Macy's, Target, J.C. Penney, and other stores are getting creative in their quest to boost sales, or at least stay alive and relevant, in an increasingly crowded and complicated marketplace.
The all-purpose American department store is “dying.” We’ve heard this for years, to the point that the retail category is not unlike the old man in the classic Monty Python scene who is loaded up on a cart of corpses despite his protest, “I’m not dead!”
Yet while we’ve witnessed the collapse of Radio Shack and various teen fashion retailers, as well as the larger struggles of malls as a whole, the old-fashioned department store is, well, not dead yet. In fact, this week, a round of earnings reports revealed generally good sales performances in the fourth quarter—and during the all-important holiday period in particular—from Dillard’s, Target, and Kohl’s, among others. Sears sales were down for the 11th quarter in a row, but even its report was viewed as decent because the company lost significantly less than it did in the same period a year prior. J.C. Penney surprisingly posted a loss for the quarter as well, though comparable store sales were actually up 4.4%.
Even with the mostly positive earnings reports, Target’s failed expansion in Canada, as well as the trend to shutter more and more Target, Sears, Macy’s, and J.C. Penney stores in the U.S., demonstrates that while department stores are alive, they’re hardly kicking butt.
To avoid being written off for dead alongside Radio Shack, here are a handful of strategies you’re going to see more of from department stores:
Trying out new store models. This week Macy’s announced intentions to create a new off-price retail brand that would compete with discounters like TJ Maxx and highly successful “fast fashion” chains such as H&M and Forever 21. Meanwhile, Kmart is testing out a smaller store format, and Target is expanding its “Express” small-store model to more markets. Walmart has been going small too, with more non-supercenter “market” locations. Overall, the strategies show that the large department stores and discounters acknowledge that the one-size-fits-all approach is flawed, especially when the size in question is a hulking big box store.
Pushing web sales hard. Target offered free, no-minimum-purchase shipping for all online purchases throughout the 2014 winter holiday period. The move helped long-struggling “Tarjhay” increase digital sales by 30% for the year as a whole. Now it looks like Target is doubling down on its e-retail offensive, with this week’s decision to cut the minimum-purchase threshold for free standard shipping from $50 to $25—a change that undercuts Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart, among others.
For its part, the world’s largest retailer is well aware that more shoppers are “omniconsumers” who make purchases via all channels, and it’s trying to win their sales at every turn. “No doubt business is going increasingly mobile and increasingly online,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told the Associated Press recently. “We don’t really care how the customers want to shop. We want to be in the position to serve them in any of those ways.”
Going old school with marketing. While virtually all retailers are seeking to juice web sales to compete with the likes of Amazon, J.C. Penney is trying to achieve this goal in an old-fashioned, seemingly unorthodox way. Starting in March, the department store that’s undergone several (mostly unsuccessful) makeovers in recent years will start mailing its oversized catalog to customers yet again. And one reason why they’re using this tool is that consumers are more likely to order merchandise online with a catalog in front of them.
Going invasively new school with sales pitches. Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, and Lord & Taylor are among the major retail chains that have taken the potentially creepy step of deploying wireless beacons that detect shoppers’ precise locations inside stores and send them info via smartphone about discounts, promotions, and special events.
Discounting in ways old and new. Discount-heavy Kohl’s, where you can “save” $2,136 on a $242 shopping excursion, and where no one in their right mind pays full price for anything, had an especially strong holiday quarter with 3.7% growth in sales, beating expectations of 2% to 3%. One thing this tells us is that the age-old sales tactic of “price anchoring,” in which “regular,” “original,” “suggested,” and “compare to” list prices are inflated so that the inevitable discounts seem all the more impressive, remains a surefire way to sucker shoppers into buying.
On the new frontier of discounting, Target is testing out a strategy from the playbooks of supermarkets and drugstore chains, quietly launched a rewards program mobile app in beta. Members get 10 points for every $1 they spend at Target, and 5,000 points can be traded in for 5% off your next total purchase at the store. For now, the program, called REDperks, is available on an invitation-only basis, and only in select markets.
