy brands (think Walmart, Target, Best Buy) that finally learned to embrace the blur and deliver a more harmonized (my, ahem, superior term for what most call “omnichannel”) experience across channels demonstrated great success. Brands that were already pretty good at it (Nordstrom, Sephora) continued to perform well. The upstart digitally native vertical brands continue to kill it, as they don’t care about channels, they care about the customer and use both digital and analog tools to deliver a remarkable retail experience. It appears finally that brand are starting to accept that digital help physical and vice versa.
  8. The great bifurcation widens. And it’s death in the middle. Well positioned retailers at either end of the price/value spectrum continue to grow sales and open stores. Brands stuck in the boring middle are getting killed. This year hundreds of stores that continue to swim in a seas of sameness have shuttered. Sears filed for bankruptcy. JC Penney finds itself in very serious trouble. It’s time to pick a lane.
  9. Omnichannel is dead. Digital-first, harmonized retail rules. This is an expansion of #7 above. The smart retailers are realizing that it’s not about being everywhere, it’s about showing up in remarkable and relevant ways where it really matters in the customer journey and eliminating the discordant notes and amplifying the ‘wow’. I did make a mistake in anchoring this prediction on being “digital-first”–which I have since corrected in my keynotes and in my forthcoming book. While leveraging digital technology to enhance the customer experience can be hugely important in many cases, it’s clear that not all customer journeys start in a digital channel and that digital is not always better.
  10. Pure plays say “buh-bye.” Name a profitable brand of any size that started online and has yet to open brick & mortar stores. Yeah, there are a few, but there numbers are dwindling rapidly. In fact, brands like Warby Parker that once thought they could scale without physical stores are now opening dozens and seeing most of their growth come from their stores. Brands like Everlane that said they’d never open stores are now doing so. Brands like Wayfair are struggling to figure out how to get returns and customer acquisition costs down to remotely profitable levels without a physical presence. And don’t even get me started on Blue Apron. The era of pure-play is, for all intents and purposes, over.
  11. The returns problem is ready for its close up. Arguably, this area got even more attention than predicted. Earlier this year I revisited the issue I first referred to as the industry’s “ticking time bomb” in 2017. Multiple media outlets featured stories on how the growth of e-commerce is leading to very unfortunate outcomes within many online dominant retailers, including Amazon. In response, we are seeing more venture capital funded companies like Good Returns and ReturnRunners getting funded to scale their solutions to retailers.
  12. “Cool” technology underwhelmsDid you buy much on Alexa this year, use a “magic mirror” or experience a store through VR? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Voice commerce will be a big thing some day. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will go from basic applications and ways to eliminate costs to truly delivering a more remarkable and personalized experience. And stores will become far more immersive through the application of advanced technology. Just not this year.
  13. The search for scarcity and the quest for remarkable ramps up. Consumers have access to just about anything they want from anywhere in the world just about anytime they want it. What was scarce a decade ago–price comparisons, product reviews, product access, speedy and affordable home delivery–is now virtually ubiquitous. Yet boring and mediocre retail still abounds. What’s scarce are truly customer relevant and remarkable experiences. You used to be able to get away with being good enough. Today, not so much. The retailers that continue to struggle often find themselves stuck in the middle, trying to cost cut their way to prosperity, hoping to win a race to the bottom. Good luck with that.

2018 clearly brought more and different levels of disruption. 2019 is likely to bring more of the same, despite what I suspect will be some moderation in store closings. But that’s a different post.

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.  

Retail’s ‘halo effect’: New stores boost a brand’s website traffic by 37%, study finds

One of the recurring themes in my consulting, writing and speaking is that the distinction between online and physical shopping is increasingly a distinction without a difference. The key for most brands is to deploy a well harmonized, one brand, many channels strategy and to embrace the blur. Central to this notion is realizing that a physical store often serves as the hub of a brand’s ecosystem and that brick-and-mortar stores help drive e-commerce sales—and vice versa. While I’ve come to believe this through many years of direct experience, a just released study from the International Council of Shopping Centers sheds a lot more light on the subject.

