Technology Doesn’t Change People, People Do

speed kills_FinalPardon me for using the “guns don’t kill people” metaphor. But people are now using the incredible power of technology and the Internet in ways that are disruptively changing our entire culture: some of it awesomely positive, but some of it ominously negative. The myriad of positive effects is accelerating on a daily basis, immediately recognizable as providing “better, easier, quicker, more convenient, more sustainable, more experiential” and on and on. Yet, in my opinion, there is a darker side that threatens to alter our culture in a very negative way.

Today, humans are born with a mouse in one hand and a smartphone in the other. “Digital” is the ‘D’ in our DNA. That is to say that as we evolve generationally, the importance and utility in our lives of newspapers, books, libraries, movie theaters, concert halls, designers and on and on, become irrelevant. Exaggerating a little bit, but you are getting my drift; and we are, indeed, participating in this cultural evolution whether we want to or not. [Read more...]

Growth by Foreign Expansion

dm_hebLittle-Known H-E-B Shows the Way

As the post-recession era drags on, the dynamics of retailing are changing, adjusting to the new normal.

As we’ve seen lately in the pages of the Robin Report, some retailers that didn’t fare any too well in the recession are circling the wagons and shedding retail units. Opportunistically, those sites are being picked up by resiient retailers that survived the recession. What we’re seeing is the classic case of the big getting bigger and stronger, and the weak continuing on a downward trajectory. Is it simply survival of the fittest? Or poor strategic planning?

There’s another path to growth that’s increasingly being considered by clever American retailers, namely international expansion. Some retailers have long had a presence beyond America’s borders; McDonalds and Starbucks have led the way. Others are making the leap for the first time or expanding into more countries, including Bloomingdale’s, Urban Outfitters, J. Crew, Ralph Lauren, and Gap.

Yet, one strange anomaly persists in the world of retailing — and stranger still, it concerns the largest and most widespread retailing of all — food retailing, or, to be more precise, conventional supermarkets. [Read more...]

The Meaning of Time

SONY DSCAll of us move through our lives with a clock ticking inside our heads. Even in troubled economic situations, time, rather than money, is our most important commodity. That clock tends to tick at relative degrees of loudness. You can meet a friend at Garden State Plaza Mall for the afternoon, and the clock ticks softly, a kind of shopping therapy. At the same mall another time, you want to get in and out as fast as you can. In other words, the meaning of time can change.

My mother was relieved when a 7-Eleven opened a location close to our suburban home in the 1950s. The idea of buying milk for a young family any time of day was a godsend, even if she did have reservations about both the price and quality. Ask a Millennial today where they buy milk, and you get an eclectic list; the drug store, the grocery store, the convenience store, the mass merchant, even the office product superstore sometimes stocks milk. In parts of Europe, you can even buy milk at roadside vending machines. [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 $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.


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.

Musings on Who’s Really Addressing the Aging

Robin_Report_Sep2013_stock3America’s Care Providers

My mother died two weeks ago at age 90. She had been diagnosed with Dementia 10 years ago. Her slide into darkness was heartbreaking. Even at the end, part of her remembered who she was; an alpha female with a long history of public service and 50 years of marriage to a successful diplomat and Cold War warrior. When my father, her husband, died of leukemia in 1999, he had been in full command of his faculties. We suspected he planned his death as carefully as he negotiated treaties. It was so different from witnessing my mother over the last months clinging to life in the face of discomfort and confusion. Aging doesn’t always look like the brochures for retirement homes or annuities.

My mother had felt abandoned by her husband’s death. I gather this is an emotion that is not uncommon in a close marriage. She moved from the family compound to a new condo, and the decline started. She totaled her car and was found to have both an expired license and lapsed car registration. The local Baptist minister was driving the car she hit, and thanks to small town ecumenicalism, she was forgiven. But we took away her car keys. The next nine years were difficult. In our family, like so many American families, the burden of elder care fell on my sister. I was just the supporting cast. My sister often described herself as being inside a care provider sandwich – with our mother and her own teenagers as the slices of bread. [Read more...]

Not Too Big to Fail?

Consumer Insights From MasterCard Advisors

The Emergence of the Small Store Format

Robin_Report_Sep2013_stock6We’ve heard much talk about the waning era of the “big box.” In 2012, we saw many headlines relating to planned store closures by Best Buy, with similar stories for Sears and Office Depot, among others. More recently, of course, J.C. Penney made mega headlines. In all, from the announcements of just five Big Box retailers, anything from 1100 to 1350 big boxes could be shuttered over the next year or so.

Maybe this is not necessarily a bad thing. In some cases, we are seeing some of that big box space being reincarnated as two smaller stores instead of one. And from this, a pattern seems to be emerging, with growing retail buzz around how to make stores smaller, more selective, highly curated – in short, create a better customer experience.

Jonathon Graub, a principal in the Philadelphia office of A&G Realty Partners, specialists in the strategic consolidation and reassignment of store leases, confirms the smaller store trend. He attributes it in part to the lack of availability of large spaces in prime areas and the speed with which a chain can get to market when it enters with a smaller store format. But we must also factor in the continued growth of online commerce – Internet pureplays which desire a brick-and-mortar presence, while current brick-and-mortar chains may find there’s less need for larger spaces as their online businesses expand. [Read more...]

