A Hopeful Look at the US Department Store in 2014

Macy's Sign Herald Square ManhattanCreative destruction, change management, business transformation —call it what you will, but something’s underfoot in the department store channel. After decades of ceding market share to specialty formats and channel consolidation, has the worm finally turned?

In addition to economic and consumer malaise, mall traffic, and thus store traffic, is the problem. With the Internet’s 24/7 access, price transparency and free shipping, combined with a fruitless in-store search for a size, color or sales clerk, who needs a brick-and mortar-department store? It used to be a destination to see the latest trends in color and silhouette, interpreted by a bevy of national brands, and curated by retail buyers with a clear fashion sense as well as an understanding of their customer base. Nowadays, social media, Instagram and fashion bloggers are more personable than the average sales clerk. And that source of style and fashion curation is more robust. A trip to the mall has become a chore … and just so boring. [Read more...]

Monitoring the Digital Watercooler

iStock_000023334231SmallEver since the first merchant set up a tent at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the world’s first mall, or Sears met Roebuck, employees have complained about employers.

But there’s a new twist on the old dynamic thanks to that digital water cooler, a.k.a.  social media. It’s where the “look-at-me” or “listen-to-me” generation spews out opinions and every excruciating detail of their daily lives in 144-character rants or selfies.

Companies are wondering about their options when it comes to protecting their reputations from sometimes-libelous comments or disciplining employees who violate social media policy. [Read more...]

Passion Can’t Be Found In A Spreadsheet

iStock_000021559265SmallThe distance between Vere and Portman streets in central London is 528 yards; an easy walking distance encompassing the two solitudes of retail today: stores that behave as product sheds and those that behave like retail theater. Taking center stage in the dichotomy are three stalwarts of the British department store industry: Debenhams at the start; Selfridges in the middle; and Marks & Spencer at the end. The headlines on these companies say it all:

“Debenhams shares dive…the biggest obstacle to profits comes from a higher level of discounting as the retailer struggles to attract shoppers…”

“Marks & Spencer’s recent figures show the retailer losing market share faster than any of its rivals…”

“Selfridges turnover for the year is ahead 9% while pre-tax profits rose 40%…”

But the headline I find most illuminating of all is this:

“The latest problems at Debenhams will pile pressure on its finance director, Simon Herrick, who was already seen as likely to exit the company…”

If businesses are to prosper they need customers who are engaged and willing to spend, and I can assure you the lack of interest on the part of shoppers for Debenhams isn’t because of Mr. Herrick’s finance competency. While this headline comes from an analyst, it’s indicative of a common corporate failing: too often finance departments are asked to make right in a business what it takes an entire executive team to figure out, namely how to be more meaningful to a buying public who has the freedom to spend their time and money wherever they want.

Success and Failure in Retail Neither Begins Nor Ends at the CFO’s Door

Where these stores are located is the area of Oxford and Regent streets in central London, home to one of the world’s premier retail districts. Every year 150 million shoppers put the lie to the notion that ‘stores are dead’ and many pass the windows of Debenhams, Selfridges, and Marks & Spencer. There are clearly plenty of prospective customers, but they show a declining desire to make two of those stores a destination. A simple visit to these fading retail icons and you’ll immediately understand why: bad lighting, inelegant visual merchandising, and disinterested staff in the fading stores, whereas Selfridges is famed for its excitement and dynamism. The two in trouble feature environments where dreams of fashion and style go to die; in the stand-out you’ll find experiences that draw people in record numbers who are willing to pay more, and seem to do so gladly based on the numbers. And remarkably, executives of all three can walk the floors of their competitors in five minutes and experience what makes the difference.

So it makes you wonder: can retail executives even see the experience through the eyes of a shopper? Each of these three companies has the size, financial clout, and reputation to attract the best and brightest talent. I’m sure none of them lack for MBAs and finance people, yet it would seem that common sense and instinct – the soft skills that humanize the business of retail – have been subverted by higher education when their executives can’t seem to see the solution for better performance when it’s staring them in the face.

