The latest trend in retail is the concept of “OmniChannel” selling. While many players have been engaged in this arena for some time, there has been acceleration in the practice. Online retailers are now attempting to find ways to add an in-store experience and many brands, larger retailers, and numerous smaller ones have added more of a push towards e-tail. Additionally, direct sales through TV (QVC, Home Shopping, etc.), telemarketing and consumer-to-consumer fill out the spectrum of options.
The concept of selling through multiple and diverse channels is not a new concept, but the increased integration of in-store and e-tail channels is becoming more sophisticated. With 93% of consumer sales still occurring offline, many e-tailers understand that a physical presence can help escalate sales. Similarly, with this percentage shrinking and with $1.6 trillion in e-commerce sales expected this year, brick and mortar cannot ignore the importance of being online. Earlier this year, Square, in partnership with Bigcommerce, announced a new integration that provides merchants with a simple and seamless way to expand their businesses online. Similarly, Shopify’s POS system allows physical retailers to easily sell online.
E-Tailers Move to Physical Retail
This post focuses on the trend of e-tailers moving into physical retail and when and why it can work. E-tailers fall into three categories: those that only sell other company’s brands, those that are creating their own brand, and those that sell other brands as well as their own.
The dominant player in the first category is Amazon. ver time, it has built an overwhelming network of distribution centers geared towards efficiently shipping one or more items to an individual consumer. Now it has begun experimenting with physical locations, the first of which opened on the Purdue campus in February with additional locations being planned on other college campuses. There are also reports that it will follow this with other types of store openings. Given its widespread distribution centers, the company already has significant capability to inexpensively pick and pack goods for an individual consumer. But, despite limiting most shipments to one zone, there is still a relatively large cost to deliver a single order to an individual household. If it can begin getting non-Amazon Prime customers to come to a convenient location for pickup (Amazon locker or store), shipping cost could be reduced quite a bit. Further, having physical locations will undoubtedly add to the company’s sales and its brand. Since it would not need to stock the stores the way a traditional retailer does, it could capture the efficiency associated with centralized inventory locations combined with the brick-and-mortar efficiency of shipping a large number of goods to one location (probably in an Amazon-owned truck). I expect to see a major expansion of Amazon into physical locations over the next 5 years.
Trading High Shipping Cost for Brick and Mortar Cost
In e-commerce companies that we know well, fulfillment (picking and packing) and shipping can be as much as 40% or more of COGS. Moving to one’s own physical retail stores adds substantial cost but removes shipping cost. Most e-tailers now offer some version of free shipping, but whether the seller or the customer pays for shipping, it is a major factor. What this means is that such an e-tailer can spend that money on its own stores or by offering to discount its products to a third-party brick and mortar reseller without necessarily incurring any loss in gross margin dollars (of course a larger discount may be required). Even if gross margins are lower when partnering with a third party brick and mortar retailer, it can still be as profitable as the e-tailer’s online sales since brick and mortar stores already attract many customers whereas online sales normally require a marketing spend to create greater volume.
The OmniChannel Approach for Branded Product
Amazon is in a unique position because of its size. Although there are other e-tailers of third-party products with sufficient size to open their own physical locations, the bigger opportunity to increase sales resides with e-tailers that have their own branded product. A great example of this is Warby Parker, an emerging brand in eyewear. About 2 ½ years ago it opened its first brick and mortar store in New York City. What it found is that this not only added to its client base through in-store purchases, but also drove additional online sales. Why would this occur? Besides the obvious fact that many people still prefer buying from a physical location, trying on a pair of frames and having them fitted to your needs improves the experience. The inability to do this online may have inhibited some customers from purchasing. But once you have had the opportunity to have eyeglasses fitted to your requirements, it is much easier to buy subsequent pairs online with the knowledge that the fit should be appropriate. The same issue of good fit applies to shoes and clothes.
Fit is one reason why Bonobos, an online e-tailer of men’s clothes, began opening shops. But unlike Warby Parker, the Bonobos shops are “Guideshops” (where clothing can be tried on and then ordered for delivery). By taking this approach, Bonobos keeps inventory centralized and the stores much smaller (only requiring one unit of each SKU) but gains the benefit of addressing people less comfortable with shopping online and also insuring that the clothes fit. By locating the shops in malls and other high traffic areas, Bonobos gains exposure to a fair amount of foot traffic making the stores another customer acquisition vehicle. Note that the stores we expect Amazon to open are essentially Guideshops but on a much larger scale.
