Archive for the 'Corporate culture' Category

Did L.L. Bean need to change its return policy?

L.L. Bean got plenty of publicity when it announced a change to its longstanding policy of “no questions asked” returns. Apparently the cost of abusive returns (products bought at yard sales, twenty-year-old clothing with normal wear and tear) was an unsustainable cost of doing business — to the tune of a reported $50 million annually. The RetailWire panel discussed whether this was a good strategic move, and here’s my point of view:

L.L. Bean is among the last retailers to abandon “no questions asked” return policies. The company is right that abuses of the policy make it unsustainable. A cost of $50 million per year has been reported, although it’s not clear whether this is the cost of “abusive” returns or all returns. I’ve noticed other companies with generous policies (Kohl’s, for example) tightening their processes, in part to avoid being swamped by e-commerce returns to physical stores.

Loyal shoppers will not be put off by the change, but L.L.Bean took a PR hit because of widespread media coverage. There was a missed opportunity to manage the message more effectively, even if the decision was justified, given that the policy was a central branding message.

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Reflecting on the impact of IKEA

Most of the obituaries of IKEA’s recently deceased founder focused on his background, but RetailWire panelists reflected instead on what the store’s operating model has meant to the world of retail. Here are my thoughts on IKEA’s impact and the store experience:

IKEA revolutionized furniture and home furnishings retailing in several ways. It developed a low-cost operating and sourcing culture that passed along savings to its customers, developing an almost cult-like global reputation in the process. For all the jokes about the difficulty of assembling IKEA furniture, there is no doubt that millions of customers own home furnishings of decent quality that would once have been out of reach.

As to the in-store experience, I shopped the IKEA at the Mall of America last summer and it seemed noticeably easier to navigate than I remembered. (And yet I worked my way through the entire store.) Maybe IKEA has taken seriously the critique that its shoppers are like lab mice lost in a maze.

And yes to the meatballs…but don’t miss the lingonberry preserves near the checkout lanes!

Retailers’ comfort level with change

Hiring people comfortable with the fast pace of change, and able to adapt to uncertainty, has always been a critical part of the retail equation. On RetailWire, I add this point about how technology is speeding the pace of change:

Technology and the growth of e-commerce have accelerated the pace, but retailing has always needed attract talent who are comfortable with change. An attitude of “We’ve always done it this way” or “This worked last year” is the kiss of death when most retailers’ fate is in the hands of their customers. While retailers don’t want to be purely reactive and tactical, they do need to attract associates with the sense of urgency needed to move quickly.

No, “Big Data” isn’t dead

A recent RetailWire discussion (with the premise that “Big Data” is dead as a retailing management tool) provoked a lot of response. My point of view is that data science combined with action is alive and well:

If you read the recent WSJ interview with the chairman of Fast Retailing (Uniqlo), you might have seen this perceptive comment: “Data would never substitute the merchant. How do you interpret the data? That’s the merchant’s skill set. You need to uncover the insight that is buried in the data and the merchants need to uncover it. Even if you employ artificial intelligence to help you, the numbers [don’t tell] the future.” His point is well taken: No matter how much importance a retail organization places on its ability to extract data from its transactions, the information means nothing if it can’t be turned into action — and some of that decision-making rests on instinct and experience.

That being said, declaring that “Big Data is dead” is an overreaction. The phrase itself may be overused, but data science is alive and well in the interest of smarter merchandising decisions, loyalty programs and so forth. Would Amazon be where it is today without groundbreaking use of data to develop its predictive technology? I don’t think so.

Amazon pushes Whole Foods toward centralization

There has been plenty of comment — most of it critical — about Amazon’s intention to centralize its merchandising of the Whole Foods stores. Most of the critics are concerned that the lack of local brand advocacy will turn Whole Foods into something very different. Here’s my RetailWire comment on that topic, followed by a comment about what Kroger is doing in response:

Centralized buying will bring economies of scale that allow Whole Foods to compete more effectively on price and on execution. But competitors (Kroger, I believe, is one example) are already opening the door to local vendors in response to the Whole Foods move.

Let’s not forget, however, that Amazon is the master of data science when it comes to retail management. Just because they are tightening the screws on the buying process doesn’t mean that they will ignore local preferences. In fact, they are likely to do a better job of allocating space and replenishing goods to meet individual stores’ tastes than Whole Foods ever dreamed of.

And now my comment about Kroger’s announcement that it is encouraging more local vendors:

Whether this was a pre-existing strategy or a reaction to the Whole Foods “centralization” news, it’s a good idea especially for grocers with national scale to pay attention to local preferences. As I said last week, however, don’t assume that Amazon will ignore this issue just because it is trying to find cost savings in the Whole Foods model in order to compete.

Amazon is the leader in using data science to determine consumer preferences, and I expect this to extend to their assortment planning in individual Whole Foods stores. If Kroger intends to compete, it will want to support its “local” initiative with great execution of in-stock levels.

 

Discounting finds the cosmetics department

A topic near to my heart, from a recent RetailWire panel discussion:

Speaking as a former buyer of cosmetics (going back to 1980) and then as a merchandise manager with oversight of the category, the beauty business has been the last refuge of full-price selling in department stores. But the temptation to put these goods on sale has migrated from discount stores and mass merchants to those department stores — with the added impact of Sephora, Ulta and online sales. And like anything else related to price promotion, retailers will find it hard to stop taking this particular drug once they start.

A long time ago, cosmetics fed off the traffic that the traditional department stores enjoyed. Then they became “headquarters” businesses in their own right given the strength of brands like Lauder, Clinique and Lancome. Eventually customers were trained to “wait for the gift-with-purchase,” just as they were trained to “wait for the sale” elsewhere in the store.

Those legacy brands are aging, just like the legacy department stores that carry them. This pattern is being repeated throughout the retail industry and the entire CPG world. So the conventional wisdom — that discounting cosmetics will only commoditize the business — may be true but may not be relevant anymore.

Should customers pay extra for service?

RetailWire recently posted an online discussion — about whether customers will pay an upcharge for customer service — that triggered plenty of comment. My perspective follows, and it is based on the idea that there is more than one way to define “service”:

To answer the question, you have to define “customer service” differently for different kinds of retailers. Customer service at Nordstrom means “high touch” and the SG&A cost of providing it is covered by high merchandise gross margins (or it should be). Conversely, expectations of “customer service” at Target are totally different — shoppers expect store shelves to be well-stocked and checkout lines to be efficient. Again, this lower-expense model is reflected in tighter merchandise margins.

My point? Customers are already paying for the “customer service” they seek in the stores they choose, based on the “cost of goods sold” that they are willing to pay. Any surcharge imposed by retailers to meet or exceed these expectations (hidden or otherwise) would be a bad idea.


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