Here We Go Again: Some Socioeconomic Perspective

When 1928 ended, there were some concerns about margin and trade flows.  But mostly people seemed to think that 1929 would be another good year.  There had been a string of good years, and today there is some speculation that the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 left the survivors with a “live for today” attitude that had some responsibility for the “Roaring 20s,” as the decade was called.

By the end of 1929, the stock market had crashed, but nobody was standing around screaming, “It’s the Great Depression!”  Then, like now, it wasn’t always clear what you were going to have to dinner that evening, much less what the world would be like in a year or two.

And then, like now, we tended to project the past into the future, and it never turns out exactly that way.

I’m not expecting another Great Depression.  The speed and magnitude of the Fed’s response, the social safety net, and the technologies we have to address the virus make this different from the 1930s.  But if it turns into the worst recession since World War II, I won’t be surprised.  In the Great Recession GDP, at the bottom, was down about 4% and we hit 10% unemployment for a month.  The consensus for this quarter’s decline in GDP is almost 9%.  I expect the unemployment rate to hit around 20% at the next announcement.

As humans, we like to explain why things happen.  I think it brings us comfort- maybe a sense that we have some control- when we can point to a cause.  So, we point to covid 19.  Obviously, it’s had and is having a huge, unanticipated (though not unanticipatable except as to timing) impact.

But ask yourself, what if the companies that loaded their balance sheets with debt to buy back stock (at what turned out to be high prices) had that cash in the bank (Boeing- $44 billion just to use one example) or had invested it in productive assets that were producing cash flow?  They could use that cash now.

What if the Fed hadn’t kept interest rates way too low for way too long, causing incredible misallocation of capital, forcing people seeking some kind of yield to invest in things they had no business being invested in and allowing companies that should have gone out of business to be financed no matter how much money they lost and making you compete with some of them?

What if our politicians (from both parties over decades) hadn’t been willing to give us stuff we wanted that didn’t improve productivity without paying for it?  What if they saw being elected as a sacred public service rather than a career (yeah, I know, I expect too much)?  What if we’d been willing to elect people who wouldn’t just do and say what they thought would get them and keep them elected?  That one’s on us.

The pandemic would still have been bad, but not as bad from an economic point of view.  Here we go again trying to resolve a crisis that’s been exacerbated by too much debt with more debt when we know that more and more debt has less and less impact on GDP growth.  For about the fourth time, may I recommend, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.

Meanwhile, here’s an article with a series of graphs from May 14 that highlight the declines in various retail sectors so far.  As I’m sure you already know, you’re not going to like the one on apparel or, well, any of them.  At least we’re not airlines.

But it’s always darkest right before the dawn.  I’m starting to read and hear about brands and retailers seeing some bounce in sales, though it’s hardly a “problem solved!” moment.  For our industry and economy, and for the world’s economy there’s no V shaped recovery in our future.

The biggest strategic unknown for all of us is the extent to which the virus reemerges as we open up.  I’m feeling a bit isolated myself.  While I don’t completely blame people for wanting to socialize, getting too close to too many people for too long when we have no national policy or ability to test and do contact tracing has the potential to put us right back where we were.

That’s my best medical opinion, worth what you’re paying for it.  What’s your plan if the virus surges again?

What behaviors in which groups of your customers will change, and how long do the pandemic and associated economic ills have to go on before those changes become permanent and new ones emerge?  My parents grew up in the Great Depression.  I’ve written about how it created some permanent behavioral changes in them.  The Great Recession did the same to a different generation and I’m thinking some of the changes will be permanent.  And now, just a decade later, it’s happening again.  Damn- is “hunkering down” a strategy?

Speaking of changing behaviors, I’ve always worked out, belonged to a gym, and participated in any sport that would have me.  The last couple of months have not been great for exercise.  Or haircuts.

I should point out that neither Diane or I have a job to lose, and we don’t have children at home.  So basically, we’re lucky.  Our problems seem trivial when we think about what’s going on.

