Best Buy Isn't - Chasing Supervalu to the Bottom
In a fascinating move this week, Best Buy's septuagenarion founder (who is no longer part of the company) has started calling company execs and offering them jobs - at Best Buy! Apparently he hopes to engage a private equity firm to take over Best Buy, and he wants to keep some of the exec team, while replacing others. Even more fascinating is that at last some of the execs are taking his calls, and agreeing to his "job offer." Clearly these folks have lost faith in Best Buy's future.
This happens one day after the Board of Directors fired the CEO at Supervalu, parent company of such large grocery chains as Albertson's, Jewel-Osco, ACME, Shaw's and Star Markets. Apparently this pleased most everyone, since the company has lost 85% of its equity value since he was brought in from Wal-Mart while simultaneously killing bonuses and even free employee coffee. Even though just last week he was paid a retention bonus by the same Board to remain in his job!
And even thought the Chairman at Wal-Mart was clearly in the thick of bribing Mexican officials to open stores south of the border, there is no sign of any changes expected in Wal-Mart's leadership team.
What is sparking such bizarre behavior in retail? Quite simply, industry leadership that is so stuck in the past it has no idea how to grow or make money in a dramatically changed marketplace. They keep trying to do more of the same, while growth goes elsewhere.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, outside of retail knows that the game has changed - permanently. Since 2000 on-line sales of everything, and I mean everything, has increased. Sure, there were some collosal flops in early on-line retail (remember Pets.com?) But every year sales of products on-line increase at double digit rates. It's rare to walk through a store - and I mean any store - and not see at least one customer comparison shopping the product on the shelf with an on-line vendor.
What 15 years ago was a niche seller of non-stock books, Amazon.com, has become the industry vanguard selling everything from apple juice to zombie memorabilia. Even though most industry analysts don't clump it as a direct competitor to Best Buy, Sears, and Wal-Mart - holding it aside in its own "internet retail" category - everyone knows Amazon is growing and changing shopping habits, and reducing demand in traditional stores.
The signs of this shift are everywhere. From the complete collapse of Circuit City and Sharper Image to the flat sales, reduced number of U.S. outlets and falling per-store numbers at Wal-Mart.
Across America drivers are accustomed to seeing retail outlets boarded up, and strip malls full of empty window space. You don't have to be a fancy analyst to notice how many malls would be knocked down entirely if they weren't being converted to low-cost office space for lawyers, tax preparers, dentists, veterinarians and emergency clinics - demonstrably non-retail businesses. Or to recognize an old Sears or superstore location converted into an evangelical nondenominational church.
For example, in the collar counties around Chicago vacant retail space has accumulated to over 3million square feet - a 45% increase since 2007. In that local market retail rents have fallen to $16.76 per foot, down 29% in the last four years. And this is typical of just about everywhere. America simply has a LOT more retail space than it needs - and will need for the foreseeable future. Demand for traditional retail is going down, not up, and that is a permanent change.
It is not impossible to make money in retail. But you can't do it the way it was done in the past. The answer isn't as simple as "location, location, location;" or even inventory. As the new, and struggling, CEO at JC Penney has learned the hard way, it's not about "every day low price." Or even low price at all, as the former WalMart exec just fired at Supervalu learned - along with all their employees.
Today traditional retail store success requires you have unique products, unique merchandising, sales assistance that meets immediacy needs, strong trend connectivity and effective pricing. Just look at IKEA, Lululemon, Sephora, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and PetSmart - for example.
Of course there will be grocery stores. Traditional retail will not disappear. But that doesn't mean it will be profitable. And trying to chase profits by constantly beating down costs gets you - well - Circuit City, Toys R Us, Drug Emporium, Pay N Save, Crazy Eddie, Egghead Software, Bradlee's, Korvette's, TG&Y, Wickes, Skagg's, Payless Cashways, Musicland -- and Supervalu. There is more to business than price, something the vast, vast majority of retailers keep forgetting.
Fifty years ago if you wanted a TV you went to a television store where they not only sold you a TV, they repaired it! You selected from tube-based machines made by Zenith, RCA, Philco and Magnavox. The TV shop owner made some money on the TV, but he also made money on the service. And if you wanted a washer or refrigerator you went to an "appliance store" for the same reason. But the world changed, and the need for those stores disappeared. Almost none changed to what people wanted - they simply failed.
Now the world has changed again. The customer value proposition in retail is shifting from location and inventory to information. And it is extremely hard to have salespeople - or shelf tags - with comparable information to a web page, which have not only product and price info but competitive comparisons on everything. There simply isn't enough profit in a TV, stereo, PC, CD or DVD to cover the overhead of salespeople, check-out clerks, on-hand inventory and the building.
And that's why Best Buy had to shutter 50 stores in March. On its way to the same ending as Polk Brothers, Grant's Appliance and Circuit City.
Don't expect a 70 year old retailer to understand what retail markets will look like in 2020. Or anyone trained in traditional retail at Wal-Mart. Or anyone who thinks they can save a traditional "retail brand" like Sears. The world has already shifted - and those are stories from last decade (or long before.)
If you are interested in retail go where the growth is - and that is all about on-line leadership. Sell Best Buy and put your money in Amazon. You'll sleep better.