Target’s continued struggles with groceries and supply chain

I’ve combined a couple of recent RetailWire comments here — first about changes at the top of Target’s grocery business, and second about new hires on the logistics front — to reflect my concern that the company continues to have problems executing. First, about food:

It’s hard to judge Ms. Dament’s performance based on less than 18 months on the job and the possibly insurmountable challenge she faces. Maybe she underperformed, maybe it was a bad cultural fit or strategic clash –who knows? Anybody trying to turn this around quickly has not been dealt a winning hand.

Brian Cornell wrote off the Target Canada fiasco very quickly, but I’m not sure he can walk away from the grocery business so easily. The company spent billions on remodels and infrastructure to establish the business, and it doesn’t appear to have a replacement strategy waiting in the wings.

But how does Target fix it? It’s not a “top of mind” business and doesn’t have the critical mass needed to draw weekly shoppers. Perhaps Target should hire somebody from a more disruptive grocer (think Aldi or Trader Joe’s) who can offer up a more innovative, curated approach to the category.

Second, about logistics:

I’m no expert on supply chain management, but it’s clear that Target recognizes a logistics problem when it hires executives from two of the best in the business — first Amazon and now Walmart. I also don’t know whether Target has spent competitively over the years on logistics (compared to its competitors) but this is a longstanding issue. One of the biggest problems that doomed Target Canada was its inability to keep the store shelves filled, and anybody who shops Target regularly sees plenty of empty pegs on a regular basis.

Target has long pushed the idea of inventory turnover at the expense of satisfactory in-stock rates. If their new hires can accomplish both goals, more power to them….but the company needs to commit to higher service levels first, not just more speed and lower cost.

Can JCP keep expanding Sephora?

Penney has been aggressive about expanding Sephora shops to its full- and mid-sized stores, even while rebounding from its missteps in 2012-2013. The question posed on RetailWire is whether JCP should expand the concept to its small-town, small-footprint locations. Here’s my take:

I regularly shop a midsized JCP store in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. (The home of Kohl’s headquarters…not coincidentally.) Penney built this and other roughly 90,000 square foot locations before the Ron Johnson era, to see if it could operate Kohl’s-sized off-mall stores successfully. This location does contain a Sephora shop, although not as big as the one just installed at a local anchor store in a Simon mall.

I think it’s essential that Penney and Sephora develop a more “curated” version of their collaboration for the many even smaller JCP stores around the country. It’s arguably the most successful part of Penney’s business for the past several years; in many of the smaller communities where these stores are located, Sephora will be the only game in town for shoppers who want more than their local discounter can offer.

Should Bass and Cabela’s maintain separate brand identities?

Bass is acquiring Cabela’s, and one key question it faces is whether to keep separate branding for the two giant outdoor goods retailers. Here’s my thought, as recently posted on RetailWire:

I think it’s arguable that Macy’s made the right call over the long haul, as the only traditional department store with a national footprint. It was important to create brand equity for the “Macy’s” name instead of trying to support a bunch of nameplates with regional appeal. (Bon Ton Stores, on the other hand, decided that “localized” brand identity was a better tactic.)

In the case of Bass and Cabela’s, I think both brands are worth maintaining. These are superstores usually drawing from large trade areas, and not necessarily in direct competition with each other — and both companies with loyal customer bases. There is no point in shutting down the Cabela’s brand in the short term when there will be plenty of other merger-related challenges to deal with first.

Is the pendulum swinging back on early Thanksgiving openings?

I’ve argued for awhile that earlier and earlier Black Friday (or Thursday) openings are counterproductive. Here are some recent thoughts posted on RetailWire:

Some of the biggest players (Walmart, Target, Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney and Best Buy) still plan to open on Thanksgiving. But the pendulum is swinging back, and the Mall of America’s announcement that it plans to close on Thursday will be a major influence on other mall operators. It seems clear that the push for earlier “early bird” hours on Black Friday (followed by midnight openings, followed by Thursday openings) has had a diminishing effect on sales — by draining any sense of urgency out of Friday morning shopping. (And the availability of goods online hasn’t helped, either.)

It’s hard for the retailers who insist on being open for Thanksgiving to be the first one to blink, but it seems clear that consumer sentiment is tugging them in that direction.

