Death in the middle · Embrace the blur · Retail

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.  

e-commerce · Embrace the blur · Retail

Pure-play e-commerce’s scaling woes continue

Just a couple of years ago the conventional wisdom was that e-commerce was going to wreak havoc with every aspect of physical retail. This “e-commerce will eat the world” hypothesis continues to drive the “retail apocalypse” nonsense. It has even caused some normally level-headed analysts (and some maybe not so much) to suggest that brick & mortar stores will cease to exist within 10 – 20 years. I’ll take the over on that bet.

As it turns out lots of folks still like to shop in stores, including–and I hope you are sitting down for this–millennials! It also turns out that many retail categories do not lend themselves to high (or even meaningful) online shopping penetration. But there is another reason that e-commerce is not going to get to 100%, much less 40%, market share any time soon: the economic are often terrible. And while Amazon is leveraging its massive scale and expertise to improve its anemic profit margins, for some high profile disruptive brands the profit challenges are only getting worse.

Earlier this year I wrote about pure-play e-commerce’s scaling problems calling attention to what I saw as the increasingly questionable economics of Wayfair, Stitch Fix and Blue Apron, among others. Quite a few folks challenged my conclusions, much as the excellent work by Peter Fader and Dan McCarthy on similar topics has attracted its share of critics. Aside from being called a Luddite and being told to do some anatomically impossible things, it was suggested that I failed to appreciate how these brands would soon realize the fruits of their massive investments in technology, customer acquisition and “brand” and start to make it rain (okay that’s my wording not theirs).

As luck would have it, we now have some updated facts (author’s note: historians believe data and objective truth were once important to drawing conclusions on any particular object of discourse). Wayfair reported its quarterly earnings just last week and, once again, sales were way up. And once again losses widened. They are now deep into what I refer to as their ruh-roh moment as customer acquisition costs have grown to a staggering $196. They are fast becoming the poster child for profitless prosperity (though I imagine Uber and WeWork might get jealous of that appellation).

Luxury marketplace Farfetch just went public, so we now have visibility into their economics. Their story is much like Wayfair’s. Booming sales, worsening profits and less than stellar marginal customer acquisition economics. Zalando, the Germany based online business, is also public and their latest earnings show great sales growth and deteriorating profits as well. Revolve has filed for an IPO and its financials reveal strong sales growth, little movement on profitability and some truly scary stats on high rates of returns. Coincidence, or an underlying business model issue?

The picture at Stitch Fix and Blue Apron is a bit murkier, but still points to the difficulty in scaling online only businesses. Stitch Fix continues to enjoy solid growth and is marginally profitable, but its growth trajectory is slowing markedly. For Blue Apron, they just reported another terrible quarter. The stock has cratered this year as the meal-kit brand attempts to rein in spiraling costs has resulted in significant customer defections and worsening customer acquisition. And this speaks to an underlying dilemma. These brands could stop investing in customers that have little or no chance of every being profitable, but then their sales growth would go from wow to tepid.

To be fair, there are a few online only brands that are scaling successfully. YNAP, which was acquired by Richemont earlier this year, is a case in point. The luxury e-tailer formed by the merger of Yoox and Net-a-porter is solidly profitable and continues to grow nicely, albeit now barely above the industry’s overall e-commerce growth rate. With much higher than average order size and customer lifetime value they are largely immune from the factors that hamstring or sink other pure-plays (high marginal fulfillment and customer acquisition costs).

As the majority of pure-play brands are private, we don’t much about their profitability. But anecdotally we know that some of the most high profile disruptive brands continue to post big losses. We know that several that were burning tons of cash were bailed out by Walmart. We know that one of the first things HBC’s new CEO did was sell off Gilt. Most importantly, we know that just about every digitally native brand is now opening physical stores. We also know that many of these brands are now seeing the majority of their marginal growth come from their brick & mortar locations. And we can suspect that when many of them leave the ranks of pure-plays their marginal economics get better–often dramatically so.

