June 23, 2022

Late 2022 / Spring 2023: A Warning

Allow me to show you what is happening to too many of you. Let's pretend you run a really small business.

As of 2/28/2020, you might have possessed the following customer metrics.

  • 100 12-Month Buyers The Year Prior.
  • 30% Rebuy Rate and $200 Spend per Repurchaser.
  • Year Prior = 60 New/Reactivated Buyers Spending $120 Each.
  • 100 * 0.30 * $200 + 60 * $120 = $13,200 Net Sales, 90 Customers Total.
Then the COVID-bump happens. Things go bonkers.

  • 90 12-Month Buyers.
  • 33% Rebuy Rate and $200 Spend per Repurchaser.
  • 90 New/Reactivated Buyers Spending $120 Each.
  • 90 * 0.33 * $200 + 90 * $120 = $16,740 Net Sales, 120 Customers Total.
We think life is good ... other than the dying part and the illness part and the pointless hatred for each other because of political beliefs. Otherwise, life is/was good. Until life wasn't good. Until prices started to increase in late 2021. Until new/reactivated buyer counts began to fade. As of today, our data looks like this.
  • 120 12-Month Buyers.
  • 26% Rebuy Rate and $220 Spend per Repurchaser.
  • 55 New/Reactivated Buyers Spending $130 Each.
  • 120 * 0.26 * $220 + 55 * $130 = $14,014 Net Sales, 86 Customers Total.
Our little business, which had $13,200 in sales two years ago and $16,740 a year ago now has $14,014 in sales. Better than two years ago, but oh oh. And our little business had 100 buyers, then 90 buyers, then we improved to 120 buyers, and now we have 86 buyers. We've lost all of our file power, haven't we? File power is important, because next year's sales are connected to how many customers we have at the end of this year.

Worse, our rebuy rates are impacted by rising prices ... down to 24%. New/Reactivated buyer counts were at 60 two years ago, then 90 COVID-infused newbies a year ago, then just 55 due to the price increase.

Now we have to forecast what happens in the next year. Well, prices are much higher, so we'll forecast a 24% rebuy rate, $230 spend per repurchaser, just 45 new/reactivated buyers, and $140 sales per new/reactivated buyer. Fewer customers, but more spend per customer.

What does the next year look like?
  • 86 12-Month Buyers.
  • 24% Rebuy Rate and $230 Spend per Repurchaser.
  • 45 New/Reactivated Buyers Spending $140 Each.
  • 86 * 0.24 * $230 + 45 * $140 = $11,047 Net Sales, 66 Customers Total.
This is what the end of the COVID-bump combined with an increase in prices means.

Sales by year:
  • $11,047 forecasted for the next twelve months.
  • $14,014 for the year ending June 23, 2022.
  • $16,740 for the year ending June 23, 2021.
  • $13,200 for the year ending June 23, 2020.
Tell me what happens when we get to October and the forecast becomes reality?

Many e-commerce brands will be able to outrun this forecast ... they'll find ways to generate new customers, as they have for the past twenty years.

Many traditional catalog brands will not be able to outrun this forecast. By not developing sufficient online marketing capabilities, the contraction currently being observed will be amplified by a lack of paper. The very vendors demanding that catalogers mail paper instead of embracing online marketing will hasten this dynamic.

This blog post is a warning. There is time to do something about what is coming. Expense increases paired with sales declines = trouble.

Trouble.

I've spent much of the past eight years advocating for strong customer acquisition programs. Fall/Winter 2022 will belong to those who have a strong customer acquisition program.

You are a Leader. You have time to address this challenge. Be a Leader.

P.S.:  If you need forecasting help, let me know (kevinh@minethatdata.com).

June 22, 2022

A Struggling Category

Here is the GPA for each of the past five years for a category that is struggling.

  • 2018 = 1.77.
  • 2019 = 1.48.
  • 2020 = 1.37.
  • 2021 = 1.27.
  • 2022 = 1.19.

Yup - that's a category that is dying. An average GPA is 2.00, so this category has been below-average for five years and performance is getting progressively worse.

If you are a marketer, you need to know this is happening, so that when you are asked to feature this category you adjust your sales plan accordingly, right?

June 20, 2022

The Marketer Influences The Customer

For one company, I looked at the GPA of the merchandise purchased by customer based on customer life stage ... for all new customers acquired in the past two years. Ready?


Look at the "Below Average" column ... on a first order, 25.9% of the merchandise is priced below the historical average for the item. For loyal customers? 82.3%. This brand is discounting the living daylights out of the stuff they sell to the most loyal buyers.

Look at the "New Items" column. 13.5% of what first-time buyers purchase are new items (new in the past year). 4.5% of what loyal buyers purchase are new items.

Now look at "A" items ... 13.1% of what new buyers purchase are the very best-selling items. However, 77.6% of what the most loyal buyers purchase are the very best-selling items.

Look at the "GPA" column ... the GPA goes from 1.81 to 1.94 to 2.13 to 2.39 to 2.66 to 3.13 to 3.39.

In other words, the customer (as the customer matures) clearly increasing buys the best items. However, the marketer is pushing this customer to purchase the best items at discounted prices. The marketer is driving the behavior.

It would take a LOT of discounted purchasing to overcome the damage this marketer is doing to this business.

Yes, the marketer influences the customer.

June 19, 2022

Evolution of New Items - The GPA

Allow me to introduce a new metric for you ... the GPA or "Grade Point Average".

This metric is just like the old-school GPA you enjoyed in school. If an item (on a monthly basis) is in the top 20% of total sales (rank-ordered from highest selling item to lowest selling item), the item is an "A" ... next 20% of sales is a "B" ... next 20% of sales is a "C" ... next 20% of sales is a "D" ... and the bottom 20% of sales is an "F". This isn't an even distribution of items, because it could be that one item accounts for 20% of sales and the bottom 60% of items account for 20% of sales.

Then, we compute a GPA or "Grade Point Average" ... "A" sales are multiplied by 4, "B" sales are multiplied by 3, "C" sales are multiplied by 2, "D" sales are multiplied by 1, and "F" sales are multiplied by 0. Divide that total by total sales and you have a GPA, or Grade Point Average between 0 and 4, with 2 being "average".

