Disruption Dysfunction

iStock_000034006880LargeThe Harvard Business School may have a different answer, but here’s my definition of a Disrupter:

The guy who comes into your market and screws up your business by doing something different.

While Disruption, Disrupters and the entire Disrupt Movement have gone to the front pages of the business section the past 18 months, when you think about it, they have been constants in retailing since…well, since the first general store replaced the peddler’s cart. After all, didn’t the first generation of department stores – John Wanamaker and others – disrupt the retail world of specialty stores? Half a century later, the first discount stores of New England disrupted the department store channel, forever changing their business models. Big box category killers, superstore national chains, even Apple stores: they all disrupted what had been going on before they showed up on the scene.

Which of course brings us to today and the disrupter du jour: the Internet, of course. Perhaps it truly is the mother of all disrupters, changing the rules the way none of its predecessors ever did. Certainly, it seems that way to those of us who have no life and are consumed with the ever-changing nature of the retailing business.

But there’s disruption and then there’s disruption, and nobody can quite come to a clear agreement on which is which.

Dyson DC33 Multi Floor Upright Vacuum CleanerA Chinese Fortune, Cookie

Take the recent coverage of Alibaba – the huge Chinese online business that seems to be a combination of Amazon, Google and a Monopoly game – when it announced it was going public. Two New York Times stories couldn’t quite decide if Alibaba and its czar Jack Ma were disrupters or not. Consider this description from one of the two stories that ran on the same page on the day of the big deal:

“He (Ma) has also proved to be a serial disrupter – an outsider with a knack for creating new markets by reimaging old industries like retailing and finance.”

Contrast that with this next story: “Alibaba’s IPO filing breaks with that well-worn theme. Instead of     promising to disrupt an existing market, the Chinese e-commerce giant wants do something more straightforward, but potentially far more lucrative.”

So, disrupter or not? If the Times can’t figure it out, what chance do us mere mortals have?

Disrupters Clean House

Maybe you read Luke Williams’ 2011 book, Disrupt, which no doubt helped create the entire disruption disruption. Williams provides a classic home products example of what disruption is all about: the Swiffer mop. The basic premise with a mop is that it uses water to clean. But sometimes too much water retards the cleaning process. So what happens if you come up with something that cleans but doesn’t use water at all?

Presto, the Swiffer.

Presto, disruption.

The home furnishings business – never a hotbed for cutting-edge anything – has nonetheless had its share of disrupters…barely. Consider the Dyson vacuum cleaner. When it came out in the American market a decade ago, the average selling price of a better vac was about a hundred bucks, maybe $125. Hoover was the best-selling brand and the headlight was probably the biggest advancement in technology of the previous 20 years. James Dyson came along with a machine with advanced (though not totally original) technology, a huge advertising budget and a $400 price tag. Eighteen months later the Dyson was the number one selling machine in the business by dollars and another year or two later, it was number one in units too.

The other vacuum suppliers were not only disrupted, they were sucked dry.

A more recent poster child following the same path is the Nest thermostat. Talk about a product that virtually nobody was paying any attention to! Enter some guys who used to work for Apple with the classic Steve Jobs approach: design a gorgeous product that addresses an underserved category and, oh by the way, charge a lot of money for it. How much did Nest disrupt the home thermostat business? About three billion ways, which is how many dollars Google paid for the company this past January.

Does Domino Know?

Home disruption is also occurring on the retail side. Take a look at Domino magazine. Once the darling of the Gen X set for its irreverent takes on decorating, the publication was a Great Recession victim when owner Conde Nast shut it down in 2009 after just three years. An online version was maintained and there were some one-shots of repackaged content but it wasn’t the same. Late last year Domino Redux debuted, once again under the leadership of its original publisher Beth Brenner, now reinventing herself as chief revenue officer. As an online-only product that planned a print companion down the road, it set out to chase the holy grail of media convergence: read about products and decorating items and then buy those very same things right through the magazine. The old Domino sent you to someone to buy what it featured on its pages. Domino the sequel is cutting out the middleman.

Is it working? It’s too early to tell. But in a world where the line between journalism and commerce is increasingly not just fuzzy but often erased, Domino is certainly out to disrupt the way things have been done in both fields.

