Happy Accidents

happy_accidentsOffering a wider assortment at every store helps increase sales while keeping complexity in check.

Less is more: This is the prevailing wisdom of today’s retail assortment strategies; assortments should be localized, limited, and carefully curated.

But, more often than not, bigger is better. Carrying a wider assortment in each store can boost sales without increasing cost, space needs or inventory. In fact, it’s possible to offer complete assortments while decreasing inventory. This sounds counterintuitive, but there’s logic to the strategy.

Why is the industry so fixated on slashing assortments? The “choice is a trap” and “paradox of choice” arguments — that consumers actually prefer only a few options instead of being confronted with a wall of choices — is gaining traction in popular culture and especially at retail. And, while it may be accurate in certain limited settings, it doesn’t hold true when applied to the industry at large. In fact, as assortment size goes up, sales always increase. [Read more…]

Checking the Pulse of the American Shopper

pulseFrom a retail perspective, it’s hard to find numbers or analysis of the past year without also finding the word “cautious” in close proximity. Holiday spending for 2014: Cautious. Consumer attitude from recent gasoline price drops: Cautious. Outlook for 2015…. You get the picture.

Given the depth of the financial crisis in 2008 and the habits of the post-crisis consumer, this attitude can hardly be blamed. For retailers, however, the state of the American consumer might better be described as “tempered.”

It describes a cohort that has been tried, toughened and come through stronger. That’s what MasterCard Global Insights research shows. Our most recent work on the attitude toward credit and debit spending — arguably a leading indicator for retailers — captures a more nuanced portrait of how Americans are feeling about the economy and their own pocket five years into the recovery. In short: The post-crisis consumer has learned some tough lessons and come through with a tempered but tactical attitude toward credit and debit usage, disposable income, and saving for the future. [Read more…]

Internet of Things (IoT)

IoTA Connected Life

If you think the tsunami of new technologies, more spectacular one day after another, are now within your grasp of understanding, and soon to be mastered in implementation, do not pat yourself on the back and take a breather. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is a far bigger and faster tech train than the many you are just beginning to feel comfortable with. And it’s coming right at you. Yes, your business will soon ratchet up to another level of innovative opportunities and complex challenges.

We are hearing or reading the words IoT or the “Internet of Things” more frequently. It is the next technology mega-trend. And there are some early manifestations of it, from fitness bracelets to watches, connected refrigerators and automobiles, to thermostats and industrial equipment. But it’s still in the nibbling-around-the-edges phase. However, as breakthroughs in reducing the cost of sensors, processing power and increasing bandwidth continue, it will accelerate the ability to connect with more things, faster and cheaper. [Read more…]

Times, They Are A-Changin’

lectra_4-23-15Change is a funny word; it can inspire hope and spark butterflies, or it can bring a sense of doom and dread.

A few months ago, on a warm sunny day in Paris, change was the word of the day as Stephane Wargnier presented a study called “Prospective Metiers.” This study was run by a professional association with perhaps the longest but sexiest name on the planet: the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers and Créateurs de Mode. This group is responsible for Paris couture week and the shows for couture’s ready-to-wear offshoots.

The study tells the story of macroevolutions in the French fashion industry—evolutions in job roles, process and skill sets that are positioned to impact fashion on a global level. It is not just a question of needing more tech geeks or creative divas today, you need to be both.

While the study focuses on France, the lessons can be applied to the rest of the world. Here’s the short version: [Read more…]

The Secret Sauce to Jumpstart Retail Sales

SECRET_SAUCEThe Census Department has started to release data from its five-year Economic Census that does a deep dive into all aspects of the US economy, including 12 sectors of retail. What’s important about the latest Economic Census is that it gives us the ability to study and learn from the pre- (2007) and post-recession (2012) retail market. While more data will be rolling out between now and 2016, here is the real story in the retail data.

Retail Hasn’t Begun to Recover From the Great Recession

Retail remains stuck in recession mode. In the 10-year period leading up to the Great Recession, retail was posting a compound annual growth rate of 4.76%; since then, retail has limped along with CAGR of 1.54% for the five-year period from 2007-2012.

Retail did a little better from 2012–2013, up some 4.2% based upon comparables from the Monthly Retail Trade Survey, but 2014 has been a complete drag, with September’s YTD report showing the GAFO (General merchandise, Apparel, Furniture & Other) retail sector up a mere 1.4%. For retailers that fill the nation’s malls, shopping centers and main streets, the GAFO number is the one to watch. From 2007-2012, the GAFO stores posted only 5.4% growth, well below retail as a whole, and from 2012-2013, they inched up only 1.5%. [Read more…]

The Case of the Missing $32 Billion

Missin-32billionMultilevel/Pyramid Marketing Schemes Lure Unsuspecting Consumers through FTC Loophole

Don’t look now, but dozens of companies, starting with Amway back in 1979, and more recently Herbalife, the supplements company being challenged as operating a pyramid scheme by activist investor Bill Ackman, have been diverting billions in sales every year away from traditional retailers across the health, beauty and general merchandise industries.

