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The Business of Fashion – Regulation, acquisition and the slowdown

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When the global financial meltdown struck in 2008, many of those with a vested interest in the luxury market watched nervously; high net worth individuals had surely seen many investments wiped out as the recession struck and would thus be more inclined to austerity. While there was a brief moment of humility and caution over indulgence in life’s finer things, it was brief. The luxury market proved surprisingly resilient. Global spend has increased since the recession by around a third, helped in no small part by the explosion of growth in developing regions, China in particular. Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where you end your story”. Our story, sadly, does not end here.

It was not a good omen when fashion curator and director of the Musée Galliera in Paris Olivier Saillard said during New York Fashion Week last month, “We are in a moment that’s very bizarre in fashion: there are too many clothes”. Business of Fashion lamented both a lack of quality and vision in contemporary collections,

“Fashion seems stuck between the need to surprise using a new array of communications tools and the urge to deliver novelty at the fastest possible pace. Slowing down might be a solution, but that would be a hard route, which will hardly find followers.”

And it is followers that fashion, and the luxury market as a whole, are in need of. Earlier this month the Financial Times reported on the global slowdown of luxury spending. Behind this slowdown lie two factors. On the one hand, there is what are hopefully short-term influences; geopolitical turmoil is rife. Hong Kong continues to see protests that refuse to simmer down, causing disruption to myriad businesses. The city accounts for perhaps 20% of global luxury spending. The Middle East, whose consumer origin or nationality according to Bain & Co. has the biggest average per capita spend, is similarly in chaos, with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya all in various stages of unrest. Regions like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Russia, sanctions have hit oligarchs and their ilk hard. As a result, shares in luxury good companies have been hit hard. Prada has seen profits slide 20% in the first half of the year. Everyone’s darling of fashion innovation, Burberry, has warned of a “cautious outlook”. Mulberry has issued a string of profit warnings and recently ejected its CEO.

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McKinsey illustrate the drift of luxury growth from developed to emerging markets

So we can reason that these companies are seeing fewer customers. But they are also attracting new ones, albeit with very different expectations of the service they expect from the companies they have relationships with. This is the longer-term challenge. Millennials may have been treated as a distinct niche group with quirky demands from brands, but next year they will outnumber Gen Xers, according to McKinsey. These utterly digitally savvy citizens have embraced and contributed to a digital fragmentation in the consumer decision journey, the production process and the fundamental nature of buyer / seller value exchange.

“[A] confluence of digital, the rising power of street fashion and changing consumer attitudes… are radically altering the industry. [It is a] consumer-led shift away from ostentatious and mainstream mega-brands towards understated originality”

One of the most obvious ramifications of this has been the trend of ‘logo fatigue’. It is likely to hit those like Gucci particularly hard, while benefiting those like The Row, and little-known retailers like L’Art du Basic. For larger brands there are some examples for inspiration though. Yoox, whom we have profiled in detail before, have gone from strength to strength in embracing effective digital strategy. The fashion ecommerce site reportedly sees 42% of its global traffic coming from mobile devices, and has recently made a significant push into experimenting with instant messaging app WeChat. As elaborated by Fashion and Mash, the account allows users to “shop via an interactive look book, and to instant message customer service teams and personal stylists. Content also invites users to exclusive events and provides early access to specific products”. In the physical world, Ralph Lauren’s hosting of a cafe in its Fifth Avenue store in New York may be less immediately strategic but seeks to leverage the same burgeoning trends. Brands will need to do more of this, more often, if they are to find what works best for them in terms of engaging and converting future prospects.

Also this month, Zeitgeist found itself at an event at London’s Four Seasons hotel off Park Lane, hosted by law firm Baker & McKenzie. Threats, tech trends and M&A were the main subjects of discussion. Zeitgeist scribbled down some bons mots which were thought worth recounting here. Last month, McKinsey produced an insightful piece on the future of luxury growth, indicating growth would come for the most part from what they termed global megacities, a large proportion of which were located in emerging economies. But China is facing a slowdown; no doubt one of the reasons it was recommended in the conference that businesses start to think less of China as an independent market of growth and more of ASEAN as a region.