Online Brands Partnering with Brick and Mortar Retailers Will Continue to Increase
Bonobos has also partnered with Nordstrom but in its case it’s simply as another brand offered in Nordstrom stores. In August, Warby Parker announced their first retail partnership with Nordstrom. Once Nordstrom saw the benefits of OmniChannel brands, it acquired Trunk Club (another men’s clothing e-tailer). Subsequent to the acquisition, it began adding space in some of its stores for men to come in, get fitted and talk to a stylist about preferences. The stylist then acts as a personal shopper and picks Trunk Club clothes for the customer to try. This results in a much larger average order than online sales for Trunk Club. In this case the customer takes the clothes with him. Again, once this occurs, buying subsequent items online becomes easier as there is more confidence that the fit will be good. Now Trunk Club is entering the women’s clothing market to compete with the successful online brand, Stitchfix.
Shoes are even more difficult to buy without trying on than eyeglasses or clothes. As a result, Shoes of Prey, which offers women the ability to design their own custom shoes, has also opened Guideshops but in their case they are in known retailers like Nordstrom. This makes sense to me as I prefer buying my first pair of shoes in a store and “refills” online. And now most brands that once were only available in brick and mortar stores can be purchased online. For the first pair I sometimes try on 8-10 styles/sizes before finding one that satisfies my needs (this is a major problem for Zappos who appears to have about a 35% return rate. If I try to buy a second pair a few months later from the same store, odds are they won’t have it. Instead, it’s seamless to go online for the follow-on pair. With the acquisition of Trunk Club, Nordstrom has taken a strong initiative in blending the online/offline experience.
Notice the difference between Warby Parker and Bonobos versus Trunk Club. Warby Parker and Bonobos, in addition to being another brand at third party retailers, opened their own branded stores whereas Trunk Club began expanding into an existing major retailer (albeit its new parent) as a service to customers. Opening your own stores can involve substantial capital expenditures and large ongoing operating cost. The alternative of getting one’s online branded product to be carried by a retailer reduces risk and saves substantial fixed cost. But, there’s a trade-off; the brand gives up margin as the third-party retailer will be buying at a discount. Merely getting into stores does not guarantee added success. In the store, the control of the purchase experience moves to the retailer so it becomes very important that the brand is comfortable with the way the retailer will position its products in terms of shelf space and point of purchase marketing through materials and/or sales people in the store. Julep, a successful online brand in the cosmetics space, has partly solved the issue of positioning by partnering with QVC as well as several brick and mortar retailers including Nordstrom. A strong advantage of a QVC partnership is that “shelf space” allocated to the brand consists of a brand spokesperson going on the TV show to market the brand to a very large audience. Resulting sales occur immediately through QVC but other channels also benefit.
Advantages to the Retailer of Carrying Online Brands in Their Physical Stores
An online brand should have substantial information regarding customer demand. It knows the geographies in which its products sell best, the demographics of its customers, which of its products will be in greater demand, etc. It also may have very substantial traffic to its site, to which it can offer the alternative of buying at physical retail. Furthermore, unlike physical retail, e-commerce retailers have a deeper understanding of customer acquisition metrics and customer conversion funnel, and can readily A/B test various elements on their site. Such insights can help a physical store decide which items to carry, volumes needed in different geographies and more. It can also mean the online brand will drive additional customers to their store. A brand like Le Tote, one of Azure’s portfolio companies, which offers women a subscription that entitles them to rent everyday clothes, has even more data as an average customer will have worn over 50 of their clothing items over the course of a year. Since the company receives ongoing feedback on most of the items it ships, it has very substantial data on customer preferences regarding third party brands as well as house brands. The company believes that it is likely to form one or more partnerships with brick and mortar retailers to begin selling its “house” brands.
Intelligently Moving to OmniChannel Selling Makes Sense for Many Players
Given the growing synergism between online and offline retail, there is substantial opportunity for heightened growth for startups that are able to intelligently emerge from an e-tail only model to one that uses both online and brick and mortar distribution. If the e-tailer has its own branded goods, then this can be done through partnering with existing stores. In executing this strategy, it is important to ensure that the presentation and knowledge of the products placed in such stores are sufficient to enable customers of the store to adequately learn about the products. In turn, the e-tailer can provide a deeper understanding of the customer in order to accelerate growth and improve sales conversions in all channels. The abundance of data being provided from online channels as well as in-store tracking can provide significant insight to retailers, and startups that best capitalize on this information are better positioned for success. Startups that are able to capitalize on this trend can experience a significant escalation in growth.
- The recent acquisition of EMC by Dell brought back memories of my thesis while still on Wall Street as a top analyst covering technology. In 1999 I predicted that successful PC companies would hit roadblocks to growth and profitability if they didn’t move “Beyond the Box”. As we’ve seen the prediction proved true as Apple thrived by doing so and others like Compaq, Dell, Gateway and HP ran into difficulty. I’m not as close to it now but the merger of these two companies seems to create obvious cross-selling opportunities and numerous efficiencies that should benefit the combined entity.