May 31, 2012

Friday Notes

Let's start with this image to our right.

This was what was in my mailbox.  On a Wednesday.  In Late May.

There are nine catalogs here.

I've previously purchased from three of the businesses.

  1. I bought from one of the businesses, online, twelve months ago.
  2. I bought from one of the businesses, just once, online, nine months ago.
  3. One business I buy from, in store, monthly.
Which means, of course, that the co-ops self-determined the other six catalogs.  

That big algorithm in the cloud made some mighty big decisions.

Ask somebody at your favorite co-op to run you a report.  Have them tell you exactly how many times they decided to contact, in the past year, the customers they selected for your most recent customer acquisition activity, across all of their clients.  Sure, they'll tell you that they're not going to tell you that metric, just like they'll tell you that they aren't going to tell you the secret sauce that goes into their proprietary, cloud-based algorithms (heck, I tell everybody, even my competition, how I do what I do ... it's not bad for business).  This time, when they fail to offer you transparency, do something about it!  Demand transparency!  Because six co-op based catalogs in your mailbox in late May is unlikely to result in an optimal outcome for anybody except the co-op making algorithmic, cloud-based decisions on your behalf.

Retailers Need To Be Liked:  Have you read this one (click here)?  I'll save you a little bit of time by getting to the punchline:
  • "Will it drive sales?  Not likely."
Allow me to communicate a parable.  I was invited to speak at last fall.  That's an honor.  You stand up in front of four hundred people and share your thoughts.  You check your phone ninety seconds after finishing and you learn that your quotes have been tweeted seventy-nine times in the past thirty minutes.  For the next six hours, you're a star, people come up to you and tell you how much they loved your message.

But not one individual hired me for a consulting project following the conference.

In other words, it was fun to be "liked".  But there was no correlation between being liked and making a living.  

You have to spend your time wisely.

The same thing can be said for all of us who are trying to sell something to a customer.  The activities that cause somebody to "like" us on Facebook are not the same activities that cause somebody to buy something from us.  Maybe it is time to focus our efforts on selling something.

Beer Market:  Tell me why this concept wouldn't work on your homepage (click here)?  And I'm not saying you do this with every item you sell, but why not choose a dozen items and then experiment with them?  And yes, I realize, the multi-channel pundits will light me up on this one, suggesting that you have to honor the price in your printed catalog at your call center, and this technology makes it impossible because you have dynamic pricing in one channel and static pricing in other channels.  Fine.  Create a dozen new items that you only sell online and try this.  And yes, I realize that the multi-channel pundits will light me up on this one, saying that the subsequent idea is a single-channel-only solution that doesn't fit in the multi-channel constellation they adore.  Well, fine.  

Maybe lack of innovation is a reason that multi-channel is a failed concept.

Mobile:  You ever notice how one botched IPO causes everybody to view social media differently?  One little line in an SEC document about it being harder to monetize mobile, and all of a sudden, "Facebook is Dead" abounds on the internet.  Experts from near and far are pontificating about this, even though the same reality existed before the public disclosure and the IPO and almost none of the experts bothered to consider the concept as they ran the valuation up and up and up.

When it comes to advertising, folks famously talked about trading analog dollars for digital dimes.  Maybe we're in the first inning of trading digital dimes for portable pennies.

By the way, dear Catalogers, have you noticed the similarities between e-commerce/mobile and where cataloging went in the 1980s?  Catalogers like JCP/Sears/Spiegel sent their 600 page masterpieces, at considerable cost.  Then folks like L.L. Bean and Lands' End obliterated that business model with 124 page, lower-cost assortments, targeted to niche audiences.  Thirty years later, we're in the same place.  E-commerce is the 600 page masterpiece, mobile is the targeted 124 page assortment with much less cost.

Just think of the parallels as mobile obliterates traditional e-commerce among Jasmine's generation.

Speaking of Judy:  Did you read this little gem about Judy and her love for Best Buy's Geek Squad?  We spent a decade chasing channels, when we should have been focusing on customers.  Now that we're stuck with a 55+, rural audience, why not look at ways to meet the needs of a 55+, rural audience?

May 30, 2012

I Just Don't Care About Customer Profitability

One of the most delicious comments of the past year was uttered by an Executive ... this individual told me this nugget:

  • "I just don't care about customer profitability.  I don't make decisions on a customer-by-customer basis. As an Executive, I make macro-level decisions.  Do we invest in a new product?  Do we remodel a store or build a new store?  Do we close down our call center and outsource it to India?  Do I hire talented employees?  Do I add a catalog to the contact strategy?  Do I cheat and use paid search to drive traffic, or do I do the hard work to allow organic search to succeed?  Every decision is made at a macro-level.  And if I make the right decisions, customer profitability takes care of itself.  Never, ever, do I sit in my office and say to myself, 'what is the best strategy for Nancy Jones in Medford, Oregon?'"
Boy, that quote is going to chew up some of the pundits in the marketing blogosphere, huh?

