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Archive for the ‘Retail’ Category

Wal-Mart has had a tough go over the last few years. Sure, they are still a huge force in retailing but they have run into a variety of operational problems largely related to in-store execution. (See. for example, this post.) Now the Wall Street Journal reports that Wal-Mart is gearing up for the holidays by trying to address some customer service pain points (Returning to Wal-Mart: Human Cashiers, Aug 15).

In an attempt to lure more customers this holiday season, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is promising to staff each of its cash register from the day after Thanksgiving through the days just before Christmas during peak shopping times.

The move, called the “checkout promise,” is aimed at addressing one of the retailer’s biggest customer complaints: long waits in checkout lines, which can cause even more frustration when positions aren’t fully staffed. The pledge will cover hours typically on weekend afternoons but which can vary by store.

“We feel good about price and having the top gifts of the season, so the next priority is about getting customers in and out of the stores quickly,” Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising officer, said in an interview. “Taking the possibility of waiting in long lines off the table will attract more people into stores.” …

On Thursday the retail giant said it allocated more hours to the front end of the store, to overnight stocking, and to deli and bakery to improve customer service during the most recent quarter.

Here are two questions that are worth thinking about. (more…)

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I have never really given T.J. Maxx much thought. I can’t recall the last time I was in one of their stores, and going to T.J. Maxx has not been an obvious choice to me since I was in high school (and that tells you more about the shopping options in Manchester, NH, in the early 80’s than anything else). But now Fortune has an article singing the praises of T.J. Maxx — or more accurate its parent company TJX, which also owns Marshalls among other retail chains (Is T.J. Maxx the best retail store in the land?, Jul 24). The article is full of all sorts of interesting nuggets (TJX is basically the successor company of Zayre, another retailer from my childhood, who knew?!) as well as laying out seven “secrets” from the company playbook. Some of these are about positioning in the eyes of the customer (e.g., Put real treasure in the treasure hunt) or management talent (Find a CEO who gets retail). But many of their points go right to the stores operations and how it manages its supply chain.

The off-price business is a volume game: selling a ton of goods and selling them fast. The measure of speed here is how quickly a company turns over its inventory: TJX does that every 55 days, vs. 85 for its peer group, according to Morningstar. Indeed, the company is structured to whisk items through its distribution centers and stores—and a lot of items they are: TJX shipped some 2 billion units to its stores in its 2014 fiscal year (which ended on Feb. 1), up from 1.6 billion in fiscal 2010.

Former employees say that the stuff moves so rapidly that merchandise is often sold before TJX has paid its vendors for it. The busiest stores can take daily delivery of product, which employees put out on the floor right away—a “door to floor” approach that cuts down on the amount of space needed for backroom storage. Sources say items typically go on markdown if the turn rate is slower than about seven weeks, which also contributes to the rapid flow.

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Gustin

One of my favorite topics to teach is the newsvendor problem, an inventory model for very short-lived products like newspapers and fashion goods. One of the points that gets made in that class is that variability is costly. Having to commit resources before knowing what will sell means risk and risk may be a reason not to be in the business. But that risk also suggests an opportunity: If one can find a way to reverse the order of things and commit resources only after knowing what will be demanded, then an otherwise unprofitable business can be a profitable one.

That is essentially the idea behind Gustin, a maker of high-end jeans. It initially sold its jeans trough boutiques, which bought jeans at a wholesale price near $80 but then marked them up to around $200. Gustin had to front all the cost of production and then wait for stuff to sell. Now, they have reversed the order of things and take orders directly from customers ahead of production. As the founders tell it on Marketplace, they have positioned themselves as a totally crowdsourced fashion company (Burning down the house that Levi’s built, Apr 8). You can hear the story here:

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I have become increasingly taken with the question of what constitutes a good job. Various parts of operations in many industries have become automated over time and that trend will continue. But firms will still need people. Some production steps will be sufficiently nuanced or require too much dexterity that using a robot is (at least for now) impossible. Other setting like retail will favor resources who can move more or less seamlessly between restocking shelves to checking out customers. So what do these jobs look like? Unfortunately, the answer can be fairly grim.

The Atlantic has an article written by an ex-Politico reporter who lost his job and ended up (mostly out of desperation) working at sporting goods store (My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor, Mar 11) and found the experience rather dehumanizing.

Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.

“If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter’s coming—if you’re wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we’ll just have to pat you down. It’s pretty simple.”

When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious. …

I’m not sure why—perhaps out of middle-class disbelief or maybe a reporter’s curiosity—I pressed the issue. Seriously: I have to get searched? Even if I’m just going across the street for a soda, with no more than lint in my pockets? Even if you don’t think I stole anything?

Stretch shrugged, unconcerned. Clearly he’d been living with this one for a while.

“Yeah, it’s pretty simple. Just get me or one of the other managers to pat you down before you leave.” (more…)

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Having an accurate forecast of store traffic is an important part of setting staff levels. This is particularly true when converting store visits into sales depends heavily on consulting with in-store personnel. But how can a store build a good forecast? According to Businessweek, satellite imaging is a possible tool (The Most Powerful Sales Tool at Lowe’s: Satellites, Feb 26).

