Luxury Retail: Turning Affluent Austerity into Retail Prosperity

I got a call earlier this month from a freelance reporter who follows my beat – research on the affluent consumers and the luxury market. As she walked through the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle on her way to the subway at midday, she found the halls and high-end boutiques unexpectedly empty. The only store seeming to do any business was Whole Foods. She wanted to know, “What’s up?”

I shared a similar experience visiting the Tysons Galleria, in McLean, Virginia, located in one of the nation’s highest-income counties. Walking through the mall on a weeknight, there was a remarkable lack of customers. The most active shop in the whole place that evening was the Starbucks café.

Or just visit New York’s Madison Avenue or Fifth Avenue. While there is plenty of foot traffic, peek inside the upscale boutiques and you’ll generally find more sales clerks than paying customers. And while Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman still draw the crowds, evidence is that many of the guests are lookers or searching out bargains on the marked-down racks. The buyers are largely rich foreigners, not those affluent natives who, back in the prerecession luxury glory days of 2005 and 2006, used to fill the place. Where are the prosperous, luxury-inclined American customers? MIA – missing in action!

U A new mood of austerity is taking hold among American affluents

Every three months our company, Unity Marketing, conducts a survey among shoppers at the top end of the income spectrum to track their spending and shopping behavior on high-end/luxury goods and services. We measure their financial perspective and attitudes toward their future prospects. By taking affluent consumers’ pulse on five key measures of consumer confidence, we calculate the LCI (Luxury Consumption Index) which is a forward-looking indicator or predictor of affluents’ willingness to indulge in purchases of high-end goods and services. In our latest survey, entitled “How Affluents Shop,” conducted in early April, the LCI dropped sharply back to a level not seen since the depths of the recession in late 2008 and early 2009. Our tracking data shows that in 2010 and 2011 affluents went through a recovery period where so-called pent-up demand boosted affluent spending on luxury. But since 2012 or so, spending has been slowing as affluent consumers’ confidence has taken a downward turn.

The best way to describe the new attitude that the affluents revealed in the most recent survey is a “mood of austerity.” I don’t read a doom-and-gloom scenario yet, but the affluents tell us they see their financial status neither rising nor falling in the immediate future. As a result, they are in a holding pattern with 61% of the more than 1,400 affluent consumers surveyed saying they expect their level of spending on luxury goods and services to remain the same over the next 12 months and 22% expect their spending to drop, leaving a scant 16% willing to indulge more in high-end purchases.

U In retail, optimism can lead to complacency, while wary pessimism brings action

Retailers by nature are an optimistic bunch, but reading the current tea leaves in a characteristically optimistic way would be a mistake, especially given the recent news about retail sales from the Commerce Department. There simply isn’t much cause for optimism or describing the current state of luxury retail as a glass half-full. Blind-eyed optimism means luxury retailers could waste precious time, like they did back in 2007 and 2008, before taking proactive measures to create demand and grow sales. On the other hand, there are no downsides to assuming a glass half-empty approach with its call to action to focus on marketing, sales and service to build engagement with the reluctant, but still well-moneyed, affluent. The fact is, while the middle-class, middle-income consumer segment remains hard hit by the losses to income and wealth brought about during the recession, the affluent have largely regained spending power, but they certainly haven’t forgotten what happened and haven’t returned to their free-spending ways.

What the anecdotal evidence from recent “walk-abouts” in luxury retail show is that too many retailers are complacent and going about business as usual because of a belief that things will only get better with a little more time, or improved weather, or the next new product launch, or the next season’s styles. But with 20-plus years in consumer research, including more than 10 years focused on the affluents, it’s safe to say there has been a fundamental shift in the values that underlie the affluents’ consumer confidence. They bring a new set of values to measure the cost-benefits of making a luxury, high-end purchase, with the result, all too often, that the purchase comes up short.

U Create compelling experiences that entice the affluents to indulge and spend

There are some ideas that upscale retailers can consider to help turn the growing tide of affluent austerity into business prosperity through these challenging times.