Then there’s Crane & Canopy. Started by husband and wife Harvard Business School classmates, this disrupter is trying to turn the business of buying bedding upside down. Right now most of the things you buy to put on your bed – sheets, pillowcases, comforters, duvets, what-have-you, are made by Asian suppliers, most often in China. American importers bring the product in and sell it to retailers. It’s the way it works, whether it’s Bloomingdale’s or Family Dollar…or Amazon.

Crane & Canopy is trying something different. Working directly with Chinese factories, it is designing its own products and then selling them directly to consumers online. Its products are not sold in any stores and are only available on the company’s own site. And by streamlining the sourcing model, it controls the process virtually from start to finish while shaving some costs out of the process. Again, this is another disruption in process. Whether Crane & Canopy can do the volume necessary to sustain its model is the 64-Yuan question.

As with any good disruption, the reaction of those being disrupted is mixed. In the case of Dyson, Hoover, Eureka and all the rest of the established vacuum cleaner market, it is still struggling to catch up. They were clearly caught with their dust busters down and Dyson continues to set the pace.

Nest has certainly shaken up its temperature-controlled market segment, as evidenced by a new Honeywell thermostat now coming to market that is voice activated. But you have to doubt that Google’s checkbook is out for that item.

And neither the new Domino nor Crane & Canopy have anywhere near the scale to make House Beautiful or Bed Bath & Beyond feel threatened. At least, not yet. But I guess that’s the way disruption works. You don’t realize until it’s too late that someone has come in and screwed up your business.

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director for several Progressive Business Media publications in the home furnishings field and could currently stand a little less disruption in his life, thank-you.

Lessons from Offshore

paco1Lesson #1 – Returning Turtles

“Organized retail” is the term we use to describe modern trade in the emerging market. It is an explosion that has quietly been transforming access to goods across the planet. In most emerging markets, the first intrusion of organized retail is the modern grocery store or hypermarket; however, it has stretched beyond big boxes, to specialty retail, foodservice and how malls are built.

paco2Local merchants that have ventured to the United States and Europe are behind much of that transformation. They have left home to get educated, observe and process, and then return to to reinvent. One early example is Thailand-based Lotus, an agribusiness broker that saw organized retail as a way of vertically integrating in the early 1990s. During the first Asian money crisis of 1997, Lotus sold its first attempt at retail, a grocery chain in Thailand, to Tesco and then made the decision to bet on China. In 2014, Lotus not only operates nearly 60 retail superstores in China (which sell the food products they produce), but also owns many of the shopping malls (such as Super Brand Mall in Shanghai, pictured) where their stores are lead tenants. [Read more...]

Will it Be Made in America?

FINAL image_Anastasia‘Made in America’ is quite the hot topic right now, grabbing up headlines left and right; from the backlash about Ralph Lauren’s 2012 Olympic uniforms (the company quickly learned its lesson—the 2014 ones were made in the US) to retail beast Walmart’s declaration to increase its purchase of American-made goods by $50 billion during the next 10 years. It’s a hopeful story—fostering patriotism while supporting the return of jobs to US soil.

There are those who say that domestic manufacturing is simply not feasible at certain price points, while others have found a significant shortage of skilled workers as a blocking point. Despite these obstacles, will apparel manufacturing sprout again in the US?

Our take is yes.

Companies are manufacturing clothing in the US today and have been for a long time. Take Martin Greenfield Clothiers, for example. The menswear company offers fine, hand-crafted tailored clothing including made-to-measure suits and tuxedos, made 100 percent by hand in its Brooklyn, New York factory. The company’s customers aren’t too shabby either—Presidents, Ambassadors, major motion pictures, the list goes on.

You may be saying, well of course a company that produces such high-end garments can charge a premium and not worry about paying extra for production. And we agree. But many companies are finding success producing in the US at all different price points. In fact, according to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group on the shift in global manufacturing, China’s manufacturing cost advantage over the US has shrunk to less than five percent, while Mexico currently has lower manufacturing costs than China. This shift highlights how American companies can now consider their home turf as a viable manufacturing option, keeping production closer to the end consumer.

