Archive Page 2

Groceries are battling too much space too

Excess square footage in general merchandising has been well-documented, especially with 2017’s wave of store closures. The trend hasn’t swamped grocery retail — yet — but don’t be surprised if the advent of online grocery shopping will take a toll. Here’s my comment, from a recent RetailWire discussion:

The grocery business is suffering from the same “overspace” problem that has plagued general merchandisers for years, leading to waves of store closures this year. The retailers in the middle — the old standbys like Kroger — are particularly vulnerable to increased competition from discounters, small-format stores and retailers doing a better job engaging with “foodies” and Millennials. (At least Kroger has a winning concept with Mariano’s in Chicago.)

There is no doubt that shopping behavior is changing. Some shoppers are opting for more frequent but smaller trips for fresher food, while others are bulking up at warehouse clubs. Aldi, Lidl and Trader Joe’s are offering smaller stores with curated assortments, and now Amazon is lurking in the background with its purchase of Whole Foods. As a regular shopper at Kroger’s “Metro Market” chain in Milwaukee, I can tell you that the overwhelming amount of choice (to fill all that space) makes even a simple shopping trip harder than it should be.

While some mid-tier chains are in a better position than others to survive, some industry consolidation is probably long overdue here. Meanwhile, here’s a related post about mall developers looking to fill empty space with food retail:

It’s ironic that we’re talking about food stores taking over vacant mall space today, after discussing excess square footage in the grocery business yesterday. There may be specific malls where it makes sense to add a small-footprint store like Fresh Market, but it’s hard to see how full-line mid-tier stores like Kroger can make this work on a large scale despite its test in Ohio. Presumably the grocery store would be the “last stop” on the shopping trip, if the shopper visits the rest of the mall at all.

The entire issue comes down to mall developers and how they reinvent all that real estate. Southdale (outside Minneapolis) is replacing a JCP store with a three-level fitness center; other malls are adding more dining and entertainment. But pulling off-mall retailers (TJX, Costco) into the fold may be a more viable solution if the price of entry is right.

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.

Sears to sell Kenmore through Amazon

“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” seems to be the theme of Sears Holdings’s latest decision. It will be selling Kenmore-branded appliances through Amazon, as the online giant expands its footprint into new categories. Here’s my take, from RetailWire:

If Sears’s goal now is to monetize its assets, then the decision to sell its Kenmore brand through Amazon was a good one. Kenmore, after all, is the strongest brand left in the Sears toolbox. And the Alexa tie-in is smart, too, no matter whether it originated with Amazon or Sears (or its appliance suppliers).

But the move raises a white flag, too: It signals that Sears’s own physical and online footprint is barely relevant anymore. If you can buy a Kenmore dishwasher from Amazon (including delivery, installation and warranty service), why would you bother finding a Sears store as it continues to shrink its store count?

H&M switches to quarterly reporting

H&M is joining most other retailers in reporting comp-store sales on a quarterly basis, not monthly. I joined other RetailWire panelists in commenting on this change:

I agree that there used to be too much focus on monthly comp-sales numbers, given changes in the promotional calendar, holiday shifts from one year to the next, and weather deviations. So I understand H&M’s desire to report quarterly sales as a more accurate measure of its business trend.

On the other hand, it’s hard to conclude that the retailers who switched from monthly to quarterly reporting awhile ago saw any benefit to their sales trend. (In some cases, just the opposite.) If anything, the change has put even more spotlight on quarterly earnings rather than the long-term strategic view for many of these companies.

Can Amazon execute grocery delivery better than the competition?

A lot of the conversation about the Whole Foods acquisition centers on Amazon acquiring a bigger brick-and-mortar footprint. My RetailWire comment suggests that Amazon also has a chance to take home delivery of groceries to a higher level:

I think Amazon has the chance to bring a level of execution to online grocery shopping that doesn’t appear to be in place yet. I don’t want to judge an entire industry from my experience with Safeway last week, but it may be typical. While on vacation, I ordered groceries to stock up our rental house for a week. The order did not show up in the scheduled delivery window (in fact, Safeway was running 3 hours behind and I canceled the order) and would have been 1/3 short-shipped. What I thought would be a convenience turned out to be a customer service nightmare, after spending nearly an hour on hold to fix the problem.

Again, it’s a small sample size but the combination of stock-outs and late delivery is not exactly meant to inspire confidence in the process. I believe Amazon has the capacity to make this work, and they won’t roll it out aggressively until they are ready.

Can JCP be a player in toys?

JCPenney recently announced an expansion of its toy business, in time for holiday 2017 selling. RetailWire panelists weighed in on the topic, and here’s my take:

Toys are a double-edged sword for softlines retailers like Penney and Kohl’s who want to strengthen their children’s offerings. It’s hard to avoid carrying toys, but it’s also hard to compete against the dominant space of the discounters and big-box stores. (Not to mention the low margins.) Customers have come to expect the best selection and prices from market leaders like Amazon, Walmart and Target.

The broader risk to JCP is that it becomes a “bunch of stuff” with the addition of new categories (from appliances to toys, from bikes to electronics). Just because the store has square footage to burn doesn’t mean that overassortment is a winning long-term play.

Thoughts on the QVC-HSN merger

Here are some quick impressions that I posted on RetailWire about QVC’s plan to acquire HSN. “Home shopping” has lost its novelty — especially as TV viewers cut the cable cord — so the combined company faces some daunting challenges:

The initial benefit of the QVC-HSN merger comes from economies of scale in a mature segment. (It’s the same kind of play that Macy’s made for May Company several years ago, recognizing the lack of organic growth in traditional department stores.) But it’s clear that home shopping (via TV) is not where the action is. It’s up to QVC to figure out how to translate the “treasure hunt” experience of off-pricers to its model, and especially how to engage mobile shoppers at its site. It becomes an urgent challenge as more consumers (especially younger ones) continue to cut the cable cord.