The fault in our stores

Last week Target became the latest retailer to report weak earnings and shrinking physical store sales. They certainly won’t be the last.

As more retail brands disappoint on both the top and bottom lines–and announce scores of store closings–many may conclude that brick-and-mortar retail is going they way of the horse-drawn carriage. Unfortunately this ignores the fact that roughly 90% of all retail is still done in actual stores. It doesn’t recognize that many retailers–from upstarts like Warby Parker and Bonobos, to established brands such as TJMaxx and Dollar General–are opening hundreds of new locations. It also fails to acknowledge the many important benefits of in-store shopping and that study after study shows that most consumers still prefer shopping in a store (including millennials!)

Brick-and-mortar retail is very different, but not dead. Still, most retailers will, regardless of any actions they take, continue to cede share to digital channels, whether it’s their own or those of disruptive competitors. To make the best of a challenging situation, retailers need a laser-like focus on increasing their piece of a shrinking pie, while optimizing their remaining investment in physical locations. And here we must deal with the reality that aside from the inevitable forces shaping retail’s future, there are many addressable faults in retailers’ stores. Here are a few of the most pervasive issues.

The Sea Of Sameness

Traditionalists often opine that it all about product, but that’s just silly. Experiences and overall solutions often trump simply offering the best sweater or coffee maker. Nevertheless, too many stores are drowning in a sea of sameness–in product, presentation and experience. The redundancy in assortments is readily apparent from any stroll through most malls. The racks, tables and signage employed by most retailers are largely indistinguishable from each other. And when was the last time there was anything memorable about the service you received from a sales associate at any of these struggling retailers?

One Brand, Many Channels

Too many stores still operate as independent entities, rather than an integral piece of a one brand, many channels customer strategy. Most customer journeys that result in a physical store visit start online. Many customers research in store only to consummate the transaction in a digital channel. The lines between digital and physical channels are increasingly blurred, often distinctions without a difference. Silos belong on farms.

Speed Bumps On The Way To Purchase

How often is the product we wish to buy out of stock? How difficult is it to find a store associate when we are ready to checkout? Can I order online and pick up in a store? If a store doesn’t have my size or the color I want can I easily get it shipped to my home quick and for free? Most of the struggling retailers have obvious and long-standing friction points in their customer experience. When in doubt about where to prioritize operational efforts, smoothing out the speed bumps is usually a decent place to start.

Where’s The Wow?

As Amazon makes it easier and easier to buy just about anything from them, retailers must give their customers a tangible reason to traffic their stores and whip out their wallets once there. Good enough no longer is. Brands must dig deep to provide something truly scarce, relevant and remarkable. Much of the hype around in-store innovations is just that. For example, Neiman Marcus’ Memory Mirrors are cool, but any notion that they will transform traffic patterns, conversion rates or average ticket size on a grander scale is fantasy. Much of what is being tested is necessary, but hardly sufficient. The brands that are gaining share (and, by the way, opening stores) have transformed the entire customer experience, not merely taken a piecemeal approach to innovation.

Treat Different Customers Differently

In an era where there was relative scarcity of product, shopping channels and information, one-size-fits all strategies worked. But now the customer is clearly in charge, and he or she can often tailor their experience to their particular wants and needs. Retailers need to employ advanced analytical techniques and other technologies to make marketing and the overall customer experience much more personalized, and to allow for greater and greater customization. More and more art and intuition are giving way to science and precision.

Physical retail is losing share to e-commerce at the rate of about 110 basis points per year. While that is not terribly significant in the aggregate, this erosion will not be evenly distributed and the deleveraging of physical store economics will prove devastating to many slow to react retailers. This seemingly inexorable shift is causing many retailers to reflexively throw up their hands and choose to disinvest in physical retail. The result, as we’ve seen in spades, is that many stores are becoming boring warehouses of only the bestselling, most average product, presented in stale environments with nary a sales associate in sight.

The fault in our stores are legion. But adopting an attitude that stores are fundamentally problems to be tolerated–or eliminated–rather than assets to be leveraged and improved, makes the outcome inevitable and will, I fear, eventually seal the fate of many once great retailers.

PurpleCow

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

The store closing panacea

There has been a strong and growing narrative that the single smartest thing a struggling retailer can do is to close stores and, in some cases, a lot of them. I first touched on this nearly three years ago in my post “Shrinking to prosperity: The store closing delusion.”