Brand names like Ralph Lauren, Club Monaco, Frye and Brooks Brothers are now producing a percentage of their pieces on home turf as well. Designers like Nanette Lepore are outspoken on the topic; she organizes Save the Garment Center rallies and is vocal with lawmakers in Washington to support the American fashion industry.

America’s Research Group found that approximately 75 percent of consumers would pay more for American-made goods, up from 50 percent in 2010. Thus, people are seeing this as a business opportunity, evident by the rise of startups dedicated to US manufacturing. Look at American Giant, a direct-to-consumer apparel company that makes high-quality, affordable basics, including hoodies, t-shirts and sweatpants. After a December 2012 Slate article declared the company’s best-selling sweatshirt as the “greatest hoodie ever made,” there was a months-long waiting list. American Giant pledges to never outsource jobs overseas.

An important element to consider is the fact that this ‘repatriation’ movement isn’t unique to the US. There is also a push for ‘Made in Britain.’ British companies were dealing with the same challenges—wage increases in China, higher transportation costs, hard to control supply chains; there was also a wave of patriotism following the Olympics and the Jubilee. Many companies have been able to spark an onshoring resurgence, with Mulberry, Marks & Spencer, Topshop, Christopher Nieper and John Smedley being just a few examples.

The moral of the story is: if other higher wage countries are successfully moving toward domestic production, there’s no reason the US can’t follow suit.

We may end up eating crow because of our stance on this topic as only time will tell.

 

Reading Consumer Behavior in a Tentative Time

Sarah_ Spendin_Rd1The global economy has entered a period of transition. After the high hopes so many had pinned on the rise of the BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India and China — and other emerging economies, their seemingly inexorable ascent has proved all too exorable, with global demand for raw materials slackening and internal economic indicators demonstrating a cooling in overall economic growth.

But there are other factors making for the creation of a climate of transition — and, to a certain degree, of uncertainty. The existence of both exogenous and endogenous forces, not least of which are the seeming return of great power geopolitics in Eurasia and the South China Sea, the discovery and exploitation of new energy sources within the U.S. — thus creating a new source of instability in the Mideast — and the continuing struggle to make an integrated Eurozone a reality — all contribute to the atmosphere of watchful waiting. [Read more...]

Made Up in the USA

Made In The USAWhen Walmart announced last year it was going to launch a major push on domestically-made products—helping to fund some of the suppliers, in fact – it set off a jingoistic feeding frenzy.

All of a sudden everybody and his shopping brother was envisioning a plethora of product produced right here in the good old U.S. of A. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon, of course, visions of full employment and happy voters in their heads.

It was a wonderful story. And it would have been even more wonderful if it were actually true.

Because any discussion of wide-scale manufacturing returning to the United States needs to be put into context…and reality First off, this isn’t Walmart’s first manufacturing renaissance rodeo. Way back in the days of Mr. Sam, Made in the USA banners hung proudly in virtually every store the company owned. Many went so far as to single out exactly where the products were made, highlighting those in the immediate proximity of individual stores. [Read more...]

Re-Urbanizing America

Suburban Sprawl Gives Way to the Not-So-Mean Streets of the Big City

The Great American Dream isn’t dead, but it’s certainly on life support.

Shopping street Barfüßerstrasse of Marburg, Germany.After decades of unprecedented growth, suburbia has been surpassed by the inner city. It is — if you’ll excuse an old saying from my quasi-hippie days — where the action is! And that action is attracting an incredibly broad demographic — everyone from young professionals and singles to baby boomers who don’t want to end up living in God’s waiting room.

We have already seen the beginning of an inner city building boom by retailers who want a piece of the action and are willing to embrace the idea that bigger is not necessarily better or practical. Those who are late to the party or ignore this new urbanization should have no trouble finding new careers in the healthcare or dogwalking industries.

But to understand where we’re going we have to look at where we’ve been.

“White Flight”

Most historians concede that suburban life really took off in the late 1940s and early 1950s with GIs returning after World War II. This was the beginning of the so-called “white flight” to bucolic suburban settings where the kiddies were safe, stay-at-home moms traded recipes and child rearing advice across white picket fences and all was right with the world — far from the mean streets of New York, Chicago, St. Louis and L.A.