Big Data “Has No Clothes”


It’s a strange world and these are strange times we are living in. We witness nerdy Edward Snowden, outing and vilifying the NSA for seeking to make the world’s population transparent, while at the same time making himself transparent to the entire world. And, I suspect at some level, he’s been quite enjoying his sudden (transparent) notoriety, however controversial it might be.

Yet the irony of Snowden’s purpose in outing the NSA is that his fellow Millennials seem to live, breathe and happily embrace transparency in everything they do, from posting every flake of cereal they ate on Facebook, or tweeting about the bug that just ran across their desk, or “I’m walking down the street now,” and, of course, the height of transparency, “sexting” (which, I know is not confined to Millennials – witness Anthony Weiner).

So, Snowden believes the NSA is invading the privacy rights of citizens, while a whole generation (his, and commercially, the most important for the retail industry), has expanded the acceptance of transparency in their lives, almost beyond limit.

Snowden’s purpose and fate are beyond my pay grade, but the irony of “bad” big data (“Big Brother”) according to Snowden, and “good” big data, apparently welcomed by his cohorts, did not escape me. And the discussion of big data could not be more timely. It is the buzzword of the day, almost replacing “omni-channel.” [Read more...]

Retailers Use Technology to Get a Leg Up With Customers

The Robin ReportToday, there is a seismic shift in consumer behavior affecting the retail world—and it’s being driven by technology. Likewise, retailers’ success hinges on an organizational ability to quickly adapt to, and actively integrate these new technologies as they infiltrate the marketplace. With brick-and-mortar retailers at risk of marginalization at the hands of “showrooming” consumers, or those who intend to purchase the merchandise for the best price online, there is no doubt that retailers feel the pressure to enhance their in-store experiences and keep the online sale in their own ecosystem. Here are some technology trends that retailers are adopting to engage the increasingly fickle customer: [Read more...]

MK is no LV: It’s Not Coach Either

Is this any way to manage a Jet Set brand? Maybe, if you’re looking for a quick exit.

Listening to Michael Kors CFO Joe Parsons speak at ICR on January 16, 2013 on the Kors Jet Set aesthetic—spanning wings, wheels and water—I was reminded of the brand Louis Vuitton, also rooted in luxury travel.

iStock_000019271426MediumI make the comparison to Louis Vuitton for several reasons, beginning with its origins as a provider of luggage in the 1850s. In October 2010, I visited Paris (not just because I love to travel… and I especially love Paris) to see the installation of a Coach shop-in-shop at the Printemps flagship on Boulevard Haussmann, and do a store tour of Ralph Lauren’s new Left Bank flagship on Boulevard Saint-Germain. While I was there, I visited the Musée Carnavalet (the museum of the history of Paris). I never quite understood the fascination and demand for Louis Vuitton until I walked through the museum’s exhibit, Voyage en Capitale, Louis Vuitton & Paris.

On exhibit were the tailor-made trunks for nobility, celebrity and the wealthy. The exhibit told the brand story rooted in travel, a phenomenon that excites the imagination with the romance of new places and people, and different cultures and experiences. What holds more allure than travel? At the show, I discovered the basis of the brand’s aspirational DNA, which combines best-of-class quality and aesthetic with fashion’s excitement and superior execution at every touch point.

Is Michael Kors brand association with Jet Set travel designed to be the LV of the 21st Century? [Read more...]

QA with Eric C. Wiseman, Chairman, President and CEO of VF Corporation

The Robin Report - Eric WisemanROBIN LEWIS So, right off the bat, how the heck can one person run a $10 to $12 billion company?

ERIC WISEMAN You can’t! VF has been, and I hope always will be, a team sport. When I look at the leadership teams around VF there’s no question that we have really talented people, but we don’t have “superstars.” What we do have is people who work extremely well together, who compliment each others talents, and who are committed to the teams success. That dynamic drives whatever success we’ve had. And, since you know me pretty well, you obviously know that I’m not capable of “running” VF….if I was I’d have a much different balance in my life.

RL So, Eric, the numbers on VF under your watch as CEO speak for themselves, and they would say you’re doing a great job.

EW For about five years now, since we’ve changed directions corporately, we’ve been executing on the right things. So, when you execute against the right things it generally works for you.

RL Going into the last half of this year against a rather negative global and U.S. economic backdrop, do you want to revise your earlier 15% growth projection for 2012, or at least hedge your bets, and if so, in what areas of the business? [Read more...]

How to Get a Bigger Share of Foreign Visitors’ Wallets

The current economy poses challenges for all merchants, but stresses on brick and mortar stores are particularly heightened. The wave of closures that accompanied the Great Recession was only the start of a protracted move for chains to reduce their excess amounts of retail square footage; according to many retail analysts, America remains significantly “over-stored.” At the same time, the rapid and steady rise of e-commerce makes for greater displacement, with increasing numbers of Americans preferring to do their shopping from their homes or offices, or even from their phones. Brick and mortar stores, it seems, are left to duke it out for their share of an at-best limited domestic pie.

Fortunately, that domestic pie is not all there is. Foreign tourists and business travelers have been finding America to be the Golden Land — of shopping, anyway — and overwhelmingly they are not doing that shopping online but in person, in brick and mortar stores. What this means is that merchants can leverage cross-border spending to drive U.S. domestic sales as well as share growth, if they can find a way to target and keep those foreign customers. Key to building a cross-border strategy is an understanding of where to focus merchant efforts. That is, merchants must now put the same kind of effort into identifying and understanding their foreign customers as they do their shoppers here at home. [Read more...]