There is no question that, in aggregate, the United States has too much retail space. There is no question that, in concept, the growth of e-commerce can allow an omni-channel retailer to serve some trade areas more profitably without a store and some trade areas with a smaller box. The key is to understand “some” and that starts with understanding why a given brand is under-performing in the first place. The other key is to understand the role that brick & mortar locations play in driving e-commerce–and vice versa.

In most cases, as recent events are bearing out more and more, store closings make an already irrelevant retailer less relevant. And frequently much less profitable as well.

Nearly 90% of traditional retail is still done in physical stores. In five years it will still be about 85%. The math is not that complicated.

Make it harder to get to a store OR make returns in a store OR order online and pick up in a store OR go to a store to research potential purchases OR learn about the brand, etc. and a retailer is almost certain to lose way more business (and margin dollars) to a competitor’s physical store in the vacated trade area than the brand “rationalizing” its store count will ever be able to make up through its website. This is why JC Penney, Home Depot and Lowes should write Eddie Lampert thank you notes pretty much every day.

Moreover, the symbiotic nature of digital and physical channels should not be ignored, yet often is. Several retailers–Sears is perhaps the best example–made the assumption that by investing in digital at the expense of physical stores they could more profitability serve their customer base over the long-term. As it turns out (and as more retailers are learning), e-commerce is often less profitable at the margin than brick & mortar operations and that when you close stores you actually make it more difficult for your e-commerce business to thrive. Oops.

Any retailer in trouble should absolutely analyze whether closing and/or “right-sizing” stores will be accretive to cash-flow. But that analysis MUST include the impact on long-term competitiveness and digital channel sales in the affected store’s trade area. Thinking you are helping when in fact you are merely initiating a downward spiral is a pretty big mistake to make.

Any analyst pushing for store closings and footprint down-sizing should be mindful that it is almost never the case that a struggling retailer’s ills are because they have too many stores or that the stores they have are fundamentally too large. Rather, it is because their brand relevance is not big enough for the channels, both physical and digital, that they have. Be careful what you wish for.

Show me a retail brand that is remarkable and relevant enough to command the share of attention that drives share of market and I’m virtually certain their executives are not spending a second on down-sizing. In fact, most are opening physical stores (e.g Nordstrom, Warby Parker, Amazon, TJX) and, in many cases, a bunch of them.

Show me a retail brand that is consumed with store closings and expense reduction and there is a pretty good chance they are a dead brand walking.

 

Thanks to those who have encouraged me along my path as I took a six month break from writing this blog. During my sabbatical I started a new blog on waking up to a life of love, purpose and passion at any age, which can be found at http://www.IGotHereAsFastAsICould.blog.

Pure play e-commerce’s fantastic (and unsustainable) consumer wealth transfer

“Retail disruption” has been a popular buzz phrase for several years now. In fact, most of the retail brands that have received out-sized mentions in the business press–and commanded the adoring attention of industry conference attendees–for the past 5 years or so are somehow or other leveraging digital innovation to fundamentally re-work the consumer experience, gobble up market share and attract truckloads of venture capital.

Amidst this transformative reshaping of the retail landscape three things are clear:

  • Consumers have benefitted substantially from the introduction of new business models through more convenience, greater product access and lower prices.
  • This profound shift in the consumer value equation has put enormous pressure on industry incumbents that lack either the cost structure or agility to respond effectively.
  • A dramatic rationalization is gaining momentum as traditional players are being forced out of business or pressured to close and or shrink the foot-print of their stores, make huge investments in “omni-channel” capabilities and lower costs across the board.

Unfortunately what is lost in tales of this evolution is that most of the “disruptive” pure-play e-commerce brands have completely unsustainable business models and mostly what is happening is that venture capitalists (and other investors) are funding a transfer of wealth to the consuming public. So, on behalf of my fellow consumers, thanks venture capitalists.

Alas, this is unlikely to last much longer.