Maybe we should turn the story around, focusing on the marketing pundits in the vendor community who demand a true one-to-one, customer-centric strategy of all of us:
  • When you write blog posts, are they personalized to your audience ... is each message different, or do you blast the same message to everybody?
  • When you publish an email newsletter, do you have fifteen different versions, customized and personalized for different audiences?
  • When customers and prospects visit your website, do you have different landing pages for each visitor based on visitor preferences?
The reality, of course, is that few of us focus on individual customer profitability.  There are times when we can make a significant difference (my "A" "B" "C" "D" "F" grades in Catalog PhD projects, for instance).  And there are the other 85% of instances where we make macro-level decisions.

Maybe it is time to be more realistic ... to realize that the macro-level decisions are hard ones, ones that ultimately determine how successful we are.

May 29, 2012

Attribution: What Do We Really Know?

Here's a few thoughts for you.  Please read these quotes:
  • "Mason Crosby kicked a 42 yard field goal as time expired, leading the Green Bay Packers to a 24-21 victory over the New York Giants."
  • "The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 124 points, or 1.1%, on reports of a two billion dollar trading loss at JPMorgan Chase."
  • "Our meeting won't start until 10:15am, because Penny is held up in a traffic jam."
  • "My computer is running slow because it is infected with a virus."
  • "Janice, a fifteen year veteran, was promoted to Vice President of E-Commerce because of her outstanding work optimizing our email marketing program during the past year."
Each quote offers some form of attribution, correct?

Let's be honest.  Does Mason Crosby deserve full credit for a win?  What about the other 120 plays in the game, contested by forty-four teammates?  What role did each player, and each play, have in the outcome of the game?

Can anybody prove that a two billion dollar trading loss at one company, by one individual, caused billions of shares traded in nanoseconds by computer algorithms to yield reduced market capitalization at companies not remotely connected to the trading loss?

Can we prove that a traffic jam kept Penny from getting to a meeting on time?  Did Penny leave for the meeting soon enough?  Could Penny have chosen a different route?

Even if a computer is running slowly because of a virus, could the user have done anything different to avoid getting a computer virus?

What role did the other fourteen years play in Janice becoming a Vice President?

In life, we accept ambiguity, don't we?  We don't demand a full accounting for how each project that Janice worked on over fifteen years contributed to her promotion.

But in Marketing, we view this differently?  We somehow think that we can parse every stinking click, every visit to the mall, and every silly tweet into a category that results in the division of a $100 order across the 27 actions that led up to the order.

What do we really know about the value of all 27 actions that led to a $100 order?


May 28, 2012

Summer Schedule

Each year, we go through the same process, don't we?

We start the year with a topic, a theme, something that carries us through the Spring.  Some of you find the topic interesting, and hire me.  Others find the topic interesting, and implement the ideas. Still others find the topic of interest, and continue to subscribe.  Finally, there are those who don't like the topic, and unsubscribe, citing "too many updates"!

Then we get to Memorial Day.

From late May to early September, attention is diverted.  Some might think content is to blame, but I beg to differ.  No, I think our attention span dwindles, in part, because of the weather.

For the seventh consecutive year, you'll be part of a time-honored tradition, called "a decrease in content frequency". 

Starting next week, posts will be published for public consumption on Monday morning, Tuesday morning, and Thursday morning.  As always, when topics dictate, supplemental posts will be published.

May 23, 2012


No, not Him.

Did you see how the world found out about Moses?  Read through the historical posts.  This video "went viral", as they say.  Next thing you know, Moses is on The Today Show, and even earns honored status on I Can Has Cheezeburger.

But this isn't about something going viral.

The chain of events leading to this video going viral cannot be captured in a bottle.  You have a random blog, you have YouTube, you have popular websites appealing to Jasmine, you have websites appealing to Jennifer, you have the Today Show (Judy).

Marketing experts will tell you that you have to "do everything", that you have to be "multi-channel".  And yet, if you tried to astroturf this thing, you'd fail ... if you set up a blog and YouTube and your PR people tried to astroturf it on popular blogs or on television, you'd fail.  Be honest!

Everybody wants to know what the "Best Practices" are ... somebody just please give away some trade secrets for free, and we'll all be successful, right?

But these days, "Best Practices" make no sense.  Sure, the fundamentals still make sense ... you minimize returns and forecast inventory properly and you'll be wildly more profitable than your mediocre competition.  Marketing "Best Practices", however, have a low probability of success.

There are probably a thousand stories like Moses out there.  If marketed properly, you have a 1 in 500 chance of being noticed.  If not marketed properly, you have a 1 in 1,000 chance of being noticed.  This results in a share of not-so-good-practices succeeding ... and in almost all spectacularly-planned-via-best-practices strategies failing.

It's a good thing that little Moses is adorable, because that makes the story possible ... the content (or in our world, the merchandise) still matters.

May 22, 2012

New Customers, For Free

If you like to keep up on marketing/analytics, you probably read Andrew Chen, right?  And you've probably read this post, right? (click here).

If not, there's two sentences that you might pay attention to.
  • The important thing about virality is it is free. So it's an important skill for startups.
It's an important skill for anybody!

I get calls and emails ... "what's the next big idea, Kevin?"  Now, I don't have the slightest idea what the next big idea is, but a business like One Kings' Lane that goes from $0 to a couple hundred million dollars in a few years is worth paying attention to, right?  Mostly grown by virality, it's certainly something we should pay attention to.