I will not be so bold as to say there will be no such thing as a profitable online only brand of any real size in a few years time. I am, however, confident that we will see several notable collapses within the next 12-18 months and that the real action in digital commerce will continue to be in the blurring of the lines between channels, not the growth of e-commerce at the expense of brick & mortar.

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.  

I’m honored to have been named one of the top 5 retail voices on LinkedIn.  Thanks to all of you that continue to follow and share my work.

e-commerce · Frictionless commerce · Retail

The de-schlepping of retail

Millard “Mickey” Drexler, the former CEO of J. Crew Group and Gap, is many things. Shy and retiring is not among them. To be sure, Drexler’s had his ups and downs, his victories and defeats. But he’s always interesting. In my only conversation with him (by phone when I was a responsible for strategy and multi-channel marketing at the Neiman Marcus Group), he had the attention span of a gnat on a 5 Hour Energy bender. Between barking orders to his assistant, he dictated a litany of things we were doing wrong at Neiman’s that I must address STAT (wait, do I work for you?). I left the call with a long list of items to discuss with my boss, more than ready for a nap. Good times.

Drexler has been mostly off the radar since stepping down from J. Crew, yet he re-emerged in typical style at the recent Annual Retail Forum/Retail Radicals event organized by the Columbia Business School and The Robin Report. Among his many provocative comments, the one that captured my attention was what he referred to as the de-schlepping of retail. “Why schlep paper towels from the supermarket? Why schlep dog food? Why schlep a lot of things?” he asked. And he’s right. Of course lugging heavy and/or bulky items home from a store has always been a hassle, particularly if you take public transportation or live in an apartment. The more powerful change is the number of companies that have emerged to address this pain point, including Boxed, Jet and Amazon.

I (and others) have made the distinction between buying and shopping, highlighting the fact that e-commerce is rapidly gaining share in the former, where the products are more commodity-driven and where price and convenience are paramount. Shopping, on the other hand, is more experiential and tactile, and as such, pure online shopping has not gained nearly as much traction. De-schlepping, as Drexler describes it, solves a very particular sub-set of customer needs, delivering clear and obvious value. From my own experience, once I discovered the ease of buying bulky and heavy items online, I haven’t turned back. While it’s not a huge amount of purchases, I’ve made a nearly complete shift of spending in certain categories away from traditional grocery stores to Amazon and others.  It’s clear from the data that I am far from alone.

At one level this dynamic is pretty obvious. At its core it merely explains some of the fundamental reasons that online shopping is now approaching 10% of all retail sales and continuing to grow much faster than brick-and-mortar retail. What’s relatively different about the de-schlepping phenomenon, however, is both the customer value and the underlying economics for the retailer.

There are plenty of retail categories where the customer may be largely indifferent between buying in a store or online—or where they regularly split their spending between the channels, based upon their episodic need for sales help, the desire to touch and feel the product or pure impulse. This is not true when we are motivated principally by our desire for de-schlepping. Once we know what we want and have a supplier we trust, there really is no reason not to buy online as a physical store experience adds little or no discernible value.

Yet from a retailer’s perspective, it’s often rather different. Since brick and mortar is largely a fixed cost business, the marginal profitability of a big bag of dog food or 48-pack of toilet paper or a case of S. Pellegrino sparkling water (my personal favorite) is usually good, even when heavily discounted. Conversely, for the online players the economics are generally terrible, owing to the variable cost nature of direct-to-consumer sales. The precise reasons customers love the de-schlepping of retail is why e-commerce sellers generally hate it. If it’s big, bulky and heavy, it costs a lot to store, handle and ship. The logistics costs relative to the gross margin dollars generated typically make these orders unprofitable. What’s great for consumers is lousy for online retailers.