While many people think digital retail is some sort of license to print money, it’s becoming clear that e-commerce is virtually profit proof in categories with low transaction values, owing primarily to the substantial supply chains costs (particularly when brands offer free shipping and returns). Moreover, while it can be relatively easy and cheap to build an initial following online through public relations,  social media and other forms of peer-to-peer marketing, scaling an e-commerce only brand turns out to be extremely costly. Many of the buzziest pure-plays are now investing heavily in expensive branding efforts (as well as opening their own stores) in the hopes that size engenders profitability. Accordingly, initial expectations of break-evens are now being pushed out several years.

As the ROI of these efforts starts to come into sharper relief, my bet is many funding sources will lose their patience.

I’ve been an on-the-record skeptic for several years now, going back to when I called into question the sustainability of the flash-sales market well before the meltdown. More recently, I’ve been pointing out E-commerce’s pesky little profitability problem. So I’m not suprised that recent valuations of several once high flying players have collapsed. And more folks are starting to take notice. Professional smart guy (and noted wise ass) Scott Galloway agrees and has been on the “pure play doesn’t work” train for some time. Expect more to join us.

To be clear, a few digital-first brands will likely emerge as sustainable value creators. Brands with high enough average order values to overcome high delivery costs are better positioned (though Net-a-porter’s inability to make money after all these years underscores how difficult this is). Those that deftly merge online and offline experiences–think Warby Parker and Bonobos–also improve the odds (though, side-note, don’t be misled by the high productivity of their initial locations and comparisons to other brands’ productivity stats. We need to understand the four-wall profitability of these new stores and make comparisons to traditional retailers averages in like locations, not overall chain averages).

Mostly, however, we need to be careful to declare a brand successful without defining what we mean by success. If we define success as having grown revenues quickly and having been able to raise gobs of capital from investors to enable subsidizing consumers on a massive scale, than clearly Amazon and dozens of others are wildly successful. If we define success as creating enormous pricing pressure and raising the cost of doing business so as to push traditional players into a double-bind than, yes, mission accomplished.

But if we determine success as having demonstrated the ability to deliver a new and better customer experience AND earn a risk appropriate return on capital than I’m not sure any pure-play E-commerce player of any size is yet successful.

I will go on the record as saying far more pure plays will go bust in the next three years (or get sold at valuations well below their most recent funding) than will emerge as truly successful.

Until then, enjoy the low prices and the free shipping, and if you get some time, send the nice folks funding Jet.com and others a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” note.

 

 

 

 

 

Creating meaning at scale

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a whole lot of bifurcation going on. And in many markets, the middle is all but collapsing.

bridges_down_01

At one end are the Walmart’s, the Home Depot’s, the Amazon’s–the low price, vast assortment guys. Their pitch is easy to understand. We have just about everything you could possibly want, virtually anytime you want it, at the low, low price. Operationally this is incredibly difficult to scale. But from the customer’s perspective, it couldn’t be more simple to grasp. Dominance and value (defined by price) creates meaning.

At the other end of the spectrum are the brands built around market niches, product differentiation and the somewhat intangible “brand personality.” What defines meaningfulness here is built on deep customer insight, emotional connection and, more and more, the ability to treat different customers differently.

Historically, luxury brands thrived by merchandising exclusive products in spectacular settings delivered face-to-face by well-trained sales associates. To the extent companies could replicate this model as they added stores, they could continue to create meaning and deliver it at scale. Yet, as all things digital become increasingly important, the notion of what constitutes a meaningful one-to-one “luxury” relationship is being challenged.

The best specialty stores have succeeded by curating merchandise for a particular “lifestyle” and presenting it in a distinctive environment that reinforced a unique brand image. These companies created a business model that was simple to replicate and led to the ubiquity of many of these brands in affluent malls and upscale shopping areas of most major cities. Now, with product choice and availability exploding and new micro-niche brands emerging online, the concept of “specialty” is being redefined.

The hyper-growth, venture-backed “pure-play” brands that have launched over the past few years–think Gilt, Bonobos, Warby Parker–found it comparatively easy to scale at first. They exploited many of the advantages of a direct-to-consumer model and employed low-cost acquisition techniques to build an initial base of customers–what I like to call the obsessive core.

But it turns out that creating meaning at the scale that will lead to profitability isn’t so easy (or economically viable). Too many newer customers of these high-flying brands have started to equate meaning with discounts. Others, it turns out rather predictably, need the meaning that comes from a physical presence to derive theirs. Many see this hybrid-model as an exciting new area of growth. Others see it as clear evidence that most e-commerce only brands are finding it very difficult to deliver meaning at scale.

