Retail Apocalypse or Retail Revolution? #NRF2023
Jim Stroud visited the NRF conference in New York City and gave us the full retail situation report. What are the plans for the industry's lead players? Which hiring methods are they using? What is changing in 2023?
Is this the worst of times for the retail industry or, is it the best of times? The short answer is… it depends. Bear with me as I detail the long answer. The past few years have been a roller-coaster for the retail industry with an ongoing comedy of circumstances that no one saw coming. First there was the COVID pandemic that kept everyone indoors, followed by the post-COVID world of economic recovery and reentering a world without masks, lockdowns and free movement. Everyone was excited about the return to normalcy, especially retailers whose customers were long denied the in-person shopping experience.
Optimism was the overall mood. Unfortunately, that optimism was misguided. The pandemic had an significant financial impact on the economy. Governments had to spend large sums of money on stimulus packages, such as the $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill in the US and the €1,850 billion pandemic emergency purchase program in the EU, to support businesses and individuals during this difficult time. This resulted in an unprecedented increase in the amount of money printed in recent years. And then there were supply chain woes.
In an effort to control the spread of the virus, the Chinese government closed factories and ports, resulting in supply chain disruptions. This put critical components, such as semiconductors, in short-supply; an issue that continues to this day. These disruptions have caused shortages in a wide range of products, including cars and game consoles, making it difficult for consumers to purchase them. Even two years after its launch, it was challenging to get a PlayStation 5 for Christmas due to the aforementioned supply issues. And as if that was not enough, then came war.
While the world was still dealing with the effects of lockdowns, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing a crisis that led to significant increases in the prices of fuel, energy, and food, as well as destruction in parts of Ukraine and the loss of over 83,000 lives. The combined effect of the pandemic and the war have caused significant financial losses, such as the loss of 420 billion euros ($415.38 billion) in value creation for the German economy. When you consider all these things happening consecutively and in concert, you have to ask, what next?
The years from 2020 to 2022 have been particularly difficult for the retail industry. However, 2023 is expected to be even more challenging. The use of quantitative fiscal easing and near zero-interest rates for an extended period, coupled with the significant amount of money printed for COVID relief and military assistance for Ukraine, is not a sustainable situation. You don’t need a crystal ball to see what’s very possible in the near future, just a basic understanding of economics and dominoes.
The decline in global economic growth is likely to result in a worldwide recession, accompanied by rising inflation, leading to stagflation. Increased interest rates will make it harder for people to pay their mortgages, potentially causing a housing market crash. Companies will cut costs by laying off workers, leading to higher unemployment and greater income and wealth inequality. Unions will fight for higher wages and to protect jobs, leading to more strikes. Meanwhile, governmental pressures to cut carbon emissions will cause energy supply problems and lead to higher prices. These factors, including stagflation, rising energy costs, high interest rates and the risk of job loss will significantly reduce people’s purchasing power and ability to spend money. Yikes! What will befall the retail industry? Will we see a retail apocalypse in 2023 or a retail revolution? To be honest, I see a bit of both, but I’m rooting for the revolution.
(To be clear, the term “retail apocalypse” refers to the trend of brick-and-mortar retail stores closing, particularly those of major retailers and department stores.)
On the retail apocalypse side, I see some disturbing trends in the USA. Check out this quote from CNBC.
It’s been a tough year for retail investors — and it’s not necessarily expected to get any easier in 2023. All three major stock indexes are heading towards the end of the year deeply in the red. Wall Street analysts are reducing earnings estimates and bracing for more downside, at least in the first part of 2023. Meanwhile, the average retail portfolio will close the year down about 35% from all-time highs, according to Vanda Research, a global research company that conducts macroeconomic and strategic investment analysis.
And this from MSN…
If Macy’s (NYSE: M) warning wasn’t enough to put the fear of markdowns into the retail sector Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN) should seal the deal. The company lowered its outlook for both revenue and earnings citing weaker-than-expected sales and the impact of inventory-clearing markdowns. The good news is that revenue will still come in within the previously stated range; the bad news is that markdowns resulted in a $0.60 cut to the earnings outlook, and that is an optimistic figure. To hit this target, the company will have to hit the high end of its new range, and this comparison is versus the low end of the previous range. If the company’s results are even weaker than they now expect, we could be talking about a 35% cut to the full-year outlook and no reason for investors to buy this stock.
