The Power Of John Fairchild

fairchildJohn Burr Fairchild, who turned a family owned bread and butter garment center trade publication, Women’s Wear Daily, into a fashion powerhouse, passed away last week at 87 years of age.

John completely understood the business of publishing. His father, Lewis Fairchild, drummed circulation, advertising and administration into him. His father had no need to school John in journalism; he had spawned an editorial genius.

Rarely has a man’s talents and interests been so perfectly synchronized with John’s innate journalistic abilities, his love for fashion and those who practiced it, as well as his incredible fashion instincts, all married to pitch perfect taste. He was, without question, simply the best fashion editor there ever was in the time, of his time, and maybe for all time. No one even came close during his reign at Women’s Wear Daily and W. And no one has come close since. Legendary Vogue Editor, Diana Vreeland, walked in the same rarified atmosphere, but lacked all of those other skills that John possessed combined with the right vehicle to exploit them.

[Read more…]

12 Symptoms of a Dying Retailer

12symptomsWe all know when a retailer is in trouble financially. If public, their quarterly results invite critical comments by analysts. Their financial disclosures begin to make reference to problems with loan covenants. Their underlying liquidity and solvency comes under fire from suppliers and factors alike. Often these symptoms are noted too late for any effective remediation to take place. The deathwatch is on.

But are there warning signs that can be spotted before it’s too late?

I would suggest that, in fact, there are 12 symptoms of a dying retailer:

  1. Reductions in selling space. Stores that close off selling space abruptly are often signaling a crisis in lost productivity. Beware the department store that suddenly shutters its upper or lower floors.
  2. Reductions in inventory. Stores that begin to exhibit chronic stock outages, either empty shelves or lack of continuity in colors and sizes of ongoing merchandise, are often signaling a liquidity problem. A mass merchant, big box specialist or grocery chain that can’t adequately stock its shelves is sliding down a slippery slope that can be hard to escape.
  3. Unexplained elimination of classifications. This sometimes foretells a retailer that is beginning to lose its way. A healthy retailer finds ways to make difficult merchandise categories viable rather than eliminate them. The decision most department stores made in the 1990s to trim consumer electronics and housewares in favor of apparel and accessories — because those categories didn’t have enough margin or exhibit enough turnover — was a bad decision that is now coming home to roost.
  4. Reduction/elimination of amenities and services. A retailer that stops offering free or inexpensive gift wrap, and adequate boxes and bags for customer purchases, is also exhibiting worrisome behavior. Reductions in selling hours that don’t conform to competitors’ policies is another red flag.
  5. Wholesale changes in return policies. Returns are a never-ending challenge for all retailers. Appropriate changes that reign in aberrant customer behavior, without undue effect on customers at large, are a sign of a healthy retailer. But when changes take place that are completely inconsistent with past company policies and competitive practices, it is often a sign of inner turmoil.
  6. Deterioration in merchandise quality. Taking quality features and benefits out of merchandise and services is always an all-too-available stratagem for retailers looking to improve their gross margins. But it is almost always a fool’s errand. Customers notice when apparel doesn’t fit or wear well; when features and benefits have been withdrawn or made available at higher prices than in the past; and when packaging begins to look cheap and cheesy. Merchants under pressure, without adequate leadership, will often see this as path of least resistance. Once set in motion, however, this course usually becomes irreversible. Customers rarely give retailers who exhibit this behavior a second chance.
  7. Reduction in marketing spending. Stores that are having trouble paying their bills often begin to reduce their marketing spend disproportionately. Cheaper paper and fewer pages in newspaper inserts, less attention to quality of artwork, smaller media distribution, and failure to repeat historically successful fashion and promotional events are all harbingers of trouble. Hand in hand with this is the imposition of unreasonable and unwarranted demands on vendor partners for increases in advertising allowances.
  8. Loss of price competitiveness. All retailers are sensitive to competitive price issues. When a retailer suddenly begins to be less focused on this they are definitely heading for trouble. Failure to set prices properly, and then adjust prices, as necessary, is a symptom of a loss of integrity in customers’ eyes.
  9. Reductions in customer service. Unwarranted reductions in selling expenses by understaffing departments; cutting back sales support; providing fewer cash wraps, check out stations, and pick-up desks; and cutting back on customer service are all early warnings that something is going awry. If you are a customer and can’t get a sales representative to talk to you in a store or on the phone, you need to take your business elsewhere. If you are a vendor and you can’t reasonably correspond with your retail client, then you, too, need to think about taking your business elsewhere.
  10. Reductions in lighting. Does a store start to look dark and dim? Has the store actually begun to turn its lighting down by removing bulbs, or is it merely failing to replace the bulbs that have burned out? Hand in hand with this is inappropriate heating and air conditioning.
  11. Deterioration in housekeeping. Stores require constant attention to housekeeping. This includes everything from neat, properly presented merchandise to clean selling floors, wrap stands, and rest rooms. Dirty, disheveled stores are accidents waiting to happen.
  12. Deterioration in physical plant. Stores whose buildings and property are in disrepair are signaling larger troubles. Leaking roofs, unlit external signs, poorly maintained parking lots, entrances and docks are all signs of an organization that is coming off its rails.