One of the key findings in the report—which is based on a sample of more than 800 retailers and 4,000 consumers—is the so-called “halo effect.” It turns out that when a retailer opens a new store, on average, that brand’s website traffic increases by 37%, relative share of web traffic goes up by 27% and the retailer’s overall brand image is enhanced. This impact is even more pronounced for newer, digitally native vertical brands. Conversely, when a retailer closes a store, web traffic typically takes a big hit.

None of this is all that surprising. Established brands that started as mail order only but eventually expanded into their own stores—think Williams-Sonoma, REI, J. Crew—have recognized and benefitted from this insight for decades. For any retailer, but especially for direct-t0-consumer brands, a physical presence serves as marketing for the brand whether the customer ultimately chooses to transact physically or online. Brick-and-mortar stores also offer the opportunity for consumers to demo or try on products, talk to a salesperson and/or get a better sense for the price/value relationship, all of which improve conversion. Importantly, particularly for newer brands trying to profitably scale, customer acquisition costs can be lower in a physical store and product returns are typically lower—often dramatically.

While it’s taken the industry a while to understand the powerful symbiotic role that exists between a compelling physical and digital presence, the evidence keeps building. One clear sign is that digitally native brands, many of which have already opened dozens of stores, have plans to open more than 850 physical locations in the coming years. Warby Parker was one of the first disruptive retailers to understand the complementarity of digital and physical shopping. The pioneering eyewear brand will soon have more than 100 brick-and-mortar locations and already derives more than half its revenues from its physical stores.

We’re also seeing what some refer to as the “billboarding” of retail or, as retail futurist Doug Stephens refers to it, viewing stores as media. In these instances physical locations serve primarily to promote a brand rather than sell products in store. B8ta and Story are good examples of this. As this phenomenon expands, retail will require new metrics as traditional measures of sales productivity and same store sales become less relevant.

Understanding the critical relationship between a brand’s physical and digital presence is also essential to store closings and/or store downsizing decisions. Viewed from a channel-centric lens, many retailers will convince themselves that they need many fewer stores and that the stores they keep (or they intend to open) can be meaningfully smaller as more business moves online. Yet viewed from a holistic customer perspective it’s easy to see how this siloed thinking can backfire. Recognizing this, a number of retail CEOs have wisely resisted Wall Street’s pressure to close more stores because they understand how damaging such a move could be.

I’m hardly the first person to challenge the retail apocalypse narrative or to suggest that physical retail is definitely different, but far from dead. And the collapse of the middle continues to push retailers to become more intensely customer relevant. The move away from mediocre and boring requires making physical stores more unique and memorable. Yet without understanding the interplay between the customers’ digital and physical experience, how this gets executed can be quite different. The more a brand understands the overall customer journey and the role that all elements of the experience play—digital and analog—the better prepared they are to become remarkable.

Regardless, one thing is quite clear. The death of the physical store is greatly exaggerated.

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. 

Physical stores: Assets or liabilities?

Of course the obvious answer is “well, that depends.”

As the intersection of economic feasibility and consumers’ willingness to adopt new technology hit a tipping point, for retailers that had invested big bucks in the brick-and-mortar distribution of music, books and games, the answer changed rather dramatically. Today’s retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense. But it wasn’t so long ago that the tsunami of digital disruption very quickly turned the physical store network of Barnes & Nobles, Blockbuster, Borders and others into massive liabilities. While we can argue about whether any of those brands laid to waste by Amazon, Netflix et al. could have responded better (spoiler alert:the answer is “yes”), it’s hard to imagine a scenario for any of them that would have included a fleet of stores remotely resembling what was in place a decade ago.