Multilevel marketing, or MLM, is a simple model that enriches those who start it at the expense of those who join later. The premise is simple, and there are few barriers to entry. A multilevel marketer pulls together a line of products, puts a brand name on it, and develops an enticing sales spiel which has, as its primary attraction, the ability, for those who make a bulk investment in these products, to profit from commissions earned when friends, neighbors, and family members become distributors, make a similar bulk investment, and recruit other friends or family members to do the same. They all will get a commission on those and all subsequent purchases that those friends and their recruits make. Everyone back up the line to the original seller gets part of the commission as well. The process creates an exponential geometric growth pattern which, in theory, would eventually encompass all potential prospects and leave later entrants no one to recruit. [Read more…]

Macy’s – The Distribution of Things

macys_distributionAgain, in Front of the Trend

I recently wrote about Macy’s distribution brilliance. And even though the ink is hardly dry, here I am again. Actually, I am not going to focus on lauding what most people might view as a great Macy’s marketing program with Plenti (a cross-brand and industry point-generating redemption deal), which I’ll explain in a minute. This new collaboration is really a tactic, albeit very innovative, to support what I view as Macy’s larger distribution strategy and vision.

My recent article was about Macy’s understanding of the broader and more accurate definition of omnichannel. Too many retailers interpret omnichannel to mean simply two channels: online and brick-and-mortar stores.  So let’s get it straight once and for all.  The old term multi-channel meant more than one channel of distribution.  The new concept omnichannel means “all” distribution channels. Under the multi-channel definition, company strategists would align operations, distribution, marketing and all other functions with the needs of each channel as if they were “silos.” For example, the store, catalogs, marketing strategies, etc., would all be tailored to the needs of the specific channel, assuming different customer behaviors for each.  Omnichannel, as Macy’s and other enlightened retailers are employing the model, is the seamless integration of consumers’ experiences in a matrix of all distribution channels, wherever and whenever the consumer wants it: stores, the Internet and mobile devices, TV, direct mail, catalogs, and now, even operating on other brands’ or retailers’ distribution platforms.

“Plenti” of New Distribution Platforms

Rite Aid, AT&T, ExxonMobil, Nationwide, Hulu, and Direct Energy

So, the Plenti deal basically adds many other distribution platforms to Macy’s omnichannel strategy.
It’s pretty simple.  All the aforementioned companies, including Macy’s, are interconnected with each other through Plenti’s program.  Each time a consumer spends a buck at any one of those companies, they receive a point (equivalent to a penny), which then can be applied to discounts at any one of the companies.

As so aptly described in WWD: “Consider pulling into a gas station, filling up your tank and earning a point per dollar, then applying those points to get discounts on shoes at a department store, or cough drops at a drugstore.  Or imagine getting points for discounts at Macy’s or Exxon just by paying for your auto or homeowner’s insurance.”

And while one could argue that these are not, by definition, used for distributing goods, it is, in fact, an indirect strategy of distributing the brand on non-related, but compatible industry and product categories. It all ultimately leads to expanded distribution, acquiring new customers as well as maintaining current customers who will be delighted to build up a bunch of points for new deals.

In fact, Macy’s strategy might more appropriately be called the “distribution of things.”  Borrowing from the term, the “Internet of things,” which describes the interconnectedness of everything, Macy’s is interconnecting and integrating all possible distribution platforms that engage their consumers wherever they may be.

Think about this, Macy’s.  In the future, when you perfect the use of your “big data” and are able to profile each and every loyal customer and what they personally dream for in their lives, you will be permitted into their homes, to be downloaded into their “global communications center” from which they get important and timely information from you and other permitted brands. You will give them information about new styles that you know, from your database, they will love.  A fashion show invitation or Stella cocktail party can be hyped for their attendance.  And you might even be able to deliver products to them that they can keep or be placed in a Macy’s return box to be  picked up by Instacart or some such service that will inevitably spring up over the next couple of years.

The big shift is that the home will be the final distribution platform. The “distribution of things,” indeed.

What is “Disruptive Innovation” Supposed to Mean?

hockingThe IGD’s recent London conference focused on “disruptive innovation.” The organizers brought together industry heavyweights from both retail and brands; several spoke, and all claimed the new reality of business was a universe of shoppers who expected low prices. Let’s call their view “the problem.”

These speakers were then followed by others, mainly suppliers, who presented various forms of technology ranging from Google Glass to 3D food printers, with much of the application of this so-called disruption really centred on being “new” rather than being beneficial to shoppers. Let’s call their tech toys “the solution.”