Why go through this nonsense?

The GPA allows us to see how items evolve over time. If items are performing better, the GPA will increase. If items are performing poorly, the GPA will decrease. If sales decrease but the GPA increases, then the merchandising team is culling out the losers and focusing on the winning items.

Let's look at items introduced in February 2019. Sales in each subsequent month are outlined in the table, as well as the GPA for items in that month.


Notice the seasonality in sales ... March/April/May are peak sales months for these items. The items build into healthy sales status through the remainder of 2019. Then in 2020 the items begin to slump, and the slump significant in 2021 with the notable exception of the March/April/May timeframe where the GPA's increase.

Let's look at March/April/May performance.


Two years after the items were introduced sales are cut in half, but the GPA is noticeably higher.

In other words, the merchandising team (predictably) culled out the losing items, focusing only on the items that have success.

This is standard behavior ... of course.

But it brings up an interesting thought. If sales continue to decline from items from the Class of February 2019, you need new items to replace the sales being lost, correct?

The best companies I work with are gifted at constantly introducing new items that sell well enough to replace the items that are always dying off.




June 15, 2022

Asleep At The Wheel

Sometimes our teams are directed to perform at a sub-optimal level. Sometimes our teams don't have the reporting to help them understand what they "should" have done.

Here's the four-year trend for new item introductions for a brand. The arrow tells you where the problem resides.


In 2018 the brand introduced new items at a thrilling clip ... now, that isn't always right either, especially if none of the items become winners. However, what happens in 2019 borders on being grounds for dismissal with cause. Average monthly new items per year look like this:

  • 2018 = 28.6
  • 2019 =   6.8
  • 2020 = 13.1
  • 2021 = 10.5

We don't need a lot of reporting to help us. We just need the "right" reporting. And if your merchandising/product team won't produce the reporting, well, then it is your job to produce the reports.

When you have a year where your merchandising/product team is asleep at the wheel, you have subsequent years where the marketing team suffers because the failure to develop new items ripples through the future, causing customers to spend less. That's not the fault of the marketing team.



June 14, 2022

They Don't Work In Lock-Step

Alright, it's becoming clear I have to focus more on merchandise tactics and analysis, because those are the questions that are coming into the Global Headquarters at MineThatData.

There's a misconception out there ... when business is bad, some business leaders believe there is a smoking gun that can be readily fixed ... if some math person would just write some code and identify the problem. It's always fun to have an EVP making $475,000 a year with a $400,000 annual bonus not know why business is failing but expect a 24 year old to write sixty lines of code and solve the problem.

Sometimes there are feedback loops. Sometimes it isn't easy to identify the problem. Sometimes you have to realize that there is some cause-and-effect going on.

Case in point. This brand is failing. In the graph below, I plot year-over-year change in sales for new merchandise, and I plot year-over-year change in new/reactivated customers. These are two metrics that do a good job of deciphering what is going on, and are "predictive" in that problems in these metrics today yield problems in the business tomorrow. Here's the graph.


Each month is coded in the database, with "60" being recent and "36" being two years ago. That's your x-axis.

Let's look at change in sales of New Merchandise first (the orange line). Two years ago sales, year-over-year, were positive. Customers liked what was being offered. And then, somebody on the merchandising team decided to muck everything up. At month=43 sales of new items crashed, and they have not recovered in the seventeen months since. This often happens when new merchandising/product leadership take over, but in this case, I know that the brand made a conscious choice to focus heavily on the long-term best selling items. It's a conscious choice that also turned out to be a bad choice, because when you don't develop new items today your sales decline tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the blue line is the year-over-year change in new/reactivated customers. At about month=42 the trend turned positive. New/Reactivated customers thrived for about nine months, before turning negative and thus creating a problem for this brand.

Two leading indicators of future sales success ... new items ... new/reactivated customers ... both trending negative.

Now, in this case, the brand had six months of lousy merchandise performance (due to new item failures), so the CFO decided to tell the marketing department to cut back on marketing spend ... and guess what? That was also a bad decision!

The metrics don't move in lock-step ... but there is cause and effect. Management decided to focus on long-term winning items while de-emphasizing new items, causing the business to struggle, causing the CFO to tell marketing to spend less, causing fewer new/reactivated customers, setting up a horrible second half of 2022.

Yup - humans caused the problem. The people running the business caused the problem. If they want the business fixed, they need to look in the mirror.


June 13, 2022

Forecasting Offer

Incoming messages from Professionals on Twitter are centered around interrelated issues (and it is interesting that this is happening on Twitter - it means this is something younger professionals in e-commerce are running into):

  • We have too much inventory.
  • We may have forecasted sales improperly.
  • We increased prices, significantly, and customer response is declining.
  • New customer counts are in free-fall, is this due to the COVID bump or inflation or something else?
  • What does Christmas look like, as a consequence?
So, let's create a mini-project, as we've done so often in the past. Send me five years of purchase transactions and for $7,000 I'll forecast the rest of the year and next year as well. We'll see where you are headed and see what kind of "downside" there is if things get worse.

Contact me now (kevinh@minethatdata.com) ... I'll take four (4) projects at this price. Get in line now. Project work will begin on July 1.

June 12, 2022

Where Do You Fit?

Increasingly, it is obvious that we all fit into one quadrant here:


If we're good at New Customer Acquisition (and awareness programs) and we're good at New Products/Merchandise, our business thrives.

If we're good at New Customer Acquisition but fail at generating New Products/Merchandise, business will slow down and accountability for sluggish business sits at the feet of the Merchant.

If we're good at New Products/Merchandise but fail at New Customer Acquisition, business will slow down and accountability for sluggish business sits at the feet of the Marketer.

Mess up both? That's the fault of the CEO and the Executive Team she hired/inherited.

We simply cannot mess up both aspects of business. Can. Not.

Get 'em both right and we manage a thriving business.

Where does your company fit, which quadrant does your business occupy?





June 08, 2022

We Will Just Improve Marketing And Reduce The Organic Percentage, That Solves The Problem, Right?