And there is this tidbit from TellMeBest…
In December, consumers’ willingness to buy clothing, footwear, and accessories shrank 15.7% from 2019. That represents the biggest decline since the pandemic began and the lowest December score since 2013. The decline appears across all income levels, too. “U.S. consumers have deferred apparel purchases at a much higher rate than they did one year ago,” said USB analyst Jay Sole. He added that they “are planning to shop for sales more often, buy more store brand products, take fewer shopping trips, and shop closer to home.” Economic insecurity, inflation, and a declining labor market have led to U.S. consumers feeling that their standard of living has declined compared to last year.
And as disheartening as that is to hear, a quiet revolution is underway. According to an outlook report from the professional services firm – Deloitte, there is a prevailing spirit of survival against the slowing economy. According to RetailDive, Deloitte surveyed 50 industry leaders and discovered that despite a lot of negative indicators, a big comeback is being planned for the retail industry…
“Despite the spate of bad economic news, the keyword among retailers is resiliency. They’ve done it before — not too long ago, during the worst pandemic-related lockdowns and shortages — and they can do it again. Market challenges will always be a factor, and retailers are learning that they cannot rely on traditional cost-cutting alone to navigate the latest downturn,” said Deloitte’s report. “Instead, retailers should examine how they’ve been most productive in recent years, honing omnichannel, supply chain management, and digital commerce to protect margins and aim for profitability in the future. And the real X-factor is the rapidly evolving consumer.”
The persevering spirit retailers have is admirable, a bit risky yet, it is also contagious. I have noticed that several retailers are bucking the trend of closing stores and going all in with new stores being planned for 2023 and beyond. (Wow! You have to admire that tenacity.) Here are a few examples…
7-Eleven is eyeing a long-term plan to expand to 20,000 stores in the U.S. by adding 6,000 locations in North America.
QuickTrip plans to open 70 stores by 2025.
Dollar General announced 1,050 new store openings.
Family Dollar announced 393 new store openings.
Barnes and Noble opening 30 new stores
In-N-Out Burger announces plans for Franklin office, Tennessee locations
Costco Will Open 11 New Locations in 2023—Here’s Where the Warehouse Is Headed Next
Dollar Tree announced 206 new store openings.
Five Below announced 134 new store openings.
TJX Companies announced 133 new store openings.
Ace Hardware announced 119 new store openings.
Burlington Stores announced 113 new store openings.
Aldi announced 109 new store openings.
Ross Stores announced 101 new store openings.
Signet Jewelers announced 100 new store openings.
Time will tell if these efforts rejuvenate the bottom line for those companies long-term. For everyone else, I predict the focus will be on simply surviving, refining their processes, and reassessing their value propositions. As such, it’s a safe bet that we will see certain patterns forming in 2023. My guess is that these three predictions will be among them.
Cashiers Continue to Vanish
As retailers aim to cut costs and improve consumer convenience, cashier-free stores will become more prevalent. Advanced technology such as computer vision, sensor fusion, and AI to enable shoppers to bypass the checkout process will gradually become commonplace. This strategy not only saves customers time, it also provides retailers with valuable data on consumer behavior and helps prevent loss through theft. Amazon was the first to trial this concept in 2018 with its Amazon Go stores, which have seen a 96% decrease in operating costs. Other retailers are experimenting with this technology, including 7-Eleven, T-Mobile, Hudson Nostop, QuickTrip, Delaware North, Whole Foods, and Starbucks.
Goodbye Dollars, Hello Digital
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a quick shift in the adoption of contactless payment methods, including those who were resistant, such as the elderly population. The use of facial recognition technology on smartphones has also helped alleviate privacy concerns with biometric payment systems. Contactless payments have become increasingly popular as they save time and are more convenient for customers. A study by Mastercard has found that nearly 80% of shoppers use contactless payments, and the market for this type of payment is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 20.4%, reaching a total of $5 trillion by 2027.
BOPIS & BORIS EVERYWHERE
An omnichannel strategy involves integrating all the different touchpoints a customer may have with a brand, such as a website, mobile app, social media, and physical stores. This integration allows retailers to provide a consistent brand experience and allows customers to move seamlessly between channels. For example, a customer might research a product on a website, purchase it on a mobile app, and then pick it up at a physical store. This strategy is causing a shift in how physical stores are utilized.
The norm will soon be that stores will operate as both retail and logistics centers to cater to both online and in-store customers. Services such as “Buy Online, Pick up In-Store” (BOPIS) and “Buy Online, Return In-Store” (BORIS) have become common in European markets, and it is likely that this trend will catch on in the USA (although in 2019, we were far behind this curve). As a matter of fact, if you shop at Home Depot, you may have already noticed BOPIS and/or BORIS in play.
