NEW YORK, NY; August 8, 2019—The themes articulated through nine very different presentations at The Robin [Lewis] Report’s 10th annual Retail Radicals forum at Columbia University were consistent to a fault, with overlapping examples (often humorously so), and a common outlook despite the presenters coming from divergent sectors of the retail industry.
- Detrimental impact of reporting comp sales figures;
- Pressure for unrealistic quarterly growth to satisfy The Street;
- Reliance on spreadsheets rather than shopper realities;
- Delivering “local wonder;”
- Growing value of peronalization/customization;
- Decline of the most basic customer service;
- Integration of online-offline shopping;
- “Experiential” shopping.
None of these are new, but in an environment (which no one needed to emphasize to this audience, and no one did!) where store closings compound hourly, the need for more-than-cosmetic change is accelerated, and the perspectives of the speakers, and how they supported their points of view, provided multiple lenses through which to build toward the future. And while The Robin Report, and this event, are focused primarily on apparel and accessories retailing, the insights of the day apply across all sectors.
A Dose of Desperation
Witness the success of online apparel rental companies, represented at the conference, in separate presentations, by CaaStle’s Christine Hunsicker and Rent the Runway’s Gabby Cohen. CaaStle provides subscription model apparel rental infrastructure for retailers including Ann Taylor, NY&Co, Vince, and others. Rent the Runway aggregates apparel and accessories through purchase or consignment from multiple sources and rents items on an occasion or subscription basis.
“With new business models you need a little desperation,” says CaaStle’s Hunsicker, in order to prod senior management at traditional retailers (or anywhere else) to take chances. Similarly, Paul Charron, former CEO of Liz Claiborne, speaks of the “challenge of disrupting without usurping the prerogative of the CEO.”
On the difference between bricks and mortar selling and online rental: “Everything rents; 6%-7% of your [rental] customer base will have your worst-selling garments in their closet,” says Hunsicker. “The most important consideration for the renter: ‘Do I like the photo enough to have it?’”
By Hunsicker’s count, CaaStle’s retailers will sell 2.4 items to the average customer a month — but the rental customer will go through 108 garments over 12 months.
“Customers are our mini-warehouses,” she adds. “If we’re doing our job right, only about 15% of our inventory is in our warehouse at any one time.”
To retain customers, a retailer’s online rental operation needs to add “at least 50 new SKUs a month.” Ann Taylor, she says, introduces 150 new SKUs to its stores and rental system a month. But she also distinguishes between an Ann Taylor, which uses rental to add new, younger customers to its client base, while a retailer such as NY&Co, at least initially, sought only to monetize existing inventory that hadn’t sold through in its physical stores.
The ultimate business question: How long it takes to earn back the cost of acquiring customers. The goal, for Hunsicker, was 12 months. Netflix, she says, takes 20 months. “For traditional transaction brands [going to rental] it’s been two months” for CaaStle clients (CaaStle is only about a year old).
What of rent-to-buy? “It’s price dependent; 25%-30% of revenue from consumers is buy. At Ann Taylor, where the base monthly rental fee is $95, buy is a 30% kicker.”
With CaaStle, the retailer retains ownership of the inventory while CaaStle warehouses and services (processes orders, dry cleans, etc.). This differs from Rent the Runway, which usually owns its inventory, but, as mentioned, sometimes works on a consignment basis.
CaaStle is adding its first men’s brand this month with Scotch & Soda. “Men are more open to new business models,” Hunsicker says, “but it’s one chance [the clothes need to fit/look good] or they’re out.” Two more men’s brands are in the offing.
At Rent the Runway, Cohen says the company is building a drop box network for returning items, which would speed turns. So far Rent has installed about 25 at WeWork locations and at seven Nordstrom stores. Earlier in the afternoon, Columbia University professor and past C-level retailing executive (Sears, Lord & Taylor, Gap, others) Mark Cohen derided the announcement that Kohl’s is installing Amazon returns centers in hopes of building foot traffic.
Rent is also adding offerings that people “don’t need to keep or store,” such as kids’ apparel (they outgrow quickly) and skis.
Integrating Retail Into Lifestyle
Successful physical fashion retailing is “not about racks and racks and racks of apparel,” says Kevin Roche, of retail design firm Woods Bagot and a nine-year veteran of design for LVMH.
Roche sees continued “integration of office, living, retail, entertainment, sports” in uniquely designed spaces, and a need to incorporate “tons of technology and touch screens” in bricks and mortar stores.
Luxury retailers, in particular, he says, should trim the number of their physical outlets. “There should be 5-8 Nieman-Marcuses,” he says, while large-scale redesigns should be more judicious. “You can spend $300 million to redesign a flagship like Macy’s, but that won’t impact your other 584 stores.” It’s different, he notes, if you’re Harrod’s and you have only one store.
Is Smaller Better?
What of smaller-footprint outlets ala Target and Nordstrom’s efforts? “Walmart closed 114 Express stores in 2018,” notes Columbia’s Cohen. “The customer may live in the neighborhood [and see it as a neighborhood store] but they still expect 200,000 square feet of merchandise,” says Columbia’s Cohen. Also from Cohen:
- “The off-price growth streak is over.”
- “Walmart has foolishly entered a race [with Amazon] that it cannot win. Amazon is a market place, not a store. Like it or not, Walmart is a store.”
- “Acquisitions add to a company’s efforts [to grow] as ceramic tiles do to a mosaic.”
If you have the opportunity to hear Mark Cohen in person, do so. While he is very entertaining, his store-by-store critiques are uncompromising, and I can barely touch on his prepared remarks let alone the adlibbed asides. Ultimately asked by an audience member who does retail well, he didn’t miss a beat responding “Costco,” then adding, as he thought, Amazon, Zara, and “Feldman Housewares on the Upper East Side, near where I live. You go in and ask for what you need and the woman at the register tells you what aisle it’s in or that they don’t have it and you’re better off ordering online. Mom and pop hardware stores have an incredible array of merchandise and offer the best customer service anywhere.” To which everyone nodded in agreement.
Slides below are courtesy of Mark Cohen:
Source: Mark Cohen, Columbia University
The eye-opener for many, judging by the gasps as her slides went up, was Alibaba’s Candice Huang. Consider:
- Alibaba’s Singles Day sales event on 11-11 (all “1’s” for a shopping day designed for singles) generated $30.8 billion in sales in one day compared to total U.S. online sales of $24.2 billion over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday (Thursday through Monday).
- The platform boasts 700 million active monthly users who, if they stay with Alibaba for five years, place an average 23 orders across 132 categories and spend $1800 annually through the platform.
- With all the focus on China’s growing middle class, Huang says Alibaba has 100,000 users spending $159,000 each annually, though no one asked if that includes small businesses that might be making bulk purchases (think of the dollies of food items purchased at Costco by small restaurants and food carts and trucks).
- 59% of users are under 29. (Rent the Runway’s Cohen says median age for its customers is also 29.CaaStle’s Hunsicker says its sites’ core customers are 28-45.)
- Among Alibaba’s sites, Huang describes Taobao as a “superapp” from which customers can do general retail shopping as well as book travel, live entertainment, and other services — analogous to the shift at malls to offering more entertainment options in addition to traditional shopping.
Quote of the day:
- “’Focus group’ is a dirty word.” — Alexander Genov, head of consumer research for Zappos.
Note: Slide up top courtesy Christopher Timmins, Intel, which presented the The Robin Report conference along with sponsor SAP.