Robin Lewis

About Robin Lewis

Robin Lewis has over forty years of strategic operating and consulting experience in the retail and related consumer products industries. He has held executive positions at DuPont, VF Corporation, Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), and Goldman Sachs, among others, and has consulted for dozens of retail, consumer products and other companies. In addition to his role as CEO and Editorial Director of The Robin Report, he is a professor at the Graduate School of Professional Studies at The Fashion Institute of Technology.

Fast Retailing Redux

Forget Weed, Maybe It’s Ecstasy

ecstasyA week ago, I suggested that Tadashi Yanai, President and CEO of Fast Retailing (parent of Uniqlo), must be smoking something, as he declared he would have 1000 stores opened in the U.S. by 2020. Now I read in WWD.com, which covered the company’s annual media event last week, that his aim is to reach $253 billion (yes, USD), in global sales by 2030, up from their August current year-end revenue projection of about $13 billion. His new projection for 2020 was $42 billion,which by the way, is way lower than $61 billion target I had reported that Mr. Tadashi had projected in last week’s article. So, which numbers are we to believe?

And, even with the lowered projection for 2020,does the $250 billion goal for 2030 sound like something a person with all of their marbles would throw out at such a meeting? Mr. Tadashi said, “So we are within sight of 5 trillion yen, ($42 billion) and that’s not just big talk. I think soon we have to start making big ambitions for the year 2030 as well, and if it’s the year 2030, why not 30 trillion yen ($253 billion)?” The audience laughed thinking that this must be Yanai’s type of a Japanese joke. He responded, “It’s not a joke. I believe it’s possible that we can realize this dream.” [Read more…]

2015 A Reality Check

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Now that Santa’s back home, trying to figure out how to get rid of his leftover inventory, with the new year well under way, it’s time for a reality check on what the retail landscape is going to look like for 2015 and beyond. What are some of the major issues and market characteristics that continue to evolve, and those that we are stuck with that are largely out of anyone’s control to change?

For starters, regardless of a few pockets of cheer, once again the retail industry has managed to stumble through another rather mediocre Holiday season. Once all of the insane promoting and discounting is factored in, as well as tallying up the excess inventory that will have to find a hole somewhere to bury itself, mediocre may turn into bleak and unprofitable.

On a more positive note, perhaps this will be the year in which we finally witness the serious elimination of excessive retail space, including malls and shopping centers, and the downsizing of what remains. I said perhaps. Part of the weeding out should consist of retailers who have reached the end of the line financially, due to their inability to steal business from competitors in a slow-to-no growth marketplace, (examples: Deb Shops and Delias). The other part of the shakeout should include retailers who are stuck in the last century (examples: Sears, Kmart and Radio Shack), unable to transform their strategies and business models necessary to engage the 21st century consumer, now the “controller in chief.” [Read more…]

It’s the Distribution Century, and Macy’s Gets it

macys-mercIt’s coming guys. It’s looming large. And Macy’s $210 million acquisition of the Bluemercury spa and beauty chain indicates that they see it, and are moving on it. And the “it” is the future. While this acquisition was a brilliant tactical move for all of the reported reasons, not the least of which is a new source of revenue and growth with 60 stores in 18 states, it sends a much larger strategic message regarding the future, not only for Macy’s, but the entire industry.

It’s a future that will see the collapse of the traditional wholesale/retail business model and the literal terms “wholesale and retail.” And, I’m sorry, but the current definition of “department store” will no longer define what Mr. Lundgren and team are ultimately doing with Macy’s, and for which I highly applaud them. From what I observe of Macy’s evolution (and a few others as well), it’s greatly expanding beyond the commonly held definition of omnichannel, which is limited to integrating the physical stores and the online business. Macy’s understands the term “omni” as broadly defined in the dictionary, meaning everywhere. Thus, it’s seeking other relevant physical and online distribution platforms beyond its nameplate stores. [Read more…]

Shoppable’s “Distributed Commerce”

young woman texting in a bus stationThe Ultimate In Preemptive Distribution

In my co-authored book, The New Rules of Retail, one of the new rules is preemptive distribution. Simply stated, it is defined as distributing a product to reach consumers first, faster and more often than all of one’s competitors, thus, preempting the fierce and excessive number of competitors. And today, this strategy is further enabled by technology and the Internet, including the unprecedented impact of smartphones. There’s a whole chapter devoted to this new rule and it offers deep perspective on how to implement this strategy.

