Darkness at Dawn

iStock_000012485261SmallThe closer you get to the Equator, the more dawn and dusk become switches rather than transitions. It’s dark, it’s light.

I’ve learned as a global traveler to keep the curtains open at night, my goal to be in bed shortly after sundown and up at first light. Recently, I had a corner room at a hotel with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides. The view of Paulista and the rest of São Paulo turned on a little before six; the cell phone towers, the park below and the high-rise buildings looked like uneven stubble on the contours of a Brazilian chin.

I was picked up at 7:00 AM by my colleague, the CEO of a publicly traded shopping mall company, in his Land Rover and we headed across town to the private airport to catch our turbo-propped Sky Master. We were headed for Brasilia. The traffic was heavy, and as we inched our way around a traffic circle, I lowered the window on the passenger’s side to stick my hand out and help get us to the outside lane. The driver gasped and I realized the window was almost two inches thick. Bulletproof. I struggled to get the window back up. The stupid Yankee had comprised the moving security perimeter. It took two security guards at the airport to tease the window back to its original position. [Read more...]

Lost Shack

Radioshack Lithium BatteryThe good news is that Radio Shack has opened five high-profile remodeled stores featuring its “Let’s Play” strategy that sports a cleaner, pared-down assortment dolled up with electronic merchandising wizardry like video screens and audio plug-in stations.

The bad news is that this leaves 4,306 Radio Shack stores in the country that need to be remodeled.

Welcome to yet another chapter in the ongoing retail soap opera that Radio Shack has become over the past few years. The company is on its fourth CEO in three years, has seen its market cap drop to 2% of what it was at around the start of the century, and it has not made money in at least the past four quarters. All the while, it has seemingly had more merchandising solutions than the number of batteries in its ubiquitous signature department. [Read more...]

Hindsight is Always 20/20

coachIn April 2011, I read my New Yorker cringing at Reed Krakoff’s comment on his design process at Coach:

“I bang it out,’ he said.‘I know what came before, I know what’s coming next, I know how it will work in the context of the store and the ads. It’s like a code.’…Krakoff picked up a bag from the table, a lilac nylon tote, with silver-studded black patent-leather handles a female face silk-screened on the front. ‘This fills the arty, limited kind of hole,’ he said. ‘I may cancel this bag. But it doesn’t matter. Then I just need something else to fill that hole.’”

Ouch! Such hubris from the executive creative director of the then-$4 billion global accessories brand, and in retrospect an indication that Reed’s attention was really on his eponymous line introduced in 2010. Ariel Levy’s article, Brand-New Bag, oozes Reed’s aesthetic contempt for the women who made him successful. Well, on Friday September 6th, Reed, along with a group of investors, bought the Reed Krakoff brand from Coach finalizing the separation (though Coach has a minority share in Reed Krakoff); a new chapter has already begun at Coach. [Read more...]

Meet the Millennials

polaroid_1Multi-Faceted, But Not Beyond Understanding

Retailers need to tune into the 18-to-30 crowd that comprises almost a third of all Americans – a bigger population segment than Baby Boomers. The Millennial generation numbered 79 million in 2011, with an outlook to stay at 78 million by 2030. Meanwhile, Baby Boomers will be retracting from their current 76 million to 56 million by 2030. This enormous segment of the population tends to make more transactions, but spend less per transaction. They have discretionary income and are willing to spend it… but the question is how, and where? The answers can be contradictory.

At MasterCard, we have seen data pointing to some varied behaviors within the Millennials category, as well as how they like to shop and how they’ve started to change the nature of shopping itself. Not surprisingly, a comfort level with technology has a lot to do with their ease in navigating the multichannel retail landscape – after all, they’re the ones who’ve made social media into the retail marketing tool it currently is. MasterCard has data from 80 billion anonymous credit card transactions to help better understand the needs of the Millennial consumer segment. [Read more...]

Delhaize’s New Way Forward – A Blueprint for Retailers?

logo_delhaize_67_cmykChanging markets and disruptive technologies have shaken many retailers to the core. Many are flailing about in all directions in hopes of chancing on a solution.

Barnes & Noble wanted to convert to a technology company, but couldn’t. JCPenney wanted to become a boutique mall, but couldn’t. Best Buy doesn’t know which way to turn.