So the question isn’t whether the de-schlepping of retail is good for consumers. The question is whether it can be economically sustained as it scales. The nature of Amazon’s Prime program means a decent percentage of the e-commerce behemoth’s orders are unprofitable. The prevalence of free-shipping and deep discounts to acquire new customers means that some online-only players have many transactions that generate negative cash flow. Ultimately it comes back to the interplay of unit economics and customer lifetime value. Most customers are smart enough to go where they will get the best deal. They will “overuse” retailers (online or offline) that consistently provide customer value that is too good to be true (see also Uber, Lyft and WeWork). In Amazon’s case, it has the benefit of comparatively low customer acquisition cost, supply chain efficiency and offering such a wide array of product and services that the vast majority of customers have good lifetime value even if it has a smattering of transactions that are money losers.

For brands that offer great customer value, yet suffer from challenging delivery economics and high customer acquisition costs (Boxed, Wayfair, among others), the path forward is far less certain. Sure it’s impressive to deliver consistently strong revenue growth. Yet it turns out it’s really not all that surprising when the service offering and pricing may be too good to be true. For consumers it’s great when investors are willing to subsidize a new business model that offers real customer utility. Whether that business model is ultimately economically sustainable is another matter entirely. Time will tell. In the meantime, as long as certain brands are willing to price in such a way that I can avoid the hassle of schlepping home the biggest and bulkiest of items I regularly purchase, I’ll keep buying. I’ll let them worry about whether they can sell at a loss and make it up on volume.

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.  

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Fashion · Luxury · Retail

Going Private Could Be The Best Thing To Ever Happen To Nordstrom; With One Big Caveat

Recently a roughly $8.4 billion offer from the Nordstrom family to take the namesake retailer private was rejected as inadequate. The deal now seems at risk as the special committee in charge of evaluating a potential transaction indicated that the price needed to be “substantially” and “promptly” improved upon or they would terminate further discussions.

While there is one major concern that looms large in any such deal, my hope is that the Nordstroms can get this done. While as a brand Nordstrom faces most of the same challenges that confront just about all retailers in this era of digital disruption, allowing the company to operate without the harsh and impatient glare of Wall Street could be a major long-term win. Here are a few key benefits to going private:

Avoiding the obsession with growth. The fact is that Nordstrom is fast becoming a relatively mature business. It has few new store openings to execute within its core concepts, it is very well penetrated in e-commerce, and there are not a ton of readily accessible wholly new categories (or geographies) to expand into. The Street’s obsession with growth for growth’s sake often pushes maturing brands to expand their core business too far (think Gap and J. Crew’s fashion missteps, Michael Kors’ distribution overexpansion, or Coach’s — and many others’ — over reliance on the outlet channel).

Minimizing the focus on largely irrelevant metrics. As I’ve been suggesting for many years, same (or comparable) store sales is an increasingly irrelevant metric, and as Brent Franson and I tackled more recently, the shifting nature of retail demands a whole new set of performance measures. Not having to be as concerned about monthly and quarterly reports will free Nordstrom to worry less about pleasing equity investors in the short term and enable greater focus on what they need to do to win over the long term.

Freedom to invest in physical retail. Despite the retail apocalypse narrative, physical retail is not dead; boring retail is. Fortunately Nordstrom has crafted a compelling digital presence, a well executed store model and a harmonious experience across channels. For the most part, Nordstrom full-line and Rack stores are in excellent real estate and it’s unlikely that they will have many store closings on the horizon despite the carnage around them. Nordstrom understands well that physical retail drives e-commerce and vice versa. The challenge is to continue evolving to address changing consumer demands, the emerging importance of younger shoppers and the convergence of digital and physical channels. To thrive Nordstrom must have both a remarkable digital experience and a remarkable brick & mortar experience. Despite what some in the investment community think, for some retailers additional investment in physical retail is not only necessary to keep pace, it is essential to maintain competitive advantage. Nordstrom is firmly in this category.