3D printing was a matter of much conjecture, but it was pleasing to see that the regulation of such materials was already being considered. One speaker offered the technology would be a greater problem for toy manufacturers than luxury, but cautioned that fast fashion and high customisation were a potent mix. Current UK regulation allows for printing any designs (of one’s own creation or not) at home for personal use for no gain. Such laws may have to be re-examined as 3D printing becomes more widespread. It is difficult to protect the IP of a fashion designer’s work, and difficult therefore to know where to draw the line between inspiration and infringement. The case of the red shoe, specifically between Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin, has illustrated such difficulty. In the case of 3D printing, one speaker suggested that printing could be limited via restriction similar to how publishers use paywalls, or a more sophisticated version of the DCMA. The importance of protecting the source code of 3D printing designs looks set to be important; Pirate Bay already has a section for such product. Social networking as a new source of IP was also discussed. David Yurman sought opinions on styles to be included on a Valentine’s campaign; users could drop hints to their partner. Bergdorf encouraged fans to design Fendi bags over social, too. But there have been slip ups; Cole Haan offered to pay fans $1,000 for taking pictures of their shoes, without making it clear it was part of contest where someone would win and that the company was sponsoring the activity. They got off with a warning from the regulator, but luxury brands must treat that as a cautionary tale as they continue to experiment. “The law is not keeping up with the technology”, as one speaker sagely confessed.

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David Yurman’s Facebook campaign suggests new IP possibilities for businesses in the future

The M&A chat was equally of interest. Speakers ruminated on the rise of vertical integration as LVMH et al seek to own the whole process. It’s a brave step for companies that traditionally haven’t involved themselves with supply chains or distribution, according to those speaking. Acquisitions were taking two forms: one was spotting missing gaps in the portfolio. For LVMH, the hole in their portfolio was jewellery, which lay behind their purchase of Bulgari in 2011. More recently Giorgio Armani – or as one speaker referred to the man himself, “King George” – reclaimed control of Armani Exchange as it attempts to leverage fast fashion trends. The other form was that of acquisitions in support of brand development – innovation, technology, CRM in Mandarin, social media, etc. More of these sorts of acquisitions were expected on the horizon.

How do these deals play out today? Private equity buyers have a lot of capital and access to cheap debt, but traditionally many of the targets of a buyout have been family-owned businesses who were not ready to relinquish control to a PE firm. These firms are much quicker and more aggressive at deals; they can quickly globalise a brand, can improve the supply chain and stretch the brand up and down from the original price point. Of course, adding new assets, like social media, makes due diligence – and knowing how to allocate risk to a mercurial medium – much harder. Owning supply chains carries risks of more exposure (see Apple and Foxconn). One of the most thorny issues that speakers envisioned was for a luxury good empire known for provenance and quality to be acquired by a a company in a jursidiction that is not known for such things. What if Alibaba bought Balenciaga from Kering, for example?

So it is plain to see that the luxury industry continues to face disruptive challenges, be they at the hands of digital, demographic or geopolitical trends. Some of these disruptions will hopefully, as mentioned earlier, be more temporary in nature. The more fundamental shifts in consumption, though challenging, also present myriad opportunities for businesses that are brave and agile enough to test what works best to capture and retain the customer of the future. They could do worse than start by reading our previous post on the future of retail.

Taking flight – Opportunities and obstacles in democratising luxury

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I don’t think democratic luxury exists. I don’t believe in something for everyone… How can we possibly put these products on the Web site without the tactile experience of luxury?”