So it goes for many retailers, including some in the food-retailing sector. Let’s take a look at one company in that industry – Delhaize. More than just about any retail company, it has tried out every conceivable model to reinvent and reinvigorate itself, but eventually decided to return to its core business. That move gave it two clear options for the future. Delhaize is an interesting case study in lessons that other retailers can learn from. [Read more...]

A New Strategy: Individualizing Store Growth

In my last article, I talked about “Data, Data Everywhere” and how critical it is to simplify retail analytics so we can use the data to take the right actions to help more customers buy, and less time analyzing the hundreds of reports trying to figure out how. When we use data correctly, we have proven that we can develop each store based on their own specific needs…resulting in significant performance improvement and new-found profits. It’s a new way to grow!

I’ll never forget an energy filled conversation I had with a very successful CFO of a large retailer. I was sharing my approach of “individualized store development” when I quickly realized that after patiently listening to my theory he wasn’t buying it. He informed me that his one-size-fits-all, top-down approach is far easier to implement and that I should adopt the command-and-control approach which has worked successfully for the past 20 years.

I clearly did not make my case. But it was helpful as I went back to the drawing board on how to more effectively communicate this new approach. I learned that his point of view is highly indicative of where many leaders in our industry are in terms of how they think about stores and growing revenues. [Read more...]

Crime, Punishment & Retailing

African street vendorOrganized retail crime is escalating, but can law enforcement cope with a global crime spree and a new class of criminal?

When I was eight years old, me, and two equally nefarious friends, decided to hit the local Woolworth. The objective? The new Duncan yo-yo and two green plastic, spacegun-shaped waterguns.

My guys—not exactly Goodfellas—were supposed to distract the cashier and stock boy, but took a powder when they saw the manager grab me by the shoulder. Half an hour later amid threats of prison, my mother picked me up, smacked me on the head and dragged me home where I faced the dreaded “wait ‘til your father gets home” scenario.

So much for my criminal career! [Read more...]

Going Hybrid: The Next Stage for Fashion Retailers

hybridToday’s fashion companies operate in a highly competitive environment, driven by increasingly fickle, price-conscious consumers, rising costs and clothing trends that change at light speed. With increased drops, the proliferation of SKUs and an incessant demand for newness, the big three—retailers, brands and manufacturers—are battling it out for market and wallet share.

We know we’re preaching to the choir. You know better than anyone that there is a need to control business activities as much as you can—control over everything from product concept to consumer purchase. What’s emerging is the hybrid business model, where the big three are integrating across the supply chain in an effort to protect margins.

Why is this so important for retailers? If you haven’t thought about going hybrid, chances are that your competition has. Wall Street demands growth and with increased competition, international expansion and the rise of omni-channel retailing, retailers are seeking new ways to maintain that growth and stand out from the crowd. [Read more...]

The Future of Everything

MakerBot_Replicator2X_high_1In 2011, at the TED conference in Long Beach, surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrated an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney. Dr. Atala and his team take an image of a kidney to create an exact 3D image of the organ, then print the kidney layer by layer based on the patient’s kidney using their own living cells. In seven hours, you have an exact replica, ready to transplant. Given that 90% of the people who are on the transplant list in this country require kidneys, it gives new meaning to supply and demand. Out of all the presenters at TED that year, Dr. Atala made the biggest impression on me. 3D printing is a revolution that will transform our society in ways we can’t even imagine. It will give rise to thousands of new businesses, new ways of distribution, new processes of intellectual property management, and create an entrepreneurial and financial tidal wave that will dwarf the Internet in its scale and disruptive power. [Read more...]

Prestige Jewelry: Coming to Your Local Outlet?

Robin_Report_Sep2013_stock2The number of emails in my inbox alerting me about sales is seemingly infinite, and frankly, I’m losing interest.

The funniest was Cache’s “our sale’s on sale.” Really?!?! Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s regularly have fine jewelry on sale and clearance, a practice which undermines one of the category’s perceived competitive advantage, that of stored value. Blue Nile’s founding in 1999 was a harbinger of the category’s deterioration as it provided transparency and comparison shopping across the diamond supply chain. With Amazon having entered the competitive fray, the typically unquestioned pricing practices and thus, the luxury underpinnings of fine jewelry, could be further damaged. [Read more...]