Don’t force your customers to be window shoppers on the Internet. Some of the most compelling evidence for the need to have a robust website with full-tilt ecommerce capability comes from the recent “How Affluents Shop” survey. On average, one-third of affluents made their most recent luxury purchases online across 12 different types of shopping experiences. So, for example, 38% of affluents made their last purchase with a luxury-department store (e.g. Saks, Nordstrom, Neiman, Bloomingdale’s) online and 36% interacted most recently with a clothing and/or fashion boutique online. But the single highest incidence where online was used for the most recent purchase (45%) was found among luxury-branded boutiques, such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Gucci and others. That means brands like Chanel or Dior that offer nothing, or only a narrow range, online is missing out on an important avenue to reach potential customers. Forcing their customers into the store to buy isn’t going to cut it anymore. They need to join new online entrants like Prada and Piaget who finally entered the 21st century with their websites.

• Create shopping experiences to entice customers away from their computers and back into the store.

Across the board, affluents shop to meet a specific need, which the Internet satisfies to perfection, as 56% of affluent shoppers agreed with the statement, “Whenever I can, I shop online.” That means affluents visit the physical store for other reasons, such as recreation or inspiration to find out what is new and trendy. The retail store must become a destination for fun and discovery. It needs to be a place where people want to spend time – and the more time the better, since all shopper research shows that there is a direct correlation between the amount of money spent shopping with the time invested in the store. So the store must become theatre and entertainment, not overly designed tombs with snooty or indifferent sales clerks. While we can look to sponsored store events as a means to create an experience, like the now-defunct Fashion Night Out which was all spectacle, but little substance delivered to the participating retailers, luxury retailers need to think of their space as a stage and create experiences day-in, day-out for their customers. That means training staff to participate with the customers in the fun and joy of shopping. It means thinking of the retail staff’s role as hosts at a wonderful, exciting party just for the customer. The excitement can be contagious and make the in-store experience an adventure. Today’s retailers can still take a lesson from great retailers from the past, like Harry Selfridge, brought to life in the PBS Masterpiece series. Watch Mr. Selfridge to be reminded of how masterful retail performance transcends time.

• Encourage high levels of customer involvement and interaction.

As retailers we want – we need – the customer to engage all their senses in the store. We want to encourage shoppers to touch, taste, smell, feel, try on and participate with the store staff and merchandise. Curiosity is a powerful way to create such engagement. That’s one of the secrets behind eyewear brand Warby Parker’s quantum leap from online etailer to a touch-and-feel customer experience. As a brand named for characters from author Jack Kerouac who “inspired a generation to take a road less traveled and to see the world through a different lens,” Warby Parker turned an old yellow school bus into a traveling showroom that they parked in prominent locations where people couldn’t help but notice. The Class Trip, as the program was called, traveled the country taking the Warby Parker brand experience to the customers. The trip was originally planned for six months, but success drove them to extend the trip for a year. While the trip has now concluded, the Warby Parker blog invites guests to engage with the brand “to see, to read, to buy, to meet, to do.” blog.warbyparker.com

• Create an environment that is accessible, nonexclusive and free from pretentions.

Too many luxury brands put up walls that keep qualified shoppers out. And thanks to a provocatively titled, but otherwise superficial study coming out this fall in the Journal of Consumer Research from professors Darren Dahl and Morgan Ward entitled, “Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increasing Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for a Brand,” luxury brands are likely to continue to think that inaccessibility, exclusivity and being pretentious are effective retailing strategies. The keyword here is “aspiring” and the affluents willing and able to drop serious money in a luxury boutique generally aren’t described as aspirational. Aspiration is not part of their DNA; rather they are looking for inspiration to spend. The truly affluent are confident people who don’t need conspicuous consumption or status symbols to proclaim their wealth. They are used to five-star service and expect absolute professionalism from service personnel no matter whether they are dressed to the nines or come shopping in sweat pants and sneakers. This is a lesson that the new president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Marigay McKee, stressed in a recent master class she hosted at the Manhattan campus of Glasgow Caledonian University. In her quintessentially British fashion, she stressed the need for those in the “Business of Luxury” to show hospitality. She said, “Let’s try to welcome people. Meet and Greet. First impressions really count.”

In closing, good retailing is good retailing no matter what the merchandise costs. It is just at the luxury, high-end level, it takes a bit more work today to inspire the well-heeled to indulge when so many really good products and attractive styles are widely available at much more affordable price points. Luxury brands don’t have a monopoly on good quality anymore. In the current political climate where the top 1% is demonized and the evils of income inequality are part of many politicians’ stump speeches, luxury retailers need to be at the top of their game. There is no room today for complacency or business as usual. Luxury retailers must pull out all the stops to turn the new mood of affluent austerity into business prosperity.