In an anything, anytime, anywhere, anyway world, it’s getting harder and harder to break through the clutter, to win the battle for share of attention, to create the all essential meaning that matters for customers.

If you seem to be stuck in a sea of sameness, selling average products to average people, relentlessly promoting just to stay even, it’s time to get off the bridge. The collapse is near.

If your customer is choosing you mostly on price, you had better be the low-cost provider. Otherwise you will lose the inevitable race to the bottom.

If you believe you have the ability to be meaningful to a well-defined set of customers who choose you over the competition for specific, sustainable reasons, good on you.

Just remember, as Bernadette reminds us, it’s not so easy to create meaning at scale, particularly if you need that scale to stay in business.

All about that base?

When politicians start a campaign one of the first questions they ask is how they can appeal to the base. Mainstream candidates lock into the usual suspects for rally turnout and fund-raising. The reformers struggle for voter attention and ways to tap into the key PAC’s and the Koch’s and Soros’ of the world.

Traditional brand marketers usually start here as well. We focus on more and better ways of activating existing consumers where the investment to acquire them is sunk and where we already know that they like us and buy often. It seems like a perfectly logical place to concentrate our efforts.

Except where those cohorts are aging out of maintaining their spending. Think Sears.

Except where their needs have shifted and we are no longer their brand or store of choice. Think Barnes & Noble.

Except where a new disruptive model has come along and is doing things we can’t while gobbling up our core customers’ share of wallet. Think Warby Parker and LensCrafters.

Except where we are not replenishing defectors or downward migrators with enough new profitable customers. Think JC Penney.

Good customer analysis always starts with the base. Better customer analysis is focused on a deep understanding of the leverage and limitations inherent in our core segments and yields the insight required to know where to go next and how urgent and powerful any shifts need to be.

It’s all about that base, until it isn’t.

 

 

Omni-channel: Myths, distortions and, yeah, that’s just silly

Let me be clear: I’m pretty into all things omni-channel. Get me started talking about creating a single view of the customer, silo-busting, frictionless commerce, creating a seamless experience, etc. you might want to order a pizza. We could be here for a while.

I was named the VP of Multi-channel Integration at Sears way back in 1999. I led multi-channel initiatives and enterprise customer analytics at the Neiman Marcus Group from 2004-2008. I’ve written dozens of related posts and given numerous speeches on the topic during the last few years. I’m a believer.

Yet much of what passes as inspired strategy on the part of brands extolling their new-found “omni-ness” is, well, let’s just say it ranges between being disingenuous and outright foolhardy. And then there are the legions of analysts, pundits, consultants and software providers peddling a guaranteed path to customer-centricity nirvana. Much is hype. Some is just plain dumb. Here’s an attempt to move toward more “truthiness.”

