This contributed piece was written by Paula Rosenblum of RSR Research. Views are the author's own.
I tend to receive a lot of press calls around earnings season, and this year has been no exception. Sure, there was good news around Target and Best Buy, but the world of apparel was pretty dismal. And even those retailers who posted positive results, or at least results that beat expectations (Macy's, in main), took a whipping on the Street.
What's going on?
The closest analysis to my own comes from Business of Fashion, and while I disagree with the analysis that Amazon is eating into brick-and-mortar business (after all, Nordstrom has an enormous online presence, and it still posted poor top line results, and I simply don't see Amazon as viable competition for the company), I agree with one thing, for sure: retailers need to get faster.
Sure, the industry has inventory issues, with retailers either over- or under-buying to demand. But there is no way around the fact that supply chain cycles are simply too long in apparel. In our most recent Supply Chain Management report, published in December 2018, 46% of apparel retailers acknowledged that this is a top-three business challenge for them. Their supply chains are too slow. And it's a far bigger issue for apparel retailers than any other vertical.
Of course, this isn't the only problem. The industry continues to take on debt, and debt and its associated covenants have killed a lot of retailers in my life. It also causes some God-awful decision-making.
So what can apparel retailers do?
Well, it's easy to say, "Be fast like Zara." It's also easy to say, "Move to a near-sourcing strategy." Both are true. Finally, if we are to believe the "retail apocalypse" paradigm, we just have too many stores. Off-price seems to be chugging along, but the whole value proposition of a TJ Maxx is very different from, say a Nordstrom or even a Macy's.
So what's an apparel retailer really to do? I really do believe technology can help. Here are some thoughts:
Get a smarter forecast engine: Michael Kors claimed its issues were around underestimating demand. H&M was stuck with a lot of unfortunate inventory choices at the end of 2018. Macy's seems to be always overstocked when I walk through it. Those overstocks drive markdowns, which lower both revenue and profits in one fell swoop. Today's best forecast engines are infused with AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) and gradually become smarter over time. Forecasting based on LY or your last great promotion simply isn't going to be enough anymore. It's time to look at those non-transactional demand signals that are available through location data and social media to get a true sense of sentiment and activities. I promise. It's different.
Get a real, modern product lifecycle management (PLM) system: We stopped running benchmarks on sourcing and PLM several years ago because the retail industry was moving glacially. But 3D PLM systems have changed the game. I have heard this reported on many different occasions. Not only will a good PLM system help you get faster, it will also help you hedge your sourcing bets. Specifications down to the bills of materials can help get a new factory up to speed far more quickly than drawings and even on-site personnel.
Get serious about location analytics: Along with helping you ferret through who your customers are in individual stores and channels, location analytics can help you decide which stores should be on the chopping block when their leases are up, or perhaps could stand for an assortment change to tie better into local tastes.
I don't think it's a secret that there are simply too many apparel doors. There are too many brands, too many stores, too much almost exactly the same shouting out the deal of the week. I've said before that I believe even luxury has over-expanded. I still don't understand how we can reconcile ubiquity and scarcity. Luxury implies scarcity. Sure, the iPhone was a ubiquitous luxury, but it seems to be losing its luster and saturating its market. Are high end apparel retailers having the same problems?
We are going to see another winnowing of the herd, with or without impending tariffs. While the data may tell us that consumer confidence is high, the continued roaring success of off-price retailers like TJ Maxx tells us consumers are definitely willing to gamble on a bargain. That's usually not a great sign for the economy as a whole.
There was a TV show back in the prehistoric days of my youth called "The Naked City" (which happened to be New York). The ending scene was always a voice-over with the announcer saying: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them." Every apparel retail has its own Naked City story … but no one can deny the overall trend. Apparel is having a rough time. Disaster is not pre-ordained, but steps must be taken soon. I worry less about an "apocalypse" than I do about a slow-moving train wreck. It's time to right the wheels and move forward.
Get faster. Get lean. Get mean. As they say on the streets, "You be you." Not Amazon. You.