In this warp speed world where new technologies and millions of new apps appear each day, there’s a preemptive distribution technology that is turning science fiction into reality. It’s called “distributed commerce.”

Think about how many times your brand is mentioned or appears online, in print, social media, advertising, on TV, in conversation, and on merchandise. Now imagine every time consumers engaged with your brand or product, wherever it may be, were automatically connected to a “buy button” that allows them to complete a purchase from any of these locations in under 60 seconds. This may sound like something impossible or out of a futuristic film, but technology companies have been working on this accelerated access for years, and according to better tech minds than mine, it will be everywhere within the next five years. [Read more…]

Uniqlo and Forever 21: What Are They Smoking?

UniqloForever2I don’t know if “weed” is legal yet where CEO Tadashi Yanai, (Tokyo-based Fast Retailing Company, including the Uniqlo brand), or CEO Don Chang, (Los Angeles-based Forever 21) run their companies, but maybe they’re getting delusional on some other substance.

One thing their delusions have in common is Larry Meyer. He was CFO at Forever 21 from 2001 to 2012, and then left to become CEO of Uniqlo USA. Both of his bosses gave him his marching orders to “get big fast” (to steal the Jeff Bezos line), and focus mainly on the American market. Doesn’t everybody? And getting big fast apparently means bigger stores and lots more of them. I guess in their minds, this growth logic is supposed to result in bigger revenues as well.

Furthermore, and this is pure speculation on my part, perhaps Uniqlo observed Mr. Meyer’s performance at Forever 21, aggressively pushing for more and bigger stores, and believed they could use his real estate acumen to implement Mr. Tadashi’s mind-numbing growth objectives. However, Mr. Tadashi’s mind must have been a bit addled, not foreseeing that, in my opinion, Forever 21’s get big faster strategy would end up with being stuck with a ubiquitous number of stores that are bigger and less productive, resulting in a cool brand turned cold. Bye, bye young customers. Unfortunately, Mr. Tadashi and Mr. Meyer are now both racing down that same delusional growth-to-death path. [Read more…]

Not Your Grandmother’s Neiman’s

RL_Blog_NeimansNeiman Marcus is not wasting any time as it marches into the new frontier, or the “wild west,” as many are calling it. And it’s headed right towards the intersection where technology and the Millennials connect. Neiman’s is recognizing the tsunami of new technologies being introduced on almost a daily basis, as well as the fact that Millennials will soon replace Boomers as the largest consumer segment. This next-gen cohort has not only embedded technology into every moment and movement in their lives, they also bring huge shifts to the marketplace in how they want to engage or be engaged by retailers.

First and foremost, understood by all retailers (except for the few with their heads still in the sand), they must promise a compelling experience to attract consumers to the store. This is especially true for the Millennials, who are more interested in pursuing style of life over the stuff of life. They desire many types of experiences over shopping and hanging out in malls. And since technology is their life, the Neiman’s that attracted their grandmothers will die with their grandmothers, if they don’t integrate technology into every aspect of their business, including an engaging experience in the store. [Read more…]

Richard Baker Is Smarter than Eddie…or Is He?

lampert_bakerNow that Eddie “sell the assets” Lampert is turning his dying retail business into a real estate play, he should retain Richard Baker as a consultant. If Lampert can afford him. Of course Richard doesn’t need the money, so he might do it out of the goodness of his heart. After all, ‘tis the season. While nobody ever questioned Eddie’s financial engineering skills, he is now at the 11th hour before bankruptcy or outright liquidation of the Kmart and Sears’ businesses. The only asset he has left to squeeze more cash out of is the real estate. With that in mind, Baker’s brilliance in real estate would come in handy. Here’s his story. In Canada, Baker sells the Zeller’s chain for a huge premium of $1.8B to Target. This is akin to Target getting whacked in the head with a sandbag. More recently Baker gets an appraisal on Saks 5th Avenue for a whopping $3.7B, making it the most valuable retail building in the world. Just to give some context, it was reported to be worth between $1B and $2B when he bought it a couple years ago. [Read more…]