Ability to think long term and take prudent risks. While some investors are willing to take big bets on silly moon shots (but enough about Wayfair), those that invest in “traditional” retail tend to be more short-term focused and risk averse. Yet we live in a world where the future is getting harder and harder to predict and what will ultimately pay off may take years to become clear. Few retailers will survive, much less thrive, without leaning into more risk and establishing a strong test and learn culture. Historically Nordstrom has shown a willingness to be more innovative than most of its peers, including testing new formats (such as Nordstrom Local), buying emerging concepts (Haute Look and Trunk Club), as well as acquiring two technology companies just last week. While Nordstrom is largely past the capital intensive nature of their major investments in omni-channel infrastructure and expansion into Canada and New York City, there is every reason to believe that the future will require considerable investment and a greater tolerance for risk in order to stay truly remarkable.

Unlike most others in the largely undifferentiated department store space, Nordstrom already has a lot going for it and is not burdened with a crushing debt load like Neiman Marcus. Which brings me to the one big caveat.

Quite a few retailers have gotten into trouble by taking on too much debt through a private equity buyout. Unlike Toys R Us and others, which were struggling with the fundamentals of their core value proposition when they took on considerable leverage, the Nordstrom business model is fundamentally sound, the real estate portfolio is solid, and the management team is excellent and deeply experienced. Nevertheless, financial flexibility, as well as strategic and operating agility, will be key to navigating retail’s future. As mentioned above, Nordstrom is fortunate to have already done much of the heavy lifting where plenty of others are struggling to catch up. Yet, layering on substantial debt and interest payments may limit the company’s ability to make acquisitions and/or the technology investments to stay on the leading edge.

Fortunately the debt levels that are currently being contemplated don’t put the Nordstrom deal into the territory that ToysRUs and Neiman’s now find themselves. But obviously if the buyout price increases substantially it is likely the debt burden will as well. Investors also need to mindful of how well any company with considerable leverage would fare in a major economic downturn.

With any luck, a reasonable compromise can be achieved.

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.  

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e-commerce · Retail

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.  

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Being Remarkable · Digital-first · Omni-channel · Retail

A baker’s dozen of provocative retail predictions for 2018

2017 was one of the most transformative years for the retail industry that I can remember. 2018 is likely to be just as wild and woolly, albeit in somewhat different ways. Here’s my attempt to go beyond the obvious and go out on the limb just a bit.

