Wisdom from Phil Knight, creator of Nike

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“Supply and demand is always the root problem in business. It’s been true since Phoenician traders raced to bring Rome the coveted purple dye that colored the clothing of royals and rich people; there was never enough purple to go around. It’s hard enough to invent and manufacture and market a product, but then the logistics, the mechanics, the hydraulics of getting it to the people who want it, when they want it—this is how companies die, how ulcers are born.”

— from Phil Knight, “Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike”

Be sure to read this memoir by Phil Knight of Nike. It’s a great look into what it takes to create and build a world-class brand like Nike. Anyone interested in starting a business will quickly appreciate that luck, drive, grit, and determination all played a major role in the birth and growth of Nike. You’ll need all of those to build your business too. And for anyone in the fashion or consumer industry, the above quote is gold. The “HOW MUCH, WHEN, AND WHERE” is equally as important as the “WHAT”. It’s doesn’t matter how much data you read, it’s what you do with it that counts.

photo: Simon & Schuster

DON’T SELL, SOLVE — Part 2 of Wholesale isn’t broken series

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One of the key and exciting opportunities for a wholesale brand to consider in order to avoid continued deterioration of its business with department and specialty stores is to move away from a sales and planning organization towards a more proactive partnership that solves the business needs of itself and its wholesale partners.

In my first post in this series, I spoke about how both wholesalers and retailers continue to use and promote a business acumen that is poorly managed, weakly aligned, and severely outdated. A large part of that is the way wholesale brands approach business with their retail partners. If you haven’t read the first series, I encourage you to read it now.

The challenge is, in my opinion, that most wholesalers continue to use sales teams to sell-in product and planning teams to analyze to current selling performance rather than forecasting forward placements. The best brands work to have planning and sales teams in sync in order to most effectively find opportunities that will drive more sales while also ensuring markdowns and margins perform as strong as possible. Wholesale brands that have done this well in the past include Coach, Nike, and Michael Kors. These business worked to manage the presentations, sell-thru, and success of their products through the wholesale channel. They had strong sales and gross margins as did the retailers they sold products through. We did this at Tommy Hilfiger in the 1990’s and likewise had incredible success.

This proactive effort worked well for the industry, but many conditions, including channel disruptions, excessive promotions, and fast-fashion retailers, make these efforts far more complex today. Even the best proactive efforts are falling short from the performance that’s possible through an effective and disciplined wholesale strategy. Worse yet many brands haven’t created these teams to be proactive–they operate reactively by reviewing current selling and respond to internal calls to sell more goods. These knee-jerk reactions ultimately weaken results further. Driving sell-in promotes high gross sales–but markdowns, returns and other promotions to move those goods through the retailers often results in soft net sales and weak gross margins. Product is then blamed for bad performance, people lose their jobs, and brands can’t invest to find innovative ways to grow their businesses.

 

Critical path 1 = DON’T SELL–SOLVE.

The brand of the future needs to be a problem-solver, not a sales organization. This is true regardless of its distribution through wholesale partners or DTC. Doing business with department stores requires that a brand perform to certain sales and margin expectations. If you can’t make the wholesale partner perform, you won’t get the forward investment you want. On top of this, department stores are eager to take inventory and promote it. There’s little risk to them since the brand needs to ensure margins and sell-through’s are adequate. The question is who is fooling who?

Brands have to solve this problem by developing their teams to work with their wholesale partners as a portfolio manager does with her capital. Thinking that inventory grows on trees is an incredibly bad idea. Inventory is the biggest investments a wholesale brand makes with its capital. Businesses get strapped for cash when they have too much inventory invested that doesn’t move. No brand has gone bankrupt because they had too little inventory. Probably the worst effect of too much goods in too many places is that it destroys any sense of consumer demand. Why buy at full-price when clearly this shit has to be marked down to move out the door? Consumers are smart and they’ve been well trained. This problem however, can be solved by business managers or account partners that think through the problems.

I should clarify that this doesn’t mean changing the titles of your sales team. That won’t work. Having business managers means training and coaching, as well as finding new talent that has this acumen. It also requires time and discipline. The process is highly trainable. Existing sales teams are often very good at managing relationships with wholesale partners, and planning teams often have the quantitative skill set necessary to execute a proactive forecasting efforts. This is a mindset effort that needs to be addressed by leadership, and innovative leaders will quickly see the benefits to developing teams that problem-solve their businesses to execute with certainty and clarity and drive sales while expanding gross margins by vigorously managing inventory cycles.

Brands of the future will be margin-makers, not cost-cutters.

 

Critical path 2 = PLAN BY CYCLE, NOT BY CATEGORY.

On a long tail business like fashion, where goods are committed into production many months before they’re available for purchase, planning by classification and category was the norm. Many brands currently have planning and allocations teams that buy future products in bulk then distribute those goods to stores and channels once they are getting closer to being delivered to the warehouse for distribution.

The thinking of planning and allocating is that teams can review current selling trends and flow products accordingly to stores and channels that “need” the inventory. The challenge is that this effort often results in a mishmosh of products delivered to stores at various times and inventory control becomes highly reactive. In my experience, these businesses typically have the worst inventory management in place.