Target just cut its minimum purchase requirement to receive free shipping in half, from $50 to $25. That's $10 less than what you have to spend at Amazon or Best Buy for free shipping.
Target has a long history of being in the crosshairs of Amazon, what with the world’s largest e-retailer routinely undercutting Target’s prices, combined with a wide range of strategies to woo moms in particular away from “Tarjhay” with speedy one-click shopping. Perhaps Amazon’s most deadly weapon—causing trouble not only to Target, but nearly all brick-and-mortar retailers—is Amazon Prime, the subscription program that provides free two-day shipping, among other perks, in exchange for a $99 annual fee. Above all, what Prime membership does is dramatically increase one’s spending at Amazon.com because nearly all purchases made on the site will ship for free. And the purchases made at Amazon.com are purchases that are no longer taking place at Target, or via another retailer.
On Monday, Target went on the offensive by tweaking its own free shipping policy, with the hopes of stealing some business back from Amazon, among others. The new shipping policy, Target boldly claims, “Will Change Your Life,” presumably in ways not unlike how Amazon Prime is known to dramatically change one’s spending habits and errand schedule.
The new policy grants free standard shipping (3 to 5 business days) on all Target.com orders of $25 or more. Previously, the purchase threshold for free standard shipping was $50. The minimum purchase requirement for free shipping at Walmart.com, for instance, is set at $50, while Amazon and Best Buy offer free shipping on most orders if the total is $35 or more.
Clearly, the move gives Target a little leg up on the competition, and it could very well start a free shipping pricing war among retailers—a war that would obviously benefit shoppers. But how big of a deal is Target’s policy change really? And is there a prayer it could actually change your life?
The truth is that Target’s new policy won’t affect its best customers at all. That’s because the most loyal Target shoppers are highly likely to be in possession of the Target REDcard, a debit or credit card that providers the user with 5% off on all Target purchases, as well as free, no-minimum-purchase standard shipping on all online orders. What’s more, Amazon Prime subscribers who are happy with the service aren’t likely to be wooed away by Target.com—which has fewer items for sale than Amazon (who doesn’t?), and whose free shipping is slower than that of Prime.
The consumers being targeted by Target’s policy change, then, are those who aren’t regular Target shoppers and don’t subscribe to Prime, or those who do subscribe to Prime but have been thinking that maybe the annual membership fee isn’t worth it. Also, for Target’s offer to seem truly compelling, you must be someone who would regularly want to make online purchases of $25 but not over $35. Once you’ve hit the latter price point, after all, you can get free shipping from Amazon or Best Buy alongside Target, so Target’s free shipping is a wash.
All that said, there are probably some consumers who will view Target’s new policy as an appealing alternative to Prime and Amazon.com in general. Just as Target’s decision to offer a free non-minimum-purchase shipping promotion during the recent winter holidays gave its web business a boost, the retailer will certainly juice e-retail sales by cutting its free shipping purchase threshold in half. Some tiny portion of shoppers will probably “change their lives” by placing a few more small-money orders at Target.com now that shipping is free.
It seems unlikely, however, that the policy change will move the needle much in Target’s ongoing battle against Amazon, nor will it cure Target’s larger problems, including its failed expansion in Canada and the fading of its reputation among shoppers and the industry as retail’s cheap-chic darling.
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Pay attention to how much speed you're paying for—and what you really need.
You can cut your land line and sever your cable TV, but if you want to stream the new season of “House of Cards,” you need to hang on to your Internet connection. Whatever savings you might achieve by ditching other services, you will almost certainly give them back as your bill for Web connectivity inexorably creeps up.
Consumers now pay an average of $50 a month for a broadband connection to the Web, which is up from a monthly average of about $40 a decade ago. But costs can vary widely—ranging from $10 to $120— depending on whether the service is bundled with cable and phone, is an introductory rate, and depending also on your connectivity speed.
Cutting costs for Internet starts with understanding what you are currently paying. Most people cannot even parse this out because their bills are a jumble of bundled pricing and fees, says Kim Komando, who has hosted a national radio talk show on computers and technology for more than 20 years.