I received an email from a non-client ... this individual was grumbling about his organic percentage.
  • "It's only 20%. That's awful. That means we don't know how to generate sales from print. Can't we improve the percentage? We have to improve the percentage. We need to change how we creatively present merchandise, that'll fix our problem, right?"
It's a good question, obviously.

But it's not a problem that is solved by changing how you present merchandise. It's a problem created by demographics and digital tactics. Having a low organic percentage is generally a blessing, because it means you are doing something else right. Either your merchandise appeals to a younger audience, or your audience is responsive to your digital marketing tactics. 

Or, your customers love your merchandise and they don't need you to market to them to buy it ... this is the biggest blessing you can have and almost nobody likes it when I mention this fact. The best businesses don't have to ask the customer to buy something ... customers buy something because they want to buy something independent of marketing tactics.

Can you improve the productivity of a specific marketing tactic? Oftentimes the answer is yes. Email is a classic example. Just dipping your toes in personalization tactics improves the productivity of email marketing by +/- 20%. However ... and this is a big "however" ... if you cannibalize sales from other marketing efforts or from sales generated organically ... then you haven't accomplished anything.

What's the point of this argument?

The point is that it is hard to just "change the organic percentage". It's a game of whack-a-mole. Your efforts may fail, your efforts may succeed but sales won't increase, your efforts may succeed but the organic percentage stays the same and sales increase (because you generate more buyers who then behave organically in the future), you may end up cannibalizing other marketing activities. You may not change anything because your organic percentage is demographically driven. You may not change anything because your organic percentage is fueled by brilliant digital marketing tactics.

Does that make sense?

June 07, 2022

Correction - Organic Percentage Trends

The amazing thing was how few of you noticed the mistake(s). Of course, I didn't notice it and I proofed the darn thing.

Here's the update:

There are all sorts of trends and developments regarding the organic percentage and incremental rate. Let's discuss them a bit.

There are boutique agencies who gush about how "Millennials" love print. There are A/B tests that are broken down by age ... those tests tell us something different.

A customer 65 years old and older loves print. Still does. It's not uncommon to see organic percentages around 35%, with incremental rates around 65%.

A customer 45-64 years old is in a transition stage. Organic percentages might be 50% to 70%, with incremental rates under fifty percent depending upon the vendor performing matchback analytics.

A customer < 45 years old has moved beyond print. Organic percentages range from 70% to 95%, with incremental rates usually < 20%.

In a retail environment, print is largely ineffective. Oh, the boutique agencies are going to come after me about this - they'll swear they are seeing "breakthrough results" via matchback analytics. Execute A/B tests and you will likely see organic percentages even among 65+ year old customers above 80% with very, very low incremental rates.

Over time, organic percentages continue to increase ... what used to be a 40% rate in 2008 became a 55% rate in 2015 and is now a 70% rate in 2022. Digital marketing will do this to the incumbent channel. It's the way the world works ... no different than the 124 page catalogs that ran 600 page "big books" out of business 30 years ago.

It would be a lot better for my career if these trends were not happening.

The trends are happening.

So we adjust and change in response, same as it always has been.

June 06, 2022

Organic Percentage and Incremental Rate Trends

There are all sorts of trends and developments regarding the organic percentage and incremental rate. Let's discuss them a bit.

There are boutique agencies who gush about how "Millennials" love print. There are A/B tests that are broken down by age ... those tests tell us something different.

A customer 65 years old and older loves print. Still does. It's not uncommon to see organic percentages around 65%, with incremental rates that are comparable.

A customer 45-64 years old is in a transition stage. Organic percentages might be 25% to 50%, with incremental rates comparable depending upon the vendor performing matchback analytics.

A customer < 45 years old has moved beyond print. Organic percentages range from 5% to 30%, with incremental rates usually < 20%.

In a retail environment, print is largely ineffective. Oh, the boutique agencies are going to come after me about this - they'll swear they are seeing "breakthrough results" via matchback analytics. Execute A/B tests and you will likely see organic percentages even among 65+ year old customers under 20% with very, very low incremental rates.

Over time, organic percentages continue to increase ... what used to be a 40% rate in 2008 became a 55% rate in 2015 and is now a 70% rate in 2022. Digital marketing will do this to the incumbent channel. It's the way the world works ... no different than the 124 page catalogs that ran 600 page "big books" out of business 30 years ago.

It would be a lot better for my career if these trends were not happening.

The trends are happening.

So we adjust and change in response, same as it always has been.

June 05, 2022

What Is My Catalog Organic Percentage and Incremental Rate?

In catalog marketing, the industry best practice (promoted by paper folks, boutique agencies, and vendors/consultants who make money if you mail catalogs) for measuring catalog success is the "matchback". You mail a catalog, you match back all orders generated by the customer in 30 days (or whatever), and the catalog gets credit ... for everything. Yup, everything. It's lunacy. And it is an industry best practice. If you are still doing this in 2022, well, ponder the next few paragraphs.

A business executes a matchback on a segment of customers, and finds that the segment spent $4.50 per catalog mailed based on matchback results. The catalog costs $1.00, and 40% of sales flow-through to profit.
  • Profit = $4.50*0.40 - $1.00 = $0.80.
The catalog is a moneymaker and the industry clinks champagne glasses once again, sneering at the digital folks who don't understand how to have a relationship with the customer.

Is the industry right?

Execute an A/B test.

After thirty days, your A/B test shows you the following.
  • Mailed Segment (A) = $5.00.
  • Holdout Segment (B) = $3.00.
We now have enough data to calculate your "organic percentage" and your "incremental rate".
  • Organic Percentage = 3.00/5.00 = 60%.
  • Incremental Rate = ($5.00 - $3.00) / ($4.50) = 44%.
Ok, if you don't mail a catalog, the customer still spends 60% of what they would have spent otherwise. That's a big number, but that is also a number that defends catalog marketing as a generator of top-line sales. You can't really walk away from something that is responsible for 40% of what a customer spends.

Let's focus on profit next. Was the mailing of the catalog profitable to this segment?
  • Profit = ($5.00 - $3.00)*0.40 - $1.00 = ($0.20).
In this example, you lost money.

