Shortly after Macy’s Inc. kicks off first-quarter retail earnings season with its latest financial results today, chief executive officer Jeff Gennette will submit himself for his quarterly conference call grilling by Wall Street analysts.
The questions are usually staid and often numbers-driven. This time through, the backdrop is mixed: The Census Bureau said Tuesday that fiscal first-quarter department store sales fell 1.1 percent year-over-year, while apparel and accessories specialty stores logged a 4.1 percent gain.
If Macy’s bears up to the Street’s projections — calling for earnings per share of 35 cents, up from 24 cents a year ago, and a 1 percent rise in sales to $5.39 billion — Gennette should have an easy go of it.
The chances are almost nil that he will follow the lead of iconoclast and Tesla Inc. ceo Elon Musk, who alienated Wall Street this month by answering a pressing question about the company’s capital requirements, by replying: “Boring bonehead questions are not cool. Next.”
But as the call for Macy’s fades into parleys with the top brass at Walmart Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. on Thursday and many more in the weeks ahead, there will surely be a few “boring” and maybe some “bonehead” questions.
That’s because these quarterly calls with the Street are just that — regular catch-ups with the financial crowd and they obsess over mostly financial things. Only occasionally do they offer insight that strays from the balance sheet.
Finance is important, but it’s just a small part of the picture in retail. To get a broader view on how these calls could play out, WWD asked five experts from retail-related fields beyond finance to weigh in with what they would ask retail’s top ceo’s and why.
1. Do you have an insights/innovation team in your business and how are you making sure they’re not the gatekeepers of change? — Katie Smith, retail analysis and insights director, Edited
Change has come to retail, but not all parts of it.
“I’ve got a bee in my bonnet at the moment over the number of businesses that aren’t committing to meaningful, lasting change and are instead putting in departments or teams that are responsible for ideas,” Smith said.
Edited has a massive store of data — covering 90,000 brands and 300 million in-stock stockkeeping units — but the merchants who can use that data aren’t always on the front lines of all the exciting things happening in retail.
Smith said having dedicated teams responsible for innovation can be isolating (although she herself is director of retail insights).
“It removes the power from people who know the departments and know their staff and know the customer and it takes the power away and puts it in the hands of people who are at times in for the purpose of stirring up change,” she said. “It removes ownership of decision-making and innovation across the business and it’s putting it into one hard-to-reach place. Why give innovation to innovation people? Why not empower everyone? It’s a lack of long-term commitment to change.”
2. Do you see consumer purchase behavior stabilizing — or continuing to change? — Jonathan Low, partner, Predictive
Consumers have clearly evolved, but what’s less clear is if they’re ready to settle into any kind of lasting and set regimen of online and off-line shopping.
“There was this presumption that we had certainty, that we knew where this was going and the e-commerce train was on the tracks and that’s where the consumer was going with their purchase decisions,” said Low, a consultant. “But bookstores are back. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that retail is far from dead and that it’s reimagining itself.”
The same kind of start and stop has been seen in the associated world of payments.
“Is the credit card really going to be supplanted by Apple Pay and Google Wallet and their like, Venmo et cetera? I would say it doesn’t look like it, they’ll be a factor, but fintech is not the tidal wave that I think people thought it would be,” Low said.
If anything like the same kind of hesitancy appears at the brick-and-click divide, retailers that keep close to their shoppers and strike the right balance could be positioned to hold their ground.
3. How do you plan to use AI and robotics to better meet consumer expectations? — Marcie Merriman, executive director, digital strategy, EY
Merriman, who examines the industry through the lens of a cultural anthropologist, said artificial intelligence could open up lots of opportunities for retailers, if they can look at it the right way.
“AI and robotics is a given,” she said. “If we look across the industry and what’s going on, and if we look at the successful start-ups and new players, whether it’s Stitch Fix or Everlane, increasingly these companies are being run by people with computer science degrees…that merchant intuition is not enough anymore.”
With more computerized help on the backend of the business, Merriman said retailers could think more about how they can use people as a point of differentiation in the stores. For instance, grocery stores could feel like farmers markets with the right approach to training and guiding sales associates.
“It’s not just ringing people up or stocking the shelves, these people need to be real experts,” she said.
4. What problem are you solving for your customer? —J.B. Osborne, cofounder and chief executive officer, Red Antler
Sometimes the simplest question can cut to the heart of the matter.
“To have a chance to succeed, new companies have to be focused, consistent, meet an unmet need, and start a new conversation,” said Osborne, a branding expert. “Brands with heritage might have scale, but too often they’ve forgotten what problem they’re solving for their customer, and in that, what they stand for. There is too much focus on shareholders, quarterly profit, and the Street and not enough focus on delivering something truly, uniquely better for customers.”
5. Why the heck are you waiting so long? — Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist, Golden Gate University
It might be easier said than done, but it’s well past time for retailers to be on the move.
“If you look at all the retailers who have failed, one thing that they seem to have in common is that they’ve really misunderstood the direction consumers wanted to go in or they’ve waited too long to take action,” Yarrow said.
“It’s the downside of success in a way, it just makes it so hard to see that change is happening and change is happening so quickly today,” she said.
Yarrow said retailers need to have systems in place to recognize, understand and respond to change.