  1. You don’t really mean “omni.” “Omni-channel” means “all” or “every” and typically refers to both channels for communications and for transactions. Do you really intend to sell on cruise ships? In airports? How about door-to-door sales? Are you going to do infomercials? I didn’t think so. What you really mean is expanding your marketing and sales channels to those essential for the acquisition, growth and retention of key consumer segments–and being really good at doing it. A rush to invest in omni-channel without an actionable segmentation–and without understanding which levers are really the most important to hone in on–is a license to lose money and waste precious time.
  2. Omni-channel customers are not your best customers. Chances are it’s the other way around. And causality matters. A lot. The customers that already trust your brand are often the early adopters of new media and new places to buy. There is a dangerous false narrative that suggests that simply by becoming omni-channel a world of new sales will open to you. As Kevin Hillstrom has pointed out, many companies that have gone omni-channel have failed to improve their business. This is usually because the brand’s core is weak and merely adding more places to research and buy does not fix the underlying issues (see Sears). The best multi-channel strategies are rooted in a deep understanding of current customer behavior–and prioritize opportunities to stem defection, address new customer acquisition barriers and build add-on sales. A sensible growth strategy has clear building blocks, not a mad rush into e-commerce or rolling-out the next bright and shiny mobile or social media application.
  3. You say you want a revolution. Yet, organizational and data silos abound. Yet, analysis of most promotions still have a single channel focus. Yet, much of your marketing remains mass, rather than personalized. The underlying move to omni-channel is about customer-centricity. As long as you hold on to traditional metrics, silo-ed organizational structures and rely on fragmented data and batch, blast and hope marketing programs, not much is really changing.
  4. Confusing necessary with sufficient. To be sure, more and more customers are becoming cross-channel shoppers and, particularly with the rapid growth of mobile devices, the distinction between e-commerce and physical retail is blurring. Certain “omni” capabilities like order online, pick up in the store are becoming base expectations. It’s hard to imagine that many retailers will survive, much less thrive, without robust integration capabilities and compelling web and mobile offerings. But far too many brands think that by adding these newish features they are doing enough. They’re not. Many of these capabilities are becoming table-stakes. In other cases, they are expensive and complicated “nice to have’s.” What you need to do to keep pace is not the same as what you need to do to become differentiated and remarkable. Confuse this at your own peril.
  5. New hybrid-models are genius. The press is eating up Warby Parker’s, Bonobos and many other e-tailers move into physical locations and raving about their productivity numbers. First, this isn’t new (see Williams-Sonoma). Second, the move into actual stores had to happen. Over 3 year ago I was sitting with the CEO of one of these companies and asked him when they would think about opening stores. He answered: “we will never have physical stores.” Now he’s on CNBC singing their praises. Did I have the gift of prophecy? Of course not; the move was totally foreseeable given the known economics and limitations of pure-play e-commerce. Lastly, what would be remarkable about these hybrid-models’ sale productivity in their initial forays into the physical realm is if they did NOT do huge numbers. Bear in mind, they have opened stores in trade areas where they already have a density of customers and are in very small locations. Comparing their initial results to more mature specialty stores is silly. Comparing them to say, the top 2 or 3 bays of Neiman Marcus’ beauty counters in the Beverly Hills, Bal Harbour and Michigan Avenue stores is more apt (hint: it would be well over $3,000/sf). I am a repeat customer of the two brands I mentioned and believe they have bright futures. But let’s be careful of false positives. There is much more of this story to play out.

Omni-channel is a nice catch phrase, and there can be no question that we are witnessing an incredible transformation in how consumers shop and how brands need to do business. The status quo is not an option, but neither is a blind rush into all things “omni.”

The future of omni-channel will not be evenly distributed. The path you choose is critical.

Why go to the store?

There are some who think that most brick & mortar stores are eventually going away and that e-commerce can have a compound annual growth rate of 15% until the end of time. To which I answer, “don’t be silly” and “of course not.”

There are many powerful reasons for physical retail locations to exist. In fact, we are already witnessing the limits of pure-play models as online only players are opening more traditional store-fronts (Warby Parker, Bonobos, Amazon and many others). Well established direct-to-consumer brands like LL Bean are doubling down on a commitment to retail store expansion. And even with the explosion of online shopping, close to 95% of transactions still take place in a traditional store.

When you take out products that can be delivered digitally (books, movies, games and the like) in most cases, for most consumers, there is value in being able to go see, try on, or touch the actual product. Having a live conversation with a well-trained sales associate can be extremely helpful. Physical stores offer a social experience that can’t be readily duplicated via the web or smart phone. And, typically, you can take the product with you, rather than having to wait.

Having said this, digitally enabled business models ARE disrupting every category and chipping away at many historical advantages of bricks & mortar. Websites often have better information than in-store sales people. Assortments can be much wider and prices are often sharper. Next day delivery may be either good enough or simply more convenient than having to drive to a mall and deal with the crowds. And we can be certain that future innovation will further eat away at traditional store advantages.

The fact is, in most instances, the future winners will be retailers that blend digital and physical offerings. They will deeply understand customers wants and desires and build a tightly integrated, highly flexible hybrid model rooted in treating different customers differently. That means a transformation, but not the elimination, of physical stores.

By contrast, the losers will be those that blindly adopt all things omni-channel.

The losers will be those traditional retailers that continue to run a bolted on and siloed e-commerce channel.

The losers will be those who fail to see the interplay between digital and physical stores and close too many doors–and turn the remaining ones into boring museums of best-sellers and “me too” products.

The losers will be those who hold on to one-size-fits-all customer and marketing strategies.

Consumers will continue going to stores for many, many years to come. Whether they will come to your store is a different question.