But finally, I haven’t been able to stand it.  I’ve ordered some TRX exercise bands.  I’ve gotten an exercise ball, some weights, and a large floor mat.  Even when the gym opens, I can’t work out with a mask and I’m unclear how an environment with everybody flinging sweat around and panting can be made safe.  I’d rather be in the middle seat of a plane.  What do you think?  Once I get this set up, will I ever go back to a gym?  The ROI is actually going to be fabulous with no monthly gym fee.

What changes are you experiencing that you didn’t expect when this started?

I’m rereading a book called The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, published in 1979.  It’s tragically laughable to read about industrialists and bankers orchestrating a campaign to keep the Federal Reserve from raising interest rates, or that, in early 1929, “A recent survey showed that the 60,000 families at the top of the economic scale were worth the same in financial terms as the 25 million at the bottom; and the wealthy were steadily becoming wealthier. Income from dividends, under a series of tax cuts introduced by [Secretary of the Treasury] Mellon, had risen 65 percent in nine years.  Higher dividends [like buybacks increasing EPS?] attracted more investors.  Up went the market.”

Read it to realize how it’s all come around again, but also to better understand the socioeconomic environment in which you’re running your business.

Those of you with quality customer and inventory information, strong integration of brick and mortar with online and a solid balance sheet who have made the hard choices early will, if you want to try and make this into a positive, be better off than others.  I would be particularly focused on long term customers and perhaps the subset of those who have purchased from you while stores were closed.  In that subset, I’d be really, really interested in new customers.

This is not my usual article, but I thought some perspective on what might turn into the worse year for this country since 1862 might be useful, and even give you some hope.  We’ve been through things like this before.  Crises accelerate change.  And even though the faster the change happens the more people hate it the change also creates opportunities and gets us from the bad to the good place faster.

You’re stuck with it.  Embrace.  The next article is half written in my head and will be specific as to some actions you might think about.

Keep Calm and Carry On

 

The poster with the slogan was issued in 1939 by the British.  We don’t have anybody bombing our cities or threatening to invade us- exactly- but the coronavirus is a national challenge with social, financial and health related impacts unlike anything most of us have experienced.  I’m not sure I’m overstating it to say that you had to be alive during World War II- maybe the attack on Pearl Harbor- to have had a similar experience.  The speed with which it has hit us is remarkable.    

I lived in Dublin for two years and I can tell you that when the Irish close the pubs, it’s serious.

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And Now for Something Completely Different; Some Recommended Reading with Perspective on U.S. Economic and Financial Conditions

In 5,000 years of recorded history, there isn’t another known instance of negative interest rates.  Now we’ve got about $13 trillion of securities with negative interest rates around the world.  So far, that hasn’t happened in the United States, but don’t assume it won’t when we finally get a recession.

Money is a commodity.  It has a price just like oil, gold, wheat or any other commodity.  When the market isn’t allowed to set the price, bad things happen- misallocation of capital basically.  You know this if you’ve tried to save money and found that the only way to get a return above inflation is to make investments you’d really prefer not to make (How many of you remember 6% CDs?).

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Retail, Technology, Consolidation, and Unintended Consequences

This morning, the Seattle Times featured this article telling us that REI wage hikes for store employee announced last summer will be costing the company $24 to $25 million.  The company’s net income for its last complete year was $38.3 million.

Meanwhile, my oldest son sent me this article from Investor’s Business Daily, telling us that fast food purveyor Wendy’s will have self-service ordering kiosks in 6,000 restaurants in the second half of this year due to rising minimum wages and tight labor conditions.

I’ve been writing about the potential impact of 3D printing and other kinds of manufacturing technology for a while.  Here’s my article on the apparel manufacturing system Intel plans to introduce.

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Why Did The Great Recession Happen?

Why Did The Great Recession Happen?