Quality Retail Experiences Rely on Store Executives to Make Them That Way

Too often, retail leaders describe the measure of their personal success based on their vertical roles in the business: the ability to deliver faster, cheaper and to reduce costs; rarely on the need to add value back into the store environment. Their idea to develop greater customer loyalty is all too frequently based on low price. Why? Many leaders feel that to innovate and engage consumers through the experience of their environments is overshadowed by transactional cultures that view process as the end, not the means. It seems few big companies remember what it was that made them what they are. Their worlds revolve around revenue rather than value; demographic segments instead of people. And what requires good common sense becomes over-analysis of the abstract. The new silver bullet of ‘big data’ is crazy given the way so many business people use it to define their strategic priorities – what’s the point of knowing more about your customer if you’re not able to truly understand or reflect why your business should matter to them?

The opportunity for offline retail has never been greater, but retail’s existential threat is itself. Who’d choose to shop online if they could get the benefit of price as well as experience? This model starts by offering a better way by asking if what you’re presenting to the buying public actually matters. If it does you win; if it doesn’t you discount.

Amazon’s Threat Isn’t From Being Online, It’s By Being Customer Obsessed

Ironically the one business that retailers fears most is Amazon. Yet, in that company’s 2013 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos wrote:

“We are internally driven to improve our services, adding benefits and features, before we have to. We lower prices and increase value for customers before we have to. We invent before we have to. These investments are motivated by customer focus rather than by reaction to competition. Proactively delighting customers earns trust, which earns more business from those customers, even in new business arenas. Take a long-term view, and the interests of customers and shareholders align.”

So the company that makes every retailer question whether there’s a future for brick-and-mortar has customer delight at the core of its DNA. The same business that’s been referred to as “socialist” in its ideals by investors focused exclusively on short-term results has proven that long-term success can only come by thinking first about customers. Not surprisingly, you find a similar philosophy at the heart of the one retailer whose performance on Oxford Street outperforms the others.

The Weston family that owns Selfridges is the second largest luxury retailer in the world with holdings that include Brown Thomas in Ireland, de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands, Fortnum & Mason and Primark in the UK, and Holt Renfrew in Canada.

Their retail philosophy, expressed by Alannah Weston, the Selfridge group’s Vice Chair, is that there’s a lot more to the experience of their stores than just shopping. Her vision is to be the destination for exceptional experiences and believes that with such an enormous space the bounds of creativity have to be limitless. In a recent interview she explained that, “In an all-access shopping culture, remaining relevant is essential because you can buy anything at the airport shop, so why come to a department store?”

Weston’s advice for success is that you’ve got to have passion, “If you don’t believe it, you won’t do it well.” It’s simple: you’ve got to matter to your stakeholders if you’re to succeed. And while there’s little passion to be found in a spreadsheet, you may just find it in yourself by walking the shop floor, listening to customers, hearing what really matters, and by attempting to build back into your business that one thing which you can take true pride in. If you do a walkabout, invite your colleagues along – retail is a team sport.

Fabric Substitution Needles Home Textile Shoppers

Preference for Cotton Remains Paramount

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Housing starts and existing home sales are not only good economic indicators, but they are also strong predicators of future growth in other areas like home textiles. As the turnaround in the housing market gains steam, the home textiles market benefits – but consumers are increasingly paying higher prices for lower quality and less cotton-rich items, and they are not satisfied.

Textile World recently reported that housing starts could increase by as much as 15 to 20% over the course of 2014, despite the harsh winter, leading to potentially brisk business for the home textiles sector. While January building permits were 5.4% below the December rate, they were still 2.4% above the January 2013 estimate, according to the Department of Commerce, hinting at an upswing in the industry that could carry over to home textiles.

Cotton remains the favored fiber for home textiles like bedding and sheets; more than eight in 10 (81%) consumers prefer their sheeting to be made from cotton and cotton blends, and 75% of consumers prefer their bedding to be made from cotton and cotton blends, according to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor™ Survey. But that’s not always evident at retail. [Read more...]

