State of the Union

Union graphic-01No, this isn’t the latest dispatch from the war-torn Middle East or the Ukraine, and the bunker here is a well-appointed lawyer’s office or a suite at the local Hilton.

But warfare is an apt metaphor for the endless battle surrounding labor relations and the war of words between retailers and unions—a war that is likely to escalate.

Retailing is seen as an increasingly viable route to economic development and job creation in many areas of the country, making the industry and its workers a more attractive target for union organizers. And in an industry that can have a 200% or 300% annual employee turnover rate, union organizers don’t have it easy. But sometimes things go their way. A case in point: The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which handles retail employees, got a boost from the National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision that a group of 41 cosmetics and fragrance workers at a Macy’s in Saugus, Massachusetts, could unionize. This precedent- setting decision may be a sign of things to come in retail, if unions are allowed to go after specific groups rather than having to organize an entire store.

In Southern California, the UFCW has reached a tentative accord with major supermarket chains covering 70,000 employees from the Mexican border to Monterey County, temporarily averting a debilitating walkout like the one that took place 10 years ago.

But these Californian chains will have to battle the Teamsters when negotiations begin on a new contract for drivers and warehouse workers this time next year. [Read more…]

Around the World with Paco Underhill

cooking_oilWhat We Can Learn From Emerging Markets

Merchants have a temptation to move up-market. We suspect this is a reflection of their desire to seek higher margins. While we can applaud the successes of luxury categories at the upper tier of the market, it is at the other end of the spectrum where we find insightful examples of merchant innovation. For many of the world’s consumer product goods companies, future earnings and sales growth are anchored in their ability to not only move up, but also to more effectively cover the down-market. But we may be missing some very special lessons in this traditional marketing strategy. We can learn from what’s hidden in plain sight in emerging economies by recognizing the transformation of our ideas and the ingenuity of adapting our concepts to local solutions. There is also a new wave of clever entrepreneurs who are retooling conventional retail and marketing in novel grassroots ways.

Sumba: Rethinking Trust and the Pragmatics of Third-World Recycling

The Indonesian Island of Sumba has the peculiar distinction of being the world’s southeastern-most home of the horse. Its equine culture is unique to the archipelago, and adventurous tourists invade the island for its horse festivals that involve ritual battles on horseback. Its welcoming villages are dominated by tall prehistoric megaliths, not unlike Easter Island. But in Sumba, these giant icons are made all the more startling by the vibrant human life that continues on the island, in contrast to the abandoned statues of Easter Island. Sumba has a few resorts that tend to be patronized by glitterati looking for places where the tabloids can’t find them. It is, in its way, paradise lost and found. [Read more…]

Memo from the Grinch: The Gas Price “Bonus” is an Empty Tank

RL_11-18-14_1Economists, experts, analysts, consultants, a lot of CEOs, casual observers and even my friend and CNBC regular Jan Kniffen believe lower gas prices are going to goose holiday retail sales. In what some call the “gas bonus,” this means that some $40 billion saved on fuel will end up being spent over the holidays in the nation’s retail stores. This is certainly a happy thought. On a CNBC panel the other day, Kniffen was almost giddy about it. And then when you add in a falling unemployment rate, followed by an increase in consumer confidence — at its highest level since 2007 — stock traders are already chilling the bubbly.

Once again, I find myself the naysayer. Let’s start with the gas theory. The Robin Report Chief Strategy Officer Judith Russell looked at the monthly change in gas prices and retail sales for the past eight years. And as indicated in the chart below, there is neither a significant bump up, nor down, in retail sales accompanying rising or falling gas prices. She even looked at regressions with different segments in retail, and found that there simply does not seem to be a correlation, period. In other words, the gas theory is an empty tank.

Having said that, Walmart had a slight increase in third quarter sales of .5%, for the first time since 2012, which they believe was partially due to lower gas prices. So, one may conclude that the entire discount sector will gain from the gas bonus, putting more cash in its lower-income consumers’ pockets. On the other hand, one might conclude, as I did, that Walmart is clawing back its customers whom they lost to the thousands of smaller neighborhood dollar stores during the recession when gas prices were high and low-income shoppers had a shorter ride to those local stores, thus saving fuel costs. In fact, Walmart said in its 3Q conference call that the Walmart Express strategy (smaller footprint convenient neighborhood stores) is beginning to facilitate their clawback of market share from the dollar stores.

Therefore, this hypothesis would suggest that rather than the gas bonus lifting total spending among low-income consumers across the entire discount sector, it’s simply shifting shares around within the sector.