Most of the so-called digitally native vertical brands that are disrupting retail today—think Warby Parker, Bonobos, Indochino—started with the premise that not only were physical stores unnecessary, they would soon become totally irrelevant. In fact, about six years ago, I remember asking the founder of one of these brands when they were going to open stores. He looked at me with the earnest confidence of someone who had just received a huge check with a Sand Hill Road address on it and said, “we’re never opening stores.” Clearly, at the time, he saw stores as liabilities. He wasn’t alone. Everlane’s CEO made a similar, but more public statement.

So for several years scores of startups attracted massive amounts of venture capital on the belief that profitable businesses could scale rapidly without having to invest in physical retail outlets. A key part of the investment thesis was that stores were undesirable given the high cost of real estate, inventory investment and operational support. Clearly the underlying premise was that stores were inherent liabilities. So it’s more than a little bit ironic, dontcha’ think, that my friend’s company has since opened dozens of stores, that Everlane just opened its second location (with more to follow I’m sure) and that many other once staunchly online only players are now seeing most of their future growth coming from brick-and-mortar locations.

For legacy retailers, particularly as e-commerce took off, many acted as if much of their investment in physical real estate was turning into a liability—or at least an asset to be “rationalized” or optimized. This underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of what was happening. Too many stayed steeped in channel-centric, silo-ed thinking and action. They saw e-commerce as a separate channel, with its own P&L. Because of this, they underinvested (or went way too slowly) because they couldn’t see their way clear to making the channel profitable. Before long they got the worst of both worlds: They found themselves not participating in the upside growth of online shopping while losing physical store sales to Amazon or traditional retailers that were pursuing a robust “omni-channel” strategy.

To be sure, the overbuilding of commercial real estate was going to lead to a shakeout at some point. Digital shopping growth enables many retailers to do the same (or more) business with fewer locations or smaller footprints. Yet I would argue that most of the retailers that find themselves with too many stores (or stores that are way over-spaced) rarely have a fundamental real estate problem—they have a brand problem. The retailers that consistently deliver a remarkable retail experience, regardless of channel, are closing few if any stores. In fact, brands as diverse as Apple, Lululemon, Ulta—and dozens of others—have strong brick-and-mortar growth plans.

What sets most of these winning retailers apart is that they deeply understand the unique role of a physical shopping experience in a customer’s journey and act accordingly. They know that digital drives physical and vice versa. They started breaking down the silos in their organizations years ago—or never set them up in the first place. They accept that talking about e-commerce and brick and mortar is mostly a distinction without a difference and know that it’s all just commerce. And they embrace the blur that shopping has become. They see their stores as assets. Different and evolving assets certainly, but assets all the same.

On the heels of recent strong retail earning reports (and an increase in store openings) some are starting to pivot from the narrative that physical retail is dying to one that is closer to all is now well. Both lack nuance. We can chalk up some positive momentum to the fact that a rising economic tide tends to lift all ships. We can peg some of the ebullience to Wall Street waking up to facts that were plain to see for quite some time.

What is most important over the longer-term, however, is to understand the root causes of why and where physical retail works and why and where it doesn’t. Whether it’s Casper, Glossier, Warby Parker, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, Sephora or many others, the formula is pretty much the same. Deeply understand the customer journey, and whether it’s a digital channel or physical channel, root out the friction and amplify the most relevant and memorable aspects of the customer experience.

When we do this we see the unique role a physical presence can (and often should) play in delivering something remarkable. The answer will be different depending on a brand’s customer focus and value proposition. But armed with this understanding we can design the business model (and ultimately the physical retail strategy) knowing that the channels complement each other and the desire is to harmonize them. At this point the question is not whether stores are an asset or a liability, it’s which aspects of brick and mortar’s unique advantages to lean into and leverage.

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.  

Over the next few weeks I’ll be in Dallas, Austin, Chicago, Toronto and San Antonio delivering an updated version of my keynote “A Really Bad Time To Be Boring.” For more info on my speaking and workshops go here.