And this is the point of all of this nonsense. Did you make money doing something, or did you lose money. In this case, you lost money.

The great paper shortage of 2021-2022 sent the smart catalogers who remain down one path ... these folks executed mail/holdout tests, they measured their organic percentage and their incremental rates, they completely recalibrated their marketing plans, and they emerged with more profit than prior to the great paper shortage.

Then there are the folks who do not know their organic percentage and do not know their incremental rate. These folks are at the mercy of matchback vendors, paper reps, printers, boutique agencies, consultants, and catalog pundits. Yeah, they're in trouble.

Yeah. 

They're in trouble.

Contact me (kevinh@minethatdata.com) if you don't want to be in trouble - I'll get you heading down a reasonable path.

June 01, 2022

Show Me: An A/B Test and the Organic Percentage

Some of the email I receive outlines concerns about the Organic Percentage. The emails look like this:

  • "We just executed a month-long email A/B test. 50,000 customers received the normal stream of email campaigns (5 per week), the other 50,000 customers received no email campaigns. We did this for a month. At the end of the month the group receiving campaigns spent $10.00 per average. The group not receiving email campaigns spent $8.50 per average. Our email service provider says we generated $0.12 per campaign during this time, netting $0.12*20 = $2.40. What is our organic percentage?
Technically you have two different "organic percentages" to think about. The first one is the $8.50 / $10.00 = 85% metric. If you don't send email marketing campaigns, the customer will spend 85% of what they'd normally spend.

Then you have your "incremental rate" ... not a true organic percentage but it is a cousin of the organic percentage. Your email service provider says you generated $2.40 from email marketing. Your A/B test shows that you generated $10.00 - $8.50 = $1.50 from email marketing. Your "incremental rate" is $1.50 / $2.40 = 62.5%. For every dollar your email service provider says you are generating from email marketing, you are actually generating $0.625 of true incremental value with $0.375 being cannibalized from other activities.

In other words, you have to measure two different things to get a picture of what is happening. Measure your organic percentage to understand how much the customer spends independent of a marketing channel. Measure your incremental rate to understand how much your marketing vendor is overstating your results.

May 31, 2022

Prioritize What You Do

A professional reached out with an odd request.

  • "Would you please prioritize what you'd do if you were me? Just tell me what we should focus on."
Here's the short list.
  1. Merchandise/Product. This is where the reader gets mad at me, but if customers don't care about what you sell, then why are you even in business? In the two years since the COVID-bump, we've largely ignored merchandise/product (outside of trying to find stuff to sell) and we're about to pay for our inability to focus on what matters most.
  2. Customer Acquisition. Nothing is more important if your rebuy rates are < 40%, which they are for most of you.
  3. Welcome Programs. Quickly convert that customer within about 12 weeks to a second purchase, or the customer essentially leaves and all of your customer acquisition work is pointless. The two programs work together, they are in harmony with each other.
  4. Email Marketing. It's essentially free and it is (outside of print) the only marketing channel you actually own and control. Why so many of you ignore email marketing is beyond me. And if the answer is "email marketing is just not very productive", well, that means you are failing. I have clients with 30% to 45% of annual sales ... from ... email marketing. Let that one sink in. 
  5. Personalization. A twenty-plus year technology used by any credible company. If you aren't personalizing all of your email campaigns and your website (and display and paid social and whatever else), you are a decade or more behind your competition.
  6. Budget Testing. If you spend $100,000/month in paid search, spend $50,000 one month and $150,000 the next month and learn how much you actually can spend. Execute holdouts in all channels where possible.
I know, I know, your favorite tactic isn't on the list.

That doesn't mean your favorite tactic isn't important - but make sure to fit your favorite tactic into the list above, as those concepts are more important and deserve prioritization.

May 30, 2022

Most Popular Run In Years

Something is going on with your businesses ... because this is shaping up to be one of the most popular MineThatData Elite Program runs of the past seven years!

Get in the program now!!

Cost?
  • $1,000 for existing Elite Program members.
  • $1,800 for first-time Elite Program members.
Data?
  • Five years of item-level purchase history, delivered in .csv format.
  • June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2022.
Timing?
  • Agree to participate by June 10.
  • Data delivered to me no later than June 15.
  • Results delivered to you no later than June 30.

May 25, 2022

Memorial Day Weekend

As is my tradition, I'm going to take a long weekend. No posts until early next week. I've been doing this for almost twenty years, and if there's one thing I've learned it is that I don't get a lot of projects because I wrote something brilliant just before or just after a Holiday.

As is my tradition, I will post less often during summer ... likely three times a week, sometimes more. We haven't had a normal work environment for two-and-a-half years ... it is important to enjoy Summer ... you don't get an infinite number of them and you don't know when you'll run out of 'em.

May 24, 2022

Dying Winners

Another metric to evaluate when looking at Winners is the quantity of what I call "Dying Winners" ... prior-year Winners that fade down into Contending status.

  • 3 Years Ago = 89 items.
  • 2 Years Ago = 112 items.
  • 1 Year Ago = 77 items.
  • As of Today = 92 items.
As we can see, the merchandising team did a good job of maintaining winners. So if winning items are being maintained but the quantity of winning items is in decline, then the Development of new winners is suffering.

These issues are quickly and easily identified, aren't they?

May 23, 2022

Shouldn't New Items Marinate A Bit Before Becoming Winning Items?

But Shouldn't New Items Marinate A Bit Before Becoming Winners?

Yeah, sure, that's the question I get and if you can develop new items to become winners in two years, then you've done something right.

So let's look at this brand and how many of the items introduced two years ago became winners within two years:

  • Introduced 4 Years Ago = 34 Winners within two years.
  • Introduced 3 Years Ago = 33 Winners within two years.
  • Introduced 2 Years Ago = 14 Winners within two years.
So yeah, sure, good question, but this company failed again on this metric.

Developing New Items is just like Developing New Customers.

We're just not good at either craft, and now that the easy profit of the COVID-bump is long-gone, we're gonna have to get back to fundamentals, aren't we?

I know, you don't want to hear that. You want a magical marketing channel to come along and make life easy.

We're gonna have to get back to fundamentals.