- Brunello Cucinelli

The democratisation of fashion took a beating this past week as news reached Zeitgeist that Fashion’s Night Out was to be no more. Spearheaded by Anna Wintour at the height of the global recession, the idea was for a curated evening; a chance for stores to open their doors late, inviting a party atmosphere and focussing spend on a calendar event. The Wall Street Journal wrote that last year, “Michael Kors judged a karaoke competition at his store on Madison Avenue, rapper Azealia Banks performed at the MAC store in Soho and a game night was held at a Kate Spade store.” The evening festivities were replicated across New York, London and other cities.
Zeitgeist happened to be on Manahattan’s Spring Street last September when the most recent FNO was held, waiting patiently for a perenially-late friend who works next door to Mulberry. While waiting, it was absolutely fascinating to see the sheer of variety of people out on the street. While the crowds were mostly composed of women, the groups ranged from college-aged JAPs and the avant-garde to hipsters and stay-at-home mothers. Most gawped excitedly as they beheld the Mulberry boutique, enticed by the glimpses of free food and drink, as well the sultry bass tones of some cool track. One elegantly dressed fashionista strode hurriedly past Zeitgeist, lamenting to her cellphone “Oh God, it’s Fashion’s Night Out tonight”.
Ultimately perhaps it was such feelings among the fashion set that caused FNO to come to an abrupt end. But Zeitgeist got the sense that, while undeniably a celebration of fashion and an opportunity for brands to showcase their attractively experiential side – particularly to those who might usually be deterred by luxury brands and their perceived sense of formality – there weren’t a great deal of people actually buying things. It’s quite possible that the whole strategy of attracting a crowd who would not otherwise frequent such stores backfired; they turned up, sampled the free booze, felt what it must be like to shop at such-and-such a label, then moved on to the next faux-glitzy event with thumping music. This then was a failed attempt to bring luxury to the masses.

On a macro scale, the cause for democratisation is hardly helped by the global financial crisis. Although over four years old, the ramifications and scarring done to the economy are still sorely felt. This is illustrated in the unemployment figures around the world, tumultuous elections and anecdotal tales of hardship. More starkly, they are being backed up by solid quantitative research that proves we as a world are less connected now than we were in 2007. In December last year, The Economist reported on the DHL Global Connectedness Index, which concluded that connections between countries in 2012 were shallower (meaning less of the nation’s economy is internationalised) and narrower (meaning it connects with fewer countries) than before the recession. Meanwhile, just this past week, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report showing financial capital flows between countries were still 60% below their pre-recession high. This kind of business environment hardly fosters egalitarian conduct, and indeed such isolationist thinking was on show at Paris Fashion Week recently, where designers clung to their French heritage as a badge of honour. Exactly at the time when art needs to be leading the way in cultural integration, as emerging markets not only continue to make up a larger part of the customer base, but also develop their own powerful brands, it seemed that designers, like the financial markets, retreated to what they knew and found safe.

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The world is less connected today than in 2007

Where the ideology of democratising fashion has seen more success is of course online. We’ve written before about how luxury is struggling with the extent to which they invest in e-commerce. One of the principle hurdles is that the nature of luxury – elite, arcane, exclusive – is more or less diametrically opposed to the nature of the Internet – open, borderless, democratic.
Yet the story of Yoox – the popular and, in online terms, long-lasting fashion ecommerce platform – and its founder is one of just such democratisation. (It is particularly stunning to read of the difficulties the founder, a Columbia MBA graduate, Lehman Brothers and Bain & Co. alum, had in attracting VC funding). It also, crucially, points to the importance of recognizing multiple audiences, and how they like to shop differently depending on context. John Seabrook, writing in The New Yorker, reports that when Federico Marchetti set up Yoox in 2000, the world of ecommerce for fashion was regarded as a not particularly salubrious environment. Rather, the magazine compares it to outlet stores like Woodbury Common, fifty miles north of New York. Luxury brands like Prada and Marni could be found there, offering deep discounts on their wares, and it was for that reason – and the lack of control over their own brand – that they didn’t like much to talk about such places. This, despite the fact that they attracted 12 million people in 2011, “almost twice the number of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum”. Yoox was likewise greeted with much trepidation by fashion retailers. The article quotes an analyst from Forrester Research:

“It was a matter of principle with luxury brands that only people who shop on eBay use the internet – and their only interest was in getting a low price.”

Marchetti’s only available source of designer clothing was from last season and beyond, as no brand would sell their current collection. He curried favour with some of them though by advertising the prices without noting the discount customers were getting. Other than that, luxury brands took little or no notice.

