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…]

Where Has All the Luxury Gone?

Coach StoreWe in the industry have been bandying about the term “luxury” pretty freely of late, but there is growing realization that if a product or brand is easily accessible and relatively inexpensive, it’s not really a “luxury” product. And the minute you add the term “affordable,” it becomes an oxymoron.

As the ever-widening income inequality gap illustrates, the rich are still getting richer. According to Pew Research, the top 1% of households in the US, or those making $400K or more annually, earn 23% of the total income in the country, and control 35% of the net worth. Both figures have been steadily growing for more than a decade.

One ever-present behavior in the spending habits of the superrich of any generation is opting for the special over the mundane. Makers of high-end jewelry and electronics, cars, exotic vacation hotels, and other products and services target this group of discerning consumers for a reason: They value, and are willing to pay a steep premium for, that which is appreciated by and accessible to only an elite few.

Milton Pedraza, CEO of The Luxury Institute, a research firm that tracks and advises the global luxury goods market, says that consumers consistently define luxury as the best of design, quality, craftsmanship, and service. Brands that always deliver against these attributes, including Audemars Piguet, Chanel, and Buccellati, also tend to have a compelling brand heritage story. [Read more…]

Around the World with Paco Underhill

cooking_oilWhat We Can Learn From Emerging Markets

Merchants have a temptation to move up-market. We suspect this is a reflection of their desire to seek higher margins. While we can applaud the successes of luxury categories at the upper tier of the market, it is at the other end of the spectrum where we find insightful examples of merchant innovation. For many of the world’s consumer product goods companies, future earnings and sales growth are anchored in their ability to not only move up, but also to more effectively cover the down-market. But we may be missing some very special lessons in this traditional marketing strategy. We can learn from what’s hidden in plain sight in emerging economies by recognizing the transformation of our ideas and the ingenuity of adapting our concepts to local solutions. There is also a new wave of clever entrepreneurs who are retooling conventional retail and marketing in novel grassroots ways.

Sumba: Rethinking Trust and the Pragmatics of Third-World Recycling

The Indonesian Island of Sumba has the peculiar distinction of being the world’s southeastern-most home of the horse. Its equine culture is unique to the archipelago, and adventurous tourists invade the island for its horse festivals that involve ritual battles on horseback. Its welcoming villages are dominated by tall prehistoric megaliths, not unlike Easter Island. But in Sumba, these giant icons are made all the more startling by the vibrant human life that continues on the island, in contrast to the abandoned statues of Easter Island. Sumba has a few resorts that tend to be patronized by glitterati looking for places where the tabloids can’t find them. It is, in its way, paradise lost and found. [Read more…]

Enough With the “Rooming” Already

stein_blog_roomingI just finished the 54-page 2014 Accenture Holiday Shopping Survey; and while I’m still in a state of ‘stat-overwhelm,’ I’m also left with a nagging thought. With our culture’s unceasing need to simplify things (abbreviation-nation syndrome), we may be losing sight of the obvious. E-commerce and the relative newbie, mobile electronic  retailing, combined have become the greatest destabilizing forces for retailers in a century. Emblematic of this is our culture’s tradition for creating nicknames for any major new phenomenon.

First showrooming arrived, the moniker given to some of the 200 million or so smartphone-toting customers who began deploying their devices in store. Shoppers price-checked the retailer, which more often than not resulted in an abrupt exit to buy online or at a competitor. This new practice also revealed inconsistencies between the retailer’s in-store pricing and that of their own websites which caused a corporate conundrum. Showrooming’s roommate is the more recent webrooming, a tech-term that describes browsing online and then going into a store to make a purchase. [Read more…]

What’s Missing From Online Shopping

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Last year, US e-retail sales hit $263 billion, according to Forrester Research Inc., representing 8% of total retail sales. The company predicts that by 2018, e-retail will reach $414 billion. While it’s a staggering number, it will still only account for about 11% of total retail sales. So why is online shopping still such a small piece of the retail pie? According to research from Cotton Incorporated, there’s room for improvement online.