May 22, 2022

Post-COVID New Item Failure

Last week I reintroduced the concept of Winners/Contenders/Others.

One sign of a brilliant merchandising team is their ability to find new products that customers love. For the company I analyzed last week, here are the number of new items that became Winners that year.

  • 18 three years ago, 19 two years ago, 13 one year ago, 7 in the past year.
Yup, that's not a successful Merchandising Team, now it is?

An awful lot of you are going to dig into your data and realize that your product/merchandising teams missed some of the fundamentals they acquired prior to the COVID-bump. They stopped tracking success of new items, heck, they had a hard time even FINDING new items so they just plain struggled and now here we are, with constant stories of new product issues.

If new merchandise is < 20% of your annual sales total, you probably don't need to be as thorough on this topic as I'm encouraging readers to be.

But if new merchandise is > 20% of your annual sales total and you have results like we see above, you didn't get the job done. It's time to re-emphasize new merchandise.

May 19, 2022

Winners

Nearly a decade ago I wrote extensively about the concept of Winners / Contenders / Others. Through the years, the concept evolved a bit ... then during COVID none of it mattered because sales were up 50% and nobody cared about merchandise. Last year that began to change as some items sat on ships outside of Long Beach. This year, all of a sudden people care about what they sell ... again. 

Time is a flat circle.

Allow me to show you the number of items that were Winners for a company, items that were also Winners the prior year.

  • 289 three years ago, then 252 two years ago, then 232 one year ago, then 232 as of today.
And here are total Winners for each of the past four years.

  • 375 three years ago, then 315 two years ago, then 331 one year ago, then 282 as of today.
Subtract the difference, and we can see how well the company did at Developing Winners.
  • 86 three years ago, then 63 two years ago, then 99 one year ago, then 50 as of today.
Yeah, there it is ... a real product development issue in the past year ... the lowest total of the past four years.

This is happening for two reasons.
  1. Some of you had product availability issues.
  2. Many of you didn't care about merchandise during/after the COVID-bump.
Merchandise ... and new merchandise ... is about to become a big deal again, just like it was in 2012-2013 when I wrote extensively about Merchandise Forensics. As I mentioned earlier in the post, time is a flat circle.


P.S.:  Yeah, I know - here come the unsubs ... people grumbling that I'm not giving them tips to be successful with TikTok advertising. What you sell matters, folks. And if your merchandising/product team messes that up, you get blamed for it. So if you want to unsub because of that, go ahead. But just think for a few moments about how your business thrives ... and think for a moment that maybe your efforts are being stifled because of external factors related to merchandise/product.



May 18, 2022

Player Development

It should not surprise you in the least bit that I'm in charge of Player Development in my local Pickleball Club, now should it?

We have a program in place to teach players serves, returns of serve, ground strokes, dinking, drop shots, lobs, and overheads. The coursework is similar, but is modified for players who are at a 2.5 level vs. players who are 3.5 or above.

The goal, of course, is to accelerate the development of players. If we can accelerate the development of players, then we have more good players and more good competition and happier club members. Everybody wins!

The concept of Player Development directly ties to two issues that we talk about.

  • Customer Development.
  • Merchandise Development.
If you can speed up the time between a first purchase and a second purchase, you improve the Development of the Customer and ultimately generate more downstream profit. Yeah, Welcome Programs.

If you can speed up the sales launch of a new item, you improve the Development of the Product and ultimately generate more downstream profit. Yeah, New Product Programs are important ... not just offering 'em but finding creative ways to expose customers to the newness you already have. No, an email with a subject like of "NEW ITEMS" doesn't count.

Take Player Development tactics and apply them to Customers and to Merchandise.

May 17, 2022

Different Winners

Another challenge some of you are communicating to me is the "different winners" conundrum.

In other words, the type of items that became winners in 2019 changed (for obvious reasons) in 2020.

As inflation hit, some of the items that used to sell well stopped selling as well ... because they became too expensive. So here we are in 2022 and there are now "different winners" populating your business.

Pay attention to "different winners" ... if the items that are now selling best lead to lower repurchase rates, well, you have one additional challenge to consider. But again, you'd prefer that I warn you about this sooner than later, correct?

May 16, 2022

New Product Nightmare

One of our readers forwarded information regarding new item performance replicated via their "Class Of" report from the 2013 work I performed in Merchandise Forensics. Here's the table (all numbers in millions):


Can you see the problem? The problem is outlined via the colored numbers in the table above. New items did $3.1 million in 2018, $2.8 million in 2019, $4.4 million in the COVID-year of 2020, then an awful $1.9 million last year due to product availability issues, and another awful projection of $1.5 million this year as new products are just hard to source.

When you fail at finding new items, you not only fail this year, you fail for subsequent years as well. In other words, the problem so many of you are telling me about (hard to find new products in our post-COVID supply chain environment) will result in downstream challenges as well.

I know you don't want to hear this message ... but you likely also want to have enough time to do something about it, right?




May 15, 2022

It's Time Again!!

Four months go by just like a snap of a finger!

It's time again for the next run of the MineThatData Elite Program. This time, in addition to the usual array of analytical masterpieces you enjoy perusing, you'll learn how each of your merchandise categories generate sales ... do sales come from prior category buyers, from cross-over buyers, or from new/reactivated buyers? In 2022 projects it is becoming clear that we don't understand what drives category success - we measure what Google Analytics tells us to measure and as a result we're not understanding how to capitalize on the categories that truly drive business success.

Cost?
  • $1,000 for existing Elite Program members.
  • $1,800 for first-time Elite Program members.
Data?
  • Five years of item-level purchase history, delivered in .csv format.
  • June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2022.
Timing?
  • Agree to participate by June 10.
  • Data delivered to me no later than June 15.
  • Results delivered to you no later than June 30.

May 12, 2022

Inflation and Price Bands

I run regressions based on future spend, dependent upon the price bands the customer previously purchased from in the past year.

The analysis looks something like this.

When prices increase, customer response changes. Customers who buy from Very Low price bands tend to spend less in the future per dollar spent the prior year. Notice the coefficients ... from $0.33 per dollar three years ago to $0.24 two years ago to $0.19 one year ago to $0.16 as of today. Basically, customers buying from Very Low price points are worth half as much as they used to be.