“If you haven’t looked at your whole internet package, then it’s time to go through it A-Z,” she said.
The items to look for include: the base price, speed surcharges, and equipment. If you cannot figure it out based on the arcane coding on your bill, call and ask.
One potential way to save is to buy your own modem/router combination—at $50 to $100, you could quickly make up the $5 to $10 a month rental fee you may be charged.
Another variable to control is your speed. A study released recently by the Federal Communications Commission says standalone Internet service that delivers 10-25 megabits per second (Mbps) is becoming the standard for the typical family that streams video. Many, however, opt for even higher speeds.
You could be paying for more than you need, or getting less than you expect because the wiring to your home simply cannot deliver.
The bottom line, according to savings expert Andrea Woroch, is do not pay for more speed than you need. Someone who goes online mainly to check email could make it work with a connection of 1 Mbps rather than the typical offering of 10 Mbps or more.
Some of the biggest cable providers are offering “basic” Internet connections for about $15 a month for these light users. The same deal applies for DSL, a slower Internet connection offered by phone companies and delivered over traditional phone lines. Light users will enjoy a decent price compared with those who pay for high-speed broadband, but the trade-off is that they cannot expect to stream movies without frustration or engage in video game battles online.
For those who want to make sure they are getting the speed they are paying for, numerous websites such as SpeedTest.net measure the actual speed of your connection.
If it turns out that you are paying for one speed but are receiving far less, Komando said it is important to go back to your provider and ask for an adjustment.
Vote With Your Feet
The next step is to call the competition, if you have alternate service providers in your area. If you do not, Woroch said it is still worth calling your provider to ask for a lower rate.
If you price out a cheaper plan, you can ask your current company to match it.
If they balk, all the better. The best deals can come from the cancellations department, says Ian Aronovich, 42, of Great Neck, New York.
Aronovich, who runs the website GovernmentAuctions.org, says he first went to Cablevision Systems Corp, his provider, about four years ago and asked for a rate that would match the introductory offer of a competitor. That deal bundled phone, TV and Internet for about $90 rather than the more than $150 he was paying.
After following up yearly to ask for better rates, Aronovich is still receiving about the same discount today—which works out to $29.99 for a high-speed connection with a free router.
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As the snow piles up in the Northeast, business suffers at many restaurants and stores, as you'd expect. But bad weather isn't bad news across the board for retailers.
We’ve seen the pattern repeat itself many times over. Weather forecasters predict a big winter storm, and long before the snowflakes appear, panicked shoppers hit the supermarkets to grab whatever milk, bread, eggs, and, if you’re at Whole Foods, kale, is still available.
Likewise, the arrival of a blizzard—or rather, the forecast that one could be coming—all but guarantees that there to be a run on shovels, sand, salt, and other snow-coping materials at hardware stores and home improvement centers. Gas stations and stores selling winter boots and other cold-weather gear can rely on storm forecasts to create sales spikes too.
In these ways, at least, the storms pounding New England and much of the Mid-Atlantic region over the past few weeks have boosted retail sales in ways not seen since, well, last winter, when the polar vortex caused mad rushes on grocery stores throughout the Midwest.
And yet, bad winter weather is hardly a good thing for retail in general. In fact, for stores that aren’t selling groceries, gas, shovels, or boots, blizzards can be business killers. Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, told the Boston Herald that “conservatively,” retailers in the state have lost $10 million for each day they’ve been closed or had almost no business thanks to relentless snow. Restaurant owners in Rhode Island are calling this “the worst February in years” thanks to snow keeping would-be customers at home. Overall, a 2014 IHS Global Insight study found that a single-day shutdown in New York can add up to $700 million in total economic costs, including $152 million in lost retail sales.
Presumably, the bulk of those lost sales transactions would have been conducted in person. After all, snow and cold weather can only prod more consumers to stay indoors and shop online, right? Actually, the impact of big snowstorms on online shopping is a bit muddled.