Browse Before Buying

Though the majority of purchases still occur in-store, online is quickly becoming the first stop for consumers looking to shop for apparel. According to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey, 84% of consumers say they browse for clothing online using a computer or laptop, while 45% say they use a smart phone, 39% use a tablet, and 18% use a smart television.

“We’ve seen strong growth in the percentage of consumers who browse for clothing online using smartphones, tablets, and smart televisions, and we anticipate those numbers will continue to grow as they reflect the behavior of younger consumers who were raised with the technology and are increasingly comfortable with it,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy & Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated.

Indeed, according to Forrester Research Inc., 69% of US adults who regularly purchase items online end up buying about 16% of their products through e-channels, and both numbers are expected to grow as so-called “digital natives,” or those consumers born in the early 2000s after the advent of digital technologies, continue to increase their spending power. [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).

Lou Gerstner Was Right: Consumer Spending Matters, Not Stock Price

mc_gerstnerUS consumers are discriminating as to where they spend, and while demand has come back in what may seem unexpected categories, there is emphasis on experience and on purchases as investment.

Readers of Lou Gerstner’s book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?: Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround, or anybody who has heard the legendary former IBM Corp. CEO speak, will remember some sage advice: pay no attention to the stock price.

Let’s expand on this. Pay no attention to the stock market unless, of course, you’re investing in it. But as an economic barometer, the stock market has proven to be a fickle and even inaccurate judge of global economic health. Making cogent statements thereby is a delicate process, and I would argue that the more reliable barometer is consumer spending. The stock market is at best a confirmation of one’s previous calculations, not a factor in any of them.

What drove Gerstner to make the statement was his epic turnaround of IBM in the last century’s final years. Many friends and associates had congratulated him on the company’s resurgence based on a rebounding equity price. Gerstner warned them the number meant little, and the hardest work was yet to do. [Read more…]

Holy Guacamole: Millennial Favorite Chipotle Turns Neurological Connectivity into Gastronomical Addiction

chipotleMy 16-year-old son John’s idea of a gourmet meal is a burger and fries, so I was surprised one evening a couple of weeks ago when, after a busy day that left me no time to cook, I asked him where we should get takeout, and his answer was: “Chipotle.”

Caught off guard, I had to think for a minute. “I don’t think there’s one nearby.”

“Yes there is, in Yonkers,” he said, then added sheepishly,“ and you told me I could choose where to go.” Sighing, I grabbed my purse and keys for the 20-minute drive.

Chipotle (named after a smoke-dried jalapeno pepper) is the wildly successful chain of casual Mexican-style restaurants known for its overstuffed burritos made from healthy and natural ingredients. It was founded more than 20 years ago by Stephen Ells, a graduate of the University of Colorado and the Culinary Institute of America who,  with the dream of someday opening his own restaurant, moved to San Francisco to work for a famous chef . One day, he noticed an assembly line of workers at a taqueria in the Mission District  efficiently serving a crowd of hungry customers. He decided he could open a similar place to generate the cash needed to fund his fancy dining establishment. He quit his job, moved back to Denver and, after borrowing $85,000 from his dad, opened the first Chipotle in mid-1993. The restaurant, which from the start operated on the principle that fast food doesn’t have to be low-quality and that delicious food doesn’t have to be expensive, offered crafted-to-order burritos made from fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. Within six months, the restaurant was reportedly selling 1,000 burritos per day, 10 times the level needed to break even. [Read more…]

Coty Sinks In Its Claws

shutterstock_152473550When it comes to spending sprees, November 2010 was a doozy for Coty, Inc. In rapid succession, the New York-based, publicly held global powerhouse scooped up the German makeup company Dr. Scheller Cosmetics AG for an undisclosed amount; the touchy-feely Philosophy skincare brand from the Carlyle Group for an estimated $1 billion; and OPI, the pro nail care line famous for lacquers with cheeky names like “Skull & Glossbones” and “Wooden Shoe Like to Know,” for another (rumored) $1 billion.