Online shopping though would prove to be “one of the largest disruptions of the luxury-goods industry since the birth of the department store”. There are three kinds of online store today; those that sell deep-discounted goods on end-of-season wear, those that sell in-season clothing, and those that have flash sales of small numbers of clothing or accessories. It turned out there was an audience for all of these types of website. Bridget Foley, executive editor of WWD is quoted in the article saying “[T]here has been a sea change in attitude… I think [it] surprised the fashion industry… Just because you love clothes doesn’t mean you love shopping“. This struck Zeitgeist as one of the more important insights in the lengthy article. Though retailers often harp on about the importance of the retail environment, the need to touch the product, to be in an atmosphere where everything has been curated down to the finest detail, online neutralises all of that. This idea threatens those in the luxury sector, as the thinking goes that any such premium on products may seem less justifiable away from a Peter Marino-designed armchair and a nice glass of champagne. Such ideas are being challenged though. Not only is the nature of the store changing – from robotic sales staff to customers as models on the catwalk – but so is the view of the luxury customer as a homogenous, static group, devoid of context. Zeitgeist was at a Future of Media summit at the Broadcast Video Expo last week, where, as behavioural economics suggest, MD of Commercial, Online and Interactive for ITV Fru Hazlitt insisted that consumers had to be targeted in ways that were pertinent to them, not only as demographic groups, but in ways that recognised the context of how approachable they were likely to be at the time, given the programming they were watching. Fru admitted that in years past, broadcasters like ITV had seen advertising as “space to rent out”. Now they were thinking deeply about how and when is the right moment to reach their target consumer. It is the same in fashion. There is not one single way to reach the consumer; buyers of luxury goods do not want to be solely restricted to being able to buy your wares in a physical store.

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Chanel are one of the few remaining luxury brands to resist fully integrating online

Behavioural economics played a role in Marchetti’s initial framing of the audience for the website as well. He hired pedigreed fashion writers, as well as artists, architects and designers to make special projects that lent the website an air of curation, of something more special and rarefied that what one might find – or more importantly the way one might feel – at an outlet mall. Marchetti wanted the customers “to see themselves as connoisseurs, even if they were really just hunting for bargains”. The New Yorker article goes into some anecdotal detail about the way people shop on Yoox, which crucially differs not only from the way they would shop in-store, but also from other e-tailers. For online shopping in general, the experience is one where you can purchase ten items, and return nine of them with very little hassle, with credit for multiple rather than a single brand, and certainly no raised eyebrow from a pretentious shop assistant. Regarding specific sites, Yoox, unlike Net a Porter, for example, does not try to force a set of looks onto the user. Behavioural economics tell us that people irrationally value something more when they’ve been made to work a bit to get it. Such is the case now shopping for luxury items, which makes clothing not in-season (i.e. not currently in every shop window), both cooler and cheaper. It’s an act not to be discouraged. A Saks representative says customers who shop online as well as in store buy four times as much merchandise as customers who shop only in the store. What will worry retailers though is that the convenience of the online store outweighs the experience of the physical boutique. The New Yorker quotes a shopper: “I’ll never buy a dress at the Prada boutique again after getting these really amazing ones on Yoox.”

As well as setting up the Yoox website, Marchetti’s company now also powers the online stores of more than thirty fashion houses, including Armani and Jil Sander. Last summer, PPR joined in too, after conceding that their in-house expertise was not up to snuff. The latest development is making designs available to any customer as soon as it hits the runway. Burberry, as well as separate sites like Moda Operandi, have spearheaded this innovative change, which is effecting editorial as well as buying methods previously seen as unshakeable. The demand for this type of instant purchasing seems to be fueled by a niche – albeit a sizable one – that is not representative of the majority of luxury shoppers. The accessibility of a brand and its products is a tricky one to tread, one which Zeitgeist has written about several times before. Tom Ford performed a volte-face this year, after debuting his womenswear collection with no press and VIPs only, relented this year at London Fashion Week by letting bloggers write about the show. Chanel still steadfastly refuses to fully engage with online shopping. The tension is keenly felt in the New Yorker article, where Amazon’s new entry into the world of fashion is referenced. The CEO of Valentino is unconvinced: “Valentino is high luxury… People going to Amazon are not going to Valentino“. This smacks a little of pride and ignorance, for they most assuredly are, though perhaps not with luxury purchases in mind… yet.