Seeking Transparency

Cotton Charts 05-2014-01

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How Sustainability Can Enhance Your Supply Chain

Has sustainability truly become part of our lexicon, or is it still just a buzzword? Today, most consumers expect products and their manufacturing processes to be sustainable; indeed, it’s part of the legacy of the original Earth Day, held more than 40 years ago. And while Millennials demand it, they’re not always willing to pay more for it. So how can the retail industry adapt?

“Research reveals price and style still top consumers’ lists of purchase drivers when shopping for apparel, though environmental-friendliness remains a draw,” says Kim Kitchings, Vice President, Corporate Strategy and Program Metrics, Cotton Incorporated. “When she buys something that looks great on her and is the right price for her budget, the item’s environmental-friendliness becomes a kind of added bonus.”

Indeed, data from the 2014 Cotton Incorporated Environment Survey support this; 98% of women say fit is the most important factor when making a clothing purchase, followed by comfort (97%), quality (95%), and price (95%). Nearly half (46%) of female consumers cited environmental-friendliness. [Read more...]

Angela Ahrendts – An Apple Disruptor or One-Off Burberry Rock Star?

AhrendtsI believe former Burberry CEO, Angela Ahrendts, did in fact disrupt the traditional department store model, specifically through her seamless and spectacular integration of the Internet and technology. Indeed, when one steps into Burberry’s London flagship, it’s like stepping into a technological extravaganza, taking “high-tech, high-touch” to another level, empowering consumers and providing an awesome shopping experience. And upon entering and shopping the website, one has an identical experience, however without the 3-D physical sensation. Burberry’s website states its mission as “seamlessly blurring physical and digital worlds.” Lauded on both sides of the pond as some kind of rock star, Ahrendts caught the attention of Apple CEO Tim Cook, who lured her to head up Apple’s retail business.

Now, everybody is wondering what she’s going to be doing in her new role. And that’s no small question as she sits in the enchanted land of “the next big thing.” Apple already disrupted the world of retailing when it launched its stores under Steve Jobs in 2001. Currently, with over 400 stores worldwide, it’s still the most productive retail space in the world, in all of history, averaging over $5000 per square foot. So the first question one might ask is: why on earth would Apple want to disrupt such incredible performance? Secondly, if that is what is expected of Ms. Ahrendts, how would she disrupt it? [Read more...]

Moneyball for Retail

YG_moneyball_FINAL imageThere’s a new way to grow profits and hit it out of the park with consumers, employees and shareholders. It’s “Moneyball for Retail” – finding market inefficiencies to gain a competitive advantage.

In Major League Baseball, team owners want to win games. In retail, executives want to grow sales and profits. Both want to achieve these goals without breaking the bank, and the best-managed franchises in each have one fundamental principle in common: identify, develop, and reward the right players.

Whether baseball teams are winning or not, their ongoing costs continue to escalate. To keep the franchise operating at a high level, management needs to be aware that the most expensive players aren’t always the best fit for the team. The same holds for retail stores: operational costs are escalating regardless of store success, and executives need to schedule the right people in the right places to generate profits with the fewest additional costs.

And just as iconic baseball dynasties have come and gone, so have seemingly invincible retail giants. The survivors are the ones that continue to win. [Read more...]

Who Are the HENRYs and Why Are They Important to You?

Pam charts Rd2After a lot of retailer nail biting this past December, the Department of Commerce has reported the numbers and, all in all, the sales year didn’t turn out as badly as expected. So while we sigh with relief, nobody reading the news or talking with consumers is delusional enough to think that retail is out of the woods yet. Consumers remain extremely cautious about spending; the average US household’s income is currently $71,274, down more than $4,500 from its high in 2006 of $75,810. The reality of this extended post-recession period is that the American middle class has lost much of its spending power, leaving retailers that have traditionally targeted this customer holding the bag and needing to find new consumer segments for growth.

