What a year 2016 has been. With a unexpected result in the United States presidential elections, the United Kingdom deciding to leave the European Union, one of the world’s largest shipping companies (Hanjin) going bankrupt, Olympic games being held for the first time in South America to name a few, I think we are all ready to close the chapter on this year and look forward to 2017. With every new year we in the retail world, also begin to look towards our annual pilgrimage to the Javits Center in New York City for the biggest retail show of the year – NRF. I have lost track of how many of these I have attended. The nice part is they always teach me something, there is always something new and exciting. So what should we expect during this version? Here are some trends I would keep an eye on:
- The store version 2.0…or is it 3.0 – Okay okay this might be boring and something that I already discussed last year, but the reality for retail is that the store is continuing to undergo a massive metamorphosis. The age of the massive, cold, heartless store is over. Stores will remain points of sale and fulfillment, but how they achieve these goals is what is continuing to evolve. Are retailers going to leverage stores as do brands such as Restoration Hardware with certain stores that are truly only showrooms, allowing the consumer to experience the furniture and housewares in a variety of settings? Will stores morph towards the Apple Store model – a fulfillment center, a showroom, a service and maintenance center. What about stores such as Bass Pro shops, a store where the experience is as much a part of the store as is purchasing product. Brands and retailers will continue to work on figuring out what their stores need to resemble or what mix they want to employ. This will have an impact on their inventory strategies, labor mix, store technologies and integrated omnichannel strategy.
- Retail supply chains, back to the glory days? An interesting report came out recently from the University of Auburn and RILA that looked at where retailers were going to invest their funds over the next year. The supply chain, while not earth shattering news, was one area of focus and investment. But, it is investments not in squeezing out more cost savings from the supply chain but instead investments towards making the supply chain the engine for growth and expansion. I couldn’t agree more! The primary function of a well-oiled supply chain is to get the right product or service, to the customer at the right time, right price and for the right margin. Simple! Too often retail has looked at supply chains as where they can squeeze out cost and instead looked to the customer facing assets – web sites, eCommerce, mobile, CRM to name a few – where they should invest treasure with the idea of capturing customers. This remains important, but now retailers, the smart ones, are recognizing that unless they have a nimble and efficient supply chain, can they meet their customer’s expectations? Expectations that are stoked by, at times, overpromising with the front end bells and whistles? It will be interesting to see how supply chains are discussed and viewed at NRF.
- IoT and digital how are retailers doing? Last year it was interesting to see the number of vendors and discussions that included some degree of IoT (internet of things). Will this hold the attention of the audience again this year or are already past this? I hope not. Reality for retailers and really most industries is that the digital journey, of which IoT is a part of, is only beginning. The digital transformation – where companies are raising expectations to expecting over 40% of their revenue will be generated from digital by 2020[i] – is only beginning. How will retailers begin to adopt digital technologies such as smart displays, virtual reality, connected products via IoT, greater digital connectivity with both customers and their ecosystem? We cannot, and I trust we have not, buried the idea of digital transformation or digital enablers such as IoT. It will be interesting to see how much of the narrative continues to contain a digital focus at NRF.
These are three big themes I will be looking for at NRF. You might ask yourself – well what about omni channel or mobile commerce or even social commerce. I am sure these topics will remain a constant. However, I think it is time we stop trying to categorize commerce and just call it what it is – commerce. There was a great article earlier this year from the Harvard Business press that talked about consumers moving to a model of ambient commerce. A world where being able to purchase, transact and acquire products is always on. Consumers no longer have to think about shopping or transacting. Retailers must be aware of this new reality.
A few weeks away from our annual kick off for retail in New York City and NRF. Hope to see you there.
[i] Gartner, “Create an Industry Vision for Digital Business.” April 11, 2016
It’s December and retailers have kicked into high gear to meet the increasing demands of holiday consumer shoppers, both in store and online. If the Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday time frame in the United States is any indication, the strain felt by the retail supply chains is not going to subside during the Christmas season.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlights the struggles retailers such as Toys “R” Us faced last year when it came to fulfilling all the online orders that taxed their systems. Click here for article. So what are we to make of this? Should retailers
Plenty to go around! If your supply chain is up to par.
throw their hands up and allow the mighty Amazon to march on, unabated? Of course not. Retailers must be increasingly savvy when it comes to their integrated online and brick and mortar strategies.
- Be judicious with online promotions. Easier said than done, as the majority of consumers expect to get deals online, and better prices. But, retailers need to start being disciplined with their promotion and pricing strategies, and avoid running a promotion for the sake of it. They truly need to understand why and how this promotion will impact their bottom line.