[Read more…]

Bloomingdale’s Next Chapter

Tony_SpringAn Interview With Tony Spring, CEO, Bloomingdale’s

Robin Lewis: Tony, tell our readers a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? What got you interested in the retail business, and how did your career path lead you to your current role as CEO of Bloomingdale’s?

Tony Spring: I grew up in the New York area. My father was a lawyer and my mother worked at CBS as a secretary. There was a mix of passions in our family. The message in the house was always: find something that you love to do and do it well. I was always doing something, some kind of job, whether working in my father’s law office, delivering papers, or working in a fast food restaurant. I went to the Cornell School of Hotel and Restaurant Management. I had a passion for the customer, and what hospitality meant, and how to take care of the customer. I graduated from college in 1987 and had opportunities to work for a couple of hotel chains, including Marriott, but then Bloomingdale’s came to campus to recruit. One thing that really made me want to work at Bloomingdale’s was the people, and to this day they are a key part of my love of the business. They were very competitive, but cared about you as a person. In my belly I felt “wow,” these people want to do something very special.” Campeau bought Federated one year after I joined, then there was an LBO, then cost cutting. A year and a half later I came into Central in the home goods area as a buyer of cookware and cutlery. [Read more…]

What Can Luxury Brands like Louis Vuitton Learn from Lego?

legoImportant Lessons, It Turns Out

Fast Company just published an interesting story about Lego and its Future Lab, titled “How Lego Became the Apple of Toys.” Before the recession, Lego was in serious trouble. Fast Company sets the stage:

“About a decade ago, it looked like Lego might not have much of a future at all. In 2003, the company — based in a tiny Danish village called Billund and owned by the same family that founded it before World War II — was on the verge of bankruptcy, with problems lurking within like tree rot. Faced with growing competition from video games and the Internet, and plagued by an internal fear that Lego was perceived as old-fashioned, the company had been making a series of errors.”

What Lego Did Wrong & How Lego Made It Right

[Read more…]

Fast Retailing Redux

Forget Weed, Maybe It’s Ecstasy

ecstasyA week ago, I suggested that Tadashi Yanai, President and CEO of Fast Retailing (parent of Uniqlo), must be smoking something, as he declared he would have 1000 stores opened in the U.S. by 2020. Now I read in WWD.com, which covered the company’s annual media event last week, that his aim is to reach $253 billion (yes, USD), in global sales by 2030, up from their August current year-end revenue projection of about $13 billion. His new projection for 2020 was $42 billion,which by the way, is way lower than $61 billion target I had reported that Mr. Tadashi had projected in last week’s article. So, which numbers are we to believe?

And, even with the lowered projection for 2020,does the $250 billion goal for 2030 sound like something a person with all of their marbles would throw out at such a meeting? Mr. Tadashi said, “So we are within sight of 5 trillion yen, ($42 billion) and that’s not just big talk. I think soon we have to start making big ambitions for the year 2030 as well, and if it’s the year 2030, why not 30 trillion yen ($253 billion)?” The audience laughed thinking that this must be Yanai’s type of a Japanese joke. He responded, “It’s not a joke. I believe it’s possible that we can realize this dream.” [Read more…]

When Activists Attack, Preempt!

activistsIt can happen fast, and without much provocation. It’s happened to companies from eBay to Family Dollar, Ann Taylor to Neiman Marcus, Safeway to PepsiCo. Even Apple.

Activist investors are making waves throughout the retail industry and beyond – and they will only continue to play a bigger role going forward. Understanding your company’s vulnerability to an activist and how to respond accordingly is a key ingredient to success in today’s retail environment.

Activist investors are nothing new, but they have recently broadened their scope from just trying to sell off a target company to influencing the company’s future performance through board representation, reorganization, returning capital to shareholders, changes in strategic direction, capital allocation plans and corporate governance reforms. [Read more…]

Millennials: Retail Experiences Around the World

zaraBy Victoria Kulesza, Tiffany Lung, Kei Sato and Daniel Swanepoel

At the World Retail Congress in October 2014, a panel of Millennials presented their takes on the Future of Retail. Here is an excerpt of their comments, providing a provocative playbook for retailers to retool the customer experience.

What’s the best in-store experience?

DAN / London: Product design is such an important part to the store. Take the newly popular HAY, a homewares design store on the London retail scene. It has products that are not really essential to have, but they are so cleverly/uniquely individual in design, it transforms any retail space. The thing that makes me return to a store is the turnout of new products/merchandise. Every time I visit a certain store, I should be on an adventure of new discovery. New fashion trends, new designers/fashion houses showcasing their moments of creativity. I want to be inspired by a store. Live for the brand. I want to walk out of that store with a shopping bag. I want to walk all around the city, showing off that I have just been shopping in that retail space.