But wait - there's a good story here! Look at Very High price points ... the coefficients were $0.07 per dollar three years ago to $0.08 two years ago to $0.14 one year ago to $0.15 last year.

Let's pretend that customers spent $1,000,000 on Very Low price point items in the past year and $3,000,000 on Very High price point items in the past year.

  • Very Low Price Points = (0.16-0.33)*$1,000,000 = ($170,000).
  • Very High Price Points = (0.15-0.07)*$3,000,000 = $240,000.
In this simple example, you gained $70,000 of future spend as customers vacated Very Low price points and migrated to Very High Price Points during an inflationary timeframe.

You'd continue the math for Low/Average/High price point bands, and then you know what impact pricing shifts by pricing band are having on customer behavior.



May 11, 2022

I Brought This Up A Few Weeks Ago, But The Topic Keeps Popping Up Regardless

Let's look at a couple of merchandise categories.

Category A

  • Last Year's Buyers Have a 20% Chance of Buying From The Category Next Year.
  • If They Buy, They Will Spend $200.00.
  • The Gross Margin Of The Items Purchased Next Year = 60%.
  • Future Margin Value = 0.20 * $200.00 * 0.60 = $24.00.
Now let's look at Category B

  • Last Year's Buyers Have a 23% Chance of Buying From The Category Next Year.
  • If They Buy, They Will Spend $187.00.
  • The Gross Margin Of The Items Purchased Next Year = 45%.
  • Future Margin Value = 0.23 * $187.00 * 0.45 = $19.35
Which category, as a marketer, do you want to develop customers within? And I get it, some of you are going to say "both" just to be combative.

The answer, of course, is Category A. From a sales standpoint, the Category B customer is worth a bit more. But any gain is quickly offset by the difference in gross margin percentage (60% vs. 45%).

For every one of your categories, make sure you know the following:
  • The fraction of last year's buyers who will purchase again next year within the category.
  • How much the customer will spend within the category if the customer repurchases.
  • Expected gross margin percentage next year.
Then rank-order your categories from highest Future Margin Value (FMV) to lowest.

Then prioritize your marketing efforts around these differences.

Stop wasting marketing dollars on categories that do not deliver sufficient Future Margin Value.

May 10, 2022

Tradeoffs

Let's say your average price per item sold is $40.00. Your average cost of goods is $20.00. Your annual rebuy rate is 30%, if a customer purchases the customer spends $160.

  • Average Future Margin (AFM) = 0.30 * ($160 * (1 - 0.50)) = $24.00.
Now your suppliers tell you that your cost of goods increases to $24.00. If you keep prices where they are, your Average Future Margin changes.
  • Average Future Margin (AFM) = 0.30 * ($160 * (1 - 0.60)) = $19.20.
Nobody likes that scenario. Your CFO demands that you increase prices by 20%. Two things happen in this scenario.
  • Rebuy Rates Decrease by 20%.
  • Spend per Repurchaser increases by 10%.
Here is what Average Future Margin looks like:
  • Average Future Margin (AFM) = (0.30 * 0.80) * (($160 * 1.1) * (1 - 0.50)) = $21.12.
Two things happen here.
  • You recoup some of your AFM via the price increase.
  • You hurt your Customer Development efforts because your rebuy rate dips from 30% to 24%, meaning you'll have fewer customers next year, meaning you'll have less profit next year.
These are the tradeoffs every single one of you should be evaluating.

I've been amazed, in the past year, how many of you have emailed me to tell me you are not evaluating the scenarios.

May 09, 2022

Whipsawing Customer Development Issues

For many of my clients, 2020 was good for the p&l. Really good. With retail largely shelved for a few months, customers bought from e-commerce brands. A glut of new customers joined the customer file, and those customers (when developed properly, which didn't necessarily happen) rolled through the customer file through the middle of 2021, generating disproportionate profit.

During the second half of 2021, many of my clients faced inflationary pressures ... labor cost increases paired with cost of goods sold increases. Most of the clients impacted had no choice but to raise prices.

During 2022, the price increases are rolling through customer files. It's common to see reductions in rebuy rates offset by increases in spend per repurchaser. It's very common to see decreases in new customer counts as well. This is the troubling aspect of 2022. Artificial customer acquisition buyer increases in 2020 evened up a bit in 2021 and have been in decline during 2022. Now you add price increases and we're seeing a lot of new customer acquisition pressure. Pair that with rebuy rate declines and you've got a recipe for a Customer Development crisis.

A lot of old-school marketers are already committed for Christmas with product and "campaigns". These marketers have problems. I'm not very optimistic about what the second half of 2022 holds for these brands. Going into 2023, these brands won't have file power, and will likely struggle to compete. Weak companies (from a p&l standpoint) are in a lot of trouble.

Companies with strong Customer Development issues will build the customer file through early November, in an effort to capitalize on Christmas. They're going to use nearly-free tools like email and social to Develop existing customers while identifying likely prospects. They will leverage the items that still have "value" in the mind of the customer, presenting products that do not appear disproportionately expensive. They will fuse Customer Development and Merchandising Margins to grow "where possible". They will attract new customers with merchandise the customer can afford.

Blend your Customer Development strategies with Merchandise Margins, and generate as much profit as you can during our inflationary period. This is not the time to do "what we've always done" while you already increased prices and have product availability issues. That's a recipe for an awful 2022.

Do something different.

May 08, 2022

Collecting Broken Brands

Over the past fifteen years, catalog brands buckled under the stress of competition from pure e-commerce brands. You'd think the vaunted omnichannel thesis would have saved the catalog brands, because we were all told that omnichannel shoppers were worth 8x as much as single channel shoppers, but the thesis never verified. Broken catalog brands were collected, merged, with the customer who remained harvested for every last penny of profit. It's the way the world works.

In retail, the process continues. Broken retail brands are in the process of being collected (click here), with Kohl's as the latest example. Healthy retail brands do not sell themselves to mall operators. Mall operators don't purchase healthy retail brands, they cannot afford healthy retail brands, now can they?