Of course, all of what I have speculated thus far is just one man’s opinion. I wondered if my analysis was in line with the conventional wisdom or way off the mark. So, to validate my suppositions, I reached out to experts in the retail sector and asked for their input. I also spent some quality time at the National Retail Federation conference #NRF2023 last week, and like a roving reporter, I solicited opinions about the present and future state of the retail industry. In a conversation with an anonymous retail expert (RE), we discussed the retail industry from his perspective.
ME: McKinsey reported recently that “almost half of US frontline retail employees and two-thirds of frontline managers say they are thinking about leaving their jobs in the next few months.” Since the need for talent is so great, should the retail industry focus more on competencies than work history when hiring?
RE: I agree that competencies win out over work history if and when you can measure and test for them efficiently. Doing this (competencies) up-front and early and even work it in to talent community join activities.
ME: eCommerce will continue to grow, no doubt about that, yet recent trends suggest that online-only stores in the US will struggle without a physical strategy to go along with it. Do you agree or disagree with that? Do people, in general, want to do business with machines or people?
RE: I do not think that physical stores are going away, and certainly not with my industry (thrift / re-use). Also, our use of self-checkout with machines over cashiers has not been well received in all markets or with all customers. People like people.
ME: I’ve noticed a growing trend in the UK happening now in America: BORIS (Buy Online, Return-in-Store) and BOPIS (Buy Online, Pick up In-Store). If this picks up steam, more stores may morph into mini-warehouses (or big ones like Costco). Will this trigger a construction boom as stores morph to meet the trend?
RE: This is one I’m not sure about. We are trying to shed size where possible because of the costs of a retail footprint. We are looking to gain efficiencies though distribution centers that support multiple stores so that certain store activities transition to central locations.
ME: And what do you think the biggest trend in retail will be in 2023?
RE: The big trend is PAY. It’s killing us, from recruiting to internal equity and retention to unionization efforts. Over the last three years we modeled a successful distribution center (100-130 employees). Prior to opening, the average wage was slotted for $15 an hour. When we opened, we struggled to keep it staffed at $18 per hour and now we struggle to keep it open at $21 per hour. This represents a major business bottom line impact. Starting wage at McDonalds where I live is $18 per hour! Also, pay transparency (posting / sharing wage ranges) is very disruptive for companies that are not used to being transparent. It impacts recruiting and retention and blows up internal pay equity in some markets.
I had several fascinating conversations with NRF attendees.
With Teshura Wallace of Wally’s Convenience Store, the discussion was on recruitment challenges and whether or not people prefer to shop with machines verses people.
With Lauren Kale of Walmart GoLocal, I learned how Walmart was helping other retailers with last mile delivery and their experiments with automation.
With Jeanie Croll of EVS, we delved into supply-chain trends and how they affect retailers.
Gareth Hughes of Estee Lauder shared his predictions on the future of retail.
Elisha Simonsen of Boston Children’s Hospital was so passionate about charitable initiatives that we forgot about the retail industry for a moment.
Bryan Welch explains how Juniper Networks is the unsung hero of the retail industry. #Analytics
Brad Lawless of Movista debates the necessity of an online/offline strategy for retailers. And how will the BOPIS/BORIS trend affect store construction going forward?
An anonymous retailer in the health and wellness space gave me great insight on recruitment challenges and strategies for employee retention.
An anonymous retailer in the furniture space let me know that recruiting ain’t easy in their industry and how they are coping. Spoiler alert: Its all about the culture. How does BOPIS/BORIS affect furniture sales?
Andre Futuro of ClearSale gave his predictions on the fate of brick and mortar stores and workforce challenges. Plus, will retail ever go back to the way it was?
Tom Giacalone of Vera Bradley was one of my favorite interviews.Great insights on the BOPIS/BORIS trend based on his previous tenure at Sears. He was ahead of his time!
Hear the chats for yourself!
Interviewing Conference Attendees at the National Retail Federation Conference 2023 #NRF2023
Nobody had all the answers on how to prepare for retail’s future. It was obvious however, that a lot of hope was being placed in technology. Check out the video below.
I am wholly optimistic about the retail industry because I see it adapting with the economy and buying habits of the customer. Technological advances look promising and serves to improve the customer experience while also easing some of the burden of recruiting. Still, who knows what will happen in 2023? Another pandemic? More war? Aliens from space? At this point, I don’t think anything can surprise me. I do think that whatever it is, retailers will meet the challenge. Hopefully, at a price we can all afford.