At the time of those purchases, Coty, then a $3.6 billion entity, was billing itself as the world’s largest fragrance company. By rounding out its portfolio with these brands, the plan was to reduce its reliance on the recession-plagued perfume biz, carve off a bigger slice of Germany’s beauty pie, and inch toward its stated goal of $7 billion in revenue by 2015.

While it would be hard to argue which was the splashier score— Philosophy or OPI, both of which are wildly beloved by consumers— the latter allowed Coty to not only tap an entirely new distribution channel, but also expand its foothold in the supernova that was nails circa 2010. [Read more…]

Sleepless Nights

mattress isolated on the whiteI am not sure about where you live, but around here in southeastern Pennsylvania, it seems like wherever I drive, I am never far away from a mattress store, and a discount one at that.

It makes me wonder how these stores can keep their lights on. Can there really be that many people in this community of half a million that, give or take, need a new bed? I don’t have the answer for the mushrooming growth of retail banks, but do I understand Americans have been buying mattresses in record numbers making the mattress category the fastest growing segment in the $164.4 billion home furnishings business in 2012, according to HFN’s State of the Industry report. In 2013, the mattress segment posted slower but still good growth to reach $9.4 billion.

Mattress Madness

Obviously Americans are sleeping better—or at least investing in record numbers in better beds. And with recent double-digit growth in the category, mattress retailers are trying to squeeze every bit of spring out of the mattress business. Sleepy’s tops out at over 900 stores, and 1800Mattress.com gives ‘showrooming’ mattress shoppers access to deep discounts for most of the leading brands. The leading television channels and even Walmart are getting in on retailing beds. [Read more…]

Retailers and Wholesalers: Yesterday’s Fish Wrap

Direct_to_consumerThe retail and wholesale business models, separately and in conjunction with each other, are collapsing. Along with their demise, the actual terms, retail and wholesale, will literally cease to exist. In fact, as I write this article, major traditional wholesale brands such as The North Face, Timberland and other VF Corporation brands, along with PVH brands, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, among many other giant wholesale brands, are achieving faster and more profitable growth in what they are referring to as their DTC (direct to consumer, including e-commerce) business, than through their traditional wholesale to retail to consumer model. Essentially the DTC model that these wholesale brands are adopting is simply the branded apparel specialty retail model that was launched by the Gap, Esprit and other brands in the 1960s. A phrase often used to describe the model is “the brand on the door is the brand in the store.” Likewise, and to some degree in response to their branded wholesale vendors’ accelerating focus on the DTC model, traditional retailers — from Nordstrom and Macy’s to Walmart –- and across all retail sectors, will be forced to transform their business models to better control and accelerate their own brands’ direct engagement with consumers. In fact, Nordstrom and Macy’s, to cite two examples, are proactively beginning to transform their models. [Read more…]

Showrooming: A Death Knell or Hidden Opportunity?

showroomingAccording to the Nielsen U.S. Digital Consumer Report, 65% of all American adults own a smartphone, up from 44% in 2011. This trend, the ever-increasing ability of consumers to access the Internet at their fingertips, was hailed as the death knell for retail stores. Showrooming, the practice of trying out products at a store before making a cheaper purchase online, appears to be a fatal flaw for retail shopping.

What we’ve seen instead, running beyond the popular narrative of doom and gloom, is a vibrant new world of opportunities for retail brands.

And it isn’t just tech start-ups that have come to see this revolution as an opportunity. A subterranean phenomenon in the retail and consumer goods industries is the rise of omnichannel retailing. This phrase might not mean much to the average American, but if you’re a retailer like Macy’s, Best Buy or Target, this new consumer-oriented ideology is quickly becoming a way of life. Omnichannel retailing mirrors what we advertising technology companies would call “multiscreen, coordinated campaigns.” In other words, it aims to make all the avenues for a brand to engage with consumers (whether it’s online, on TV, in-store or even through a catalogue) a cohesive experience. [Read more…]