Yesterday Macy’s announced plans to close 125 stores and eliminate more than 2,000 jobs. It will also be closing its Cincinnati, Ohio office and relocating Macys.com from San Francisco to New York City. This morning the company expanded on its “shrink to grow” strategy—dubbed “Polaris”—in its Investor Day presentation. The plans are heavy on “optimizing” and more than a bit aspirational (improving its loyalty program, focusing on private brands, expanding off-the-mall formats) when it comes to restoring top line growth to the iconic retailer that has hemorrhaged market share and lost half of its market value during the past 5 years.
But let’s cut to the chase and be crystal clear. Macy’s does not fundamentally have a cost problem. It does not have a complexity problem. It does not have a too many stores problem. It has a customer relevancy problem. Needing to take an axe to overhead and store counts is the inevitable (and all too common) outcome of a value proposition and business design that is not sufficiently remarkable to win, grow and keep profitable customers.
Watching the last 20 years happen to you
It’s convenient to blame Amazon (and e-commerce more broadly) for department store woes. Convenient, but wrong. First of all, department stores have been losing share for more than 30 years. Second, until recently, most of the share loss has gone overwhelmingly to brick-and-mortar-dominant “value” concepts like off-price retail and dollars stores. Lastly, nothing prevented Macy’s from capturing its fair share of the rise of online shopping.
Like so many other legacy retailers that are struggling to navigate the seismic forces of digital disruption and shifting consumer preferences, Macy’s largely watched the last 20 years happen to them, choosing instead to focus on store consolidation, rooting out inefficiencies, and delivering a slightly better version of mediocre. In fact, much of Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette’s presentation this morning was eerily reminiscent of one I shared with the Sears board in 2003 shortly before I departed. It was followed by CMO Rich Lennox laying out a customer segmentation analysis and strategy that closely mirrored work we did at Neiman Marcus in 2007. Well done—and likely to be useful—but at least a decade late.
The collapse of the middle
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The bifurcation of retail is accelerating. The differences between the haves and have nots are widening. And it’s been obvious for quite some time that trying to stake out a material and sustainable position in the mediocre middle ground between brands that offer remarkable value and convenience at one end of the spectrum and those that provide differentiated premium products and services at the other, is increasingly untenable.
The middle will not evaporate completely. Yet it seems more clear by the day that the U.S. doesn’t need multiple big-box retailers in regional malls selling fairly average products to the peak of the demographic bell curve.
Bailing doesn’t fix the hole
It is generally true, at least for retailers with a mature business model, that the rise of e-commerce means they can successfully operate with fewer, often smaller, stores. Yet as plenty of retailers have demonstrated—from TJ Maxx to Ulta, Dollar General to Apple, Costco to Warby Parker—digital disruption does not automatically obviate the need for a large scale physical retail presence. The difference between these retailers and Macy’s is the winners meet their core customers’ needs and wants in intensely customer relevant and remarkable ways.
Sure, Macy’s needs to do what it can to keep from sinking into oblivion in the immediate term. But it stays afloat over the long-term by profitably growing share of wallet with their core customers and expanding market share, irrespective of transactional channel, in geographies in which they remain. The change needed here is profound.
Optimizing to extinction
I dedicate an entire chapter entitled “Optimizing to Extinction” in my forthcoming book, dispelling the notion that retailers can shrink to prosperity. Store closings are not a panacea—and they certainly do nothing to make a struggling brand more customer relevant. Store closings almost always contribute to a decline in e-commerce sales in vacated trade areas. The loss of overall volume typically de-leverage a retailer’s fixed cost structure, and unless meaningful top-line growth can be restored quickly, most often starts a cycle of additional cost cutting and store closings from which few retailers ever recover.
Better is not the same as good
Just about everything Macy’s shared today seems eminently sensible. It was well presented and well supported. Integrating digital with the rest of the enterprise is not only smart, it’s overdue. I’ve been advocating for “market eco-systems” for years. More format experimentation is definitely needed. In fact, most of what they laid out is highly consistent with recommendations my teams made during my tenure as a C-level executive at two big retailers in the past dealing with similar challenges. It’s also very much in line with advice I often give now as a consultant. Several years ago I even wrote a blog post specific to what I thought Macy’s should do to reignite growth.
Given that Macy’s did not adequately address the forces of disruption as they should have and given that the various initiatives they have invested behind over the past 3 years or so are not gaining sufficient traction, Macy’s really has no choice at this point but to take the actions they just announced. But this points to three key takeaways—at least until Elon Musk invents a time machine that allows management to go back and do what they should have started more than a decade ago.
First, better is not the same as good. Resetting the cost structure offers the opportunity to be more focused with scarce resources. The new initiatives may well move the dial on customer growth over time. But given structural issues and the difficulty of stealing market share in an intensely competitive environment, Macy’s has a long way to go to restore meaningfully profitable growth. The elements of the plan are all necessary, but I question whether they will be sufficient.
Second, trying to mitigate risk and failing to adopt a culture of experimentation has turned out to be the riskiest strategy of all. Macy’s, like so many legacy brands, now finds itself trying to play catch up, desperately needing to win back attention, share and loyalty from customers who have gone elsewhere. This is not easy. It will be harder still if the U.S. falls into recession.
Lastly, while we all know the pace of change in retail during the past few years has been swift and the impacts profound, it’s only going to get more challenging. Macy’s capital structure and ability to monetize significant assets gives the storied retailer more time and flexibility than others in roughly similar precarious situations (e.g. JC Penney). But that is small comfort if the company uses it merely to put more lipstick on the pig.