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.

Apple Addicts Still Mainline Steve Jobs

X Japan Wax Figure UnveilingExcerpted from the New, New Rules of Retail
By Robin Lewis and Michael Dart

On January 9, 2007, on a big stage at the Macworld convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone. With the already unprecedented cult following of Apple—and for that matter, of Jobs himself—this would be the first of many launches that would further fuel one of the most powerful brand-consumer connections ever.

This unveiling, of course, was merely the warm-up. Steve Jobs’ grandly staged presentation would trigger an intense anticipation among Apple “addicts” that would be satisfied only by the actual sales release of the iPhone itself.

This would happen at 6:00 PM local time on June 29, 2007, as the doors opened at Apple Stores nationwide to welcome hundreds of cult followers anticipating their fix, so to speak. Some media sources at the time were dubbing the iPhone the “Jesus phone.” In fact, in New York City the line started forming twelve hours before Apple’s flagship store opened and ended up winding around two city blocks, or roughly a quarter mile, with more than a thousand avid cultists in it. Some had even camped out overnight. Obviously the Apple addicts had learned that if they wanted the new phone, they had better be present when that door opened, or be forced to wait for weeks.

Apple’s connection with its consumers has gone way beyond the simply emotional. It has succeeded by actually connecting with their minds. In our updated second edition of The New Rules of Retail, released on August 12, 2014, we called this neurological connectivity. [Read more...]

Is Athletic Wear Poised to Usurp Denim?

CottonGirlsIn the US, the NPD Group reported US shoppers spent about $17 billion on denim in 2013, and the global jeans market is projected to reach $56 billion by 2018, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts, Inc. But some in the industry see athletic apparel as the one to beat. While denim remained almost flat, declining just 1% for the 12 months ending December 2013, activewear soared 9%. And the total apparel market was only up 2% over the same period. What’s happening here?

While some point to athletic apparel’s ubiquity – 92% of consumers wear it for activities other than exercise, up significantly from 87% in 2009, according to the Cotton Incorporated 2014 Sports Apparel Survey – a more complicated answer might lie in the fact that for denim shoppers, what’s being sold at retail isn’t living up to their standards.

“I think part of what’s challenging to denim brands right now is the ‘premiumization’ of yoga pants and the luxury ath-leisure sector essentially following denim’s own model for success,” says Shanna McKinnon, editor of DenimHunt.com. “But can yoga pants, even nice ones, really be as versatile as denim? I’m not so sure.”

For consumers, durability remains a key component of new clothing purchases. Yet data from the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey has established many consumers are not happy with the denim they are getting at retail.

Indeed, the majority of consumers say they have experienced fading (67%) and wrinkling (51%) in their jeans, followed by wear & tear issues (50%), shrinking (49%), and lack of stretch recovery (49%), according to Monitor data. [Read more...]

The Hidden Message in How Americans Spend

Consumer spending increased by 3.7% in June, the highest 12-month smoothed monthly increase in almost two years, according to data released last week by the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

This year, Americans will spend $12 trillion on stuff, slightly more than the $11.7 trillion they spent on stuff last year.

These gross numbers are pretty meaningless and hard to wrap one’s mind around, but if we look behind the big numbers at what we’re spending our money on, and how some of those expenditures are growing, it’s not only pretty interesting, but can also tell us about how optimistic we’re feeling, about our consumer preferences as a society, and where we might be headed.

When the government tracks consumer spending, it creates two major categories: goods, which are separated into durables like cars and washing machines, and nondurables like clothes and food; and services, such as private school tuition, cab fare, eating in restaurants, and going to the doctor.

What I’d like to do here, though, is to categorize them a little differently.

pyramid2

Abraham Maslow (remember him from Psychology 101?) created the theory of the hierarchy of needs; simply stated that self-actualization is not possible until our basic needs are met. So, using a pyramid as a model, shelter, food and clothing (physiological needs) are the most basic needs at the base.

Fast forward to the top, creativity and artistic pursuits, are defined as self-actualization, or achieving our full potential as human beings. I’m super-simplifying here, but you get the idea. So if we look at trends in consumer spending through a redefined prism of Maslow’s hierarchy, and taking a few liberties with the climb to the top, some interesting patterns emerge. We can start with non-discretionary (need) categories like food, clothing and shelter at the base, and discretionary purchases, (more wants than needs) like restaurant dinners and new cars at the top.