- Have a network view of all distribution nodes. The advantage traditional retailers have is the real estate they have invested in. While it is not always a positive, retailers must take a holistic view of their assets. Can they distribute popular, standard or fast moving items from their stores? View them as forward-positioned distribution centers. Hold back inventory that is more unique, less likely to be mass purchased back in true distribution centers.
- Don’t be afraid to set expectations with customers. This is difficult, especially considering Amazon isn’t shy about taking a financial hit on some of their fulfillment promises. But why can’t retailers have a deeper understanding of their product assortment with associated costs? Certain items need to have a cutoff date – if you do not order by this point then there is no guarantee it will arrive by the desired date. Yes, this is available sometimes, but make these options crystal clear.
At times, retailers must feel like they are the dog that constantly chases cars – run, run, run, but alas the car is always faster than you. In a way retailers need to stop focusing all their attention on the car (aka Amazon) but rather focus on other dogs – can they out run them? Focus on your supply chain network. Is it flexible enough to allow the retailer to seek new offerings, new business models? Without the visibility and understanding of what is possible, what can you really hope for?
Retail faces a daunting task. Not only do they have to compete with the likes of Amazon but they have to keep up with our, the consumers’, needs and desires. A challenge, but a great opportunity.
In a recent article, Crate & Barrel, announced that it would start selling other brands on their website. Click here for article. This is not a new concept. Companies such as Lord & Taylor, Saks, Macy’s, Walmart and JCrew are already selling other brands on their ecommerce platform. In the case of JCrew you can even purchase products such as New Balance sneakers in their brick and mortar stores as well. According to the WSJ article, there are more than 250 retailers already offering this functionality. This begs the question, are retailers and more specifically their eCommerce activities gravitating towards become more of a market place?
Are we seeing another influence on retail from the likes of Amazon and Ebay, two online pioneers that made their businesses through offering their clients almost unlimited selection of products from a wide swath of brands. For the likes of Crate & Barrel it makes sense for their customers. For obvious reasons, they want customers who come to their web site to have access to the widest array of goods for the home. However, they cannot grow their inventory offered as fast as if they allow others to join their marketplace. Rather than spend time scouring for new products, niche vendors and the latest trend, Crate & Barrel can open up their platform and incentivize these brands to come to them. Makes sense, right? Yes, but there are some key issues these brands have to consider:
- Transforming their eCommerce assets into a marketplace places greater pressure on the brand’s supply chain. The value that an Amazon offers when it allows vendors to sell their products via the marketplace is the massive supply chain and fulfillment engine that goes behind that front end web site. Retailers like Crate & Barrel and other traditional brick and mortar brands have struggled to seamlessly and easily bring eCommerce to their offerings. If they now take on a greater array of product through their site, product that falls outside their control, can their supply chains keep pace?
- It’s the brand stupid. One appealing factor for brands to associate with the likes of Crate & Barrel is to ride on their brand presence and reach. For Crate & Barrel the positive is being able to offer their customers a deeper and wider product assortment. The risk for Crate & Barrel is that it is their brand that is on the mast head. What happens if one of the vendors they allow onto their online asset sells defective or subpar products? The real issue is that it is the brand, Crate & Barrel that will suffer.
So what does this mean? As more of these brands begin to explore the strategy of creating mini-marketplaces on their web site, they have the opportunity to expand their offerings to their customers (don’t forget as we have stated many times, the customer has now gained the power in the retail relationship) but they will have to rely upon their supply chain network at a more intimate level. These brands must be able to have absolute clarity with regards to which suppliers are being allowed onto the marketplace. There must be absolute understanding into the product offering, what happens post sale and how will disputes be handled by the entities involved. They must also have clarity as to the impact these relationships have on their financial supply chains. This requires a supply chain network that has a deep degree of insights and visibility, but also the capacity to have the flexibility to manage a marketplace that itself needs to be nimble enough in order to truly achieve the aspirations of the medium.
This is yet another example of the continuous evolution of retail. I wonder when I can start buying my groceries with that Basque Honey dining table on the Crate & Barrel site?
I recently attending the WWD CEO apparel summit in New York City. The event brought together a number of executives from the fashion world from the likes of Dior to Neiman Marcus, as well as fashion superstars such as Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang, Joseph Abboud and Diane von Furstenberg. Other than a fabulous two days at the Pierre Hotel, I took away some key themes to the event. The main talking points:
- Supply chains are for more than simply cost control. Supply chains have long been seen as centers to control cost, but they are finally starting to be recognized as tools of differentiation, tools that need to be leveraged to gain opportunities within the space. The CEO from Neiman Marcus highlighted as his top initiative the supply chain. Without an efficient and robust supply chain, all the efforts Neiman Marcus are making to redefine their stores and customer interactions will fall short. The supply chains must be increasingly nimble to meet the shifts within the retail world. As we pass through the omni channel stage of retail and evolve to a state of constant retail, or ambient commerce, the supply chain has to be nimbler and more flexible.