Brands Looking Forward, Look Back (Way Back)

gracearticle1Many of the most successful rebranding efforts of the last year, the most forward-facing of them all, have all used the same weapon of choice: their archives. Brands as highbrow as Dior, to as proudly lowbrow as Levi’s, have looked to the creative history of their designers to add a layer of narrative and credibility to the contemporary context of their brands. And while this type of endurance-branding may be partially a result of The Great Recession, Millennials. Are Eating. It. Up.

This is because Millennials are natural researchers; many of us were somewhere between 18 and 8 when Google arrived in our homerooms. While we haven’t always had smartphones, we have always had access. I don’t need to tell you how this has manifested in our shopping habits online. But much less is known about the compulsive way many Millennials forage online archives for stylistic inspiration. Think Netflix “binge-viewing,” or better yet, a “Google K-Hole” (an allusion to a Special K or Ketamine bender, in this case resulting in days lost to Googling). Online archives such as Getty Images or Google Image Search welcome us, for free; which is why it is easier than you may think for an influencer Millennial to pick up an obscure Fellini reference. We are such active researchers that we tend to forget what we saw, where. We can get to the point that we have to rely on our browser’s history tab over our own brand fidelity and crowded memory. [Read more...]

The $2 Trillion American Rip-Off

There’s a growing disparity in the way some economic data have moved since the recession. On the one hand we have employment and income figures, which tell the story of a sluggish U.S. recovery with a long way to go to pre-recession prosperity. On the other hand, healthy retail sales and consumer spending have rebounded to, and even surpassed, pre-recession levels.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the population of working-age people has grown by more than 5 million since the beginning of 2008. The labor force has increased by only 1.5 million, and the total number of employed has decreased by 2 million, resulting in a steady decline in the labor force participation rate (see Chart 1).

shadow_economy_chart-1That doesn’t jive with the brisk pace of consumer spending (Chart 2), according to Bernard Baumohl, Chief Economist at Princeton, NJ-based forecasting firm The Economic Outlook Group, who noticed the sudden divergence between total personal consumption expenditures and the labor force participation rates that began during the Great Recession.

shadow_economy_chart-2

The stubbornly high unemployment rate makes even less sense in light of retail sales which, according The Department of Commerce, have been growing by 3-5% per month over the last two years on a 12-month smoothed basis, as shown in Chart 3 below. Sales of durable goods have been particularly strong.

shadow_economy_chart-3This is consistent with an unemployment rate much lower than the current rate of 7.3%, according to Baumohl, who noted: “… Not since the government first released retail sales on a monthly basis have we seen retail sales grow at such a vibrant pace with the unemployment rate so high.”

All this has been going on while, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median household income has been on a steady decline (Chart 4).

shadow_economy_chart-4How are all these unemployed consumers with declining incomes able to keep shopping?

As it turns out, being unemployed doesn’t necessarily mean not working. According to research by Professors Richard Cebula of Jacksonville University and Edgar Feige of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a significant part of the U.S. population participates in the shadow economy, an estimated $2 trillion underground market in the U.S. These folks are doing everything from giving piano lessons to running retail stores. They’re being paid off the books in cash by their employers and/or customers, and either not reporting or underreporting their income.

We’re not just talking about mob bosses or drug dealers here, but about millions of people, some (but by no means all) of them undocumented immigrant workers, with everyday jobs, many in service businesses such as child care, landscaping, and construction. Much of the underreporting of income starts as a way to make ends meet after being laid off, but ends up becoming a lifestyle.

According to Professor Cebula, the underground economy has been around for as long as income tax. Its participants range from hardcore criminals to people whose lousy bookkeeping skills cause them to accidentally underreport their income. His research shows that in the last 10 years, the ratio of unreported and underreported adjusted gross income to reported AGI has ranged between 22% and 24%. Most of the underground income, says Cebula, is earned by people in the lowest income brackets.

To uncover this trend, Cebula and his colleagues simply followed the cash. Despite the proliferation of credit cards, debit cards, smart phone payment apps and bitcoin, currency in circulation with the public totals around $3,000 per capita, hardly the trappings of a cashless society. The Federal Reserve reports almost double-digit increases in currency outstanding over the last few years, to almost $1.2 trillion, compared to $800 billion six years ago (Chart 5).

shadow_economy_chart-5The evidence is everywhere: people pulling out wads of cash in stores to pay for big-ticket items; small stores who “don’t charge you sales tax” if you pay them cash (which means they’re not reporting the revenue to the IRS); soaring demand for prepaid debit cards (which you can buy anonymously and use to pay utility, rent and other bills); the rise in underbanking and nonbanking. According to the FDIC, in 2011 the number of U.S. households with no bank accounts was 8.2%, up from 7.6% in 2009.