Michael Jeffries – A&F Genius Rides Into The Sunset

Earth in space with a flying asteroid, abstract backgroundMichael Jeffries is no Gary Cooper by any stretch of the imagination. When Cooper rode into the sunset, he was leaving behind whatever victory he won for the “good guys,” albeit Hollywood style. As Michael Jeffries heads into the sunset, he will be leaving behind a once victorious A&F brand that he brilliantly developed over the past quarter century that is now in tatters, In the movie High Noon, in which Cooper starred, he knew the three killers were coming after him seeking revenge. Alert and ready, he single-handedly (actually helped somewhat by his wife) blew them away in a gun fight.

Michael Jeffries in the real world, was blinded by meteoric success, in my opinion, and did not see his adversaries gunning for his consumers as his brand drifted off course.

Positioning Drift

That was Jeffries’ Achilles heel. He drifted older along with his original young customers. He kept his focus on his aging customers without looking over his shoulder at their younger siblings, most of whom wouldn’t be caught dead wearing their older brothers’ and sisters’ brand. This positioning drift blindsided Jeffries. In my opinion, even if he had foreseen the need to pivot to the next generation, Jeffries would not have been able to successfully reposition the brand.

Essentially, Michael Jeffries was A&F and A&F was Michael Jeffries. Both were one. Therefore, for him to reposition the brand, it would be as impossible as changing his own personality or DNA. And so far, he has not been able to do so.

A Shared DNA

Michael Jeffries was largely vilified for his exclusionary attitude regarding the hiring of overweight people or anyone not befitting the brand’s image of sexy, young and cool, as he defined it. He also often used derisive language when questioned about his position. Yet he created and sustained a premier position in the youth market for about 25 years. He captured the zeitgeist of youth in that period and all but owned the entire space. He did so by excelling in a superior implementation of what we all learned about branding in Marketing 101. He created the DNA of A&F precisely to fit the sexy, young and cool image of the products, store layout and design; the nightclub experience; the catalogue; and even by hiring sexy, young and cool associates. He created a holistic, super powerful brand all the way through the entire marketing process. He relentlessly focused on all of it with no divergence, almost maniacally so, to the point of making abusive public comments about the consumers he specifically did not want in his stores – namely anybody who was not sexy, young and cool. So regardless of his rather questionable style and unnecessary derision of anybody not fitting that image, he was a strict disciplinarian when it came to protecting the image of his brand. Therefore, he could arguably be called a brilliant marketer, and I have often given him credit for that.

During the meteoric rise of this iconic brand, its loyal consumers also became an extension of the brand’s persona, proudly exhibiting the highly visible A&F logo, plastered on all of their products. This indelible, neurological connection with its consumers allowed the brand to be sold at full price, never promoted nor discounted.

The hue and cry, as well as the pushback from consumers over his behavior, is not why A&F is in trouble today. The brand got caught up in positioning drift. As their young core consumers grew older, A&F drifted along with them. A&F failed to see and understand that the younger brothers and sisters (now the emerging Millennial cohort) had no interest in copying what their older siblings were doing and wearing. A&F did not react quickly enough to pivot the brand. Therefore, A&F’s original core of sexy, young and cool customers grew out of A&F into Brooks Brothers and other brands. Their young siblings bypassed A&F altogether, heading into the world of fast fashion.

The Beginning of the End

A&F’s space began to close down as three dynamics converged:

  • Competition kept advancing, including the other two ‘A’s’ (American Eagle and Aeropostale).
  • The onset of the Great Recession.
  • The early beginnings of the fashion trend shift among younger customers to the faster, newer and cheaper fashion churning brands like Zara, Forever 21, H&M, etc.

I don’t believe Jeffries connected these dots. He may have been aware of the growing competition in his original space, and he might have concluded that the combination of his direct competitors applying promotional pressure, along with the recession, was stealing customers who couldn’t afford A&F’s full prices. But I don’t think Jeffries recognized the fact that his original brand loyalists were growing out of the brand, and that A&F wasn’t attracting the younger brothers and sisters who were pouring into the fast fashion brands. Of course, further motivation for this trend shift among young consumers was the impact of the recession and the lure of cheaper fashion.