It comes back to the idea that there are myriad types of luxury consumer. The industry has not fully acknowledged as of yet that the buying behaviour of a descendant of the ancien regime in Paris is unlikely to buy in the same way as a newly-minted businessman in Shenzhen. They may know that these types of buyers exist, and they may even create different products for each. Importantly though, they are not recognising that these people may go about purchasing in a different way. It’s not just a purchase journey that has changed massively in recent years, as McKinsey’s consumer decision journey illustrates above. It’s also, as ITV’s Fru Hazlitt insists, about recognising that different people shop in different ways, wholly dependent on context. Though Fashion’s Night Out may be on permanent hiatus, and though the global economy may be sputtering along in second gear, the opportunities to leverage deep insights into consumer purchase preferences are there for the taking. Yoox, along with a deeply complicated algorithm, are trying to tap into just this. But the process must start with realising that yes, actually, someone might want to pick up that Valentino dress while surfing on Amazon.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 7 comments
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The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

What Creative Destruction means for Kodak, China and Romney

February 27, 2012 1 comment

Some things are built to last. Some businesses are made this way. They are in the end ultimately just as susceptible to market forces as their counterparts. Originally a Marxist idea, creative destruction has found its way into popular economics. Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan mentions the phrase often in his autobiography. Zeitgeist has previously mentioned the late, great economist Schumpeter, too. His notion of ‘disequilibrium’ was that within the market, though you may have a great product or solution, there are external forces that can render said product or solution redundant. These innovations often come in leaps of ingenuity that might initially seem to be extraneous to the current product or solution’s market. Finally though, the new innovation ends up eradicating any synonymous inefficiencies. Think first about Henry Ford’s famous quotation,

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Along with the insight that customer research is not always the best way to go – Apple’s avoidance of it is a case in point – what this quotation also illustrates is our tendency toward myopia when it comes to seeing strategic competition from a seemingly unrelated field. Harvard Business Review have an excellent paper on strategy that covers this. It is unlikely that anyone thought the motorcar would replace horses, or that it would even be popular. This eradication of the other, more inefficient product or solution is a great example of creative destruction. Apple’s iTunes and it’s myrmidons, and the damage it has inflicted on CD sales, is another example.

Speaking of cars, attention on the auto industry was front and centre during half-time of the recent Superbowl in the US. The automaker Chrysler, which produced a similarly provocative commercial that aired during last year’s Superbowl, has caused much chatter over television, radio, print and social media. It’s an affecting advert, not least because it is built on a fallacy. Though Zeitgeist believes that bailing out the auto industry was the right thing to do, this commercial, and politicians of different stripes (including Newt Gingrich and Obama), have all been harping on about the manufacturing renaissance coming to the US: America Redux. The simple, horrible truth is that while manufacturing as an industry has room to grow it will not return to what it was.

Moreover, those jobs that will be required demand increasingly skilled, technical labourers, i.e. college-educated. There will be a great many people who are now out of work in the US who will be unlikely to find work again due to a lack of required skills. This is not President Obama’s fault, just as it is not Bush Jr. or Daddy Bush’s fault. Though some would point the finger at policies endorsing outsourcing, this would be incorrect. Insourcing is an increasing phenomenon as wages improve in regions like China. It is the way of things, as a recent editorial explains in the FT explains,

Mr Obama [has] bought into the fallacy… that manufactures are declining in the US, but his work suffers from conceptual flaws. Take just one problem: services splinter off from manufacturing even as vertical integration yields to specialisation. Over time, manufacturing yields to services. This gigantic change that is taking place has nothing to do with outsourcing.

And speaking of China, the country sits on the brink of mass creative destruction. While money poured into the country during times of less fiscal restraint, China funneled it into myriad infrastructure and planning projects. Now the easy credit is drying up, the country is in a difficult situation, not helped by mass protests across the land as workers demand remuneration that could almost be considered wages. As with the US, there will be an inexorable shift from a manufacturing industry to a services industry. How horrific this shift will be depends upon timing, among things, as a recent article in The Economist points out,

“The long-term plan is for China to wean itself off its reliance on exports and investment projects such as roads, railways and overpriced property developments, and for domestic consumption of goods and services to play a much bigger role in fuelling growth. But this rebalancing will be a long, hard slog. Officials do not want shock therapy because it could threaten the jobs of many of the 160m migrants who come from the countryside to provide the cheap labour behind China’s exports.”