Lowe’s said on Wednesday that it has been gauging traffic at its almost 1,900 stores from space, scanning satellite images of its parking lots to find out how many shoppers it can expect at every hour of every day. It has also started syncing its parking lot observations with actual transaction counts to see how many people drove away without making a purchase.

The space snooping is a particularly great way for Lowe’s to manage its workforce, scheduling surges in floor staff when parking spaces are about to become hard to come by.

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Has Wal-Mart figured out how to do same day delivery? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so — at least within their Mexican operations (Mexico Delivers for Wal-Mart, Feb 20).

Has Wal-Mart really figured this all out? I have my doubts. (more…)

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Back in May I was at a conference and a colleague was giving me grief for having so many posts related Zeynep Ton‘s work on how retailers treat their workers. Today we are going back to that well because Ton has a new book out, The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits. Here is the author giving an overview of her thesis.

The basic premise is that there is a coherent strategy that firms can execute that works well for both its investors and customers while creating desirable, good jobs for its front-line employees. Furthermore, this does not depend on charging customers a premium. Indeed, her focus is on low-cost retail and she discusses several retailers that price quite competitively despite treating their employees quite well. Said another way, the fact that, say, Wal-Mart offers crummy jobs is a choice on its part, not an absolute necessity for being a low-cost player.   (more…)

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What follows Christmas? Returns, of course. This is especially true for on-line retailers who must generally offer more forgiving returns polices than conventional retailers. In Europe, this is a matter of law. In the US, it is often a necessary part of gaining customer trust. But how much do returns cost retailers? According to The Economist, it can be quite a bit (Return to Santa, Dec 21).

Return rates can be alarmingly high: for some online retailers up to half of everything they sell comes back. Studies find that just handling each returned item costs online sellers between $6 and $18, and that is before the losses from items that are returned in unsaleable condition. …

A new study by Christian Schulze of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management seeks to put some hard numbers on the scale of the serial-returner problem. Mr Schulze studied 5.9m transactions in Germany, involving 166,000 customers, for a large European online retailer. He looked only at those who had bought at least five items over a five-year period, and found that 5% of them sent back more than 80% of the things they had bought; and that 1% of customers sent back at least 90% of their purchases. Without the cost of returns, the retailer’s profits would be almost 50% higher, the study found.

But is this necessarily a bad business? (more…)

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We have had several stories over the last couple years about retailers using inventories at their stores to fill web orders. At one time or another, there have been stories about Nordstrom, Wal-Mart and Macy’s all treating that big box at the mall as a warehouse. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that even more chains — including Sears and Office Deport  — are hopping on the bandwagon (Retailers Turn Store Clerks Into Web Shippers, Dec 9). You can here the reporter discussing her findings here:

It is not surprising that more retailers are going this way. They are all facing pressure from on-line competitors and finding some way to utilize their existing physical network is appealing. If nothing else, I suspect that everyone in the C-suite wants to be able to tell the board they are trying something.

But how can you set up this up quickly? You need to develop a system that updates inventories in real time while dispatching staff to fetch what has been ordered and scheduling the shipper to pick stuff up. Nordstrom is often identified as the first mover on this. The New York Times reports that it took them a couple of years to get it set up. How can a Johnny-come-lately ramp this up quickly? By working with UPS and FedEx.

UPS and FedEx Corp. which were critical to helping launch the e-commerce boom, are now eager to help traditional retailers deal with it. They have engineered new strategies for jockeying inventory across the country to avoid overstocks and markdowns and to keep customers from defecting to Amazon, a big problem last year. The strategy is also important this holiday season as clothing retailers are threatened with heavy inventories.

UPS says it is working with about 40 retailers on implementing these strategies—about double the number a year ago. FedEx said these partnerships helped boost revenue in its ground delivery business 11% in its fiscal first quarter. Both forecast record holiday-season deliveries: UPS with 34 million packages on Dec. 16 and FedEx with 22 million packages on Cyber Monday.

In the case of Sears, UPS provided software that shows shipment statuses of all orders across the entire system. It also sends tracking numbers.

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I have a long-standing interest in Black Friday — less because I want to go shopping but more because it poses some interesting questions on how firms compete and how they manage customers. The news this year is that Black Friday is creeping evermore into Thanksgiving proper as retailers keep moving up their opening times. So why are they doing that? Two posts on Businessweek.com put forward theories. The first posits that this is being driven by customer segmentation (The Game Theory Behind Macy’s Thanksgiving Opening, Oct 15).

Traditions are being trampled on by the Corporate Retail Complex! Of course, consumers don’t have to go. Some won’t, and that’s precisely what the strategy folks at Macy’s are betting on.

The purists scandalized by the thought of shopping on the holiday itself aren’t likely to avoid Macy’s altogether. And with the die-hard bargain-hunters swarming the stores on Thursday, Friday shopping will likely be much more pleasant for those who are a little less committed.

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