  1. Physical retail isn’t dead. Boring retail is. A lot of stores closed in 2017. Often forgotten is that a lot opened as well. Many stores will close in 2018. Many will open as well. By this time next year roughly 90% of all retail will still be done in physical stores, so please can we shut up already about the “retail apocalypse.” The train left the station years ago on products that could be better delivered digitally. What’s happened most recently has everything to do with a long over-due correction of overbuilding and the collapse of irrelevant, unremarkable retail. The seismic changes in retail have laid waste to the mediocre and those that have been treading water in a sea of sameness. Great retail brands (Apple, Costco, Ulta, Sephora, TJX, etc.) continue to thrive, despite their overwhelming reliance on brick & mortar stores. Ignore the nonsense. Eschew the boring. Chase remarkable.
  2. Consolidation accelerates. In many aspects of today’s retail world, scale is more important than ever and this will continue to drive a robust pace of mergers and acquisitions. In some cases, capacity must come out of the market to create any chance for decent profits to return. The department store space is a great example. Moreover, large, well capitalized companies will take advantage of asset “fire sales” or technology plays to complement their skills and accelerate their growth.
  3. Honey, I shrunk the store. Small is the new black in many ways. Many chains will continue to right-size their store fleets to better align with future demand. Others will reformat or relocate to smaller footprints to better address the role of online shopping. We can also expect to see more small format stores as a way to cost effectively extend customer reach and further penetrate key customer segments.
  4. The difference between buying and shopping takes center stage. Buying is task-oriented, more chore than cherished, and is typically focused on seeking out great assortments, the lowest price and maximum convenience. This is where e-commerce has made the greatest inroads. Increasingly, Amazon dominates buying. Shopping is different. It’s experiential, it’s social, tactile–and the role of physical stores is often paramount. The trouble is when retail brands don’t understand the distinction and invest their energies trying to out-Amazon Amazon in a race to the bottom. And, as Seth reminds us, the problem with the race to the bottom is you might win. Or worse, finish second.
  5. Amazon doubles down on brick & mortar. For Amazon to continue it’s hyper-growth–and eventually make some decent profits–it needs to go deeper into the world of shopping vs. buying (see above). And this means greater physical store presence, particularly in some key categories like apparel and home. In addition to opening its own stores I expect at least one major acquisition of a significant “traditional” retail brand.
  6. Private brands and monobrands shine. A key part of winning in the age of Amazon and digital disruption is finding ways to amplify points of differentiation. Most often this can be done through product and experience. With the over-distribution of many national brands and the ease of price comparison, more and more smart retailers are looking for ways to differentiate on unique product. For some–including Amazon–deepening their commitment to private brands can be a source of competitive advantage. Well positioned monobrand retailers like Uniqlo, H&M, Primark and Warby Parker also will continue to steal share from less compelling multi-brand stores.
  7. Digital and analog learn to dance. As much attention as e-commerce gets it turns out digital channels’ influence on brick & mortar shopping is far more important for most brands. In fact, many retailers report that more that 60-75% of their physical store sales are influenced by a digital channel, hence the rise of the term “digital-first” retail. Side note: anyone who has adopted this term in the last 12 months has simply informed us that they were paying no attention to what has been going on in retail for nearly a decade. Regardless, clearly in-store technology must evolve to support this rapidly evolving world. Yet as much as technology can enhance the shopping experience the role of an actual human being in making the customer experience intensely relevant and remarkable should not be forgotten. Many retailers would be wise to see sales associates as assets to invest in, not expenses to be optimized.
  8. The great bifurcation widens. And it’s death in the middle. It’s been true for some time that the future of retail will not be evenly distributedWhat became abundantly clear in 2017 is how different the results have been between the industry’s have’s and have not’s. At one end of the spectrum retailers with a strong pricing story, from dollar stores to off-price to Costco and Walmart, did well. At the other end of the spectrum, many luxury brands and well focused specialty retailers continued to thrive. Meanwhile the fortunes of Sears, Macys, JC Penney and others who failed to get out of the undifferentiated and relentlessly boring middle diverged markedly. This will end badly.
  9. Omnichannel is dead. Digital-first, harmonized retail rules. Too many retailers chased being everywhere and ended up being nowhere. The search for ubiquity led to disjointed, poorly prioritized efforts that fattened the wallets of consultants but often did little to create what most customers want and value. The point is not to be everywhere, but to be relevant and remarkable where it matters, to understand the leverage in the customer journey and to root out the friction and amplify those elements of the experience that make the most difference. Most customer journeys will start in a digital channel (and more and more this means on a mobile device) and the challenge is to make all the potentially disparate elements of the shopping experience sing together as a harmonious whole.
  10. Pure plays say “buh-bye.” With rare exception, so-called “digitally native” brands were always a bad idea. Despite venture capitalists initial enthusiasm–and Walmart’s wet kiss acquisitions–only a handful of pure-play models had any chance to scale profitably. And many arrogantly declared they’d never open stores (I’m looking at you Bonobos and Everlane) when anyone who understood the high cost of returns and customer acquisition saw a physical store strategy (or bankruptcy) as inevitable. We’ve already seen some high profile blowups and more are surely on the way (Wayfair? Every meal delivery company?). This year the shakeout will continue and it will become clear that for the brands that survive most of their future growth will be driven by brick & mortar stores not e-commerce.
  11. The returns problem is ready for its close up. Product returns were the bane of direct-to-consumer brands well before e-commerce was a thing. Lands’ End, Victoria’s Secret, Neiman Marcus and many others regularly experienced return rates in excess of 30% from their catalog divisions. When you could actually charge for delivery this was a problem, but not necessarily the achilles heel. The near ubiquity of free returns & exchanges may be a consumer bonanza, but it drives a lot of expensive behavior and makes much of e-commerce unprofitable. Customers regularly order multiple colors and/or sizes of the same item hoping that one of them will fit or be to their taste. The retailer then eats the expense of some or all of the items coming back, including handling costs and often additional merchandise markdowns (which can be especially ugly for seasonal or fashion items). The disproportionate growth of e-commerce means outsized growth and expense for retailers. It’s not sustainable. Consider yourself warned.
  12. “Cool” technology underwhelms. There is plenty of incredibly useful technology that continues to transform retail, notably around mobile, predictive analytics and the like. There is also a lot that ranges between gimmicky and not yet ready for prime time. Augmented and virtual reality? Wearables? IotT? Blockchain? Digital mirrors? Someday, maybe. 2018? Not so much.
  13. The search for scarcity and the quest for remarkable ramps up. As most things came to be available to just about anyone, anytime, anywhere, anyway, access to great product was no longer scarce. As various marketplaces, peer-to-peer review sites and various forms of social media made data about product quality, reliable alternatives and pricing universally available, information was no longer scarce. As various tools emerged to put the customer in charge, the retail brand’s advantages were diminished and the power of the channel started to evaporate. It’s really hard to get folks to pay for what is widely available for free. And it turns out the moat that protected a lot of brands has dried up and been paved over. Good enough no longer is. The brands that will not only survive, but actually thrive in 2018 and beyond, will deliver consistently and remarkably on things that are highly valued by customers, can be seen as scarce and can be made proprietary to that brand. It’s not easy, but frankly, more times than not, it’s the only choice.