If you’ve ever looked at the suggested reading list on my web site, you know that I read some stuff that’s not related to business and certainly not to our industry.  Not directly that is.  But I think it helps me understand the environment we operate in and perhaps get a perspective I wouldn’t otherwise get.

William R. White is an economist who was recently awarded the apparently very prestigious Adam Smith prize.  He presented a lecture when he accepted the prize called, “Ultra Easy Money: Digging the Hole Deeper?”` Read more

Minimum Raise Increases: They Do Have an Impact- and Not Just on the People Who Get Paid More

I was reading Zumiez’s 10-Q and conference call and came across a question from an analyst (Sharon Zackfia from William Blair) on labor scarcity and wage pressures.  Here’s what she asked:

“I guess I’m curious from a labor standpoint kind of as labor gets scarcer and scarcer and wages are going up, how — what if anything that you’ve been able to do at a store level to kind of optimize that labor better, given the compression in your seasons?”

Zumiez CEO Rick Brooks’ got me thinking and detoured me from my usual review of their results- which I’ll get to after this article.  Let me quote Rick at some length.

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The Impact of Market Consolidation

We’re all watching the continuing rationalization of our retail space.  I suppose “rationalization” is a way too benign sounding word for a process that includes bankruptcies, store closings, job losses, margin hits, too much inventory, and struggles to increase sales and even to stay in business.

As ugly as this continues to be, there are going to be opportunities for the brands and retailers who get through it.  I’m going to take some comments from Dick’s Sporting Goods most recent conference call to help us think about the upside and downside of the process.  Dick’s, I suspect, will do just fine over the medium to long term because with the demise of The Sports Authority, there just aren’t that many larger, national big box competitors left (Academy has like 200 stores in 15 mostly southern states.  Who else?).  Dick’s ended their most recent quarter with 647 Dick’s stores.  They also own Golf Galaxy and have some Field and Stream stores I guess.

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Retail and Brand Strategy: Cycles or Long Term Trends?

Could this time really be different?

Recently, a couple of retail CEOs have been pointing out, or maybe bemoaning, the lack of a strong retail trend. They’ve noted how in the past they’ve been able to rely on such trends for big sales boosts and have explained their worse than expected performance partly by the lack of it.

They say, “But that will change.” I’m sure they are right. It will change.   Their implication, however, is that this is a traditional retail cycle of relatively short term duration. I’m not so sure about the “short term” part.

It’s a bit awkward for me to be asking, “Could it be different this time?” because I’m very aware of the cycles of history over decades and centuries. I know that in retail cycles, not to mention social, economic, and financial cycles, it has mostly turned out to not be different.

I’m going to compromise with myself and say it’s probably not different, but the time frame during which that becomes clear is going to be longer than we’re used to. The factors that are coming together guarantee a long, strange trip as the tidal wave of divergences works through our retail market. I’m going to look at what those are and try to reach some conclusions about succeeding in our industry.

Let’s start with overall economic conditions and debt then move on to customer behavior and how we sell to them. Next, I want to take a look at technology and what that means to the competitive environment. Based on that, I’ve got some ideas about how retailers and brands have to operate.

It IS the Economy, Stupid

I don’t think I need to spend much time trying to convince you that this economic recovery has been weaker than any since the 2nd World War. You are certainly aware that wage growth has been low to nonexistent and that job growth, especially for our primary customer group, has tended to be in lower paying jobs and often involve multiple jobs. Let’s call that group the millennials, though you’ll see below I think that’s an over simplification. When can we expect improvement?

Not for a while, and the reason is debt. I’ve recommended a book called This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Reinhart and Rogoff. It’s so well researched that it’s hard to dispute their findings, but they are hardly the only ones acknowledging the problem debt is causing. Basically, they show that debt over a certain point leads to lower growth in an economy.

They suggest that growth starts to be impacted when total private and public debt as a percentage of GDP reaches around 90%. As of the start of 2015, by way of some examples, Canada is the cleanest dirty shirt at a bit less than 300%. The U.S. is about 375%, the Eurozone about 475%, the U.K. 500% and Japan, the hands down winner, is north of 650%. What probably won’t surprise, but should disturb you, is that total debt has continued to rise since the Great Recession.