Those left behind, however, witnessed urban decay, a descent into the heart of darkness where once-vibrant neighborhoods became ghost towns after dark, street crime proliferated, empty stores were boarded up canvases for graffiti and the scent of dinner from apartment windows was replaced by the stench of urine, garbage and despair.

I didn’t read all this in some urban history book. I lived it in New York throughout the 1970s when muggers could elude police by ducking around piles of uncollected garbage. But the pendulum, I’m happy to say, has swung in the other direction.

In places like New York, Atlanta, L.A. and points in between, we are seeing the reanimation of city life and a retail renaissance that has drawn the attention of everyone from Costco and Home Depot to Walmart and a new generation of small but competitive neighborhood stores.

The New Normal

A temporary phenomenon? I think not. I believe the financial crisis of 2008 was a major turning point — a time when the dream of home ownership became a nightmare of foreclosures or at least unattainable for younger people. If you want to add another label to your already overburdened lexicon, forget about Millennials, Gen X, or Gen Y, What we’re seeing is “Generation Rent.”

This isn’t the end of suburban sprawl. Many people still yearn for the pastoral life and the retail industry is happy to oblige. But remember the old saying that retail follows the rooftops. Increasingly, those rooftops are urban high-rises and the impact on people and business will be tremendous.

But reurbanization, gentrification or whatever you call it has its dark side. It often displaces people who have lived in some neighborhoods for generations. For instance, take the Chinatowns or other ethnic enclaves that have been fixtures in cities like New York, San Francisco and London. Young professionals and Millennials are paying rents that have forced out long time residents. Such is the price of urban renewal or, as the novelist and playwright James Baldwin called it, “Negro removal.”

On another front, legal and illegal immigrant populations — now 40 million strong across the country — are growing rapidly and moving from their traditional central-city locations to the inner suburbs or ”exurbs” in order to find affordable housing. They are creating cities within cities.

Chinese Checkers

Of course, if you want an extreme example of reurbanization gone wild just look at China. For decades, millions of people were practically ordered off the farms and into the cities to bolster the country’s insatiable demand for industrial workers. People happily obliged in order to get lucrative factory jobs that would lift them from abject poverty. Now the government is encouraging people to leave the cities for rural areas to alleviate overcrowding and re-populate the interior. It’s like Chinese checkers but with real Chinese.

Reurbanization is an economic issue here as well. Gas and commutation prices and real estate taxes are so high in some areas that you can literally save thousands of dollars annually by moving to the inner city. Besides people like the “walkability” factor and are tired of the sedentary lifestyle that requires one to own a car or two. .Additionally, the number of married Americans continues to dwindle or people are getting married later and having smaller families.

In fact, due to the above factors and lingering economic uncertainly that some call “the new normal,” the US Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) forecast that by 2025, only 10% of new households will have children. Put another way, only 2.6 million of the 27 million new households to be formed will have children.

Other sources have gone even further, stating that by 2025, families with children will account for only 25% of all US households. Basically, the days of cheap money, cheap mortgages, cheap gas and long-term economic stability are over. As Yale economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller has noted: “the heyday of the exurbs may well be behind us.”

Foundations for Growth

I’m not sure I agree and the reasons may be of interest to retailers formulating expansion plans over the next few years. It’s the far fringe suburbs that are in jeopardy for the reasons previously stated. The exurbs, in my definition are the inner-ring suburbs — places outside of city centers but accessible by public transportation or even bike paths. I believe these areas will be the foundations that support economic growth in cities across America.

Herein lies the conundrum for retailers who have erected those monuments to consumerism called malls and supercenters. They aren’t obsolete. But how many more of these pleasure palaces can you build before reaching the saturation point or the point of no return on investment?

The entire concept of retailing needs a refresh to compete in space-starved urban environments.

Some say retailing is retailing no matter where you are. For years, the mantra was “bigger is better” But urban living means give and take — giving up space and taking less home. Trust me. In New York closet space is scarcer than a parking space.

From the retail perspective, building in a city like New York means dealing with uncompromising union rules, convoluted fire and electrical codes and erratic deliveries. Getting timely deliveries is like planning the Normandy invasion. Only Allied forces never had to deal with parking violations.