The whole thing felt to me like an endorsement of that classic phrase, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” Here was a case where the problem was underestimated and the solution overestimated.

Shoppers seek low-price in the absence of additional drivers of value in what they are purchasing. The UK grocery industry isn’t suffering because of a lack of technology; it’s suffering due to a lack of disruptive innovation in the area of “stuff that matters to shoppers that’s different than from what our competitors offer.”

The tradition of much of retail, grocery in particular, is to create stores that are more like warehouses, with very little to inspire shoppers who consistently state their desire to find inspiration when they visit a grocery store. And these are people whose average repertoire includes just four recipes, yet they need to put 21 meals a week on the table. They find even less inspiration online. Grocery retail’s common solution is to streamline operations, strip out value, and claim to pass the savings onto shoppers.

But there’s a greater need that’s being overlooked.

There’s an old saying, “Low prices only rent you customers, not build loyalty.” If I were the CEO of a UK grocery retailer, I’d be asking my team to figure out what it will take beyond price (with its accompanying lousy margins) to earn the hearts and minds of their customers what some refer to as “loyalty beyond reason.”

My plea is to put away the big data, the technology, and the built-in biases that say “But that’s the way we do it” and get back to the basics by asking ourselves if what we offer matters enough to the people we count on to pay our salaries. Knowing what matters to people – truly, deeply matters – isn’t something you find on a spreadsheet and it can’t be spied through a Google Glass. It’s found by thinking like people about real human needs.

Making Athletes Better, Socially

under_armourOn the heels of a strong close to 2014 and annual sales and profits growth of 32% and 28% respectively, Under Armour hosted a meeting with the investment community, addressing its recent acquisitions that, when combined, create the world’s largest digital health and fitness community. Aptly named Connected Fitness, CEO Kevin Plank, along with the leaders of the newly assembled Under Armour digital team and CFO Brad Dickerson, spoke to rationale, strategy, and opportunities.

In true entrepreneurial fashion, Plank started Under Armour as a football player who couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a T-shirt on the market that was light and wicked sweat, which would improve his (and athletes generally) performance. The rest, as they say, is history. The guiding principle from his inspiration 19 years ago, to the more than $3 billion in annual sales just reported, is the goal to make the athlete perform better. This remains the goal with the MapMyFitness acquisition (in 2013), Endomondo (acquired January 2015), and the MyFitnessPal purchase (closing in the current quarter). In the digital world, Under Armour now has more than 120 million unique registered users in its online community. [Read more…]

Wallet Wars

iStock_000000409904Consumer behaviorists are mulling a new question: Will they swipe, tap, Tweet or text?

Whichever they choose, consumers, particularly the much sought after Millennials, are looking for new ways to pay. We’re approaching a tipping point where mobile payment systems, or mobile wallets, will move into the mainstream with cash, credit and debit cards becoming as archaic as stone tools.

An article in a recent issue of BCG Perspectives by The Boston Consulting Group put it this way: “Never in the history of the payments industry has there been a time of such disruption and opportunity across regions. Digital technologies will upset the competitive order and the role that payments play both in the operations of businesses and in the daily lives of consumers.” [Read more…]

Dumb and Dumber — A Tale of Cyber Security

hackerIf I were a Sony executive I’d be more concerned about getting punched out by Angelina Jolie for making snide email comments than offending North Korea’s fearless leader, Kim Jong-un. She looks tougher.

Of course, there’s the little matter of some 12,000 CDs filled with internal data from Sony Pictures that the so-called Guardians of Peace threatened to release — a Christmas gift from your friendly neighborhood cyber-terrorists.

But Hollywood, and its ego-fueled denizens, is not cyber-central. By now, every company, large and small, should know that neither data nor email is a whisper but rather a shout that keeps echoing. This latest breach not only reveals a massive gap in cyber security, but a lack of common sense on the part of seasoned business executives who should know better.

Therein lies the tale of data defense dysfunction. [Read more…]

Washington Crossing the Delaware on Black Friday

alpert_washingtonIt all began in Philadelphia, birthplace of innovative and uniquely American ideas and products: Philadelphia Cream Cheese (proof that God exists); Rocky I-V (more proof); and kites flying into lightning storms. Imagine, all this and more emanating from the sparkling urban jewel on the Delaware known affectionately as the City of Brotherly Love, a moniker richly deserved, given the kind and loving sports fans that inhabit this much-maligned metropolis.

Philadelphia was the site of our nation’s first capital and cradle of our revered United States Constitution.  It was here at Independence Hall where George Washington became the first General of the Continental Army, gallantly leading us into freedom from British tyranny. He was elected as our first president, and then moves the nation’s capital south to a city he named after himself. He crossed a roiling and treacherous Potomac River, standing triumphantly in the bow of that overcrowded rowboat, thus rendered in that famous painting he named after himself, Washington Crossing the Delaware on Black Friday. The painting was too big to stow in his little boat; he had a bridge built from New Jersey to New York so he could get the painting to the Met, where it still lives. Guess what he named the bridge?  Unbelievable.

