Monday Feb 06, 2012

Reinventing Retail

Just like physicists are fond of saying matter is neither created nor destroyed it simply changes form, so goes retailing.  The industry has morphed from small independent stores, to chains, to big-box, to online, to mobile.  Consumers' tastes, habits, and preferences change over time, thus retailers must always stay in-tune.  Unfortunately, many don't.

The most recent whipping-boy of the industry seems to be Brian Dunn, the CEO of Best Buy, who's company was attacked in a recent Forbes article.  (A follow-up to that article, which includes an indirect rebuttal from Brian Dunn, is here.)  While not calling out Best Buy by name, Marc Andreessen also predicted Best Buy's forthcoming demise.  I just finished watching the show Best Buy: The Big Box Fights Back on CNBC, and was struck by the pessimistic future painted there as well.  But in my experience, Best Buy is one of the most innovative retailers in the industry.  Unfortunately, I think their problems are more a reflection of the products they sell rather than a lack of willingness to change.

So are all retailers in trouble?  Ron Johnson, who is credited with Apple Stores' success, recently said retail isn't broken, store are.  Now he needs to prove it as CEO of department store chain JCPenney.  His recently announced transformation plan includes "fair and square" pricing, but Apple was able to avoid discounting because of a lack of viable competition.  JCP doesn't have such an advantage, so it remains to be seen if that strategy will work.

Barnes & Noble did a nice job moving into digital books, unlike competitor Borders, but B&N is still in a fight for its life.  Now they are considering spinning the Nook business off.  While that might unlock additional value in the Nook business, any decoupling from B&N makes their stores less relevant, a step in the wrong direction.

And while physical stores are doing more to be connected to consumers online, there's a rumor that Amazon might just open its first physical store in Seattle, ironically in a former Borders location.

I hate to use this overused phrased, but I will... retail is at an inflection point.  Chains need to lighten the burdensome cost of physical stores, find a way to offer more value to in-store shoppers, or preferably do both.  It starts by building Your Experience Platform to support a strategy for empowering employees to delight your customers.  That includes making better product, placement, pricing, and promotion decisions on the backend, and delivering a unique shopping experience across all selling channels.

We're running fast toward the future of shopping, but only those willing to change will finish the race.

Wednesday Jul 20, 2011

Don't Forget to Check the Rearview Mirror

Over at AppsLab, Jake is reminiscing about retailers gone by the wayside and it got me thinking a bit.  Arguably Tower Records was killed by Apple, Blockbuster was killed by Netflix, Borders was killed by Amazon, and Circuit City was killed by Best Buy.  (I guess its never that simple, but at least we can say there was a clear winner and loser in each of these battles.)

But here's another way to look at it: Tower Records was killed by MP3s.  Blockbuster was killed by streaming video.  Borders was killed by e-readers. (Okay, Circuit City doesn't really fit this motif.  They went down due to a whole host of issues, none of which were really technology based.)  These companies saw the writing on the wall and tried to save themselves, but they just didn't move fast enough.  Blockbuster knew it needed to offer DVDs by mail, kiosks, and streaming but it was too slow to market.  Toward the end its offerings were at least as good as Netflix, but the customers had already left.  Borders offered the Kobo (anagram for "book") e-reader via a partnership, but it was long after the Kindle and Nook had established themselves.

So I think there are a few lessons to take away from the Borders liquidation.

  • No business model is sacred.  What works today is no guarantee for the future.
  • Timing is everything.  Established businesses are best at being fast-followers (with emphasis on fast).
  • What sounds impossible today may not be in a couple years, so don't dismiss it offhand.

Retailers need to be looking in their rear-view mirrors not only at their competitors, but also at alternative technologies that might sneak up on them.  (Yes Gamestop you're on top today, but platforms like Steam and Microsoft Live are sneaking up on you!)  I'm sorry to see Borders close its doors, but I'm excited by the e-reader technology and the pace at which other innovations are coming to market.


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