In a perfect world, the resulting conglomeration of broken brands leads to all sorts of Customer Development opportunities. Catalogers learned this quickly, they cross-shopped customers from one brand to another, greatly reducing customer acquisition costs. Catalogers knew that if the customer bought from 2+ brands within the portfolio, profit increased significantly, helping grow the financial health of the overall portfolio. Long-term the strategy is not sustainable, of course, because you still need a constant supply of new customers entering the portfolio. But short-term, yeah, have at it.

So yes, you can buy Kohl's. But how exactly do you Develop the Kohl's customer to cross-shop JCP (and vice versa)? Trust your instincts if you don't feel comfortable with a mall operator having the myriad skills necessary to build the profitability of different customer audiences via Customer Development tactics.

It's one thing to collect broken brands and then merge operational divisions in a manner that reduces expenses.

It's another thing to properly Develop Customers. Very few people have the chops to do the proper work here, especially in an environment where unknowledgeable naysayers can block good ideas at the snap of a finger.

May 05, 2022

Question Week: Question #5

Our final question comes to us via Sherrie:  "Hi Kevin, what are the metrics you look at that tell you that your marketing is successful?"

A pretty good question to wrap up the week.

I have about 8,100 Twitter followers. Twitter does not generate business. Twitter is where you test ideas, concepts, comments, and see what the angry masses have to say. Nobody waiting to hire you is sitting there on Twitter waiting for you to say something brilliant.

I have about 1,380 blog email subscribers, with another 3,000 blog visitors per month. If I de-dupe some of overlap (not much), I likely have 29,000 "views" possible in any given month (website visits and 20 posts per month viewed potentially viewed by the audience of blog subscribers), yielding about 80 visits to the "Hire Kevin" page per month. Convert just 2-3 of those per month into a project and life is good! Visits to "Hire Kevin" are what I consider "success". Monthly blog subscribers (1,380) are a secondary measure of success.

I used to have a podcast with 3,000 subscribers. I recall one (1) paying project coming out of that endeavor ... a lot of work, not much return on that investment.

Books used to be a huge source of projects ... about 20% of my work used to come from people who read books/booklets and hired me. COVID changed that dynamic. Now, people substitute a book purchase for what used to be a paid project. Times change, we move on.

Undoubtedly, there are things I could do better. Much better! But the math outlined above yields a work-from-home model that persists ... for fifteen years now.

May 04, 2022

Question Week: Question #4

Today's question comes to us from Rhonda:  "Hi Kevin, is the COVID-bump still a real thing?"

Not really.

Here's the way to think about it. In 2020 many clients had 50% to 100% increases in Customer Acquisition, as customers marooned at home bought stuff they wouldn't normally purchase. Pretend that you normally acquire 100 customers. Now you acquire 175 customers. The difference ... 175 - 100 ... that is your COVID-bump. And I get it, existing customers likely spent more as well ... but most of your gains came via customer acquisition.

In 2021, you had 75 additional customers. Maybe their rebuy rate was normally 31%. That means that 75*0.31 = 23 customers purchased, with 52 customers lapsing. The COVID-bump of 75 customers has been mitigated by math.

In 2022, you have 23 valuable customers. Maybe their rebuy rate is 52%, yielding 12 customers with 11 lapsing. Meanwhile, you have 52 lapsed customers with a 10% rebuy rate, yielding 5 customers with 47 lapsing further. You have 17 customers purchasing.

See what is happening?
  • 2020 = 75 incremental new customers.
  • 2021 = 23 active customers.
  • 2022 = 17 active customers.
Yup, your COVID-bump is eroding.

That's what we are experiencing, folks.

And worse, with inflation running rampant, we're raising prices which causes customers to become less responsive, so the number of active customers in 2022 from our 2020 efforts is lower than we'd expect.

By next year, the COVID-bump will be a distant memory, in commerce terms. 

May 03, 2022

Question Week: Question #3

Here we go:  "Kevin, on Twitter, you've talked about the importance of incrementality. I just don't understand what you are talking about. Can you share a couple of examples? Thanks, Paul."

Here are two examples.

First, let's assume you have two product categories, "Widgets" and "Bidgets". You decide to add a third category, "Ridgets". Below are sales totals by each category, in the year before and the year after "Ridgets" were introduced.

Year Before:  Widgets = $10 million. Bidgets = $6 million. Total = $16 million.

Year After:  Widgets = $8 million. Bidgets = $5 million. Ridgets = $4 million. Total = $17 million.

Now, there are a ton of reasons why the forthcoming analysis is flawed, but at a simple level, you generated an additional $1 million in sales. However, on paper, it looks like Ridgets generated $4 million in sales. From an "incremental" standpoint, 25% of Ridgets is incremental (1 million / 4 million). That's a bad thing. When < 70% of sales are incremental, profitability of the endeavor becomes suspect.

Here's another example. Let's assume you have a terrible SEO program, so you spend a ton of money on Google. Now you improve your SEO program. Sales for the year pre/post implementation look like this (again, there are a thousand reasons why this analysis is flawed, but I'm trying to illustrate something so you can understand the concept).

Year Before:  Organic Search = $2 million, Paid Search = $10 million. Total = $12 million.

Year After:  Organic Search = $8 million, Paid Search = $6 million. Total = $14 million.

Your incremental rate is ($14 million - $12 million) / ($8 million - $2 million) = 2/6 = 33%.

In other words, you generated very little in the way of incremental sales ... however, if you can spend less on paid search and have the dollars continue to spill over into organic search, you are much more profitable and your decision is/was a good one!!

May 02, 2022

Question Week: Question #2

Here we go:  "Kevin, how should I evaluate the productivity of an item we sell? All of our reporting is channel-centric. How do I obtain a complete view of the performance of an item? Thanks, Sherri."

Good question, Sherri!

I'll share an answer with you. Not one soul is going to agree with me. Not one. Everybody will have their own ideas. Few are implementing their ideas. So let's at least get some thoughts going.

My recommendation is to evaluate item-level performance on a monthly basis. The image below is for twelve months. One can compare the current twelve-month period to a prior twelve-month period ... I'm not going to go into that level of detail here, as the concepts matter more than the comparisons.