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.

e-commerce · Omni-channel · The Amazon Effect

Here’s who Amazon could buy next, and why it probably won’t be Nordstrom

Since the Whole Foods deal, more than a few industry analysts and pundits have weighed in on which retailers might be on Amazon’s shopping list.

Various theories underpin the speculation. Some say Jeff Bezos wants to go deeper in certain categories, so Lululemon or Warby Parker get mentioned. Foursquare (is that still a thing?) crafted its own list from analyzing location data. The Forbes Tech Council came up with 15 possibilities. The always provocative, and generally spot-on, Scott Galloway of L2 and NYU’s Stern School of Business believes Nordstrom is the most logical choice.

Obviously no one has a crystal ball, and Amazon’s immediate next move could be more opportunistic than strategic. Given Amazon’s varied interests, there are several directions in which they could go. And clearly they have the resources to do multiple transactions, be they technology enabling, building their supply-chain capabilities out further, entering new product or service categories, or something else entirely. For my purposes, however, I’d like to focus on what makes the most sense to expand and strengthen the core of their retail operations.

Before sorting through who’s likely to be right and who’s got it wrong (spoiler alert: Scott), let’s briefly think about the motivating factors for such an acquisition. From where I sit, several things are critical:

  • Materiality. Amazon is a huge, rapidly growing company. To make a difference, they have to buy a company that either is already substantial or greatly accelerates their ability to penetrate large categories. This is precisely where Whole Foods fit in.
  • Fundamentally Experiential. There is an important distinction between buying and shopping. As my friend Seth reminds us, shopping is an experience, distinct from buying, which is task-oriented and largely centered on price, speed and convenience. Amazon already dominates buying. Shopping? Not so much.
  • Bricks And Clicks. It’s hard to imagine Amazon not ultimately dominating any category where a large percentage of actual purchasing occurs online. Where they need help is when the physical experience is essential to share of wallet among the most valuable customer segments. They’ve already made their bet in one such category (groceries). Fashion, home furnishings and home improvement are three obvious major segments where they are under-developed and where a major stake in physical locations would be enormously beneficial to gaining significant market share.
  • Strong Marginal Economics. We know that Amazon barely makes money in retail. What’s not as well appreciated is the inconvenient truth that much of the rest of e-commerce is unprofitable. Some of this has to do with venture-capital-funded pure-plays that have demonstrated a great ability to set cash on fire. But unsustainable customer acquisition costs and high rates of product returns make many aspects of online selling profit-proof. An acquisition that allows Amazon access to high-value customers it would otherwise be challenged to steal away from the competition and one that would mitigate what is rumored to be an already vexing issue with product returns could be powerfully accretive to earnings over the long term. Most notably this points to apparel, but home furnishings also scores well here.