By the way, the same combination of positioning drift and the recession befell American Eagle and Aeropostale. This raises an interesting question. Will the hot fast fashion brands, beloved by the Millennials, get caught in positioning drift, and grow older with their core consumers, thus missing the desires of their younger siblings?

Regardless, Michael Jeffries is left holding the proverbial bag, apparently not totally understanding what hit him. And even if he did, it would be too late to the party. While his DNA is still intact, it is no longer synonymous with A&F, the now-struggling brand he brilliantly launched and once dominated its space.

As he rides into the sunset, will A&F’s brand DNA be able to reposition itself for a new post-Millennial consumer? Or is it too late?

The Bottom Is Near: Thanks to the Millennials

three girls chatting with their smartphones at the parkIt came in with a bang! And it will end with a whimper. I’m talking about the now over-used phrase “the race to the bottom” of price promoting and every method of discounting imaginable and unimaginable. It explosively ramped up around the turn of the century, accelerated through the recession, mainlined on steroids post-recession, and is now limping to its end. This is not a Ron Johnson-like prediction when he bet the bank during his brief and tragic tenure as CEO of JC Penney (and which I naively doubled-down on). I now believe he may have been ahead of his time believing that “fair and square” non-promotional pricing would be desired by consumers. Of course, the JC Penney customers not only didn’t love it, they hated it and walked out the door.

Well that was a different time and a different customer.

The Millennials are going to change it all. They are viewing the industry’s discount madness as an overwhelming, frustrating, and exhausting “paradox of choice” (too many deals and too confusing to even make a choice). They will not only become inured to the onslaught of ubiquitous deals 24/7, they will begin to disbelieve them and cynically expect that another better deal will pop up at any moment – which they will also not trust. How can they believe what the real value of any offering is at this point? [Read more…]

Sears’ Last Gasp: In the Asset Leasing and Loan Business

RR_Blog_AssetI thought I wrote the final word and all that was worth saying two weeks ago about the inevitable collapse of Sears in my article Sears: Nothing Left But its Past.  As I said then, there’s nothing left but its past. Well, “Abracadabra, fast buck, Eddie-the-magician Lampert” has once again given me reason to write another missive on his uncanny ability to squeeze even more cash out of the sinking “twin Titanics,” (for those out of the “know” – twin losers Kmart and Sears).

The cash-squeezing model Eddie is now employing is what I would call the “robbing from Peter to pay Paul (aka Eddie)” model. Essentially he is now in the asset leasing and loan business. First of all, as pointed out in my previous article, ESL Holdings loaned the retail business $400 million. However, with a premium interest rate that gets paid to you know who, the loan is secured by Sears’ most valuable real estate, which eliminates the risk for, you know who.

In 2006, Lampert devised another risk-free concept to squeeze more cash out of the business. He transferred ownership of Sears’ Kenmore, DieHard and Craftsman brands to an entity named KCD (acronym for the brands), which in turn charges Sears a royalty fee to license the brands, which are now being sold in other stores. And I would bet that somewhere in this clever deal, Eddie and his ESL Holdings are reaping some financial benefit. The model sounds like it resembles a real estate investment trust, (REIT), whereby stores’ real estate are sold to the REIT which then turns around and leases them back to the retail business (which Eddie is now considering). Hey, maybe fast buck Eddie pioneered a new instrument: brand investment trusts or BIT. [Read more…]

Memo from the Grinch: The Gas Price “Bonus” is an Empty Tank

RL_11-18-14_1Economists, experts, analysts, consultants, a lot of CEOs, casual observers and even my friend and CNBC regular Jan Kniffen believe lower gas prices are going to goose holiday retail sales. In what some call the “gas bonus,” this means that some $40 billion saved on fuel will end up being spent over the holidays in the nation’s retail stores. This is certainly a happy thought. On a CNBC panel the other day, Kniffen was almost giddy about it. And then when you add in a falling unemployment rate, followed by an increase in consumer confidence — at its highest level since 2007 — stock traders are already chilling the bubbly.