Here's a potential template - click on it as the text is tiny, peeps.


Ok, let's explore sections of the analysis.

The top set of rows illustrate where sales come from, be it a physical channel like a call center, catalog orders matched back to the online channel, online sales by online marketing tactic, all of it rolls up to what I call Gross Demand. This is what the customer "wanted".

Then our leaky bucket subtracts some of what the customer wanted. Items that were not fulfilled and items that were returned are subtracted from Gross Demand, leaving us with Net Sales. We have units sold, and a simple division yields price per item purchased, an important metric.

The next section deviates from sales for a moment. Here we analyze how many visits the item attracted online, how many orders were generated for the item based on who viewed the item, and the conversion rate for customers viewing the item.

Here's the part you won't like. It's hard to generate this information at an item level, but it is absolutely necessary. On a monthly basis, you sum ad costs by marketing channel ... at an item level. Yup, not easy, and you'll come up with a thousand reasons why you shouldn't do this (but the real reason is because it is hard to do it). If you have a catalog, allocate square inches against your life-of-catalog curves (i.e. 40% of sales happen in week one, 30% in week two, 20% in week three, 10% in week four), yielding an ad cost for that specific item.

Digitally, this becomes interesting as well. If a customer visited from search and looked at three items, the cost of that click is allocated to the three items the customer looked at. If a customer visited your home page and bounced, you allocate that visit across all items equally (I know, that can be punitive, but you'll view your assortment differently after doing this). Sum up all ad costs, and you've got the amount of marketing dollars spent against that item for that month.

That's a big deal, folks!

Sum up your pick/pack/ship expenses for that item next. This gets you to what I call "Variable Profit" ... it's the amount of profit the item generates prior to fixed costs. Fixed costs don't change as sales change, so you don't evaluate fixed costs in this framework.

Again, this style of analysis requires hard work and discipline, so most readers aren't going to pursue this path.

If you want to know how profitable each item is, pursue this path, ok?

The next three rows evaluate gross margin dollars and rates. Obviously this is a big deal.



May 01, 2022

Question Week: Question #1

Here's a question:  "Hi Kevin, listen, I just don't understand your obsession with margin and profit. Who cares? Let the CFO figure out if our efforts matter, and if they don't matter let the CFO bring the hammer down. I just want to do my job. Thanks, Henry."

Henry, what is wrong with you?

I've worked with more than 250 companies. Maybe 20 of those companies thoroughly understood margin and profit. Those companies, not surprisingly, were "high performers" ... their rate of generating profit was high, their ability to generate profit was high, and the bonus levels of the employees was "high".

I've spent the better part of 2022 talking about margin/profit. The feedback I've received has been fascinating. One individual on Twitter told me that his company didn't know what their products cost. Come on! And when I explained how one might arrive at an estimate, he threw up roadblock after roadblock. In other words, he didn't want to know how much his products cost, because if he knew he'd have to make different decisions.

Another individual argued with me, suggesting that Return on Ad Spend (total sales divided by total ad spend) is the metric that matters most. Come on! ROAS is essentially profit if you just take the calculation a few additional steps. Why not do the work? Why be lazy?

I repeatedly hear the phrase "I just want to do my job". Lazy. That means you want to do your job with imperfect information and you don't care if you are sub-optimizing your business.

What if the CFO decided that your salary would be variable, and based entirely on the gross margin dollars you generate? What would you do in that situation? We both know the answer, don't we?

Just because Google Analytics waters down your analytics to the point of "scalable homogenization" doesn't mean you should play along with Google.

Do the work!

April 28, 2022

It Has No Impact On Margin, So Now What?

Yesterday I shared this little tidbit from a company:

  • Gross Margin Percentage, 1st Order = 53.9%.
  • Gross Margin Percentage, 26th+ Order = 50.2%.
This prompts a reader to ask:
  • "Kevin, so what? Margin percentages are essentially the same. It's irrelevant."
On a $101.00 average order value, it is relevant.
  • $101.00 * 0.539 = $54.44 Gross Margin.
  • $101.00 * 0.502 = $50.70 Gross Margin.
It means that best customers are giving up $3.74 of gross margin ... per order.

When you consider that a typical e-commerce brand is producing 5% to 10% pre-tax profit on an annual basis you don't want to just give up essentially HALF of it at an order level by being careless with your gross margin dollars.

Stop being careless with gross margin dollars.

Start protecting profit, ok?

April 27, 2022

How Do We Treat Our Customers? It's Interesting

In any Hillstrom's Profit project, we take a look at how customers are treated along the customer life-cycle.

Here's how one company generates differing metrics along the customer life-cycle.

Price per Item Purchased:

  • $32.08 first order.
  • $30.63 second order.
  • $30.28 third order.
  • $29.91 fourth order.
  • $29.86 fifth order.
  • $29.19 6th-10th order.
  • $28.46 11th-15th order.
  • $27.69 16th-25th order.
  • $26.98 26th+ order.
Gross Margin Percentage:

  • 53.7% first order.
  • 53.6% second order.
  • 53.7% third order.
  • 53.9% fourth order.
  • 53.8% fifth order.
  • 53.5% 6th-10th order.
  • 52.9% 11th-15th order.
  • 52.1% 16th-25th order.
  • 50.2% 26th+ order.
Percentage of Items Sold Below Their Historical Average Price Point.
  • 50.9% first order.
  • 52.9% second order.
  • 53.1% third order.
  • 53.2% fourth order.
  • 52.9% fifth order.
  • 53.9% 6th-10th order.
  • 55.5% 11th-15th order.
  • 56.7% 16th-25th order.
  • 59.9% 26th+ order.
How are first-time buyers treated? Expensive items at high margins, paying full price.

How are best customers treated? Less-expensive items at lower margins via discounts.

I know, there's a fraction of the audience that will suggest it is fine to tickle the buying bone of best customers with best prices. Sure. But that also means that Management is happy to let profit just drip out of a hole in a bucket. Eventually, that kind of behavior comes back to haunt Management.

Late 2022 / Spring 2023: A Warning

Allow me to show you what is happening to too many of you. Let's pretend you run a really small business. As of 2/28/2020, you might hav...