Archive for the 'Retailing' Category

New management at Lowe’s

Marvin Ellison recently left JCPenney (see comments above) to take over the chairmanship at Lowe’s. This is probably a better fit, given his background at Home Depot, and he was quick to reorganize the C-suite. My comment (on RetailWire) raises the question of whether these were the right steps to take:

Mr. Ellison is finishing his second week on the job, so it’s premature to judge the reorganization or anything else he’s done. The newly created positions (stores and supply chain) may be needed but they appear from the outside to be more operations-oriented than customer-facing. It’s too early to tell whether this kind of approach is meant to improve operating margins or to truly recapture some of the market share being won by Home Depot. That may take a deeper dive into Lowe’s strategy than what we’re seeing so far.

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Inventory management? It depends on the inventory

I commented recently (on RetailWire) about the skill set needed to manage different kinds of inventory. There is no hard and fast rule, because it depends on whether the store in question is in the “staple” or “fashion” business:

Any store needs to hit the right balance between staple, fashion and fad merchandise. (The difference being that “fads” have a much shorter life span unless they evolve into fashion trends with more staying power.) The question of “the right balance” really depends on the nature of the retailer’s brand image and target customer. Clearly Forever 21 needs to play in a completely different world than (say) Chicos — which is not devoid of fashion but is more dependent on staple inventory.

It’s a key question because the product life cycle of each type of merchandise — and the inventory management needed to get into and out of trends profitably — may be totally different for fads, fashion and “basics.” Retailers don’t want to be stuck with too much of a fast-moving fad; on the other hand, they don’t want to erode their in-stock levels on basics by fixating on chasing trends.

Another post-mortem on Bon Ton Stores

Because Bon Ton Stores (soon to close at this writing) is based here in Milwaukee, I’ve paid close attention to the reasons behind its demise. Here are some thoughts from a recent RetailWire panel discussion:

One key lesson: The merger of two strong players will almost always work better than the combination of weaker stores. The Macy’s-May deal included the market share leader in almost every major city in the country, even though Macy’s was criticized at the time for changing the nameplates of chains like Marshall Field’s and Famous-Barr. Meanwhile, Bon-Ton’s acquisition of stores like Carson’s and Younkers (and then choosing to maintain “local” identities) was saddled by debt and by the lack of national scale or brand equity.

Milwaukee (where I live) is one of Bon-Ton’s two “headquarters” cities, and the home of its Boston Store nameplate. As an observer, I find the CEO revolving door was an issue and the company’s slow pace of e-commerce development (compared to Macy’s and Kohl’s) didn’t help either. And as a shopper, Boston Store’s content seemed overly focused on “career” Boomers who are retiring from the workforce, without a strategy to replace them with goods for younger customers.

Can mall anchors use space more creatively?

The following comment (from RetailWire) was triggered by a discussion about Macy’s plans to do more short-duration space allocation. I think it’s a good idea for other stores if they can adapt to the fluid mindset necessary to pull it off:

Macy’s has long experimented with the concept of pop-up space in its Herald Square flagship, because it has the space to be flexible. There is a constant stream of short-duration shops, especially on the main floor — but this is a luxury that most department stores (including Macy’s) can’t or choose not to afford.

Department stores’ use of their square footage has long been dominated by the same businesses (starting with cosmetics and handbags on the main floor) or the same “prestige” apparel brands, supplemented by exclusive brands. It’s hard to shake loose from this mentality when it’s all about space allocation and vendor agreements instead of focusing on a shopper looking for newness. (And by “newness,” I don’t mean next month’s new shipment of product from the same old vendors.)

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, with the scion of The Bon-Ton Stores (soon to close) regretting in hindsight his company’s failure to be more innovative. This is the problem in a nutshell: The “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome.

How omnichannel makes inventory management tougher

RetailWire panelists recently had plenty to say about the supply-chain challenges triggered by stores’ push into omnichannel programs. Here’s my brief comment:

One cause of volatility is the growth of “ship from store” fulfillment of e-commerce orders (rather than shipping from a dedicated distribution center). This makes it harder to track sales and inventories at the individual location level, and makes replenishment more unpredictable. If e-commerce order fulfillment is totally randomized from one brick-and-mortar location to another (depending on who has the goods in stock and the costs of shipping), the customer looking for something on an actual store visit is more likely to be disappointed.