- Stores aren’t dead, just being redefined. As mentioned above, the store is not dead. Far from it. Brands such as Neiman Marcus recognize that the physical store remains an essential cog in the retail universe. However, it is undergoing a transformation and will continue to undergo changes. From bringing beauty salons, restaurants or coffee shops the real estate footprint for fashion and retail. The question for these brands is how do they better manage their ability to fulfill. As stores change dynamics, what are the repercussions of the overall network’s strategy? Brands and retailers must become even more sensitive to how they manage their inventory positioning and fulfillment as their distribution footprint constantly shifts. The retail footprint is evolving, the store is being redefined and driving the overall retail experience. As was often stated at the conference – retail and fashion cannot view physical stores as separate from web commerce, but both must go hand in hand. All one had to do was listen to Hudson Bay and why they acquired mobile eCommerce darling, Gilt. Truly creating a full retail footprint.
- Consumers are the queens and kings of fashion and retail. The consumer runs the show, according to the numbers presented by MasterCard, close to 70% of the purchases are made by a female buyer. That buyer is also becoming increasingly driven by experiences and driving the relationship. Clearly the consumer continues to grow in strength. She expects to have unique products available, experiences but does not necessarily want everything immediately. Consumers want to have visibility into when they can expect product, but do not necessarily expect it always right now. Retailers and the brands need to keep this in mind, while they need to be sensitive to their consumers’ wants and desires, they must balance the importance between experience, available inventory and meeting consumer needs.
Hearing the presentations from main stage as well as the hallway conversation reinforce the notions that retail continues to evolve, and at an unprecedented pace. While these changes are happening at a breath taking pace, the fundamentals around inventory, supply chains and the consumer must be kept in focus.
The recent news that Warby Parker and Bonobos would be exploring opening a greater number of physical stores, coupled with Amazon themselves becoming more present in the physical space. Why? These are all eCommerce giants. Retailers who built their brands and businesses by bypassing all the costs and constraints that traditional retail was burdened with. In parallel we are seeing brick and mortar brands such as Sears and Gap, continue to readjust their store footprints. They are looking to shutter more of their stores, hopefully working to a profitable number and type of stores. So what gives?
We are witnessing a balancing. Retail will most likely never be all online or all in person, but it will be a state of constant retail. We, as consumers, will be able to search for, experience, acquire and return products constantly, with fewer and fewer boundaries. There is no more omni channel or eCommerce, but really simply “commerce.” Whether it is social shopping like we see with Facebook or Salesforce, pop up stores, mobile commerce via trucks and vans, buy on line pick up in store, personal shoppers, subscription based shopping and the list of retail options continues to grow – how we shop, how we purchase and acquire “stuff” continues to evolve.
But what is the one underlying aspect we must always be aware of, that our brands have to be conscious of? Their inventory. At the core of this new shift in retail is the constant challenge – how do I make sure I have the right product at the right place and for the right margins? Being able to fulfill orders out of a dedicated distribution center for online sales, is challenging enough. As these retailers start growing their brick and mortar footprint, they will have to adjust their inventory strategy, fulfillment efforts and overall distribution tactics.
An overarching theme this recent news emphasizes is the continued shift in retail. Omni channel is really only a stage in the journey towards always on commerce: ambient commerce. A state of commerce when we are always able to transact and have fulfillment occur in multiple locations. Consumers will not distinguish between how they are accessing the brands, and expect experiences to be similar regardless of how they arrived at the decision making point. This shift in the retail landscape continues to emphasis the importance of have deeper view into the overall network and how inventory flows. Whether traditional or eCommerce retail giants, as consumers demand greater reduction in commerce friction, the network must support an inventory strategy that can keep up.
Really try it before you buy it.
Like many of my fellow road warriors, we have become keenly aware when we get to stay in a hotel room that offers a superior experience. A clean room is the basic expectations; a comfortable room is what we expect but a stylish room on top…that is the ultimate customer experience. That is why it caught my attention this week when I saw a piece on West Elm, which is a brand under the Williams-Sonoma family, opening up hotels. A furniture store getting into hospitality? You must be crazy…next thing you will tell me is that Apple is looking to get into the luxury car business…oh wait, never mind.