That's when I get the response ... "I need something that scales. You can't bank on virality, it's unpredictable. You can bank on Abacus giving you a million names that will generate $1.5 million in sales, +/- 5%.  That's what I'm talking about.  What's the next big idea like that?"

In other words, you want someone to assume all of the risk for you, and you will gladly pay them for the right to remove all risk, correct?

Big ideas are headed in the opposite direction, and have been for some time.  Judy's generation paid for offline access to information (Abacus).  Jennifer's generation paid for online access to information (Google).

Jasmine's generation just won't pay.  New customers can be found, for free.

Now this is hard, risky work, isn't it?  With Abacus, the odds of breakthrough success are nearly zero, but the odds of treading water are great.  With word-of-mouth, the odds of breakthrough success are, what, one in ten, or one in a hundred?  With word-of-mouth, there is no treading water ... you either succeed wildly, or you're finished ... you'll know, either way, really soon.

In the old days, you'd have a customer acquisition analyst, horse-trading names with competitors. And some geeky mathematician wrote SAS code on a mainframe computer, hoping to avoid a dreaded SB37 error ... analyzing test results when there were enough cycles available to process information.  Combined, the individuals earned your business new customers.

Read the blog post above, or the post on Growth Hackers, and you see a world that parallels what was done twenty years ago ... but is fundamentally different.  Gone is the teamwork required twenty years ago, replaced by technology, coding skills, rapid A/B testing, and the promise of free, new customers.

There is a gulf between the world that Judy thrives in, and the world that Jasmine thrives in.  We probably need a better balance between the two, don't we?

May 21, 2012

Swim Lanes

In merchandising, some companies introduce the concept of "swim lanes".  This is a valuable concept.  Merchandise is forced to stay within a swim lane, to eliminate the myriad problems associated with redundant skus.  Merchants are assigned a category, and are asked to not interfere with the work of another merchant. Each merchandise category is allowed to grow and thrive, without interference from the efforts of an employee responsible for another merchandise category.  In theory, this helps simplify the purchase process for customers as well.

Now let's look at the failed concept known as "multi-channel marketing".  Everybody is an expert!!  The Chief Merchandising Office knows what email campaigns need to look like.  The Chief Operating Officer possesses distaste for affiliate marketers.  The Chief Financial Officer wants to trim catalog circulation by 30% (and would trim it by 97% if she could, because you just mail the customers who are going to purchase, right?).  The Chief Creative Officer thinks you need to "engage" the customer more via social media, and will work behind your back on developing a content-based strategy on Twitter, if necessary.  The Chief Inventory Officer wants to abandon paid search because it cannibalizes organic search results.  

The Chief Marketing Officer actively mines her network on LinkedIn, anticipating her next job.

Have you ever been in one of these meetings?  A half-dozen Executives all jumping out of their swim lanes to improve marketing performance?

I remember being at Lands' End in the early 1990s ... a profitable quarter was blown up, in part because somebody in Finance made some sort of mistake on currency exchange rates.  I remember the gnashing of teeth, because that mistake cost every employee a percentage of his/her annual bonus.  Nobody likes it when a bean counter is responsible for taking beans away from you!

I don't remember employees telling Finance how to manage money, however.  Money, even if mis-managed, was part of the Finance swim lane.

And you don't often see marketing leaders demanding a right to determine which robotics system to use in a warehouse, do you?

When it comes to marketing, swim lanes break down.  Everybody is an expert, right?!

A strong Marketing leader has facts to back up his/her claims.  A strong Marketing leader listens to Executives, then helps Executives move back into their swim lanes when appropriate.  A strong Marketing leader reminds every employee of the importance of Merchandise ... in other words, when business is down by 10%, the Marketer quantifies that Merchandise weakness is casing 9 points of the 10 point drop ... then the Marketer offers solutions to help the Merchant regain a few points.

A strong Marketing leader teaches Executives to respect each other.  A strong Marketing leader teaches Executives the limited potential of tools/techniques.  A strong Marketing leader teaches Executives the unlimited potential of creativity/working-together.

Finally, a strong Marketing leader reminds Executives about swim lanes ... reminding Executives about the importance of focusing on what one knows best.

May 20, 2012

Dear Catalog CEOs: Visiting A Non-Competitive Brand

Dear Catalog CEOs:

Here's one thing I don't understand.  Why won't we ever go spend a day with a non-competitive colleague?

We're on LinkedIn, so we have this network of 1,148 professionals.  And LinkedIn tells us that this network is really valuable, right?

So why don't we use it?

Get on the phone this week, and call a CEO at a non-competitive brand.  Arrange a visit.  Then get on an airplane and visit your colleague.

It's even better if the colleague leads a non-catalog brand.

Set up a six hour meeting.