I’ve always found the idea of fixing a debt problem with more debt perplexing.

Meanwhile, take a look at this chart showing real GDP growth in selected periods in the U.S. 2000 is the year the stock market bubble first burst. To my way of thinking, though the Fed stepped in and “saved” us, that’s when things started to go south in a noticeable way.

GDP chart for Retail and Brand Strategy article for TWB 1-16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I borrowed” this chart and the data in the previous paragraph from Hoisington Investment Management’s review and outlook for the third quarter of 2015. You can get your own copy at http://www.hoisingtonmgt.com/hoisington_economic_overview.html. I highly recommend it.

I’ve studied enough statistics to understand that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but I’m convinced that there’s a relationship between GDP growth and debt. It is kind of logical. If you owe money, then you have less to spend while you pay it back and pay the interest. If you choose not to pay it back, then the people you owe it to have less to spend.

I think we’re in a low growth period until we do something about our overall level of debt. Solving the problems will be unpleasant and, if avoided long enough, draconian. Please, please, please, email me and tell me why I’m wrong.

So the first thing we have to deal with is continued slow economic growth caused by over indebtedness. Let’s move on. I don’t have room for a good rant on the damage the Federal Reserve is doing with continued low interest rates.

Our Customers

Our customers are, uh, wait a minute. Who are they anyway? Seems like we, as an industry, are trying to sell to everybody from six year olds to baby boomers. A couple of individual brands seem to succeed with that, but mostly you can’t. I’ll spare you my oft repeated speech about the dangers of expanded distribution except to remind you that 1) growth requirements make it hard to be a successful public company in this space because of the requirement for regular, quarterly growth and once you get into broader distribution 2) they may know your brand but not your story and your competitive advantage goes away and 3) we’re way over retailed with too much indistinguishable product.

I also wondered a while ago if maybe distribution didn’t matter due to online and because good merchandising could overcome wider distribution. To summarize, I thought that once a product was ubiquitous in the online world and a click away, customer’s reaction to broader distribution might change. I’ve decided the answer is “no.” It turns out that getting retailers who’ve never been great at merchandising specialty product to do it well is expensive, challenging and time consuming. There’s also our continuing problem of a lack of product differentiation which poor merchandising just highlights.

Meanwhile, back to our customers. If we have to characterize them as a demographic, we’d say, “the millennials.” This is the group (much like my mom’s generation who’s formative years were in the Great Depression) that got slammed by the Great Recession. They are financially conservative (and will be for life), are having a hard time making a wage that allows them to live independently, are not particularly brand loyal (though if you can get them, you can keep them), are most influenced by their community (not your advertising), and are more interested in experiences. A product is something they seek in order to have an experience, rather than buy for the hell of it. They have the data to find exactly the right product with exactly the right attributes because they don’t want to screw up the experience. Don’t try and bullshit them.

Okay, now that I’ve defined our customers as a demographic, I have to tell you not to do that. In the days of instant, endless, information about anything, groups, trends, styles, points of view can come and go pretty damned quickly. And anybody who’s interested in them can find out about them and be part of the community they represent. It’s easier to say your customer is of a certain age, and it may be true. But it’s not an adequate description of who they are.

Notice how the term “fast fashion” seems to have disappeared? It’s like it’s no longer an aberration, but a permanent condition. This seems to require that companies be a bit reactive after all those years where being proactive was a virtue.

To go with a soft economy, then, we’ve got customers that are harder to get and keep and in general have less money to spend. I am just a font of good news today.

Technology

 Let me remind you of two things I hear brands and retailers saying all the time.

“Get the right product to the right place at the right time,” and “Give the customer what they want, when they want it, where they want it.”