So why is West Elm’s play in hospitality an example of how retail is being transformed right before our very eyes? It all comes down to the customer experience. Retail is truly transforming into a constant dance and balance between service, assortment and availability. We the consumer seek better experiences, enhanced services and unlimited access to a variety of inventory choices. That is why we see brands such as Urban Outfitters purchasing a pizza chain, click here for story. Or why giant book retailer Barnes and Nobles has so many Starbucks in their stores. Retailers are striving to find other ways to make their brick and mortar assets more attractive, to create an experience and services above and beyond their core product. When it comes to the furniture business, their stores are truly show rooms. It is a challenge for brands such as Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, West Elm or Crate & Barrel to carry massive amounts of inventory within their stores. Rather they want to use their real estate to allow customers to sit or lie on their products. The challenge is to ensure their network can fulfill any sale quickly and efficiently. While it is nice to walk into a West Elm to sit on a Hamilton sofa or lie on their Nash series beds, what if you could truly experience these pieces. In their true elements?
Enter the hotel idea. Think of this as taking the show room concept into the world of the car sales and allowing for a true test drive of the product. Yes, you can see how the furniture looks like in the West Elm store, but how much better to spend a few nights sleeping on that bed? We have already seen other hotel brands such as Marriott making their beddings and other products available to purchase. I have spent plenty of time in hotels where the high end soaps and lotions in the bathrooms can also be purchased in the store or online. But this is a new play, for a retailer to get into the hospitality space. To explore a new way of providing the customer with an experience built around their product.
The underlying challenge for West Elm will be integrating the demand signals that this new channel will produce. And ensuring that they have the systems in place and flexibility in place to manage their inventories to meet the new demands from this channel. There will not be the direct contact with in store sales associates, nor the ability to guide one through the online assets. Rather, the whims of the consumer will be taking place in the privacy of their hotel rooms. As each hotel manager creates their specific experience in their location, West Elm will need to be ready for sudden jumps in demand that come out of the blue.
A great example of a retailer finding new channels to create customer experience…that will also drive more sales. I wonder what kind of rewards program the West Elm hotel will have.
As the last days of summer come to lazy close—sigh—retailers and parents of school children should all be squealing with glee. Okay maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the end of summer does mark the beginning of the retail race to the black. They are looking to beginning to build up their holiday season inventories while ensuring they capture as much back to school revenue as possible. However the back to school season is a microcosm of the shifting sands in the retail world.
Back to school is the second largest sales driver, right behind the end of year holidays – accounting for over $27b worth of sales. But while this time of the year is a boon for retail, there are signs this rosy picture is cracking because of the usual disruptors. Their disruptions come primarily in the form of growth in consumerization, and the pressures from ecommerce giants such as Amazon.
Let’s dig into some NRF numbers:
- 97% of online sites visited are either super centers or office supply sites.
- 84% of parents will only purchase online if free shipping is offered.
- Over a third of parents will make purchases online.
Retailers that are in this space are probably selling commodity items – a heavy percentage of office supplies. (Click here for an example list.)
These items are difficult to differentiate through value-added services, customization, or contextual experiences. They are often based on convenience and price, and are usually not overly bulky but can be heavy. Why is this important?
Consumers are going to shop for these products and look for value and cost to be the biggest drivers. This is in the sweet spot for the likes of Amazon and Jet.com. But could some of the items – like paper and books – place an additional strain on fulfillment for retailers? Possibly. What is the opportunity for retailers to thwart being overwhelmed by Amazon’s ecommerce prowess?
Here are some strategies:
- Focus on an in-depth understanding of your network. Where can you hold back inventory? Can you fulfill from different nodes, and are there parts of your network that can push inventory out earlier in the process? Bring more flexibility to your distribution and fulfillment capacities to control your costs, but most importantly, retain customers through profitable fulfillment. As the data from NRF reminds retailers, consumers want and expect free shipping, how can retailers better leverage a network view of their inventory to address this trend.
- Leverage the digital supply chain to focus on creating a user profile. Can retailers follow their customers as they progress from pre-K to college and beyond? This insight may open up opportunities to provide location-based value-added services. If a child is about to be a junior in high school, inform them of a local college prep program. Create some contextual wrappers around your inventory. Leverage the digital mirror to your supply chain to create stickiness to your brand. Hopefully this not allows for a degree of brand loyalty, but allows the retailer to do a better job with demand sensing and shaping.
Back to school can be stressful enough – as retailers let’s not have the added stress of how to continue to drive and capture revenue in a world of omnichannel and consumer-driven supply chains. There are opportunities to protect revenue but also uncover new opportunities; the retailers that start to think network and digital are pointed in the right direction.
 Data from NRF – https://nrf.com/news/infographic-look-back-school-supplies-lists-and-online-shopping
 Consumerization of the retail supply chain is the shift in dynamic towards the consumer. The consumer has become the focal point in the retail supply chain.