Many retailers still need a ‘Chief Silo-busting Officer’

For the last five years or so much of retail has been obsessed with becoming “omni-channel.” As I pointed out in Forbes piece last year, this ambition sounds good, but is often ill-defined and poorly focused. The point is not to be everywhere, but to eliminate friction and be remarkable and relevant in the places along the customer journey where it really matters. It’s why, as one of my 7 Steps to Remarkable Retail, I encourage brands to design and execute a “harmonized” shopping experience. Harmonized retail requires the important aspects of the customer’s journey to sing beautifully together, regardless of touchpoint or channel, completely devoid of discordant notes. It also requires that we let go of the dualistic notion of e-commerce and physical retail. In most cases, it’s all just commerce and the customer is ultimately the channel.

Beyond the semantics of “omni-channel,” “harmonized,” “unified” or “frictionless” commerce, it turns out that when brands garner deep customer insight around the shopping experience it’s not all that hard to figure out which pain points to eliminate and which product or experiential elements to amplify. Unfortunately many retailers have not even gotten all that far, as this recent eMarketer reportilluminates. That’s likely to end badly.

Yet even armed with this insight and a well articulated roadmap, many well intended “customer-centric” efforts fail. The primary culprit is usually the deeply ingrained silo-ed behavior endemic to many retailers’ operations. Most brick and mortar dominant retailers have developed intensely product-centric cultures where the merchandise (and merchant) is king. And if they had a catalog business it was run largely independently of the physical stores division. As e-commerce became a thing, it was typically bolted onto the existing mail order division (e.g. JC Penney, Neiman Marcus). For companies that needed to get into the direct-to-consumer world anew, the so-called dot-com business was often established as a completely separate entity, typically located away from the core business (in Sears’ case, for example, in a different part of its sprawling campus; in Walmart’s case, on the other side of the country). Either way, channel-centric silos were put in place or reinforced.

While there may have been initial merit to allowing the e-commerce business to get speed and traction absent the interference of the mother ship, over time the result is that executing against a well harmonized experience is fundamentally hindered by silos: silo-ed customer data. Silo-ed inventory. Silo-ed supply chains. Silo-ed metrics. Silo-ed incentives and compensation schemes.

As it turns out, most customer journeys that end up in a physical store transaction start in a digital channel. It turns out that some of the best enterprise customers get acquired in a physical store but then end up doing the bulk of their shopping online. In fact, it turns out that over the past 15 years, for every retailer where I have seen the actual data, customers that shop in multiple channels are the most profitable and loyal customers. And it turns out that customers don’t care about channels. Retailers that continue to organize, measure, pay and execute their operations as if this weren’t true are, unsurprisingly, falling further and further behind.

As others have pointed out, digitally-native brands that have moved into physical retail have largely avoided the silo issue, and therefore are often perceived as having an advantage over legacy retailers. Conceptually they do have an edge: partially because they did not have a culture to undo, partially because they had better customer data from the outset and partially because their technical infrastructure was built with a digital-first orientation. It’s also important that they decided to add stores because many now understand the amplification power of physical and digital convergence.

But let’s be clear. You don’t have to be some new disruptive brand like Warby Parker or Indochino to get this, act on it and perform well. Williams-Sonoma, Sur La Table, REI and a number of other decades-old retail brands never established the silos in the first place as they moved from direct-to-consumer into multi-channel. Nordstrom operated in a more silo-ed way in the early days of e-commerce. Yet more than a decade ago, they made the decision to break down the silos and began implementing process and technology changes necessary to lead in customer-centric, channel-agnostic, harmonized retail. As far as I can tell, they are the only multi-line mall-based retailer to gain meaningful share during the past decade. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Now it’s true that plenty of retailers have put senior executives in charge of “omni-channel.” Others have named chief digital, chief customer or chief experience officers. Good for them. Necessary perhaps, but hardly sufficient if those executive don’t have the authority to break down the silos and drive the major cultural, process and technology changes that delivering on a harmonized retail experience demands.

The fact is that to survive, much less thrive, under-performing retailers need a “chief silo-busting officer.” And until the CEO sees that as his or her job, fully supported by the Board, all the talk about omni-channel, customer-centricity or a seamless shopping experience is really just that. Talk.