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

If consumers do take their fuel savings and decide to spend them, while the discount retail sector may minimally benefit, it’s more likely they will spend more on health care and entertainment, as well as home improvement. And since income growth is flat, they could just as well decide to save the gas “bonus.” In fact, the savings rate has been ticking up.

And there was certainly no additional gas bonus spending among the mid-to-higher income consumer segments. In fact, Macy’s CFO, Karen Hoguet told analysts a week ago, “shoppers are spending more of their disposable dollars on categories we don’t sell, like cars, health care, electronics and home improvement.”

Lastly, the low overall inflation rate, even disinflation in some major merchandise categories, is allowing consumers to get more value for their money, which doesn’t result in an increase in sales, because they’re not buying more stuff per se. Consumers and particularly the growing Millennial cohort are shifting toward a “less is more” mentality, eschewing buying more stuff to seeking more experiential satisfaction out of life, which is why restaurant sales and entertainment spending are strong. And now with a strong dollar, we might see people opt to travel more often. So these dynamics, much of which has to do with a demographic and cultural shift, will also divert any part of the gas bonus that might have made its way into mainstream retailing.

The final word: dream all you want about getting your hands on a piece of the $40 billion gas bonus, but when you wake up on January 1st with a hangover, it won’t be due to the bubbly that the stock traders are currently chilling. It will be due to the fact that the dream was really a nightmare about the passing gas bonus, pun intended).

Walmart Collateral Damage

iStock_000043854262LargeWhat if Walmart opened a big fleet of new-format stores and no one came?

We might find out really soon. After years of tinkering with its small-format, food driven Neighborhood Market model, Walmart has started to roll them out in earnest. There are now about 350 Neighborhood Markets and Walmart expects to open them at the rate of about 200 per year, ultimately achieving about 2,000 stores.

At about 40,000 square feet each, Neighborhood Markets are integral to Walmart’s strategy for future growth. Its main store model, the huge food and nonfood supercenter, needs a boost since it has just about reached market saturation and is facing dwindling consumer engagement.

And in an unexpected twist, Neighborhood Markets in many areas are pulling dollars from the pockets of the same supercenters shoppers, so net sales increases aren’t growing at the anticipated rate. In fact, Walmart’s net sales are actually dropping in some areas. And guess what? Local supermarket operators are starting to relax about the competitive threat Neighborhood Markets pose. [Read more…]

Wellness on the Verge of a Revolution

shutterstock_185901890The past 50 years have seen a transition in healthcare from the Marcus Welby model of a kindly physician taking charge, even ownership, of a patient’s well-being to a phenomenon called participatory medicine, where physicians play the role of senior, expert collaborators with an individual in their plan for health.

In the past, the medico/hospito/pharmaco players were gatekeepers who doled out medical information and care with schedules at places that served their needs. Today’s patients demand greater and more convenient access to health information and medical care. They want care to be provided with the convenience of any other retail service. Simply said, they want it now, wherever they want it… now.

Healthcare On Demand

An early manifestation of “retail” convenience in healthcare was the standalone, limited service clinic. This movement began in the workplace with employers contracting with companies such as CHS Health Services to operate health clinics. These services have offered free services to employees as a benefit, and for the employer as a means to reduce absenteeism and healthcare costs. CHS, newly merged with Walgreens-owned Take Care, operates more than 500 workplace clinics for major US companies. [Read more…]

Whole Foods Market: Conscious Capitalism or Unconscious Greed?

wholefoods_webSo are we adding a luxury food brand to the “designer derby” of racers seeking more growth (for its own sake) by reaching down to consumers who are reaching up? Or is the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, spreading his high-end food among the masses at prices they can afford, simply out of the goodness of his democratic heart? I’m speaking of the Whole Foods launch of pilot stores in more down-tier areas of Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago’s South Side. And about this strategy, Mackey made this rather magnanimous and altruistic statement: “For every penny we cut off the price, we reach more people who can afford to shop with us.”

What a wonderful thing to say. And, what a wonderful thing to do for the less well-heeled people living where the stores are being launched. And I suppose it will be a wonderful thing for new growth, at least for the foreseeable future. [Read more…]

Amazon: Trouble in River City?

