Those of us who were around in 1976 may remember the movie Network, starring Peter Finch. There is a memorable scene in the movie in which Howard Beall, a famous television news anchor played by Finch, completely loses it on air. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” he shouts out to a coast-to-coast audience, urging them to stand up with him chanting in unison. He exhorts all who are listening to open their windows and repeat his declaration of disgust and discontent out loud to all their neighbors. “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Over 1.7 million people have YouTubed the clip. It’s as surprisingly topical today—on a whole variety of levels—as it was in 1976.
What on earth does this have to do with retailing? Well, I’m mad as hell and I don’t want to listen anymore to anyone sniveling and whining about how bad business is. The retail business is fine, it’s just not fine for everyone.
There are plenty of customers and they have plenty of disposable income. Even under-employed millennials, buried in student loan debt and living in their parents’ basements, are shopping with abandon, made possible by running up record-breaking levels of credit card debt. I’ll repeat it again: Retail business is fine, it’s just not fine for everyone.
Retail Trade Armageddon Was Upon Us
Are you aware that Retail Armageddon was recently upon us? It most definitely was, but the crisis appears to have passed. I’m not referring to anything as unsettling as a North Korean missile strike on Guam, but rather the demise of the possible imposition of a U.S. Border Adjustment Tax. This import tax was proposed by the same folks in Washington who promised us, after seven long years of deliberations, the repeal and replacement of the ACA on Trump’s first day in office. A border tax would, in fact, have caused retail prices on all things imported, wholly or in part, to immediately jump by 10 to 20 percent. The theory was that if imports were taxed and export expenses were made deductible, then the U.S. dollar would strengthen, thereby enabling retailers to offset the import tax effect on retail prices. First off, Boeing and GE export stuff retailers typically don’t. And then of course, in the 35 years that I was directly responsible for billions of dollars of merchandise imported for sale at retail, I have never seen yarn, fabric, cut make and trim (CMT), duties or freight ever denominated in anything but U.S. dollars. I’ve also rarely, if ever, seen the relative value of the dollar cause price adjustments in native currencies. Let’s hope that the clueless policy wonks in Washington do not try to resurrect this terrible idea.
Retail Armageddon Is Upon Us at the Mall
Armageddons are relative. A moment of silence for as many as three-quarters of American shopping malls that have recently failed, are failing, or will fail in the next five years. These aren’t the 250 or so “super regionals” that are fully tenanted and heavily trafficked. These are the malls with two or three anchors like Sears, JC Penney and Macy’s which have already lost one or two of these anchors and will likely also lose whomever is left. Hand in glove with the loss of anchor space is the ongoing collapse of specialty retailing in the mall. Though some of these properties may survive by converting their vacant space into entertainment venues and other end uses, their retail driveway destination status is going, going, gone. No one likes to dine in an empty restaurant, just as no one wants to shop in a zombie mall.
Internet-driven retailing is hollowing out hundreds of U.S. shopping malls today, just as those very malls hollowed out the downtown business districts in hundreds of U.S. cities in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Even without the emergence of the internet as a new alternative marketplace, mall-based retailing has fallen on hard times. The grotesque amount of excess mall space that was developed without regard to market capacity has finally become untenable. The old saw, “if we build it they will come,” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Add to that the pathetic lack of merchandise differentiation among anchor and specialty stores. Then there’s the extraordinary inconsistency and lack of standards of customer service, merchandise presentation and housekeeping. The coup de grâce for any of these malls is the rise of the ubiquitous Outlet Malls as an ever-present deep-discount alternative for customers. There’s nothing wrong with the retail business as long as you are not trapped in this particular retail business.
Amazon Is Coming, Amazon Is Coming. Quick—Run and Hide!
You’d think, if you listen to all the sniveling and whining that comes out of the mouths of legacy CEO retailers, that they have been hopelessly overrun by Amazon. As a reminder, Amazon, a company that shamelessly features unbelievable assortments of hundreds of millions of products at everyday low prices, delivers goods in two days free of charge to its best customers and has the audacity to operate without regard to Wall Street’s insatiable need for quarterly profits. How can anyone compete with that and survive? Well, Costco, which is one of the largest and most productive and profitable global retailers, does just fine. And it does this with virtually no dependence on ecommerce. Costcojust relies on great assortments, great values, wonderfully located stores and world-class customer service.