Silos belong on farms.

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.  

 

Physical retail is not dead. Boring retail is.

It may make for intriguing headlines, but physical retail is clearly not dead. Far from it, in fact. But, to be sure, boring, undifferentiated, irrelevant and unremarkable stores are most definitely dead, dying or moving perilously close to the edge of the precipice.

While retail is going through vast disruption causing many stores to close — and quite a few malls to undergo radical transformation or bulldozing — the reality is that, at least in the U.S., shopping in physical stores continues to grow, albeit at a far slower pace than online. An inconvenient truth to those pushing the “retail apocalypse” narrative, is that physical store openings actually grew by more than 50% year over year. Much of this is driven by the hyper-growth of dollar stores and the off-price channel, but there is also significant growth on the part of decidedly more upscale specialty stores and the move of digitally-native brands like Warby Parker and Bonobos into brick and mortar.

People also seem to forget that, according to most estimates, about 91% of all retail sales last year were still transacted in a brick-and-mortar location. And despite the anticipated continued rapid growth of online shopping, more than 80% of all retail sales will likely still be done in actual physical stores in the year 2025. Different? Absolutely. Dead? Hardly.

I have written and spoken about the bifurcation of retailand the collapse of the middle for years. While I was confident in my analysis, I had concluded much of this through intuition and connecting the dots from admittedly limited data points. Now, a brilliant new study by Deloitte entitled “The Great Retail Bifurcation” brings far greater data and rigor to help explain this growing phenomenon. Their analysis clearly shows that demographic factors — particularly the hammering that low-income people take while the rich get richer — help explain the rather divergent outcomes we see playing out in the retail industry today.

In particular, wage stagnation and the rising cost of “essentials” is driving lower income Americans to seek out lower cost, value-driven options. Rising fortunes for top earners, most notably ever greater disposable income, creates spending power for more expensive retail at the other end of the continuum. Deloitte’s data clearly shows the resulting strong bifurcation effect: Revenue, earnings and store growth at both ends of the spectrum and stagnation (or absolute decline) in the vast undifferentiated and boring middle.

Notably, if we isolate what’s going on with retailers focused on delivering convenience, operational efficiency and remarkably value-priced merchandise, along with those retailers that differentiate themselves on unique product and more remarkable experiential shopping (including great customer service, vibrant stores and digital channels that are well harmonized with their stores), you would conclude not only that physical retail isn’t dead, you could well argue it is quite healthy.

Conversely, the stores that are swimming in a sea of sameness — mediocre service, over-distributed and uninspiring merchandise, one-size-fits-all marketing, look-alike sales promotions and relentlessly dull store environments — are getting crushed. A close look at their performance as a group reveals lackluster or dismal financial performance and shrinking store fleets. For these retailers, by and large, physical retail is indeed dead or dying. But so are their overall brands.

It’s been clear for some time that the future of retail will not be evenly distributed. Those that have looked closely know that the retail apocalypse narrative is nonsense. Yet, depending on where brands sit on the spectrum, the impact of digital disruption and the age of Amazon is affecting them quite differently. For some, at least for now, it’s much ado about nothing. For others, it should be sheer, full-on panic.

These forces, along with the underlying macroeconomic factors that Deloitte illuminates in their report, bring far greater clarity to what many have been missing, leaving the savvy retail executive to conclude a few key things:

  1. Physical retail is not dead, but it’s very different
  2. The future of retail will not be evenly distributed
  3. The market is likely to continue bifurcating and, increasingly, it’s death in the middle
  4. It’s a really bad time to be boring
  5. Struggling retailers need to pick a lane
  6. If you think you are going to out-Amazon Amazon you are probably wrong
  7. Most likely you are going to have to have to choose remarkable
  8. You have to get started and you had better hurry
  9. What better time than now?

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.  

My next speaking gig is in Madrid at the World Retail Congress.  Check out the speaking tab on this site for more on my keynote speaking and workshops.