So how have Americans been spending their money? And what’s behind these spending trends?

 

Level 1: Food, Clothing, Shelter (Basic Needs)

For one thing, it looks like the American Dream is alive and well, and home is still where the heart is – at least the heart of non-discretionary spending. As the chart below illustrates, spending on housing, which totaled an annualized $2 trillion as of June 2014 data, has been growing much faster than groceries and apparel, the other two key need categories, whose totals were $900 billion and $367 billion, respectively. Much of this increase has been due to tightened supplies of rental properties and energy costs, which have driven up monthly housing and utility costs, causing people to dedicate a larger share of their wallet to housing costs. Despite rock-bottom interest rates, home purchases have been about as spotty as job market recovery, resulting in an increased demand for homes to rent.

Although food prices have risen for certain categories, like meat and dairy, large supermarket chains are in a tough race for market share, which has kept inflation to a minimum and allowed consumers to take advantage of loss-leader bargains. In both apparel and groceries, showrooming has enabled price transparency across competitive retailers. As the chart shows, although spending on housing rose by 4% last month, slightly ahead of the total spending increase of 3.7%, spending on groceries rose by less than 2% and apparel spending edged up by less than 1%. In other words, Americans are spending more on housing because they have to, and taking advantage of the promotional environment in apparel and food to because they can.

RRSpending1

Level 2: Health and Wellbeing (Safety)

Next, let’s look at how we are spending on keeping ourselves healthy, the next level up on our redefined hierarchy of needs spending pyramid. Consumption of pharmaceuticals has skyrocketed in recent months as millions of formerly uninsured people got coverage under the Affordable Care Act and began to take medications for chronic illness and other conditions, causing windfalls for Big Pharma companies and the major drug store chains. However, spending on medical services and other forms of healthcare has grown by just over 3% as hospitals, clinics and physicians find their ability to bill patients is extremely limited under the new health care legislation. More people are going to doctors, according to CMS, the service that administers Medicare, but total spending is being offset by the declining average cost of a doctor treatment or visit. Maybe the Affordable Care Act is actually keeping health care affordable? Time will tell.

RRSpending2

Level 3: Quality of Life Connections (Belonging)

Next, let’s take a look at some spending categories up a little higher on the hierarchy of values: feel-good “big ticket” items. The auto industry has benefitted greatly in the past year by the unleashing of pent-up demand. During the recession, car sales declined because people decided they would just make do with their old clunkers. Once the economy started to grow again and employment and income started to recover, millions went out en masse and purchased new cars. However, that growth started to slow considerably early last year, as shown by the chart below, and then picked up again starting in February of this year. Although new car sales are strong, at an annualized $98 billion in June, they’re not growing as much as they were in early 2013, though part of that is due to tougher comparisons— that is, they’re being compared to stronger months than they were in early 2013.

Another interesting category in this realm is communication ($276 billion), which includes mobile device (smart phone) contracts, where growth is an annualized 4%, but off from the higher levels seen last year, primarily because the tablet craze has quieted considerably.

And growth in furniture and appliance spending, representing a total of $287 billion, remains sluggish despite the improved stability in the housing market. The lack of consumer interest in the category has been a source of tremendous frustration for retailers in this space. Perhaps a good bit of the softness in spending is due to the extremely competitive and promotional marketplace – prices have been declining for these products, and consumers are taking advantage of the available deals to spend less.

RRSpending3

Level 4: Having Fun (Esteem)

We’re approaching the top of the spending pyramid, where some of the most discretionary of the major consumer purchase categories reside, specifically entertainment. Key categories include recreational activities spending, at $450 billion, products like toys and sporting goods, at $367 billion, and spending on food outside the home, at $746 billion. Of the three, eating out is the only one with accelerating growth. In the hierarchy of needs, it reflects confidence and achievement that consumers have choice to reward themselves with a slightly more expensive option than cooking at home. And the fact that we’re spending moderately on recreation says that we’re having some fun.