KEI / Tokyo: I would like my in-store experience to be enjoyable and inspiring. It would be fun shopping if the store can communicate effectively how the products will affect the purchasers’ lives. I want a store that is very personalized. The store would make personal profiles of their customers, including purchase history, taste, cultural background, etc. The store can then give effective advice on what to buy and customers will be able to trust the store since they know who they are and what they like. [Read more…]

Radio Sacked

radioshackWhen Woolworth went out of business and bought its one-way ticket to the great strip mall in the sky, I remember the great outcry from people who reminisced about the good old days of grilled cheese sandwiches and nickel Cherry Cokes at the lunch counter and shopping for notions.

Except when you asked these same people when was the last time they had eaten a grilled cheese sandwich or shopped for notions at Woolworths, they stared blankly and searched their memories to no avail.

We are now in the same mourning period for Radio Shack following its bankruptcy filing last Thursday. Certainly it was the retail demise with the longest build-up and least amount of surprise since the General Store closed in Dodge City.

Equal parts sad, appropriate, unforgiveable and tragic, Radio Shack’s bankruptcy has been forecast for years, despite new management, a handful of new concept stores and a Super Bowl ad that was every bit as dumb and ill-advised as Pete Carroll’s play calling. [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…]

Uniqlo and Forever 21: What Are They Smoking?

UniqloForever2I don’t know if “weed” is legal yet where CEO Tadashi Yanai, (Tokyo-based Fast Retailing Company, including the Uniqlo brand), or CEO Don Chang, (Los Angeles-based Forever 21) run their companies, but maybe they’re getting delusional on some other substance.

One thing their delusions have in common is Larry Meyer. He was CFO at Forever 21 from 2001 to 2012, and then left to become CEO of Uniqlo USA. Both of his bosses gave him his marching orders to “get big fast” (to steal the Jeff Bezos line), and focus mainly on the American market. Doesn’t everybody? And getting big fast apparently means bigger stores and lots more of them. I guess in their minds, this growth logic is supposed to result in bigger revenues as well.

Furthermore, and this is pure speculation on my part, perhaps Uniqlo observed Mr. Meyer’s performance at Forever 21, aggressively pushing for more and bigger stores, and believed they could use his real estate acumen to implement Mr. Tadashi’s mind-numbing growth objectives. However, Mr. Tadashi’s mind must have been a bit addled, not foreseeing that, in my opinion, Forever 21’s get big faster strategy would end up with being stuck with a ubiquitous number of stores that are bigger and less productive, resulting in a cool brand turned cold. Bye, bye young customers. Unfortunately, Mr. Tadashi and Mr. Meyer are now both racing down that same delusional growth-to-death path. [Read more…]

Did Tesco Get Hooked on Drugs?

Under-the-table transactions...That’s a strange question, and the answer is even stranger: “yes,” at least figuratively speaking.

It all has to do with vendor allowances and the revenue bump they give retailers. These allowances are intended to incentivize retailers to better promote or better display a manufacturer’s product, and there’s generally a lot of money left over for retailers after that’s done.

For a long time, supermarket insiders have cloaked vendor allowances in secrecy, privately referring to them as the “drug” supermarkets just can’t kick. The metaphorical drugs caused supermarkets to become almost entirely dependent on them for profitability, despite the fact that they fostered grotesque retailer inefficiencies in the long run.

Now a day of reckoning may be at hand, because Tesco has blurted out the dark truth. Tesco, a huge UK supermarket chain, is being battered by newly disclosed accounting irregularities that were used to puff up financial reports by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tesco stated: “[Irregularities] are principally due to the accelerated recognition of commercial income and delayed accrual of costs. Work is ongoing to establish whether this was due to error or an aggressive accounting policy.” Commercial income, by another name, means vendor allowances. [Read more…]

Not Your Grandmother’s Neiman’s

RL_Blog_NeimansNeiman Marcus is not wasting any time as it marches into the new frontier, or the “wild west,” as many are calling it. And it’s headed right towards the intersection where technology and the Millennials connect. Neiman’s is recognizing the tsunami of new technologies being introduced on almost a daily basis, as well as the fact that Millennials will soon replace Boomers as the largest consumer segment. This next-gen cohort has not only embedded technology into every moment and movement in their lives, they also bring huge shifts to the marketplace in how they want to engage or be engaged by retailers.

First and foremost, understood by all retailers (except for the few with their heads still in the sand), they must promise a compelling experience to attract consumers to the store. This is especially true for the Millennials, who are more interested in pursuing style of life over the stuff of life. They desire many types of experiences over shopping and hanging out in malls. And since technology is their life, the Neiman’s that attracted their grandmothers will die with their grandmothers, if they don’t integrate technology into every aspect of their business, including an engaging experience in the store. [Read more…]