Friday, March 24, 2017

Retail Therapy: What's Wrong with Brick-and-Mortar Retail?

Payless Shoes appears headed towards bankruptcy. Sears looks like it's on life support.  Does anyone shop at JC Penney anymore?  

It's tempting to say retail is dead and appoint Amazon as its pallbearer, but one look at McDonald's, Costco, H&M, Chick-fil-A, In 'N Out, and Dunkin' Donuts tells you brick-and-mortar can work just fine.  

Target (TGT), which I own, is the odd duck, so I will focus on it.  It used to be Target was retail's darling.  Fans would refer to it as "Tar-jay" (with a French accent) to denote some particularly welcoming stores and its exclusive clothing lines.  At one point, a famous designer, Isaac Mizrahi, created an exclusive fashion line for Target for five years.  The fact that a "discount" retailer was able to carve out a high-end niche, at least in the consumer's mind, is worth further study.  

Recently, however, Target has lost its ability to maintain its brand.  A series of unfortunate events occurred.  In 2013, hackers took advantage of Target's credit card information, a debacle that continued to make headlines through 2015.  It exited Canada, admitting defeat in the country.  Its exclusive fashion collaborations didn't garner as much appeal as in the past.  And it angered fundamentalist conservatives by taking a political stance on unisex bathrooms.  

What is happening to Target, whose stock is at a five-year low?  

1.  As living costs in America have increased, wages haven't kept pace.  It's hard to motivate employees when they see employment with you as a temporary gig.  At least waiters and bartenders have tips to motivate them, so they can't completely slack off.  

2.  Today, the main way to differentiate retail is through outstanding customer service.  Chick-fil-A has great food, but most people will remember its consistent service long after the taste of spicy chicken has been forgotten.  With its relatively low wages, how does Target create consistently excellent customer service?  

Note that Costco pays higher wages than the industry norm, which it considers to be part of its competitive advantage because higher wages can reduce employee turnover.  American retailers in trouble have failed to adapt to higher living costs while complying with Wall Street's general antipathy to higher wages for unskilled labor.  

Canada's Tim Horton's has adapted by hiring foreign-born Filipinas--who have a reputation for excellent customer service--to staff its stores.  Obviously it needs its government to be on the same page when it comes to immigration to do this, but Canada, as usual, succeeds where others have failed because of its greater tolerance and dedication to doing what works. 

Dunkin' Donuts has adapted by reducing the size of its stores, lowering its overhead and need for additional staff.  I'll never forget ordering a sandwich in a Chicago public transportation hub and trying to figure out how Dunkin' fit an entire kitchen in what appeared to be the size of a rich housewife's shoe closet.  (Maybe the new retail paradigm is this: can your store fit into an airport or public transportation hub and still succeed?  Hopefully not, though I notice bookstores seem to be doing well in airports and nowhere else.) 

3.  Does anyone think the majority of employees at Payless are experts on the perfect shoe fit or style? Of course not.  That's why it's cheap to shop there.  In contrast, Asics in Tokyo has a machine to measure your foot and print out data--yours to keep--that helps the Asics employee identify your best shoe choice.  After the helpful employee spends all that time with you, you really do want to buy whatever shoe s/he recommends.  After all, who am I to doubt science? 

As far as I know, Target has no individually-tailored services outside its photo department. 

4.  Partnerships are an excellent way to keep your brand in the spotlight but difficult to find and even harder to maintain.  I knew Olympic Gold medalist Jordan Burroughs would be a superstar long before he became a household name in some circles and abroad, even in Iran.  (As proof I'm no bandwagon fan, I donated to his gold medal fund *before* he won the gold. Besides, how could anyone not like his family? http://ftw.usatoday.com/2013/10/olympic-wrestler-gets-married-bride-wears-his-signature-shoes-down-the-aisle

Corporate partnerships are hard.  Jordan Burroughs made some comments against excessive police force that could have made him unpopular, but most people appreciated his measured criticism.  Meanwhile, Nike dropped the great Manny Pacquiao, and Colin Kaepernick is unemployed.  

In Target's case, it's just not getting enough mileage out of its "exclusive" partnerships because consumers figured out if they miss one offering, another will soon appear.  The lesson is simple: companies that mislead consumers, even if indirectly, will suffer, because consumers have become smarter about seeing through advertising gimmicks.  Target appears to suffer from a case of "MBA-itis"--short-term profits over long-term credibility.  

In Asics' case, it not only managed to scoop up the brightest star in a growing sport, it also cultivated a mutually-beneficial relationship with the sport's most respected coach for decades.  Is that why they were able to identify and sign Jordan Burroughs before other apparel companies?  Maybe not, but it couldn't hurt. 

5.  Consistency matters.  McDonald's might not always provide good customer service, but its coffee will taste the same everywhere in the world.  Its only adaptations are specific to local tastes, like adding guacamole to its Mexican burgers or using the term "liberty" in its advertising in Guantanamo Bay (the irony isn't lost on me).  When you consider the TSA can't even manage to be consistent in its own country, you'll see achieving consistency isn't easy but key to maintaining your brand's reputation.  

In Australia, I eagerly visited a Target store near Chinatown to see how my Target investment was doing.  I almost sold my shares the next day.  With Australia's affluent customers, you'd think Target would make the country a priority. Yet, the store was not clean and not even organized well.  I didn't want to buy a single thing.  Even the lighting made me sad. 

Perhaps Australia's relatively high currency and higher labor costs make it harder to invest there, but why open a store that will damage your brand's reputation?  How hard can it be for the Board's and executive team's spouses and children to travel a few times a year--on their own dime--to international locations and give objective feedback to their family?  One visit was all I needed to realize Target lacks the expertise or ability to expand overseas.  

Conclusion: Target has many problems that justify its current low stock price and will need to think long-term to stay relevant.  Its issues expanding internationally need to be addressed immediately. 

Disclosure: I own Target shares and other retailer company shares as part of mutual funds and/or ETFs, but my positions may change at any time.  You are responsible for your due diligence.  Nothing herein is intended to be investment advice. 

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