  • 10:00am - 11:00am:  Business results over the past five years ... a review of the profit and loss statement, customer file counts, orders per buyer, items per order, retention rates, that kind of thing.
  • 11:00am - 12:00pm:  Marketing strategy ... a review of the way that each brand acquires customers, retains customers.  Discussion of the strategies, effectiveness, return on investment, vendors used, etc.
  • 12:00am - 12:30pm:  Lunch.
  • 12:30pm - 1:30pm:  Merchandising strategy ... how are products sourced, how is the mix of new and winning products arrived at, how is product productivity measured?
  • 1:30pm - 2:30pm:  Employee strategy ... where do you find talent, how do you retain talent, how do you balance outsourcing talent to vendors vs. hiring the best people.
  • 2:30pm - 3:30pm:  The Future ... a discussion of what "the next big thing" is, and how each business plans on growing over the next five years.  What are the strategies and tactics that lead to a viable business in 2017 and beyond?  What are the threats faced by each business?
  • 3:30pm - 4:00pm:  Takeaways ... what was learned by each business that will be implemented.  How will the takeaway be measured?  How will each business communicate with each other?
The goal is to find complimentary ways for each business to help the other grow.

What would stop you from getting on a plane and having a session like this?

May 16, 2012

Planning Merchandise

How we plan merchandise dictates the audience that buys our merchandise.

Think of the classic catalog marketer.  You're planning a December catalog, right now.  You guess how many housefile customers you'll have.  You project how many new customers you'll need.  You ask Abacus for 1,500,000 names, you fork over $100,000 to have access to names that you know will perform at $1.05 per catalog.  Then you allocate space in the catalog for each item.  You know what many of the items will be, you source new items as well.  By December, you know how that catalog will perform, +/- 10%.  Your strategy for planning merchandise yields a predictable result.  It also yields a predictable customer file, rural 55+ customers sourced from Abacus.

Two years ago, I met with the founder of a business in Europe.  This person communicated a planning process that was completely opposite of what catalogers execute.
  • 8:00am:  Read blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and understand what is "hot" this morning (yes, this morning).
  • 9:00am:  Have a staff meeting with merchants and social media experts.  Discuss the products that folks are talking about.
  • 10:00am - 6:00pm:  New products are designed.
  • Next Two Weeks:  Products are created, in China.
  • Two Weeks Later:  Proprietary products are available for sale on the website.
Not surprisingly, this process yields a very different customer, with very different merchandise preferences.

Both approaches "work".  One attracts a 55+ rural audience, one attracts a younger, fashion-oriented audience.

We need to understand that we play a huge role in determining who buys merchandise.  When we have a nine month merchandise planning process that is built around the assembly of a catalog, well, we end up with a customer who prefers the outcome of this strategy.  When we have a two week planning process, well, we end up with a customer who prefers the hottest and most relevant merchandise.

May 15, 2012

Multiple Digital Channels: Oh Boy

A few weeks back, the folks on Twitter took umbrage with my stance on the concept of "multi-channel".

  • "77% of customers research online before buying in a store ... this is the very definition of multi-channel."
  • "63% of e-commerce buyers touch at least four channels before buying merchandise."
So what?
  • "But this is proof that customers prefer a multi-channel experience.  You cannot deny it."
Of course I can deny it!

Customers don't prefer a multi-channel experience.

Customers are forced into a multi-channel experience.

You know why customers are forced into a multi-channel experience?  

Because customers don't trust us.

Customers don't trust that we offer the lowest price, every single day.

Customers don't trust that we offer the lowest shipping/handling cost, every single day.

Remember Jennifer?  She's the persona you are least enamored with.

You don't like Jennifer because Jennifer doesn't trust you!

Jennifer knows that you have multiple versions of email campaigns.  She knows that her neighbor was offered 20% off scarves while Jennifer was offered 10% off of socks.  So Jennifer clicks through your email campaign (see, multiple channels work), because Jennifer still needs a scarf, regardless of your promotional strategy.

Jennifer documents the price of a scarf on your website, placing a scarf in her shopping cart, but she doesn't trust you.

Jennifer heads to Google, to see if comparable scarves at your competition are comparably priced (see, multiple channels work, don't they ... Jennifer just used email + search, multi-channel Heaven).

Let's assume that Google proves to Jennifer that your scarves are comparably priced.

What is Jennifer going to do next?

Well, she sure isn't going to pay for shipping and handling.  Your website says you offer $8 shipping every day, but Jennifer remembers that two months ago you were running free shipping campaigns (hurry, act now, free shipping ends in just 36 hours).  

Jennifer has a hunch that you're offering somebody free shipping, just not her.

Jennifer doesn't trust you.

Jennifer heads back out to Google.  She searches for a free shipping code.  Google redirects Jennifer to an affiliate website (see, multiple channels work).  There, Jennifer finds a free shipping code.  Oh, Jennifer also finds a 20% off scarf promo code.  Jennifer has to pick one of the two promotions.  

Jennifer doesn't want to pick only one of two promo codes.  Jennifer doesn't trust you.

Jennifer picks free shipping, as free shipping saves her more money than 20% off of the scarf she wants to purchase.

If Jennifer had time, she'd dial your call center and demand 20% off plus free shipping ... and you'd add another channel to the purchase process and suggest that multi-channel works, right?

By the way, Jennifer did all of this on her iPad at work, using wi-fi from the Starbucks downstairs ... Jennifer doesn't want her company to know that she is using the company computer to shop for a scarf.  But we observe this behavior as "mobile multi-channel" ... we think Jennifer is the valuable mobile buyer that we've been hearing about!!!  