Those two catchy phrases make a lot of sense and are indicative of two things. First, they tell us how much the customer is in charge. In the days of too much retail space, too many undifferentiated products and near perfect information, that’s probably inevitable. Second, we’re all trying to figure out how, exactly, to do this and the one thing we’ve learned for sure is that it’s really expensive. There’s an advantage here to big players with strong balance sheets, because the cost for a 50 store retail chain to do it is probably not that much different than for a 600 store chain. Let’s put it this way- the cost per store is lower for the larger retailer or brand.

When you accomplish it, you won’t have created a long term competitive advantage; you will have just bought yourself the right to compete. I’m not talking about using a POS system here. I’m saying that from design at the brand to returns at the retailer the systems have to be integrated to keep up with the speed and requirements of your customers.

My Hero

Maybe you remember that a couple of years ago Rip Curl got itself in trouble. They tried to sell the company, but couldn’t get the price they wanted. So they decided to solve the problem the hard way.

They refocused on just being the best surf company they could be. They cut their product offerings by 50% and focused on the ones that their customers needed. They try to offer technology and quality that differentiate the products they do sell. They emphasized efficiency and reduced their distribution. They only sold places where they could make money. What a good idea.

In summary, their primary focus was on improving net income (and reducing working capital invested) rather than gross revenues.

It seems to be working, and regular readers will know I thoroughly approve of what they decided to do. Bluntly, I don’t think they had a choice. And neither do many of you.

The economy is making fast revenue growth difficult. Your customers (who can’t be simply identified as an age group any more) won’t buy what you tell them to buy, but what their community supports. They have endless choices and information. And the continuous investment required to satisfy their product and shopping requirements has gone through the roof- especially for smaller brands and retailers.

Do some surprising things. Perhaps completely outside of what your customers expect. Even contrary to your brand image. If you accept my premise that it’s tougher to get and keep brand loyalty in the days of endless, instant new brands, and that’s it’s damned near impossible to keep up with what’s “cool” anyway, why not surprise your customers this way? It’s a way to claw back a little initiative and not have to be reactive all the time in an impossible attempt to keep up with the rate of change.

Especially as a newer brand, focus on your web site and selling there. You can’t find the customers- they have to find you. Social media, etc. This minimizes marketing costs. What you do spend should be aligned with creating experiences. If you’re not going to grow revenue as fast as you once might have, make sure you’re selling at a price that gives you a solid gross profit. In your brick and mortar retail, be very cautious about whom you open and curate the hell out of them until you know they have you figured out. Do some temporary stores in surprising places for strange reasons. Never over supply.

It’s really a pretty interesting time to be building a brand as long as you acknowledge what I think are longer term conditions under which you have to operate. Rip Curl can watch some of its competitors flail as it just focuses on the bottom line with a business model that’s responsive to existing business conditions using some of the concepts I’ve briefly described above.

You can do the same thing.

Lowe’s New Customer Service Representatives and the Minimum Wage

Lowe’s new in store service representatives won’t need bathroom breaks, vacations, or retirement account. They won’t get sick. Hell, you don’t even have to pay them a salary. And what’s even better, or maybe worse- I’m not quite sure- is that they may be able to help me find the esoteric piece of hardware I need better than the current human ones. And they will be able to do it in as many languages as are necessary.

They’re robots, and you can read about them here. Make sure you watch the video. Read more

What Does the Data on Our Target Market Say About Your Business Strategy?

It was a lot of years ago when I first started reminding you not to focus just on your gross margin percentage, but your gross margin dollars as well. Then, in 2009, with the recession in full swing, I got all excited about Gross Margin Return on Inventory Investment (GMRII) after Cary Allington at Action Watch pointed me to the concept.

I discussed it in some presentations and wrote about it. Here’s one of my articles on the subject. It’s held up pretty well.
I liked the GMRII concept because my reading of history is that debt caused recessions (if recession is an adequate word to explain what we’re going through) last a long time. This one, I concluded, was not going to be different from all the others. It seems, unfortunately, that so far I’m right about that.

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