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Macy’s store closures don’t fix the problem

I commented on RetailWire in early January about Macy’s announcement of 2017 store closures:

I saw with a particular shudder that one of the Macy’s stores on the list is the “flagship” location in downtown Minneapolis — the old Dayton’s headquarters, where my wife and I both worked and eventually met. It’s hard to imagine that a store with an appropriately sized footprint can’t thrive in downtown Minneapolis — full of office workers and residents — unless there is something fundamentally wrong with how Macy’s is running its business. I’ve shopped their stores from California to Florida to Nevada to Illinois over the past couple of years, and continue to be disappointed by the merchandise content, the physical condition of the stores and the service experience. Until Macy’s addresses these “Retail 101” issues, it doesn’t matter how many stores they close.

Additional thoughts from RetailWire:

Some of our observations about Macy’s are based on 20/20 hindsight, not based on what seemed like a smart move at the time. Even though there was plenty of debate about the disappearance of powerful local nameplates like Marshall Field’s, the reality is that several of those retailers were in their own slow decline. So Macy’s effort to create a national brand (and economies of scale) paid off for awhile.

Where Macy’s has lost its way is in the failure of the “My Macy’s” initiative to cater more effectively to local tastes. The best data science in the world may not be a substitute for experienced managers who really understand their customers’ taste (and when things sell in a given climate). But the bigger issue is the overassortment of women’s brands, erosion of customer service and lack of capital spending; no amount of localization can overcome those hurdles.

And to add a final thought after visiting Macy’s Manhattan flagship in early March: This is a spectacular store that has gotten a big boost in capital investment over the last few years. But Macy’s is so focused on this location (visible to its investors, suppliers and competitors) that it has neglected hundreds of other locations around the country.

Can The Gap make its own luck?

After the CEO of Gap mentioned the lack of a fashion trend as part of his company’s sales problems, I posted the following (late in 2016) to RetailWire:

To blame soft sales on “lack of a trend” fails to recognize the retailer’s responsibility to help create those trends. Back in the Drexler-led heyday of The Gap, the company helped create the khaki phenomenon by getting behind the item in a huge way and by marketing it on TV as a must-have wardrobe item. The same principle applied to many other items in the store — from my days merchandising handbags, I remember a canvas tote in a bunch of colors that the industry dubbed “the Gap Bag.”

It sounds like Gap is suffering from the suffocating influence of both its creative direction and its data science, making it hard for entrepreneurial spirit to thrive among its merchants. (And it also looks like Gap has been slower to embrace the short-cycle, high-turnover model of its fast fashion competitors.) Gut feeling can still work wonders to drive sales, if a retailer has the courage to react quickly to big ideas.

And (upon further review) some more thoughts as Gap released its 2016 earnings in February:

One quarter doesn’t make a trend, but the 2% gain compares favorably to most of Gap’s competitors. In terms of merchandise content, there seems to be a renewed focus on what I would call “core basics,” which is what brought such success to Gap during the 90’s. Without ignoring the lessons of fast fashion retailers (especially in terms of speed to market and supply chain management), Gap will probably continue to gain traction if it takes a more classic approach to the business.

 

 

 

Amazon Go: Reinventing the C-store?

A delayed posting from late 2016 about Amazon’s convenience store concept being tested in Seattle. What’s unique about this store is that customers can pick what they want and walk out the door without “paying” — it’s all handled through mobile payment technology. My RetailWire comment speculates on the impact on other types of retail:

Amazon has redefined convenience in every category they have entered (starting with their original business of shipping books). The company has raised customers’ expectations for speedy execution, and has raised the bar for all of its competitors at the same time. Whether Amazon Go works or not is almost beside the point, because the company can afford to fail — but Amazon appears committed to bringing its vaunted tech-driven efficiency to brick-and-mortar retail models that haven’t advanced much beyond the UPC code. (But if Amazon Go works…watch out!)

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.