Jennifer, however, is not using mobile because of mobile, she's using it to shop while at work.  Mobile isn't a channel to Jennifer, it's a way to get around the rules.

Jennifer buys the scarf, using a free shipping promo code.  

Jennifer feels burned that she couldn't apply a percentage off code.

If Jennifer had time (she needs the scarf for date night with her husband on Saturday), she'd leave the scarf in her shopping cart for a week, knowing that you'd send her a trigger-based email message with an offer to save an additional 10%.  And when she purchased, you'd credit her with another touch point in the process.  See, multi-channel works, doesn't it?!

Do you get it?

Jennifer touched a veritable plethora of channels, not because she's a multi-channel customer, but because she doesn't trust us.

Jennifer doesn't trust that we will always offer her the best price.  This lack of trust manifests itself in the use of multiple channels.

There is an inverse relationship between trust and use of multiple channels.  

Yes, great customers buy online and in stores.  But many customers don't trust us, and use multiple digital channels to evaluate just how much they can trust us.

Think of a brand that you trust.  Once trust is built, you don't do a lot of comparison shopping, do you?  You simply trust.  You cut down all friction, simply purchasing in the channel that is most convenient to you.

That's what my evaluation of the data suggests.  What does your evaluation of the data suggest?

May 14, 2012

Employee Value

In sports, we look at statistics.  Statistics help us understand the value a player brings to the table.  For instance, last year, Price Fielder posted the following statistics for the Milwaukee Brewers:

  • 162 Games Played.
  • .299 Batting Average.
  • 38 Home Runs.
  • 120 Runs Batted In.
  • .981 OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage, the metric is highly correlated with runs and wins, average is a bit over .700).
We observe statistics like that, and we say, "wow".

As a result, Prince Fielder signed a free agent contract with the Detroit Tigers, for more than $20,000,000 a year.

The numbers directly correlate to the market value of an individual.

Now, let's assume you are the CEO of a company.  You have an email manager.  This person gets things done.  The person who used to have her job posted the following metrics:
  • Annual Emails Delivered = 100,000,000
  • Open Rate = 20%.
  • Click Through Rate (as a percentage of Opens) = 30%.
  • Conversion Rate (as a percentage of Clicks) = 5%.
  • Average Order Value = $100.
  • Total Demand = 100,000,000 * 0.20 * 0.30 * 0.05 * $100 = $30,000,000.
  • Profit Flow-Through Rate = 40%.
  • Email Program Cost = $1,000,000.
  • Total Profit = $30,000,000 * 0.40 - $1,000,000 = $11,000,000.
But this young lady, well, my goodness, look at what she was able to accomplish in one year, on the same size email list:
  • Annual Emails Delivered = 100,000,000
  • Open Rate = 22%.
  • Click Through Rate (as a percentage of Opens) = 32%.
  • Conversion Rate (as a percentage of Clicks) = 5.5%.
  • Average Order Value = $95.
  • Total Demand = 100,000,000 * 0.22 * 0.32 * 0.055 * $95 = $36,784,000.
  • Profit Flow-Through Rate = 40%.
  • Email Program Cost = $1,000,000.
  • Total Profit (not including employee costs) = $36,784,000 * 0.40 - $1,000,000 = $13,713,600.
This one individual, by herself, caused a $6.8 million increase in demand, and a $2.7 million increase in profit.

You're paying this person $75,000 a year.

What is the value of this employee to your company?  What is the potential value of this employee to the future of your company?  Are you compensating this person in a fair manner, given her contribution to your profit and loss statement?

In the same department, you have a social media manager.  You're paying this guy $70,000 per year, less than the email manager.  This person is able to quantify the following contribution to the company.
  • Facebook Likes increased from 11,439 to 14,903 in the past year.
  • Twitter Followers increased from 9,493 to 13,771 in the past year.
  • 401 F-Commerce orders and 345 Twitter click-through orders, at $100 AOV (neither program existed in the year prior).
  • $74,600 annual demand.
  • Profit Flow-Through Rate of 40%.
  • Total Profit (not including employee costs) = $74,600 * 0.40 = $29,840.
What is the value of this employee to your company?  What is the potential value of this employee to the future of your company?

You calculate employee value, don't you?

At Nordstrom, I had a scorecard.  Every employee in my department was listed as a row on the scorecard, and an estimate of annual profit contribution was listed in a column on the scorecard, based on tests we conducted and projects each employee worked on.  When I attended a meeting and an Executive questioned the value of an employee, I had an immediate response --- "We're paying Sandy $49,000 a year, and she made improvements to her area that generated $983,000 of incremental profit last year ... she ranks 9th out of 24 employees in the department".

You're probably doing this, right?  You know the actual value each employee generated to the business last year, incremental, above-and-beyond what was done the prior year, correct?

As a boss, you have to have a tool like this in place.

If you are an employee, it is even more important to have a tool like this in place.  It is the only way that you can fight for your paltry 3% salary increase (which sure doesn't align with the profit contribution of the email manager in our example, does it?) ... it is one of the most effective ways to argue for a promotion.