And here’s an additional comment on the same topic, specific to Target’s challenges:

Given Target’s spotty history of in-stock rates in its brick and mortar stores, there is a risk involved in depending too heavily on “ship from store.” As the Braintrust discussed a week ago, using stores as mini-distribution centers makes it tougher to assess actual demand in a given location accurately — in turn making replenishment more unpredictable. So if the “flow center” concept helps Target address this problem…good idea and worth rolling out to other regions.

And, finally, a comment about how Best Buy is successfully addressing the same issues:

Demand planning has become more complicated with the onset of omnichannel initiatives like “Buy online – pickup in store” and “Ship from store.” It makes forecasting by location more difficult if physical stores are also being used as mini-warehouses. Retailers run the risk of alienating customers who have made the effort to shop at a physical store, if they can’t find what they want in stock.

Best Buy has long been a leader in helping customers use the website to identify in-stock levels at their nearest store. But the company obviously decided that this wasn’t enough, and only a boost in stock levels would drive more sales. Retailers often get rewarded by Wall Street for driving down their comp-store inventories, but perhaps Best Buy’s results will point in a smarter direction.

Is Gen Z uniquely bargain-conscious?

From a couple of recent posts on RetailWire, here are some comments about whether today’s Gen Z shopper entering the consumer landscape is more price-conscious than his/her older sibling, parent or grandparent. My opinion:

Shoppers regardless of age are more price-conscious and value-oriented than ever. Some of this is residue from the Great Recession, and some of this results from the “empowered shopper” with plenty of price data as close as the nearest cell phone.

I wouldn’t describe Gen Z as uniquely price-oriented. I’ve taught a college-level retailing class for ten years, and it’s always a challenge to discuss retailers that the students can’t afford to buy from. (And today’s college students fall right into the Gen Z age profile.) These are mostly students who are working through college while taking on significant debt, so it’s no wonder that they visit TJMaxx instead of Nordstrom. But their spending power will change as they form households and grow their career earnings potential.

And from a later post on the same topic:

I’m not convinced that Gen Z shoppers are any more or less bargain-conscious than their older siblings, parents or grandparents. It’s the world we have lived in for a long time — not just post-recession or with the advent of m-commerce. It’s not by accident that Target, Walmart, Kmart, Kohl’s and others opened their doors in 1962 because it signaled a “search for value” that hasn’t let up.

I’m more focused on the two items on the list that will affect stores’ real estate strategies for years to come. If Gen Z shoppers are both mall-agnostic and commute-averse, this will benefit neighborhood retailers — or at least those retailers willing to rethink their traditional approaches to site selection. And, of course, it benefits e-commerce retailers like Amazon who bring a different meaning to “localization.”

End of the line for Toys “R” Us?

Big retail news of the day (as discussed at RetailWire) is the announcement that Toys “R” Us is throwing in the towel. Here’s my post-mortem:

It’s unlikely that Toys “R” Us is going to stay afloat, and this is a big deal for those who follow the recent history of retailing. They were among the first “category killer” stores with broad assortments of a single category in a big-box format. There have been others (Linens ‘N Things, Sports Authority, etc.) but this one stands out. If you see reporting on “the Amazon effect,” it’s more complicated than that.:

It’s tough to survive in a highly seasonal business like toys given the growth of e-commerce and the dominance of discounters in the same category. And there has been a generational change, where many of today’s kids are interacting with technology (smartphone apps, streaming video games) instead of the toys of a short time ago.

And one more lesson learned: A mountain of private-equity debt doesn’t help. On this point, an added thought from a more recent RetailWire discussion:

TRU was partly the victim of private-equity debt burdens, but also made its own mistakes. This is an example of a big box store with too much square footage — in a seasonal business facing robust competition from discounters and Amazon — failing to adapt.

There is probably enough brand equity remaining to salvage the business, provided that Storch and team rethink the model. (And get rid of that debt load.) Maybe an online-only play is the place to start, instead of trying to recapture the past.


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