Apple, through a seamless strategy of global brick-and-mortar stores and a world-leading ecommerce platform, all in support of their extraordinary line of products, with incredible customer service to boot, does just fine as well. My list of “best in class” retailers, whose businesses have never been better, also includes Zara, a force of nature in fast fashion retailing with over 7000 stores worldwide, with an emerging ecommerce business; and TJX, which just keeps growing basically without any ecommerce component at all. Honorable mentions should be awarded to Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy and American Eagle Outfitters. Business for all of these retailers and others like them, is fine.It’s just not fine for everyone else.
Gone and Soon to Be Forgotten
I’m mad as hell that Sears Roebuck, K-Mart, and now Sears Canada are circling the proverbial drain for no reason other than avarice, greed and incompetence. You should be “mad as hell” too. These iconic stores didn’t lose their customers, they abandoned their customers. They weren’t ravaged by the Amazon-driven onslaught, they were single-handedly destroyed by their own pathetic leadership.
Another moment of silence for Sears Canada, which by now is either approaching liquidation or actually there. I had the honor and pleasure of running this company from 2001-2004. Back then it was a $6.6 billion powerhouse. Poised for growth, profitable, fully prepared for the then-coming ecommerce boom, and loaded with talented, devoted and highly motivated teams of people. I’m more than “mad as hell” about what has befallen this iconic business—and you should be too.
Not Yet Gone But Lost in the Wilderness
There is a whole host of retailers who are not performing successfully. Business for them is anything but fine. They are hopelessly lost, some blaming others for their travails, doling out lame solutions which offer no promise. There’s Macy’s, who would be well advised to say nothing right now about their forward strategies, which I can only describe as limited and lame solutions to their problems. HBC has gone from being the “Hunter” in seeking out mergers with Macy’s and Neiman Marcus, to becoming the “Hunted.” Their North American businesses have stalled and their foray into Europe looks like the really bad idea that many predicted when they crossed the ocean. The activists demanding that HBC stop impersonating a retailer just might prevail. Neiman Marcus isn’t facing a firing squad yet, but barring a resurgence in their business, or a deep-pocketed suitor, there is a bullet with their name on it that will be zooming their way soon. And then there is Nordstrom, mercifully in possession of a triple-A portfolio of stores but saddled with an off-price outlet business. The Nordstrom Rack which, though driving all of its growth, is fast consuming all of the company’s oxygen. Are they going to go private to escape the scrutiny of Wall Street? Or is the family looking to cash out, à la Belk’s?
JC Penney continues to impersonate the department store they are not, and never will be, while at the same time Band-Aiding with their assortments major appliances, which will never make any money, and that ultimate seasonal, commoditized business—toys. Kohl’s wins the junior department store prize for survivor here, if only because they aren’t tethered to hundreds of dying malls and they are not buried under a mountain of unsustainable debt.
Unfortunately, however, they have long ago filled in all of the white spaces in a 52-week promotional calendar and still have not figured out how to successfully discount goods at more than 100 percent off.
In the legacy specialty store arena, the blind leading the blind include old standbys such as Abercrombie and Hollister, seeking a “cool” reboot that may never be there for them again.
J. Crew, at best hopelessly adrift and in a potentially deadly debt-laden financial position, and The Gap, financially sound but perennially in search of a sustainable strategy, are other lost souls. The legacy specialty retailing business is not fine—not for these retailers or for many others in this category.
And Finally, the Two Titans: Are They Too Big to Fail?
Target is inching its way back into the sunlight. Their assortments still don’t have the special appeal that was “Tarjay” back in the day, but they are cleaning up their act. If they can survive their multi-year, multi-billion dollar plan to clean up their stores, they may just emerge, once again, as the retailing powerhouse they once were. I do think they are chasing a ghost in their pursuit of the grocery business and that, in and of itself, may bring them back down onto their knees.
Finally, that “mothership” of all retailing, Walmart, is once again intent on retaking the catbird seat they once ceded to what they regarded as their arch nemesis, Amazon. They are making progress in cleaning up their assortments and their stores, but alas, if only great big wads of cash could buy success. The jet.com, Bonobos and ongoing acquisitions to date feel far more like darts being thrown in search of an ill-defined target rather than puzzle pieces in a well designed mosaic. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Retail business is just fine, thank you very much. It’s just not fine for everyone.
For all those retailers doing well—good for you, you deserve your success. For those doing poorly, I’m mad as hell that you’ve put yourself in the position you are in, and you should be too.