Why not take a hour today, and calculate employee value?  You may be surprised by the employees who are truly contributing to your bottom line!

Little Black Bag

Twitter user Judah Phillips shares this little tidbit from Klout and Little Black Bag.

Use the comments section below to share your thoughts ... do you support the concept of customers and prospects with a bevy of "Digital Friends" being offered lower prices than folks who haven't mined their social media for gold?

May 13, 2012

Dear Catalog CEOs: Relevant Talent

Dear Catalog CEOs:

Are you in the same place that so many other folks are these days?  In other words, are you struggling to find what one individual recently called "relevant talent"?

The job market places value on specific job responsibilities.  And the job market has a way of moving various job responsibilities between clients and vendors.

For a decade, we placed value on what we thought was important.
  • Catalog Circulation:  Outsourced to the co-ops.
  • Email Marketing:  Outsourced to a small number of vendors.
  • Database:  Outsourced to a small number of vendors.
  • Paid Search:  Outsourced to a small number of vendors.
We almost did this unconsciously, didn't we?  

We were able to downsize a once-robust customer acquisition team, because it was so much easier to just call Abacus for 1,205,448 names.  As a result, a ton of talent that would normally have developed in the catalog industry went elsewhere for employment.

We started with email in-house, then realized that the vendor community could blast our campaigns cheaply and quickly, coupled with opens/clicks/conversion data ... don't need in-house talent to do anything other than coordinate the campaigns now.  So, we shipped that function out, and as a result, a ton of talent that would normally have developed in the catalog industry went elsewhere for employment.

We sent our database out to pasture, didn't we?  When we shipped this function out to the vendor community, a ton of talent that would normally have developed in the catalog industry went elsewhere for employment.

Paid Search became the most relevant online comparable to catalog co-ops ... you either pay for clicks, or you pay for access to the mailbox.  When we shipped this function out to the vendor community, a ton of talent that would normally have developed in the catalog industry went elsewhere for employment.

From 2001 to 2010, this "worked".  We cut back on expenses, and our vendor partners worked their rear ends off to support us.  This was a magical outcome of the "multi-channel" era.

Except for one little problem.

In my time in the industry (1988 - current), talent "developed".  I want to share with you the career path of some of the individuals who became Executives during the past twenty-five years.
  • Accountant -> Circulation Manager -> Circulation Director -> Merchant -> EVP Direct Channel -> Owner.
  • Customer Acquisition Analyst -> Housefile Circulation Manager -> Customer Research Director -> VP Direct Channel.
  • Statistician -> Inventory Manager -> Research Manager -> Research Director -> VP Direct Channel -> EVP Direct Channel.
  • Customer Acquisition Analyst -> Customer Acquisition Manager -> Circulation Director -> VP Online Marketing
  • Housefile Circulation Analyst -> Housefile Circulation Manager -> Merchandising Director -> General Manager -> President
What did each of these individuals possess?  Well, they obtained skills in job titles that, in the past decade, have been largely outsourced to the vendor community.

And while vendor community skills are very important, they are not the same as the skills you obtain in the hand-to-hand combat of a catalog/online/retail brand.

A decade of this activity resulted in a complete dearth of what is now called "relevant talent".

Repeatedly, folks ask me to help them find an individual with a set of skills that simply doesn't exist anymore.
  • "I want an online expert who can also increase the profitability of our catalog marketing program."
  • "I want somebody who can integrate email and search and social into a coherent strategy".
  • "I want somebody who knows how to run a profit and loss statement."
  • "I want an Executive who can chart a course to the future."
These people were plentiful fifteen years ago, because we developed the talent pipeline.

These people barely exist today, because we abandoned the talent pipeline, we outsourced it.

As a result, we have to greatly overpay for relevant talent, or we have to adjust our expectations for the reality we created for ourselves while kick-starting the talent development process.

To date, we've not willing to do either.  Our businesses are suffering as a result.


May 10, 2012

Time To Sell: Optimal Investment

We made a series of improvements to the business ... we improved Net Sales, we improved Gross Margin, and we improved Merchandise Productivity.

The business is healthier, as a result.

Now, businesses usually make one of two mistakes, when it comes to customer acquisition:

  1. Under Investment, in order to protect the short-term profitability of the business.
  2. Over Investment, in order to protect top-line sales.
The business that we are analyzing is over-investing, in fact, it is over-investing badly.

Look at what happens when we cut back on catalog customer acquisition activities by 60%, in this case.

My goodness!

This business, from a profit standpoint, is probably at an optimal level ... generating around $12,000,000 of Earnings Before Taxes a year.  Now, there's a price to pay for this level of profitability, because we end up with fewer new customers, yielding a business that generated only $90,000,000 of annual demand.

Both business scenarios probably have similar value:
  • A $106,000,000 business generating maybe $9,500,000 of annual profit.
  • A $90,000,000 business generating maybe $12,000,000 of annual profit.
But here's what matters, folks.

What matters is that a business, even a failing business, can be improved.  And if the performance of the business can be improved, then the value of the business can be improved.

