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About that “whole paycheck” perception…

Some of my earlier comments about the Amazon-Whole Foods deal touch on the expected benefits of better e-commerce execution and predictive data science. But let’s not forget that Whole Foods has a price perception problem that Amazon needs to fix. Here’s a recent comment from RetailWire:

I teach a college-level class in retail management. When I surveyed the class about where they shopped, most answered Aldi, or Trader Joe’s, or Metro Market (the Milwaukee brand of Kroger-owned Mariano’s). None of them shops at Whole Foods even though the store is in the neighborhood where most of them live.

There is no doubt that Whole Foods’ “premium price” reputation has kept many shoppers away, as they face more competition in the “organic” arena. I believe the first round of price cuts is just the start, and it simply moved some overpriced key items to the “market price.” Expect more of this from Amazon in the future, but also expect Amazon to build Whole Foods’ base on its potential e-commerce and home delivery upsides.

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Diminishing returns for Black Friday

With the release of the NRF’s annual holiday shopping forecast comes a RetailWire discussion about Black Friday. The debate? Whether the event itself is essentially dead as a volume driver. My opinion? Not so fast:

“Killed” is too strong a word, because Black Friday still represents one of the biggest shopping days on the retail calendar. But the day has lost its punch for a number of reasons:

1. Most obviously, the shift from brick-and-mortar to e-commerce. With the growing number of store closings and “zombie malls,” this will be a bigger problem than ever throughout the 2017 holiday season.
2. The Thursday paper stuffed with promotional circulars doesn’t reach the huge number of Gen Y and Z shoppers who don’t even read the paper.
3. As stores have extended Black Friday opening hours into Thanksgiving itself, they have simply cannibalized their own business.

I could go on, and these are tough “macro” challenges for an individual retailer to overcome. Some of the potential solutions involve greater use of targeted social media and other messaging to reach younger customers…and this is true from early November all the way to the last crucial weekend before Christmas.

But the biggest challenge may be to make the sale offerings and merchandise content more compelling. Easier said than done (without months of advance planning), but the recent focus on putting entire assortments on sale — instead of key items at compelling price points — has drained Black Friday of its former sense of urgency.

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.

 

And now, a Google/Walmart tie-up

To expand on my last post (about Kohl’s and Amazon), now comes word of a stronger alliance between Walmart and Google. Here’s my comment from RetailWire, in which I comment that each company brings specific strengths and weaknesses to the partnership:

When the majority of product searches start at Amazon, that’s a huge advantage — it combines the predictive intelligence of an SEO company with the execution skill of a best-in-class e-tailer. But is Amazon invulnerable? Of course not, and that’s part of the reason why the company is filling in its portfolio with brick-and-mortar acquisitions (Whole Foods) or alliances (Kohl’s).

So an expanded partnership between Walmart and Google has potential: It provides Walmart with more robust search capacity and web traffic, and it offers Google a stronger e-commerce platform. But unless Walmart adds more second-party retailers (and their goods) to its site, it’s not going to catch up to Amazon’s head start for awhile.

Another Amazon/Kohl’s tie-up

To follow up on my comment on “smart home” shops at Kohl’s, now comes word that Kohl’s will test Amazon processing locations (pickup and return) in several markets. I agree with most fellow RetailWire panelists that it will drive traffic to Kohl’s but is an even better deal for Amazon as it fills in its physical footprint:

Omnichannel initiatives like BOPIS already put strain on existing store operations, as panelists just discussed in the context of holiday hiring. So Kohl’s ability to process Amazon returns (even unpackaged ones) without affecting their other operating standards will be something to watch. Without payroll support from Amazon, this could be a heavy lift.

As to who comes out ahead in this collaboration, I understand that this will drive even more traffic to Kohl’s stores. (And my usual disclosure that I worked there from 1982 to 2006.) But Amazon picks up as many as 1100 more brick-and-mortar locations (if it rolls chainwide), with the eventual ability to add pickup lockers and even an ordering kiosk if they play their cards right. So it looks like Amazon is the biggest potential winner in this deal.

Holiday hiring and the “omnichannel” challenge

Two recent (and related) comments from RetailWire on the subject of holiday hiring and whether stores are prepared to deal with the operational demands of omnichannel. First up, my take on the kinds of stresses on payroll and customer service that stores are trying to manage today:

BOPIS can have an impact on customer service especially in those stores where payroll is being stretched to manage “omnichannel” process instead of the shopper in the store. I’m thinking particularly of department stores (Macy’s, for one) whose higher-touch service standards have slipped while they are asking the same sales associates to cover additional tasks.

But there is another kind of “customer service” (in self-selection stores like Target and many others) that really depends on efficient restocking of fixtures and quick checkout. I don’t see BOPIS having the same kind of stressful effect on these stores’ service standards.

And here’s the second comment, published a few days later after Target and Macy’s revealed their holiday hiring plan:

Target’s hiring forecast vs. 2016 is a healthy sign, and Macy’s announcement is also a positive in light of the smaller store base. What both retailers are signaling is that they are figuring out the manpower requirements of omnichannel initiatives like BOPIS and ship-from-store without sacrificing the service standards they need to maintain in their core brick-and-mortar business. This seems to be a particular challenge at Macy’s, so it’s good to see them recognizing the cost of a solution.

 

 

 

The impact of “activewear as sportswear”

It seems more apparent than ever that some of the “women’s apparel” problem is actually a long-term lifestyle change. RetailWire panelists discussed this in the context of Gap’s Athleta activewear division:

I was in Madison, Wisconsin last week and walked down the pedestrian mall running from the state capitol to the University. It was impossible to ignore that the vast majority of women were wearing “activewear as streetwear” — in particular, black yoga pants instead of jeans. And these were college students for whom jeans would have been “the uniform” five years ago.

On the last wave of quarterly earnings calls, most retailers complained about the lack of traction in their women’s sportswear businesses — while mentioning the rapid growth of fitness wear. It’s increasingly clear that activewear is cannibalizing more traditional women’s apparel, so Gap ought to push the growth of its Athleta brand as hard as it can for as long as this lifestyle shift continues.