Once again, I find myself the naysayer. Let’s start with the gas theory. The Robin Report Chief Strategy Officer Judith Russell looked at the monthly change in gas prices and retail sales for the past eight years. And as indicated in the chart below, there is neither a significant bump up, nor down, in retail sales accompanying rising or falling gas prices. She even looked at regressions with different segments in retail, and found that there simply does not seem to be a correlation, period. In other words, the gas theory is an empty tank.

Having said that, Walmart had a slight increase in third quarter sales of .5%, for the first time since 2012, which they believe was partially due to lower gas prices. So, one may conclude that the entire discount sector will gain from the gas bonus, putting more cash in its lower-income consumers’ pockets. On the other hand, one might conclude, as I did, that Walmart is clawing back its customers whom they lost to the thousands of smaller neighborhood dollar stores during the recession when gas prices were high and low-income shoppers had a shorter ride to those local stores, thus saving fuel costs. In fact, Walmart said in its 3Q conference call that the Walmart Express strategy (smaller footprint convenient neighborhood stores) is beginning to facilitate their clawback of market share from the dollar stores.

Therefore, this hypothesis would suggest that rather than the gas bonus lifting total spending among low-income consumers across the entire discount sector, it’s simply shifting shares around within the sector.

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If consumers do take their fuel savings and decide to spend them, while the discount retail sector may minimally benefit, it’s more likely they will spend more on health care and entertainment, as well as home improvement. And since income growth is flat, they could just as well decide to save the gas “bonus.” In fact, the savings rate has been ticking up.

And there was certainly no additional gas bonus spending among the mid-to-higher income consumer segments. In fact, Macy’s CFO, Karen Hoguet told analysts a week ago, “shoppers are spending more of their disposable dollars on categories we don’t sell, like cars, health care, electronics and home improvement.”

Lastly, the low overall inflation rate, even disinflation in some major merchandise categories, is allowing consumers to get more value for their money, which doesn’t result in an increase in sales, because they’re not buying more stuff per se. Consumers and particularly the growing Millennial cohort are shifting toward a “less is more” mentality, eschewing buying more stuff to seeking more experiential satisfaction out of life, which is why restaurant sales and entertainment spending are strong. And now with a strong dollar, we might see people opt to travel more often. So these dynamics, much of which has to do with a demographic and cultural shift, will also divert any part of the gas bonus that might have made its way into mainstream retailing.

The final word: dream all you want about getting your hands on a piece of the $40 billion gas bonus, but when you wake up on January 1st with a hangover, it won’t be due to the bubbly that the stock traders are currently chilling. It will be due to the fact that the dream was really a nightmare about the passing gas bonus, pun intended).

Algorithms, “Malgorithms” You Go Figure

iStock_000017120352_DoubleI find myself in a quagmire of confusion about all these new tech concepts, phrases, words, and now the overwhelming stream of algorithms. This technology era we are living in is as mysterious as it is magical. For example, algorithms, the tools of geeky mathematicians for calculating outcomes and sometimes predicting success, are no longer confined to labs. Today if you’re running a lemonade stand along the side of the road, your mom or dad may be running algorithms to determine car and foot traffic, gender types most likely to buy, how many pitchers of the stuff you will need—and, oh, yes, whether you charge a dime or a dollar.

Seriously, as pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article, Big Data’s High Priests of Algorithms, “the good news about data science and data scientists with PhD’s in astrophysics, bio-statistics, partical physics, computer science and several other disciplines—is that they can make six-figure salaries from the get-go working for new startups like Airbnb, Square, Etsy and so on.”

In my opinion, the bad news is that we are taking many of these mathematicians and scientists away from professions where they might actually change the world for the better, and instead luring them into professions where they help shoppers find a better hotel room, a better mate, or a trendy pair of pants.

This is just one more example of our obsessive, consumption-addicted, ostentatious culture. Yes, many of our current traditional business models and even whole industries will be disrupted and transformed through the use of new technologies—perhaps for the better. However, so many of our new tech-based businesses are aimed at providing the purchase and pleasure of the moment.

If we devalue shared life-giving or challenging issues, such as the environment, and increase the value of making another buck by upselling another glass of lemonade, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

Human beings. We’re a strange species.