2012 is a good time to start thinking about an exit, especially if your business caters to Judy.  When a business owns a customer file with 50% or greater penetration among Judy's generation, then the long-term prospects of the business can be questioned.  This gives the business owner or CEO an opportunity, a five year window, to significantly improve the productivity of the business, in preparation for an exit.

If this style of analysis is of interest to you, please contact me for your own, customized project --- click here.

May 09, 2012

Time To Sell: Merchandise Productivity

Yesterday, we invested a little bit of energy on fundamentals.  Without a dramatic improvement in fundamentals, the value of the business essentially tripled.

Now, the business is more profitable, but it still isn't terribly healthy.  We haven't addressed top-line demand increases, yet.

Almost nobody talks about merchandise productivity.

And, yet, merchandise productivity is more important than anything else.

Merchandise productivity can be increased by having great product (easier said than done).

Merchandise productivity can be increased by improving the performance of landing pages, by improving the performance of the home page, by merchandising email campaigns better, by having a raw desire to assort a catalog in the best possible way.

Merchandise productivity increases of 10% are achievable.  It just takes a team of business leaders with an unbridled passion for the business, a discipline for selling, to drive increases.

I know, you won't find anybody re-tweeting an article about merchandise productivity.

But look at what happens to the profit and loss statement when there is a 10% increase in merchandise productivity.

Are you kidding me?

This business is bordering on being healthy.  Suddenly, we have a $106,000,000 business (demand) that is generating $9,500,000 profit.  A business that might have been valued at $10,000,000 is suddenly a business that might fetch in the neighborhood of $50,000,000.

If you're an owner, what number would you prefer ... $10,000,000 ... or $50,000,000?

You accomplished this by improving the Net Sales percentage by three measly points, by improving the Gross Margin percentage by three measly points, and by improving catalog and website productivity by ten percent (now that's not easy, but it is very achievable).

Mobile Accounts For 50% Of Daily Sales

By now, you've had the opportunity to read this ditty about flash sales websites generating up to 30% to 50% of daily sales via mobile (click here please).

Now, I want for you to look this individual in the eyes ... go ahead, look her in the eyes:

This, of course, is Judy ... she's 59 years old.  She's not driven by the urgency of a flash sales site.  She lives in an area where she can't even get 4G coverage on her phone.  She demands a keyboard-based experience.

If this is your customer, then mobile is a niche, at best.  You won't achieve 50% mobile sales.

Take a look at this young lady:

This is Jasmine, right?  She's 27 years old.  She can't afford expensive merchandise.  She is motivated by urgency.  She has a 4G phone, and that's a good thing, because in an urban/suburban environment, she can make good use of the device.  

Heck, Jasmine would prefer to keep her phone if given the choice between her phone and her car!

Now take a peek at Jennifer:

Jennifer, of course, is 43 years old.  Her experience is likely to start with Google.

In other words, Jennifer hunts for the best deal available for her family ... she goes out and searches for the best product and the best price.  She doesn't want a curated experience, and she doesn't want "the Man" forcing her to do something she doesn't want to do.

She's "the decider".

We're marketers, right?

So why don't we segment our audiences?  Isn't this Marketing 101?

These days, everything we read is based on an over-generalization ... we find a story to match our worldview (mobile is HOT), then we suggest that everybody can achieve greatness if they just have a world-class app.

If your customer is 59 years old (Judy), it doesn't matter how great your app is ... you're not going to break through.  This doesn't mean that mobile isn't important, it just means you're not going to generate 50% of your sales via mobile this September.

If your customer is 27 years old (Jasmine), then mobile+social is a fundamental part of your brand, right?  Maybe generating 50% of sales via mobile means that you are not performing to expectations!!

Read these articles carefully.  Know your customer.  Then craft an appropriate strategy!

May 08, 2012

Time To Sell: Fundamentals

Take a look at my five year forecast for this business (click here to contact me for your own five year forecast).

This is a business that has stalled.  It's not terribly profitable, is it?

Last year, this business generated $93 million in demand, $79 million in net sales, and a paltry $2.3 million in earnings before taxes.

If you were going to sell this business today, what could you fetch for it?  Ten million?  Less?

The forecast isn't very optimistic, is it?  Demand is stalled, customer counts are flat, and profit is being eroded by fixed costs that are increasing at an inflationary rate.

Now, I know this is boring to talk about, but fundamentals are really, really important.

Net Sales represent the percentage of what a customer asks to purchase that the customer actually keeps.  Say you sell 100 units.  You can only fill 95 of them because five sizes aren't available.  And of the 95 that remain, 10 are returned for a refund.  You net out at 85 units sold.  Your Net Sales rate, therefore, is 85/100 = 85%.

It turns out that if you are able to make a small difference on the Net Sales line, you make a big difference on the Earnings Before Taxes line.  Take a peek at what happens when the Net Sales rate changes, from 85% to 88%.

Well, the profit and loss statement looks better, doesn't it?  That tiny three point increase in the Net Sales rate resulted in more than a million dollars of additional profit, per year, for each of the next five years.  If a business like this sells at five times earnings (and it may sell for much less, but please bear with me), then, you've just improved the value of the business from $10,000,000 to $15,000,000 ... because you've improved the fundamentals of the business.

