Sears opens appliance/mattress stores

RetailWire panelists discussed Sears’ plans to open stores specializing in nothing but major appliances and mattresses. While this may have been a solid strategy 20 years ago, count me as a skeptic given Sears’ issues today:

It’s hard to picture anything solving the Sears problem at this point. The company just announced the closure of a mall anchor here in Milwaukee (after closing another anchor over a year ago), leaving it with just one full-line store here. I’m sure the story is being duplicated around the country, at the same time that Sears has been closing (not opening) appliance-only franchise stores.

Sears’ legitimate franchise in appliances is evaporating as it continues to shrink its footprint and sell off its key brand (like Kenmore). The appliance space is crowded with competitors, now including major investments by Amazon and JCPenney. And who needs another place to buy mattresses, especially given the growth of online sales?

Is Amazon Prime Wardrobe another disruptive move?

Amazon is introducing a new feature for Prime members: Risk-free trial of several apparel items with the ability to return what you don’t like. (And price incentives to keep more of what you chose.) RetailWire panelists mostly see this as another Amazon “game changer,” but I view it a bit differently as their response to the lack of physical stores:

If Amazon aspires to be the top seller of apparel in the U.S. (and it’s already getting close), it needs to add a “try before you buy” feature to keep driving more Prime memberships. It’s responding to the challenge of concepts like Trunk Club — but it’s also acknowledging its lack of a physical footprint. Think about it — stores like Kohl’s and Macy’s already have huge numbers of brick-and-mortar locations where you can return unwanted clothing that you bought online. This may be a rare case where Amazon responds to a competitive weakness in its formula.

Why did Walmart acquire Bonobos?

In case you missed it (among the front-page coverage of Amazon and Whole Foods), Walmart acquired men’s online retailer Bonobos last week. RetailWire panelists weighed in on the pluses and minuses of the move, and here’s my take:

The news about Walmart and Bonobos was overshadowed by the Amazon headline on Friday, and understandably so because of the sheer scope and boldness of the Whole Foods acquisition. But Walmart’s news deserves some attention on its own.

This is another case where Walmart is buying a brand that offers more digital expertise and product development skill than the company appears able to build on its own. But there is a disconnect between Walmart’s brand image and the customers who are shopping Bonobos today. Chances are good that the majority of Whole Foods customers are already Amazon Prime members too. How much overlap exists between Bonobos and Walmart, and will the association with Walmart chase away Bonobos’s most loyal consumers?

On Amazon’s bid for Whole Foods

Talk about breaking news: RetailWire panelists had a chance today to weigh in on the announcement of Amazon’s bid to acquire Whole Foods. While many panelists see it as a way for Amazon to gain a bigger toehold in brick-and-mortar retail, I view it differently:

First, the move can help grow Amazon’s brick-and-mortar footprint, but it’s more about taking the Whole Foods brand to every household in America that may order groceries from Amazon. It gives Amazon’s fresh food businesses (meat, produce, organics) instant credibility in homes without a Whole Foods location in sight.

As to the skeptics about whether Amazon can handle the logistics — can they deliver organic produce and Cheerios at the same time — this is the smartest logistics management company in the world that we’re talking about.

Finally, Amazon has a longstanding willingness to lose money in a new business where it is trying to grow market share. The days of “Whole Paycheck” may be over.

Has data science killed the art of marketing?

RetailWire presents a deliberate (and provocative) false choice to its panelists today: Does the growth of data science mean that marketing and advertising have lost their creative touch? I disagree with the argument, and here’s my point of view:

It’s easy to romanticize the “good old days” of marketing and advertising — think of Don Draper cliffside, coming up with his greatest inspiration — but the reality is that data science has always played a role. (It used to be called marketing research.) The fact that data collection and analysis is far more sophisticated today doesn’t diminish the importance of creativity and instinct. Marketing is in part the art of creating an emotional link through brand equity, but it needs the grounding in facts and results that data science can provide.

JCP today, fitness center tomorrow?

The Simon development group is taking a three-level JCP store — soon to close at Southdale Center outside Minneapolis — and redeveloping the space as a fitness center. I’m among the RetailWire panelists discussing this smart “reinvention” strategy that can be applied to malls around the country:

Creating a fitness center out of an existing mall anchor is a creative way to reinvent excess real estate — instead of waiting for another retail tenant or tenants to energe (unlikely) in today’s overspaced environment. I’ve been in the JCP store in question and it was grossly overspaced for the volume it probably generated during the last few years.

Students of retail history (and Minnesota natives like me) know that Southdale was the first fully enclosed regional mall in the U.S. It served its purpose as a retail mecca — and community center — for many years, but the mix of anchors and nearby competition from Mall of America has made it less relevant in its current form. So the Simon team deserves credit for finding new reasons for people to come to Southdale and other malls like it.

Does “free shipping” have to be a money pit?

A quick comment from RetailWire about free shipping and whether it is destined to be a money-losing proposition for most retailers:

Retailers have competed over e-commerce free shipping for a number of years, so it’s hard to envision the genie being put back into the bottle. (Customer expectations are hard to unwind, after all, when they are given a benefit for free.) The trick that Amazon seems to be mastering is the trade-off between speed and cost. Even Prime members may pay extra for same-day or next-day delivery compared to truly free shipping for an item showing up in two days; the shoppers figure out the value equation that matters to them. But will competing retailers take advantage of the solution that Amazon is providing to them?