And this more recent post:

While the reports of the death of Black Friday are greatly exaggerated, there is no doubt that it’s lost importance on the retail calendar. The shift to e-commerce is part of the reason, but the bigger cause is retailers’ greediness in pushing their “early bird” hours earlier and earlier and finally opening on Thanksgiving itself.

My long experience working for a company that knew how to “nail” Black Friday tells me that the event was once as much a social occasion as a way to hunt for deals. Opening earlier and earlier never seems to result in more net sales but actually becomes counterproductive when any sense of urgency about “early birds” flies out the window.

Boomers’ spending: Less stuff, more life

It’s fascinating to join discussions (like the following from RetailWire) about changing consumption patterns. One of the biggest? Baby boomers like me:

Retailers will continue to have opportunities to sell products related to health, wellness and fitness as Boomers try to chase their imagined “youth” well into their 70’s. But the overall premise of the conversation is correct: Boomers seem to be less interested in accumulating more “stuff” and more engaged in travel, dining and leisure. (This can extend to consumption of technology, another opportunity for retailers.) Their disposable income is also being pinched by rising healthcare costs.

At some point most people decide to spend on life experiences “while they can” rather than more possessions, unless those purchases are for their children and grandchildren. But even multigenerational spending is likely to be geared toward family “experiences” in the future…not a new phenomenon, by the way, even though we Boomers think we’re the first to undergo anything.

What matters more: Merchandising or marketing?

I realize the answer probably depends on your background in retailing, but you can tell from my RetailWire comment that I have a point of view on this one:

With all due credit to marketing consistency, I think it’s overrated as the key driver of customer loyalty — at least in this survey. Communicating to customers — wherever they look for marketing messages — is an important building block in branding, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Marketing needs to function alongside merchandise content, pricing strategies, customer service and so forth — and in a consistent way with the other pieces of the retail puzzle — in order to turn a satisfied customer into a committed one.

By the way, since retailers are in the business of selling goods and services…isn’t merchandise content (the right product in stock when the customer wants it) the most important attribute? If stores don’t execute this, does marketing matter?

NRF’s 2016 fourth-quarter forecast: Blue skies ahead?

I published the following comment on RetailWire after the NRF forecast a 3.6% sales increase for Q4 but before the outcome of this week’s election:

If somebody tracked the annual NRF holiday forecast compared to actual results, I think they would find that this trade organization is consistently too optimistic. I feel the same way about their 2016 number.

And does their number include surging growth by e-commerce retailers, especially Amazon, or strictly brick-and-mortar and multichannel retailers like Macy’s? There isn’t much evidence from the numbers we’ve seen all year (especially from midtier retailers) to expect a sudden surge in demand. Some retailers have especially easy comparisons to 2015 (which will help), but I’d be pleasantly surprised to see numbers beyond the 2-3% range.

And I’m adding a couple of other comments posted just before and just after the election:

Consumer confidence measures are rising, along with the GDP, but the rosy forecasts for 4th quarter sales still feel high. General merchandisers are likely to benefit from soft comparisons and colder weather than last year, but there is nothing in the sales trends so far this year pointing to a huge comeback. There also isn’t much evidence of a big merchandise idea or key item likely to drive customers to stores.

Without tipping my hand, I also believe that next Tuesday’s election results could provide a “relief rally” by providing some closure one way or the other. Of course, I said the same thing before the 2000 election…

Now, a post-election post-mortem:

I’m trying to set aside ideology here, because the split verdict on the election leaves voters uncertain on both sides. Will Mr. Trump live up to his harshest platform promises or try to moderate his views? Today, nobody knows whether the answer to that question will chill 4th quarter sales or stimulate them.

So the only way to answer this over the long haul is to look at the economic impact on consumers. Tax cuts and infrastructure spending are good for businesses and consumers but (on the other hand) protectionism and tariffs will lead to higher prices. And any effort to restrict (or reverse) immigration patterns will stall the population growth that our economy depends on.

Finally, the plans to “repeal and replace” the ACA may have a huge impact. On one hand, lower costs benefit consumers and small businesses; on the other hand, if millions lose insurance coverage they will face an economic threat that will crimp their spending for the foreseeable future.