Why is the economy’s dirty little secret not getting more air time? Well, for starters, it’s neither politically correct nor expedient to go after the little guy. It makes government look boorish, and after all, many of the people perpetuating this fraud are voters, so politicians have every incentive to turn a blind eye.

A more important factor, however, is that much of the $2 trillion ultimately goes into cash registers, and might have kept the real economy from tanking a few times during the recovery. Which means retailers aren’t exactly unhappy about it.

The U.S. is not the only country experiencing this trend. The shadow economy in Europe will total $3 trillion dollars this year, according to an A.T. Kearney/Visa report. In Italy, where the top personal income tax rate is 45% and tax evasion is practically a national pastime, it represents a massive 21% of GDP.

So is the shadow economy a good thing? Unless you’re a fan of felony tax evasion, of course not. The impact on government revenue is staggering, with an estimated $500 billion in lost federal income tax, money that could close the budget deficit (and possibly even create a surplus), reduce the national debt, help pay for improved infrastructure, and provide public services to people. Many of the people working off the books also collect unemployment or disability, go on Medicaid, and use food stamps, multiplying the fraud.

Of equal concern is the fact that the rapid growth of the underground economy since the recession might be a result of deeper and potentially more damaging trends: an underlying distrust in government; a feeling that regulations are too stringent and complicated; a lack of confidence in financial markets; declining confidence and hope. These feelings weren’t exactly soothed by the most recent government shutdown.

The Economic Outlook Group’s Baumohl feels that although impossible to quantify, the size of the underground economy could be as high as 10% of GDP. If legally accounted for, this $2 trillion would add another 10% to disposable income data in the U.S., and add a whopping 25% to government tax revenue.

Cebula feels that it would be impossible to collect tax on these transactions, however. First, because these transactions leave no paper trail and, in many cases, are done by people that the government doesn’t even know exist, it would be hard to find them. Second, even if uncovered, the taxation would be very short-lived. “In theory, if we were to tax it,” he added, “the behavior would stop, so there would be nothing to tax. And many illegal immigrants would just leave.”

In other words, trying to go after these people wouldn’t necessarily boost tax revenues very much, but would help curtail illegal activity and reduce the illegal immigration problem? Sounds like a step in the right direction.

However, Cebula’s argument fails to take into account the fact that plenty of the underreporting is done by businesses and households who, rather than get caught and pay penalties, might decided to improve their reporting record. That includes the dog groomer or handyman who doesn’t charge you tax if you “make the check out to cash.” He’s not going to turn away business; he’ll just do more of his business on the books. Maybe his prices will go up a bit in the short run, but they’ll eventually settle at what the market will bear, or he’ll find another line of work. So, theoretically, some of the tax gap will be at least partially recouped.

People who work off the books are hurting themselves in both the short and long terms. They’re not paying into Social Security or receiving health benefits. They can’t report abusive employers to authorities. They don’t participate in financial markets to build up investment income nest eggs. This is ultimately a drag on economic growth, which will hurt the retail industry.

The underground economy disfavors law-abiding people and shifts liabilities to future generations. Allowing businesses to get away with cheating makes it harder for legitimate ones to compete. The reduction in workforce participation puts upward pressure on labor costs, and places honest retailers, who collect and remit sales tax and abide by employment laws, at a price disadvantage.

The IRS claims to lack the resources to go after the tax cheats, which only makes the problem worse. When there are fewer police cars on the roads, more people speed. But how could it not be cost-effective to enforce compliance? When such a huge amount of owed taxes is not being paid, it shouldn’t take long for an IRS agent making $60,000 a year to earn the agency back his salary. We can’t afford to not force compliance. If successful, it might eventually lead to lower income tax rates for all which, as we know from history, tends to stimulate economic growth.

We need fewer regulations and red tape for businesses and households who employ people, and better enforcement of (simpler) tax laws. We need politicians to worry less about getting re-elected, and more about increasing government efficiency. And we need a level playing field that rewards success and honesty, punishes criminals, and helps people who really need help. Without these things, neither the free market nor democracy works.