Nonetheless, retailers like Target, Walmart, Costco and others have seen the future and are focusing more closely on smaller urban formats.

Urbanization is not a fad or a simple trend. It is an inevitable, unstoppable force. Retail will follow the rooftops in the cities as they have done in the suburbs, creating new jobs and becoming one of the foundations of urban economic growth. This in turn will hopefully contribute to a stronger infrastructure and, in turn, a better quality of life for everyone.

Kind of makes you wonder. America’s Heartland may not be where you think it is.

Reaching the Chinese Consumer

China continues to top the AT Kearney Retail Apparel Index, which shows the top 10 emerging countries viable for the retail sector. Strong growths in population and in income make it an increasingly attractive market for western brands looking to expand. Yet reaching the Chinese consumer poses unique challenges.

According to Euromonitor International, Chinese clothing expenditures are projected to nearly double within the next 10 years, from 1.2 trillion in 2012 to 2.2 trillion in 2020. Even in 2011, a year of slower than predicted growth, Chinese real GDP still amounted to 51.1 trillion RMB.

And while the Chinese population is expected to grow 2% by 2020, income growth will continue to outpace population growth — which means more consumers with more buying power. Per capita disposable income is expected to grow 75% between 2012 and 2020, according to projections made by Euromonitor International.

As the population continues to grow, though, it is also shifting towards more urban areas. This stands to benefit western retailers first expanding into larger cities, since urban consumers tend to spend more on discretionary purchases like apparel and textiles. [Read more...]

China Seeks Low-Cost Production

china_factory_main.top copyIn the United States

Beware of what you wish for. For all of the “pollyannas” who have been rooting for manufacturing jobs returning to the good old USA from low-cost countries such as China, they may just be getting their wish; but not in the way they intended.  It will end badly.

In a perverse kind of irony, it appears that the United States may be evolving into a low-cost country, wooing China-based manufacturers to set up shop here — at least in the textile and yarn industries — which the US lost to Asia and the Far East in the 70s and 80s.

In fact, several Chinese yarn and textile manufacturing businesses have already moved to the United States, primarily in the southern states where the manufacturing skills still reside and where most of those textile jobs were lost to lower-cost countries. The region also has state and local governments eager to boost their economies and decrease unemployment, and willing to provide significant tax breaks, bonds to defray project costs, grants, and job-development credits. [Read more...]

Developing Markets Aren’t Just About Opportunity

iStock_000015589936MediumWhile Stephen Elop was describing the culture of a Finnish telecom company he could easily have been referring to many western retail organizations today, specifically the pervasive attitudes around what is valued and how we address the changing competitive landscape.

To put Nokia’s turning point into context, consider Nigeria — Africa’s most important mobile device market.

At one time Nokia had a 70% market share in Nigeria, but by the time I arrived to conduct research for them, it was spiraling downwards hastened by the relentless onslaught of Chinese manufacturers who were shaking up not only the technology, but the entire approach to the channel. [Read more...]

Darkness at Dawn

iStock_000012485261SmallThe closer you get to the Equator, the more dawn and dusk become switches rather than transitions. It’s dark, it’s light.

I’ve learned as a global traveler to keep the curtains open at night, my goal to be in bed shortly after sundown and up at first light. Recently, I had a corner room at a hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The view of Paulista and the rest of São Paulo turned on a little before six; the cell phone towers, the park below and the high-rise buildings looked like uneven stubble on the contours of a Brazilian chin.

I was picked up at 7:00 AM by my colleague, the CEO of a publicly traded shopping mall company, in his Land Rover and we headed across town to the private airport to catch our turbo-propped Sky Master. We were headed for Brasilia. The traffic was heavy, and as we inched our way around a traffic circle, I lowered the window on the passenger’s side to stick my hand out and help get us to the outside lane. The driver gasped and I realized the window was almost two inches thick. Bulletproof. I struggled to get the window back up. The stupid Yankee had comprised the moving security perimeter. It took two security guards at the airport to tease the window back to its original position. [Read more...]