If the middle-income customer is scarce, the logical place for retailers to look for new customers is one step up the income ladder: the affluent, which are defined as the top 20% of US households based on income which starts at around $100,000. With nearly 125 million American households in total, the affluent segment numbers just under 25 million households. In most any spending category, the affluent top 20% account for about 40% of total consumer spending, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. That means the absolute spending power of the affluent household is twice as big as the average middle class spend.

Of course, all affluent households aren’t created equally in spending power either, with the top 2%, or the ultra-affluents, roughly 2.5 million households (incomes starting at about $250,000) with much more discretionary income. But between the ultras and the middle-income consumer segments, there is an often overlooked group that, quoting Rodney Dangerfield, ‘gets no respect’ – the lower-income affluents or HENRYs (High Earners Not Rich Yet). These are the new mass-market affluents with incomes $100,000 to $249,999 and they number about 22.5 million households.

Tale of the Tape –The receipt tape, that is.

Every three months my company,Unity Marketing, surveys 1,200+ affluent consumers who recently purchased any high-end or luxury goods or services in 21 different categories, including home goods such as furniture and major appliances; experiential services such as travel and dining; and personal items such as fashion, jewelry, and beauty. In that survey, data is collected about those recent purchases including how much people spent. [Read more...]

We’re Talking Tech

Lectra-3DWe think Nick Graham, co-founder of Joe Boxer, is a rock star. “The brand is the amusement park, the product is the souvenir,” he says. Well, we are in line to buy both tickets and souvenirs!

You can’t forget about the product! But how do you create a better product? It takes a good team and a good process, and technology has to be the backbone.

Technology is taking the fashion and retail world by storm, transforming the way we work in the design room, during production and at the point of sale.

Technology for design and pattern development is a good place to start but technology can’t compensate for a bad process. In fact, it only makes it worse! But a good process, one that marries retail, design and production from the beginning, for example, can take you from just an “okay” product to a fantastic one that both your customers and you love. One that fits and looks great, but also meets cost and time objectives. [Read more...]

Three Strikes and He’s Out!

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Spotty performance going into the recession and poor performance coming out.

Target Stores and its web business have been poorly positioned from a merchandise trend and strategic standpoint, and stores have been inexplicably and chronically poorly stocked. Empty shelves in a 200,000+ square foot discount store are as unappealing as dining in an empty restaurant. Frankly, it’s been a very long time since Target exhibited the “mojo” that successfully differentiated it from their competition.

Once upon a time Target was a hotbed of trend and value. Every endcap at the head or foot of every aisle used to tell an interesting story of fashion or value. And the stories were woven into a tapestry that worked as an expression of Target, the brand. No more. Today it looks, mostly, like just a lot of disconnected stuff. Just like Walmart. [Read more...]

Social Networks – Flipping Traditional Marketing on its Head

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Attention all: You are no longer in control of your marketing messages.

How many times, and in how many ways, have we declared that today’s consumer has total power over all of commerce? Hundreds? Thousands? I don’t know, but certainly enough that if there are any of our readers who still don’t get it, they need a brain transplant.

Just as retail, wholesale and service business models are being driven by consumers’ shifting desires, these same dynamics are driving an equally fundamental transformation in the communications, advertising and media industries.

Permission-Based Marketing

Reflecting consumer behavioral shifts, technological advances continue to expand an infinite number of distribution platforms for communications, products and services that can literally follow, and access, individual consumers 24/7. Unfortunately for marketers, technological innovations have allowed consumers to block what they don’t want entering their “personal spaces;” and also enable people to invite or grant permission to precisely what they do welcome. [Read more...]

Sales Force Transparency: You May Have an Olympian and Not Even Know It!

salesforceBy the time you’re reading this article, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics committee will have awarded its last trio of medals. The athletes will have boarded planes back to their respective home countries, and only the elite few will have cemented their places in Olympic history.

On a worldwide competitive stage like this one, the difference between immortality and obscurity is often a matter of microseconds. Events are won or lost by hundredths of a percentage point. And the single factor that separates the winners from the losers is precise and consistent measurement. Without it, the whole system falls apart at the seams.

So what does this have to do with retail? [Read more...]