As is obvious in that nautical painting, G-Dubya was taller than everybody else. We know he could not tell a lie: “I just outgrew Philadelphia, it was time to move on.” So G-Dubya moves to the new capitol and takes his football team with him, which he names after a few Native American friends (or potatoes).

But I digress. Back to Philly. Jeopardy fans there will surely know this one:

American Holidays” for, DING DING DING DING — The Daily Double!!! Contestants, you have 30 seconds for this question. What famous or infamous day in America has Philadelphia given to the world? Ben, would you like to go first? What is, Black Friday? YES!!! You win a week in Philadelphia. Betsy, as runner-up you get two weeks in Philadelphia, a wheelbarrow of South Philly cheesesteaks and all the Yuengling lager you can drink.

What’s in a Name?

In the mid-1960s, Philadelphia’s Police Department coined the name “Black Friday.” The name denoted the day after Thanksgiving, a day characterized by an overwhelming volume of traffic due to a confluence of two events: the onset of Christmas shopping madness, plus the torrential influx of West Point cadet and the Naval Academy midshipmen family and friends attending the Army-Navy game on Saturday at Franklin Field. Holy Liberty Bell, Batman! The entire police force was tasked to cover every intersection in Center City, stretching the force to the max, requiring even the Philadelphia Police Band members to pitch in. Philly’s Finest were not happy about this day and so it got its dark nickname.

Retail legend has it that most merchants make their first profit of the year on Black Friday. It was the first day of “being in the black” financially. For years, Black Friday was the spiking pinnacle of a one-day volume of sales. Black Friday pushes balance sheets into rosy American Dreamland, making CEOs, executives and stockholders feel good about themselves. But there’s also that robust lay-of-the-landscape benefit downstream. This is advanced retail capitalism at its absolute max, prompting a flash mob frenzy of shelf emptying and inventory clearing out at fast-forward pace all over this great nation. And now it’s trending abroad.

Trench Warfare

To date, there have been seven fatalities and 90 injuries at various retail stores that have attracted the Black Friday hoards of shopper mobs since 2008. Doors have been torn off their hinges as unruly crowds give way to their basest knuckle-dragging instincts. But who can blame them when flat screen TVs are going for $400? There have been shootings by male customers who have entered stores with fully loaded firearms. Black Friday lore has is that two wives get into a little tiff on the checkout line and one husband reaches for his loaded pistol, resulting in a wild chase through the mega-store, then resulting in a shooting and a death. Thankfully the shooter could buy more ammo at the store; don’t want to go home with an empty clip, now do we?  But hey, he defended the honor of his wife — and then had lots of time to think about his wife’s honor while serving a chunk of the rest of his life in prison, where it’s Black Friday every day.

Collateral damage is a decidedly negative way of expressing the downside of the phenomenon of Black Friday. Let’s just call it the creepier side of human greed and reckless disregard for one another.

Sentimentality Aside

But hey, look at the bright side.  Retailers are now spinning the Black Friday phenomenon forward or backward, depending on how you look at it. What the hell, retailers have finally gotten smart, and EUREKA, they open shop for business on the actual Thanksgiving Day. Yes!!! Huge Win!!!  Who cares about eating turkey anyway? Honestly, which is more American: a family dinnering-down with a large earth-bound bird; or flying through the malls, enjoying a day shopping together? Bonus point: at the store, the family football fans get their holiday football fix watching somebody play somebody, and then the Cowboys playing somebody else on the endless expanse of flat screens. I mean, c’mon!!!

But wait, there’s a wizard behind the curtain: Big Data! Retail data from Adobe Systems (proof of God, again) tell us that the biggest sales are no longer on Black Friday, but the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The really good news is that Black Friday is not even Black Friday anymore. Nope. It’s Black November!  Even old G-Dubya never thought of that! Just as Hurricane Sandy changed the coastline of New Jersey, the 2008 Recession changed Black Friday and spread it over the whole month of November. Let’s use the WHOLE MONTH not just that one Friday. But hold on, what about Cyber Monday? Over $2.29 billion spent on that day. That’s billion with a, ‘b,’ friend. This is what is so good about America. We really know how to make a buck!

So after the final whistle of the last football game on Thanksgiving Day, thanks to the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the founding father himself, I will be zooming down the NJ Turnpike to Philadelphia, Black Friday – Ground Zero – Holy Grail.  I will be armed and dangerous, credit cards polished and sharpened, ready for serial swiping.

Happy Thanksgiving and be careful out there!