RRSpending4

Level 5: Self-Improvement (Self Actualization)

At the pinnacle of all these spending categories are the self-actualized pursuits of spending on education and financial planning. Amazingly, it looks like these areas are growing at above-average rates; we’re actually spending more to improve our ability to succeed in the future. Education spending, at $282 billion, is one of the fastest growing categories in consumer spending (after pharmaceuticals). And not all that surprisingly, given the volatility of the financial markets, spending on financial services is growing quickly as well, at an annualized $890 million according to June 2014 figures. This data would suggest that we are optimistic about the future, interested in self-improvement and searching for, and funding, solutions.

Despite what is happening in the economy or in Washington, people are living their lives and hanging on to their dreams.

RRSpending5

Whole Foods Market: Conscious Capitalism or Unconscious Greed?

wholefoods_webSo are we adding a luxury food brand to the “designer derby” of racers seeking more growth (for its own sake) by reaching down to consumers who are reaching up? Or is the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, spreading his high-end food among the masses at prices they can afford, simply out of the goodness of his democratic heart? I’m speaking of the Whole Foods launch of pilot stores in more down-tier areas of Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago’s South Side. And about this strategy, Mackey made this rather magnanimous and altruistic statement: “For every penny we cut off the price, we reach more people who can afford to shop with us.”

What a wonderful thing to say. And, what a wonderful thing to do for the less well-heeled people living where the stores are being launched. And I suppose it will be a wonderful thing for new growth, at least for the foreseeable future. [Read more...]

Small Retailers Face Huge Technology Gap

Restaurant ownerTalk about proof points. In the April issue of The Robin Report, Gary Kearns from MasterCard wrote about the level of technology needed for retailers to create and maintain one-to-one relationships with consumers. “Few retailers today have the sophistication, systems and savvy to create a mutually rewarding relationship with [key consumers],” he wrote. A new MasterCard survey illustrates that point and details a huge capabilities gap between large and small retailers. That gap must be addressed if smaller retailers will have a chance to compete in a data-rich world.

The survey comes from MasterCard’s Global Insights team and is detailed in its recent Merchant Scope report. MasterCard conducted qualitative and quantitative interviews in Canada, Germany, South Africa and Brazil to identify the attitudes, opportunities and obstacles that are driving small business technology use.

The 90/20 eCommerce Equation

While most of the findings varied by vertical and country, a few numbers jumped out. The first: Nearly 90 percent of small to mid-sized merchants have an online presence, but only 20 percent have an eCommerce website. They lack the technology to accept payments online. That is a significant number, regardless of how big your store count or balance sheet.

It’s significant because the concept of financial inclusion is not limited to certain consumer groups in developing economies. Inclusion is about retailers, too. The retailer who cannot sell online is missing opportunities for themselves, but is also underserving consumers. Mega-retailing has had its share of consumer advantages in terms of price and service. But the overall health of retailing also depends on smaller regional chains, local favorite boutiques and rural multi-purpose stores.

Part of the responsibility falls on the data and payment technology communities. Small merchants need their help in understanding and meeting the evolving expectations of more informed and digitally connected consumers. These expectations center on convenience, an innovative shopping experience and personalized customer support. In the current data-driven retail environment, the consumer shopping experience starts long before entering a store, and includes the ability for the merchant to be present in different devices and channels. Advances in technology – including payments – have often presented an opportunity for small businesses to level the playing field. But, as consumers take advantage of mobile technology and real-time information, businesses of all sizes find themselves needing to create an “always on,” omnichannel presence or mobile app offering instantaneous rewards that attract new and repeat customers.

Barriers to Technology Adoption

The second set of numbers that jumped out from the study concerned barriers. The two clearest barriers to adopting technology, according to the report, were cost (46 percent) and know-how (31 percent). Here, small merchants need to prioritize resources for marketing. When examining what can be spent on digital marketing, they need to address key questions to help determine if an investment is worth it. Is this the key to improv-ing the customer experience? Do you understand how to use sales data to effectively build marketing propositions? Are you losing out on sales because you are not sure how to identify your best customers? What can you invest in now to make this pay off and run your business better?

Now let’s look at the ability to generate customer data. Here the capability of small merchants also needs to be improved. The Merchant Scope report shows that merchants find point-of-sale (POS) devices in large measure work as a transaction terminal. Half of the respondents globally indicated satisfaction with the payments acceptance experience. Nevertheless, MasterCard’s research indicates that the data passing through POS systems are under-utilized. They are leveraged for the authorization of transactions, but not as a potential window into insights on their customers. Today’s consumers are increasingly driven to shop by intelligent offers – perceived value over price and customized messaging. Consumers don’t just want to receive discounts; they want to be offered discounts on the products they care about. Developing ways to collect and use consumer purchase behavior data, in line with prevailing data laws, to offer them the things they really need depends on effectively utilizing the data flowing through the POS.