Going Hybrid: The Next Stage for Fashion Retailers

hybridToday’s fashion companies operate in a highly competitive environment, driven by increasingly fickle, price-conscious consumers, rising costs and clothing trends that change at light speed. With increased drops, the proliferation of SKUs and an incessant demand for newness, the big three—retailers, brands and manufacturers—are battling it out for market and wallet share.

We know we’re preaching to the choir. You know better than anyone that there is a need to control business activities as much as you can—control over everything from product concept to consumer purchase. What’s emerging is the hybrid business model, where the big three are integrating across the supply chain in an effort to protect margins.

Why is this so important for retailers? If you haven’t thought about going hybrid, chances are that your competition has. Wall Street demands growth and with increased competition, international expansion and the rise of omni-channel retailing, retailers are seeking new ways to maintain that growth and stand out from the crowd. [Read more...]

Caracas Lost Dreams

The Robin ReportI noted more than a few binoculars focused this morning on the military airfield outside my Caracas hotel. It’s likely they were searching the ground for evidence of the military coup I heard whispers about last night in the hotel bar; but who knows in Caracas. Even the journalist interviewing me this morning made reference to the challenges of living in a Communist country; Venezuela is in midst of crisis. The recently botched election recalls the passionate controversy of George Bush’s results in Florida in 2004, except it’s unimaginably worse.

In 2013, I can’t think of a well-grounded leftist intellectual that can defend actualization of the Karl Marx syndrome we witnessed in the 20th Century. Russia, the former Soviet Republics, and Eastern Europe have all moved on. By most gauges, shedding this ideology has brought improvement and positive change. Poland grew faster last year than any other nation in Europe, which in the midst of our recession may not be saying much, but still says a lot. Of the three Asian remnants of Communist ideology, China and Vietnam have cherry-picked through Das Kapital and added doses of Confucian and Keynesian economics to craft some semblance of prosperity. North Korea has abandoned all logical thought; the only question is how much of the rest of the world they intend to take with them when they go.

Yet dear reader, this is a newsletter about retail, so here is our thread. In my trip to the supermarket in Caracas this afternoon, there was no coffee of any variety on the shelf, and the reek of rotting meat was stomach turning. People wait in long disorganized lines for basic food supplies. We are witness to the tragedy of governmental pricing control for food; Venezuela has gone from an exporter of food to an importer over the course of its Chavezian transformation. Today, much of its basic food needs are imported from the United States.

My economist colleagues predict that global food prices will increase country by country by 10% to 20% over the next year. While the precise number is anyone’s guess, it’s a fact that food costs are increasing by at least twice the rate that global wages increase. How are we going to continue to feed ourselves?

The answer, in part, rests in the world of retail where for almost 30 years we have watched a concerted effort to engineer both value and fair profits from the supply chain. From growing, to trucking, to minimizing waste and mechanizing the modern warehouse, the degree to which the increased costs of basic food commodities have been passed on to the consumer have been limited for us living in First World nations. Thank Walmart, Tesco and Auchan; but also thank the farmers markets, the slow food movement, and the advent of local community-supported agriculture (CSA) organizations.

At both ends of the First World retail spectrum, we are watching innovation and reinvention driven by competition and local entrepreneurship. At best, we ask government to get out of the way. We’d rather have the local farmers market manager certify a farmer’s products than the FDA, although we need to embrace both in the flawed, but preferable, world of Capitalism.

Journalists keep asking me –- whether it’s here or in Shanghai —how are we going to feed ourselves in the next five years, both from the standpoint of cost and safety? My answer is always the same: Price controls are not the answer, but organized retail can, and will, do its part. The process takes time, but it does work. The places that will feel the most pain over the five years are those where global organized retail is not playing a transformational role in a local economy. India is a prime example. Open markets provide incentive and examples for local merchant organizations to do it often better and faster. They provide farmers with stable prices, drastically cut down on spoilage, and most importantly, help get their offerings on dinner tables everywhere while making a profit.

When I arrived at Simón Bolívar International, I was expecting a sturdy intelligence officer with a serious face to meet me at passport control. I did not expect the smiling young woman with braces that giggled when I presented my thick, well-worn passport. She greeted me warmly after a long flight, stamped my passport and let me pass, welcoming me to her country. She deserves better.