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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.

Department stores expand off-price concepts

Macy’s reported in its year-end earnings call that it plans to expand its Backstage off-price concept to 100 more stores this year. (And Backstage is located inside existing Macy’s locations.) Here’s what I had to say on RetailWire about the wisdom of this trend:

There is a big difference between what Nordstrom and Kohl’s are doing (building out freestanding Rack and Off/Aisle stores) and what Macy’s is attempting by locating its Backstage concept inside its full-line stores. Either way, department stores are jumping on the off-price bandwagon because it’s a hot segment with the “treasure hunt” experience that some shoppers are looking for. But at what point does the segment get overcrowded?

Macy’s may feel strongly enough about Backstage to roll it into more locations, but from my experience it does nothing to enhance the overall store “brand.” (Bob is dead-on regarding the housekeeping.) And the merchandise content is not compelling, since Macy’s “upstairs” brands feel safer dealing with TJX than having their goods show up in Backstage. From what I’ve observed, there is a lot of closeout product from brands that you might find at JCP or Kohl’s but not on the main floor of Macy’s.

Who’s next for cashier-less checkout?

RetailWire panelists speculated recently about how long it will take for the Amazon Go experiment to be adopted by other retailers. Here’s my brief take on the issue:

Some stores will never be suited for a cashier-less system (most obviously, retailers like Nordstrom) but it has application to plenty of other stores. It’s a question of scale and how long it will take for enough early adapters to drive the cost of these systems down for everybody else. Think about the evolution of RFID: It’s been hailed as the next big thing in inventory management but has taken seemingly forever for even big national chains to adopt the technology. I don’t expect this to be any different given the short-term capital expense involved.

Is Target’s turnaround on the right track?

A brief comment (below) from RetailWire, regarding Target CEO Brian Cornell’s evaluation of their improved comp sales and operating results. It’s all about the merchandising:

Given his CPG background, I give Mr. Cornell credit for recognizing at the outset that Target’s real niche is “cheap chic” apparel and home goods. This is what the brand was built on, not groceries and commodities. While these categories will continue to be important in-store and online, Target’s destiny doesn’t depend on them. The new brands’ product development didn’t happen overnight, but the strategy is beginning to pay off.

Did Walmart deserve the punishment?

By “punishment,” I mean the 10% drop in Walmart’s stock price yesterday (February 20) when the company reported slower-than-expected sales and profits in its e-commerce business. My comment at RetailWire expresses a contrary opinion about the market reaction:

Walmart’s stock took a similar hit a few years ago when management decided to investment-spend in the store experience — more payroll in areas like fresh food, remodeling and refixturing as needed, and so on. These were smart strategic choices that weren’t meant to please investors only interested in the latest quarter. Walmart’s decisions at the time have been rewarded with better results ever since.

I look at the 10 percent drop in stock price as a similar overreaction. Walmart is now starting to come up against its own numbers after the Jet.com acquisition, and (more importantly) it’s doing major spending on logistics and marketing to gain omnichannel market share. I’m no stock picker, but maybe this is a buy opportunity …

Can Circuit City make a comeback?

Whoever bought the Circuit City brand after the store’s demise a few years ago plans to revive it — both as an e-commerce site and as a re-engineered brick-and-mortar store. The question in front of RetailWire panelists: Does the world need a revived Circuit City? (Or, as their headline put it, “Can Circuit City come back from the dead?”) Here’s my skeptical point of view:

This reminds me of the Linens-N-Things saga, in which the brand survives as an e-commerce site but its physical stores are long gone. There simply wasn’t the need for two similar big box concepts, so Bed Bath & Beyond turned out to be the survivor. (But BBBY stock price has fallen sharply in the past five years, like many retailers, as it faces increased competition from Amazon and others.)

It’s hard to see what value Circuit City brings to the table at this point — except as a web-only play. Does a small-footprint “experiential” store offer something different from Best Buy or Apple? (Especially now that Best Buy is removing CD’s from its physical stores, it’s easy to see that they will roll out more engaging and productive uses of that space.) The Circuit City brand was already “damaged goods” because of bad decisions they made to reduce customer service and in-store expertise.

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.

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!

Macy’s drops out of the Plenti program

Macy’s was one of the charter members of the Plenti loyalty program, where shoppers could earn points by buying gas at Mobil, renting a car from Alamo, and so forth. Here’s a quick RetailWire comment about the move, which rightfully places the spotlight on Macy’s own Star Rewards program:

As a Macy’s shopper, I was confused by the purpose of the Plenti program and wasn’t sure of the benefits. I wasn’t necessarily interested in some of the other brands participating in the program, and it “muddied the waters” of the Star Rewards program. I’m sure that I wasn’t alone, and Macy’s is right to focus on revamping Star Rewards with more personalized, data-driven rewards for its best customers.