Gross Margin represents what you get to keep, after accounting for Cost of Goods Sold.  If you sell an item for $100, and you paid $45 for that item, then you get to keep $55 ... your Gross Margin is $55/$100 = 55%.

Gross Margin is frequently influenced by the ability of a business to accurately forecast demand.  When customer demand is weak, liquidation of existing items is required.  Liquidation of merchandise, if you didn't already know, kills Gross Margin dollars.

It's not uncommon for a business, within just a year of time, to improve Gross Margin by three points simply by focusing on inventory management.  Take a look at what happens when we combine a Net Sales improvement with a Gross Margin improvement:

Oh boy!  A business that was generating about $2,000,000 of annual profit is not, through a strong focus on fundamentals, generating about $6,000,000 profit.  At five times earnings (and this business might now fetch more, given that the health is starting to improve), this business might be worth $30,000,000.

In other words, the business may be worth three times as much (maybe more) by simply focusing on the fundamentals ... accurately forecasting demand, filling orders, and eliminating returns.

I know, this isn't sexy stuff.  It's terribly boring.  You won't get re-tweeted on Twitter talking about the fundamentals of a business.  And yet, management of the fundamentals makes all the difference, doesn't it?

Tomorrow, we're going to talk about merchandise productivity.  Hint --- merchandise productivity matters!

May 07, 2012

Time To Sell?

Times are changing.

In 2007, you hired me, wanting to understand how channels fit together.

In 2010, you hired me because you wanted to reduce ad cost in order to maintain profitability.

And in 2012, the theme of the first five months of the year is "buying" and "selling".

One side of the table is looking at businesses that are "distressed", trying to "steal" a business in a strategic play.

The other side of the table spent a career growing and maintaining a catalog business.  It is time to be compensated for a lifetime of dedication to the craft of cataloging.

Over the next several posts, we're going to study a business that the owner is ready to sell.  Or, at least he thinks he's ready to sell it.  We'll review issues that may cause the health of the business to vary.  The healthier the business, the more you can sell the business for, right?

May 06, 2012

Dear Catalog CEOs: Store Distance and Mobile

Dear Catalog CEOs:

There's a reason why cataloging evolved to a 55+, rural-based business model.

Let's say you live three miles from your nearest Pottery Barn store.  You receive a Cuddledown of Maine catalog in your mailbox on a Monday.  Interesting items, interesting prices.  But you also live three miles from your nearest Pottery Barn store.

Until 2011, retail always beat online, online always beat catalogs, leaving catalogs to cater to an older, rural audience.

If you worked for a retail brand, and you analyzed tests, you knew that a few things were "true".
  • If a customer lived 0-5 miles from one of your stores, catalogs had marginal utility, and emails were more likely to drive volume into stores than to your website.
  • If a customer lived 6-10 miles from one of your stores, catalogs inspired some customers to visit stores and some customers to visit your website.  Emails were equally likely to drive volume to stores or to your website.
  • If a customer lived 11-25 miles from one of your stores, you were in multi-channel heaven!  Just about everything worked.
  • If a customer lived 26-50 miles from one of your stores, the story shifted.  Catalogs drove customers online, while websites were much less effective at getting customers to get into a car and shop at a store.  The website became the anchor of the business for customers 26-50 miles from a store.
  • If a customer lived 51+ miles from one of your stores, the story shifted again.  Catalogs fueled the relationship, as rural customers embraced tradition, routine, comfort, and habit, all offered in catalogs.
Until 2011, retail mulched direct marketing.

Then mobile entered the picture.

Mobile doesn't compete with cataloging, be honest!  The 27 year old Jasmine that is using a mobile device is not trading a catalog order for a mobile order.

E-commerce doesn't really compete with retail, if it did, retail would have posted giant, negative comps from 2000 - 2010.  No, e-commerce destroyed catalog marketing, it didn't do much damage to retail.

However, mobile is set to destroy retail as we know it.

No, mobile isn't going to cannibalize 40% of retail sales.

Mobile only has to cannibalize 3-5% of retail sales, over the next 3-5 years, to exact a harsh penalty on a debt-ridden channel.  Retail demands that comp store sales increase enough to offset inflationary pressures.  Without such increases, retailers cannot cover debt obligations and fixed costs.

Entire retail brands will crumble under the pressure of minor comp store sales declines and huge debt obligations.

As this transition happens, companies will take drastic measures to protect the profit and loss statement.  Retailers will spend less on search marketing.  They will cut back on catalog circulation.  They'll do this indiscriminately.

This yields an opportunity for the cataloger ... Jasmine's generation uses mobile to knock out a portion of the retail infrastructure ... retailers respond by trimming marketing to Judy and Jennifer (mistake) to keep the business solvent in the short term ... Judy turns to catalogs ... Jennifer turns to e-commerce ... Jasmine continues to embrace mobile.

Mobile, and the impact that mobile/Jasmine could have on retail, have the potential to prop-up catalog marketing a bit over the next five years.  Pay close attention to mobile trends.  Pay close attention to who uses mobile devices in your business.  Code each zip code in your database for proximity to retail, and then measure the productivity (and channel preference) of those zip codes over time.

And contact me for help with all of this ... because it is about to get very interesting!

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