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as is the lot of someone frequently perceived as front-runner in the candidate race, has been the focus of unrelenting criticism from his fellow party members. Some of this criticism has focussed on his time working for the private equity wing of uber-consultancy Bain & Co., specifically on how many people’s jobs the man cost during his tenure there. Though Romney claims to have created a net sum of 100,000 jobs, he has since withdrawn that rather nebulous figure as his arithmetic has been questioned. His Republican opponents, as well as grass-roots Democratic lobbying group MoveOn (below), have been airing ads featuring blue-collared workers who were let go thanks to Romney’s strategies and implementations.

Mr. Romney, though his flaws and foibles may be many – he recently praised the height of Michigan’s trees as being “just right” – is not responsible for the trend of efficiency savings in America, as the Schumpeter editorial in The Economist points out,

“[I]t was also a symptom of a wider change. It was not just people like Mr Romney who were pushing American companies to shape up. It was also the new rigours of global competition. Firms of every description sought to squeeze out inefficiencies, sell off non-core businesses and close redundant operations, all in the name of shareholder value. [I]t was the shift from manufacturing to services.”

To attack Romney for such practices is to attack the foundations of modern capitalism. Which one is most welcome to do, but presumably something that most Republicans would want to shy away from, continuing as they do to bizarrely refer to Obama as a socialist. One can’t have it both ways.

Similarly caught unawares was the film industry back in the silent era, which underestimated the massive success it would have on its hands with the arrival of sound. While excellent news for film studios, many of the talent in front and behind cameras suddenly found their way of storytelling outdated and unpopular. The Artist, which won Best Picture and Best Director awards at the Oscars at the weekend, perfectly illustrates this change. The ceremony was a grand affair as usual, hosted in the same venue as it has been for years, The Kodak Theater. Reuters recently reported that Kodak has asked to have its name removed from the building as it tries to reduce its debts.

Kodak’s recent fall into bankruptcy serves as a superb example of the forces of creative destruction. The brand is surely one of the most famous of the 20th century. The Economist called it the Google of its day, and surely there are few companies that manage to enter the public lexicon. Until the 1990s it was “regularly rated as one of the world’s most valuable brands”.  The phrase “Kodak moment” has long since left the zeitgeist. The company built one of the first digital cameras ever back in 1975, the cheapest of which cost $1,000. Its share price has fallen 90% in the past year. Its competitor Fujifilm was cheaper and quicker to adapt. Creative destruction first made physical film cameras obsolete, and increasingly digital cameras as smartphones become equipped with high-definition cameras.

After trying to diversify into chemicals, George Fisher, boss of Kodak from 1993-99, “decided that its expertise lay not in chemicals but in imaging. He cranked out digital cameras and offered customers the ability to post and share pictures online.” This could have led to the creation of something akin to Facebook, but for one reason or another it did not. The Economist blames Fisher, and whatever the cause, the company has also suffered from inconsistent strategies due to a revolving door of senior management. Tony Jackson, writing in the FT, defines the creative destruction as one of “technological disruption… cheaper than the existing version and initially not as good. Faced with a cheap and dirty alternative… it goes against the grain to devote resources to it.” One of Kodak’s problems was also its passion; for physical film itself. This passion essentially made them blind to investing fully in the coming digital revolution. There was an acknowledgement that a change was coming, but it was underestimated.

Creative destruction works in terms of the stock market too, of course. What this clip, from the excellent film Margin Call, is alluding to, is that good times lead to indolence; crashes trim the fat. It is nothing new. The series is a cyclical, unending one, difficult to influence, let alone prevent. (That’s why it was so ludicrous when Gordon Brown, as short-lived UK Prime Minister, grandiloquently announced “no return to boom and bust”). Each new cycle brings new regulations, new ideologies and practices. New products, new solutions. The ways the booms and busts happen changes. The products we make and the strategies we implement change and become more and more innovative. But the cycle never ends. Enjoy the ride.

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