On the one hand, 16% of consumers in a recent survey from Fluent said that they have shopped less this winter, while 27% said they have done more online shopping. So snow + frigid temperatures = increased online sales, right? Not so quick.
According to Adobe Digital Index data, the winter storm that hammered the Northeast in late January resulted in a $35 million decrease in online sales, largely because people were home rather than at work. “During the work week, a lot of people really do shop from their work desktop,” Adobe analyst Tamara Gaffney explained to InternetRetailer.com. “You also have power outages and people out shoveling snow. They’re not shopping, they’re doing other things. It has a negative impact on e-commerce.”
Another way that winter storms can wreak havoc on e-retail is that when roads are impassable or close to it, it’s extraordinarily difficult for goods to simply be picked up or delivered. For instance, a Federal Express Service Alert issued this week warned that in light of persistent snowy weather in the Northeast, “some service delays and disruptions can be anticipated for inbound and outbound shipments in CT, ME, MA, NH, NJ, NY, PA and VT.”
For what it’s worth, the impact of snow—even a series of storms in a particularly bad winter—is generally short-lived. Often, if snow or cold weather brings about a slow period for sales of cars or home appliances or whatever, there will be a significant, corresponding rise in sales once things warm up. In other words, the sales shift; they don’t simply disappear.
Besides, retailers really shouldn’t go blaming uncooperative weather as the reason sales have been poor. “It’s usually one of those ‘dog ate my homework’ excuses,” Forrester Research analyst Sucharita Mulpuru told Bloomberg News last fall, when some apparel stores were pointing the finger at warm weather for why winter fashions weren’t selling well. “Whenever something can’t be explained and is an anomaly — and it happens to coincide with an unusual weather pattern — that becomes the reason people supposedly didn’t shop.”
The observation calls to mind the way that Big Beer blamed unseasonably cold weather in the spring of 2013 as a prime reason macro beer brands like Budweiser, Miller Lite, and Heineken were experiencing slumping sales. Meanwhile, Bud and other major beer brands have seen sales decrease for years, and why this is so has a lot more to do with the increasing popularity of craft beer, cider, boutique spirit distilleries, and other alternatives to pale mass-produced American lagers than it does to any bad spell of weather.
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First came standing desks, then treadmill desks, now say hello to surfing desks.
To hear Joel Heath tell it, standing was just too hard.
“I started experiencing pain in different places,” he told Fast Company about his experience using a stand-up desk. “I just felt like there had to be a better way. I started to play with the idea that if you put a subtle rocker under the foot, you could move out of a sedentary state.”
So Heath created the Level, a surfboard-like platform that requires users to constantly shift their weight in order to keep their balance. FluidStance, the company behind the product, says that research conducted by the Heeluxe Testing Lab in California shows that introducing movement beneath one’s feet increases heart rate by 15% compared with sitting.
It’s the next evolution of the standing desk, which grew in popularity after studies showed that sitting for long periods of time could be bad for your health.
Kent Hatcher, ergonomics director and engineer at HumanTech Inc., likened using the Level to balancing on a stability ball, which requires your core muscles to work continually to keep you from falling over. “I see a product like this being great for some conference rooms, or occasionally used by people at a standing desk,” he says. “But it would take a period of acclimatization to get good at using the mouse and keyboard while wobbling around.”
Indeed, similar products like treadmill desks have been shown to affect performance-related tasks like typing. Heeluxe’s testing of the Level found no statistical difference in the number of typing errors made by Level users compared with those sitting at a desk, but even the occasional typo might be worth it. “Generally, the scientific community seems to think that the overall health benefits of standing and movement on the muscles and skeleton outweigh any sort of [performance] declines,” Hatcher says.
Level has clearly tapped into an enthusiastic niche market. The company’s crowdfunding campaign, launched on Jan. 12, raised $126,255 in less than a month—more than three times the original goal of $40,000.
FluidStance offers three different versions of the product: the Original Handmade Level ($389), the American-made Level ($289) and the Pacific Level ($269). That’s a lot more than the $22 you’ll spend building your own standing desk, but it certainly looks like more fun.