So pulling this all together, here’s my list of probable 2018 acquisition targets, the basic rationale and a brief word on why some seemingly logical candidates probably won’t happen.

Not Nordstrom, Saks or Neiman Marcus

Scott Galloway is right that Nordstrom (and to a lesser degree Saks and Neiman Marcus) has precisely the characteristics that fit with Amazon’s aspirations and in many ways mirror the rationale behind the Whole Foods acquisition. Yet unlike Whole Foods, a huge barrier to overcome is vendor support. Having been an executive at Neiman Marcus, I understand the critical contribution to a luxury retailer’s enterprise value derived from the distribution of iconic fashion brands, as well as the obsessive (but entirely logical) control these same brands exert over distribution. Many of the brands that are key differentiators for luxury department stores have been laggards in digital presence, as well as actually selling online. Most tightly manage their distribution among specific Nordstrom, Saks and Neiman Marcus locations. If Nordstrom or the others were to be acquired by Amazon, I firmly believe many top vendors would bolt, choosing to further leverage their own expanding direct-to-consumer capabilities and doubling down with a competing retail partner, fundamentally sinking the value of the acquisition. While Amazon might try to assure these brands that they would not be distributed on Amazon, I think the fear, rational or otherwise, would be too great.

Macy’s, Kohl’s or J.C. Penney 

Amazon has its sights set on expanding apparel, accessories and home but is facing some headwinds owing to a relative paucity of national fashion brands, likely lower-than-average profitability (mostly due to high returns) and a lack of a physical store presence. Acquiring one of these chains would bring billions of dollars in immediate incremental revenues, improved marginal economics and a national footprint of physical stores to leverage for all sorts of purposes. All are (arguably) available at fire-sale prices. Strategically, Macy’s makes the most sense to me, both because of their more upscale and fashion-forward product assortment (which includes Bloomingdale’s) and because of their comparatively strong home business. But J.C. Penney would be a steal given their market cap of just over $1 billion, compared with Macy’s and Kohl’s, which are both north of $8 billion at present.

Lowe’s

The vast majority of the home improvement category is impossible to penetrate from a pure online presence. Lowe’s offers a strong value proposition, dramatic incremental revenues, already strong omni-channel capabilities, and a vast national network of stores. The only potential issue is its valuation, which at some $70 billion is hardly cheap, but is dramatically less than Home Depot’s.

A Furniture Play

Home furnishings is a huge category where physical store presence is essential to gaining market share and mitigating the high cost of returns. But it is also highly fragmented, so the play here is less clear as no existing player provides a broad growth platform. Wayfair, the online leader, brings solid incremental revenue and would likely benefit from Amazon’s supply chain strengths. But without a strong physical presence their growth is limited. Crate & Barrel, Ethan & Allen, Restoration Hardware, Williams-Sonoma and a host of others are all sizable businesses, but each has a relatively narrow point of view. My guess is Amazon will do something here — potentially even multiple deals — but a big move in furniture will likely not be their first priority in 2018.

As I reflect on this list (as well as a host of other possibilities), I am struck by three things.

First, despite all the hype about e-commerce eating the world, the fact remains that some 90% of all retail is done in physical stores, and that is because of the intrinsic value of certain aspects of the shopping experience. For Amazon to sustain its high rate of growth, a far greater physical presence is not a nice “to do” but a “have to do.”

Second, the battle between Amazon and Walmart is heating up. While they approach the blurring of the lines between physical and digital from different places, some of their needs are similar, which could well lead to some overlapping acquisition targets. That should prove interesting.

Lastly, the business of making predictions is inherently risky, particularly in such a public forum. So at the risk of stating the obvious, I might well be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it surely won’t be the last.

But why not go out on a limb? I hear that’s where the fruit is.

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.