Regardless of the merchant’s size and geography, the most cited challenges (on average 41 percent of merchant respondents) revolve around identifying new customers. More than 32 percent cited Internet marketing and promotion, and 28 percent cited offering loyalty benefits to customers. Today, as more and more data is generated about customers’ shopping behaviors and preferences, there’s an opportunity to use that data to tail customer experiences, working with existing laws on data usage. Smaller merchants are starting to see the challenge and look for competitive solutions.

Leveling the Playing Field

Improving this situation requires a mind shift. Consider technology in the context of how it is integrated. Buildings blocks like eCommerce and effective new digital marketing will be greatly improved when technology is integrated. The sales data that comes through a well-developed eCommerce and invent-ory system is the fuel for developing strategies of product promotion and how to offer customers the goods and services they want most.

The rise of the mega-retailer has changed everything about the competitive environment for merchants of all sizes. Large, vertically integrated merchants have revolutionized supply-chain and inventory management, taking technology in those areas to a level that enables them to cut pricing and improve the customer experience. They have exploded across continents, with technology channels creating the “omnichannel” reality of global shopping. According to information published by the National Retail Federation, the top 250 retailers control $4.3 trillion in revenue; 63 percent of them are global. They have leveraged their scale and technology resources to present customers with a unitary, integrated shopping experience that inexorably is moving to an individually customized marketing model. That model has effectively upended the traditional merchant/consumer relationship, empowering the consumer to the point where customer experience and online agility are increasingly important as growth drivers for top global online retailers.

When it comes to leveraging technology, the picture for the mega-retailer is much clearer. But for small and medium-sized merchants, it’s still murky. The ability of large, often global merchants to dominate retailing creates an arena where small to medium-sized merchants may feel they cannot compete. The ability of large merchants to integrate technology both on the macro level outlined above, as well as in-store, presents a daunting competitive environment for small and midsized merchants.

The gap in technology resources between global retailers and smaller-scale merchants is glaring, and can be closed with the coordination and participation of banks, governments, and technology providers, as well as merchants. The downside of not addressing these gaps is that smaller retailers will fall further behind in becoming better engines for economic growth. The upside is huge.

Q/A with William P. Lauder

William_Lauder-1We sat down with William P. Lauder, Chairman of The Estée Lauder Companies, the $10 billion global beauty juggernaut, and talked about the evolving retail landscape, the importance of knowing your consumer and the opportunities and challenges of globalization.

Robin: William, we’re living in what we believe is the biggest transformation of the industry in the history of retailing, and therefore in wholesaling and branding as well. Some CEOs are saying it feels like the Wild West. Others feel like they are living in the chaos of technology that is far ahead of our capabilities to totally understand and use it.

And here is The Estée Lauder Companies, the undisputed leader in their space, right in the middle of it all. You served as CEO from 2004-2009, when you transitioned to your current role as Executive Chairman. During these ten years, the business has nearly doubled. So, I know you’re really smart, but is there also a bit of luck working here as well?

William: When I first joined this company in 1986, I perceived that my mission was to gain the experience to do what we needed to help the company be at the forefront of prestige aspirational beauty around the world. In 1996, more than half of our business was in North America. Now more than half our business is outside of North America. Emerging markets like China and Russia were very important, and we had a low share of market in those countries as well as in Europe, the UK and elsewhere. So, we saw a greater global opportunity where the pie was expanding, as opposed to our huge share of the US pie, which was static. [Read more...]

Tiffany Sues Costco! What’s Up?

Brands_in_Danger_FinalIn the land of the brand, the Holy Grail, surely, is building a brand that’s universally known and is in constant mention by consumers.

Or is it?

There’s such a thing as too much familiarity. There are more than a few instances of brand owners losing legal possession of their own brand because they became generic descriptors of the product, sometimes with dire consequences for its erstwhile owner.

Now, in an interesting lawsuit filed in US district court of the Southern District of New York, Tiffany is in legal battle with membership retailer Costco about the appropriation of the Tiffany name by Costco. There’s some reason to believe that while the facts would seem to strongly favor Tiffany & Co, it may not be the victor, at least not in a narrow legal sense.