Or Wall Street’s Magical Leprechaun

Amazon Unveils Its First SmartphoneJeff Bezos does have that “Leprechaunish” look about him. Wall Street certainly bought into the fable that Mr. Bezos (symbolically toiling over his “shoe making”) would deliver a pot of gold at the end of some yet to be defined rainbow. For 17 years, the Street has believed in his magic ever since he wrote in his SEC filing in 1997: “The Company believes that it will incur substantial operating losses for the foreseeable future, and that the rate at which such losses will be incurred will increase significant from current levels.” He also stated that he wouldn’t run the company to make profits, rather he would pour investment into growing the business to “get big fast.” Wall Street took a deep breath and bought into his strategy, hook, line and sinker. The Street believed that at some unknown distant point in time, and at the end of some rainbow, the Leprechaun would magically deliver his pot of gold.

Well, talk about “substantial operating losses” (which Amazon has lived up to for these past 17 years), this recent second quarter earnings report, revealing a net loss of $126 million, takes the cake. Worse, Amazon rather flippantly, with no explanation as to why, says it will lose between $410 and $810 million in the current quarter. Pot of gold? It’s more like a pot of coal. [Read more…]

Housekeeping

Houskeeping_Collage_FinalThe summer is usually not a time for great reflection: more often most of us spend as much time as possible getting away from the real world, via vacations, trashy novels and the latest super-duper hero movie sequel. But for some reason, it seemed like the right moment to revisit some of the many retailers of home furnishings that have been injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected in this space over the past few years. Many of the stores have experienced some pretty important developments since last encountered, some for the better, many for the worse. So, in no particular order – OK, maybe in some order – lets see what these guys have been up to.

Target

What a mess they’ve made in Minneapolis recently. A big-time security breach of Snowdean proportions; a Canadian launch best described as the Great White North – Not; bad comps; and a CEO forced out of his corner office via the self-checkout line, Target is in free fall right now. [Read more…]

Dear Doug – An Open Letter to Doug McMillon, the New President & CEO of Walmart

doug-mcmillon-in-store

By now you’ve been in the corner cubicle in beautiful downtown Bentonville for a few weeks, so congratulations on being only the fifth president in the history of Walmart. It’s a big job, running the largest retailer — hell, the largest anything — in the world and you’ve got millions of employees and billions of customers depending on you to do a good job.

No pressure, really.

But you also sit in perhaps the most revered seat in American retailing, the one once occupied by Mr. Sam himself, the man whose name is over the front door, the guy who put most of the stores in the United States out of business, and the hovering spirit who continues to both inspire and haunt everything and everybody at Walmart. But Doug, you and Sam Walton also have one other thing in common: you’re the only merchants ever to run Walmart.

And therein lies the greatest hope for a very troubled company. You see Doug, as you know better than anybody, Walmart is not quite what it seems to be. You know how certain businesses appear to be one thing and are actually another? Like movie theaters fronting as places to show films when in fact they are giant popcorn and snack emporiums? Or furniture stores appearing to be selling couches and credenzas when they are really finance companies charging usury rates that would embarrass organized crime? [Read more…]

Three Strikes and He’s Out!

FINAL-target-imageStrike One

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…]

Made Up in the USA

Made In The USAWhen Walmart announced last year it was going to launch a major push on domestically-made products—helping to fund some of the suppliers, in fact – it set off a jingoistic feeding frenzy.

All of a sudden everybody and his shopping brother was envisioning a plethora of product produced right here in the good old U.S. of A. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon, of course, visions of full employment and happy voters in their heads.

It was a wonderful story. And it would have been even more wonderful if it were actually true.

Because any discussion of wide-scale manufacturing returning to the United States needs to be put into context…and reality First off, this isn’t Walmart’s first manufacturing renaissance rodeo. Way back in the days of Mr. Sam, Made in the USA banners hung proudly in virtually every store the company owned. Many went so far as to single out exactly where the products were made, highlighting those in the immediate proximity of individual stores. [Read more…]

Amazon Acquires Sears

amazon-sears_Rd.1If you have any doubts, just wake up and think about it. It’s a win-win for both Jeff “Get Big Fast” Bezos and Eddie “Take the Money and Run” Lampert. Amazon gets roughly 2400 US stores (or “buildings”), overnight (1300 Sears, 1100 Kmart). The acquisition becomes Bezos’ answer to omnichannel and the proven revenue synergy of consumers’ ability to shop online and off; the convenience of proximity for pick up and returns; and facilitation of even greater delivery speed. So just as Walmart’s 4500 stores double as distribution centers, so would Amazon’s acquired Sears/Kmart stores.

The real estate assets would be the primary reason for Amazon’s interest in acquiring Sears Holdings. However, there are several other valuable assets and operations, which Amazon could enhance and grow. [Read more…]