But first, let’s take a look at how brands can evolve into popular vernacular, to the degree that their ownership is snatched from their creators.

Among a number of examples of brands lost in legal action are thermos, escalator, linoleum, videotape, and yo-yo. In the last instance, the Duncan Toys Co. went bankrupt when it lost control of its trademark. Also in the litany of lost brands is aspirin. That brand was once owned by Bayer, a German company, but it was awarded as war spoil after World War I. So it became a generic term in the US, the UK and France. In other parts of the world, Bayer still defends the use of its Aspirin brand. Curiously, Bayer also lost the right to its Heroin brand under the same circumstances. It hasn’t seen fit to defend it. Yet.

Numerous other brands are teetering perilously close to becoming generic terms, brands such as Scotch Tape, AstroTurf, Jacuzzi, Band-Aid, Frisbee, Hoover, Taser and Rollerblade. [Read more...]

Amazon: Trouble in River City?

Or Wall Street’s Magical Leprechaun

Amazon Unveils Its First SmartphoneJeff Bezos does have that “Leprechaunish” look about him. Wall Street certainly bought into the fable that Mr. Bezos (symbolically toiling over his “shoe making”) would deliver a pot of gold at the end of some yet to be defined rainbow. For 17 years, the Street has believed in his magic ever since he wrote in his SEC filing in 1997: “The Company believes that it will incur substantial operating losses for the foreseeable future, and that the rate at which such losses will be incurred will increase significant from current levels.” He also stated that he wouldn’t run the company to make profits, rather he would pour investment into growing the business to “get big fast.” Wall Street took a deep breath and bought into his strategy, hook, line and sinker. The Street believed that at some unknown distant point in time, and at the end of some rainbow, the Leprechaun would magically deliver his pot of gold.

Well, talk about “substantial operating losses” (which Amazon has lived up to for these past 17 years), this recent second quarter earnings report, revealing a net loss of $126 million, takes the cake. Worse, Amazon rather flippantly, with no explanation as to why, says it will lose between $410 and $810 million in the current quarter. Pot of gold? It’s more like a pot of coal. [Read more...]

How Hearts on Fire Is Poised to Light the Fire of Millennials

“Millennials shop in a very next generation way for things like cars or tablets. But buying a diamond engagement ring is a tradition-bound, emotional purchase, which makes it unique. So Millennials’ shopping process becomes blended – 50 percent is ‘new age’ and 50 percent is tradition.” Rich Pesqueira, Vice President Sales and Business Development, Hearts On Fire

For each succeeding generation, or at least since 1947 when DeBeers’ told consumers that “A Diamond Is Forever,” buying an engagement ring has been a rite of passage in adulthood. Today’s prime target market for diamonds and bridal jewelry are the Millennials, the leading edge of which turns 34 this year. Yet shopping for that diamond in a jewelry store today is not all that different from the way it was for their parents’ Baby Boomer generation in the 70s and 80s, or their grandparents’ post-war generation in the 40s, 50s and 60s. Even in the best-of-the-best jewelry stores – whether it is Tiffany’s or Cartier’s, or the local family-owned jewelers down the block – jewelry stores are more similar than different. They are caught in a time warp.

HeartsOnFireTo make matters worse for the diamond buyers, couples have to do a significant amount of research before they even dare to approach the retail counter to look at rings and stones. Like their grandfather and father before them, today’s Millennial diamond buyer must get indoctrinated into the mysteries of the 4Cs used to grade diamonds – carat, cut, clarity and color. The whole diamond buying experience, while it should be a joy that celebrates the coming wedding, can be such an ordeal for the customers that it can forever turn them off from crossing the threshold of a jewelry store. [Read more...]

The Coming Crash of Michael Kors…Take it To The Bank

MK_Blog_graphic-01Michael Kors, the brand, is becoming ubiquitous, and that’s the kiss of death for trendy fashion brands, particularly those positioned in the up-market younger consumer sectors. Its distribution is racing towards ubiquity, wholesale and retail (online, its own stores, outlet stores and internationally). Even worse, a rocket-propelled accelerant to ubiquity is its expansion into multiple product categories and sub-brands, so they can compete at all price points. Some would argue all of those segments will simply end up competing with each other, thus cannibalizing the top end of the spectrum. [Read more...]