Planning and allocating goods is the equivalent of day trading. The best planning teams act more like portfolio managers. These teams do extensive research and analysis to determine how to best place and distribute products across various doors and channels while protecting an assortment that enhances the brand’s sensibility. Once that path is set, only minor adjustments are done and usually only to offset production changes.

Meanwhile fast-fashion brands like Zara have taken the industry by storm because they react to trends quickly and can get production to stores in a handful of weeks. Zara is a vertical operator and has the technologies to do what few other brands can do. For almost all other brands, especially those distributing through wholesale partners, trying to accelerate the time to market is an unlikely, and frankly an unnecessary endeavor. The fact is that just because you can drive faster, it doesn’t mean you can drive better.

Cycle-centric planning in a methodology that plans products according to lifecycle rather than category or classification. Some products live year-round, others need to live only a few weeks, and still others can live for a season. Being able to plan those businesses accordingly allows a brand to focus its efforts on ensuring maximized sales of replenish-able products over an extended period of time. The best brands will work to minimize inventory in the stores and at their retailers and focus on just-in-time delivery across all product categories.

The effort essentially works to utilize a wholesale partner’s stores and digital presence as a model stock of inventory, and then replenishing long-tail products as necessary. Short-tail products, which are fast-fashion and directional, should be planned and placed to sell-through quickly and be gone. The ability to incorporate this methodology to planning a business is significant. Cycle-centric planning is designed to accelerate turns, greatly reduce markdowns, and allow greater focus on how a brand articulates newness and seasonal assortments through retail partners.

Executing a cycle-centric process requires training, but more importantly it requires critical thinking and buy-in from management. One of the hardest things for management teams to do is work towards a proactive acumen as opposed to reactive jumble. The results of enabling a cycle-centric process would provide management much greater visibility into forward sales and margin potential while also enabling much greater control of promotional activities and cadence.

While marketing teams focus on omni-channel efforts to ensure a seamless shopping experience across multiple channels of business for a brand’s consumers, brands likewise need to focus on turning sales teams into account partners and giving planning teams the ability to develop cycle-centric methods that will certainly enhance the entire omni-channel experience.

Omni-channel conundrum

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One of the key priorities I hear when talking to or advising brands and retailers is what to consider and how to approach building an omni-channel strategy. It’s a telling sign that many are struggling to connect with modern consumers.

Inventory is an expensive investment and it’s incredibly challenging to know what to produce and where to put that inventory. If a brand does that right, sales and margins are strong. If a brand or retailer does that wrong, sales suffer and margins tank.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that virtually no brand or retailer is getting this right in the fashion apparel and footwear industry right now. Let’s face it–everyone is suffering, and this always leads into a conversation about what is omni-channel? How is it different from Direct-To-Consumer (DTC)? What is DTC? Is it retail stores and online? What about mobile? Social media? And what do we do with the wholesale channel? How do we exit it or manage it since in many cases it was or could be a significant contributor of sales and profits?

Why are so many brands and retailers struggling with these efforts and business in general? Maybe none of the above questions really matter. After all if you’re the leader of a brand or retailer, your main concern is likely “why am I having such a hard time driving growth?” Typically the answer lies in that fact that you cannot have growth without innovation–they go hand in hand. A CEO’s chief priority is focusing on growth and innovation. After all, if you want to be better than everyone else, you have to do things everyone else is not already doing.

So how should brands and retailers be approaching strategies to improve business through omni-channel efforts? Often the best advice is to look at a brand that has done an excellent job. A brand that is the best-in-class. Naturally the brand that comes to mind instantly is Apple. They’ve done an excellent job to date. Apple has had great products and amazing execution all around.

But let’s think about what Apple has really done. In my opinion, I think that what they’ve done really well is to figure out the complete life-cycle of its consumer. Apple understands that a consumer’s journey starts with buzz. They want to know what’s going on. From there Apple does amazing little things to begin crowd-sourcing new products. Months before the delivery of the Apple Watch, iPhone users got an app on their phones for the Apple Watch. That was a form of crowd-sourcing. On that app, Apple could tag and track everything its early adopters looked at, spent time on, and shared with peers. That insight is tremendous. It’s a powerful tool for a brand to have when deciding how much, when, and where products should go.

Think of it like this: buzz generates conversation, conversation creates products, products engage consumers, consumers give insights, insights deliver success. Apple used buzz and engagement with fans to execute one of the greatest product launches ever. The Apple Watch didn’t just show up in stores one day. It was in the making for years and part of the consumer’s journey for many, many months.

From the early insights gained, the teams at Apple could effectively market, produce, distribute, plan, place, support, and reinforce repurchase throughout the entire consumer journey. Fashion businesses have a much higher SKU count than Apple does, but that journey to purchase still holds true. A brand’s success is completely dependent upon how well it executes along the entire consumer path to purchase. Miss one step, and you’re stunting your potential and frustrating your audience.

My suggestion to brands and retailers struggling to find footing with the modern consumers is to ask themselves if they’ve innovated into the consumer’s journey. It’s important to think about what “could” be done rather than what “should” be done. No omni-channel strategy will work if you can’t connect with your audience much earlier in the process. We built PreeLine to be that little tool at the beginning of the journey, like the Apple Watch app, to let fans engage with products before they are bought, produced, shipped, and sold.

Innovative brands will do innovative things. A sense of curiosity and desire to experiment are critical to building any great business. Ultimately, without engagement and insight from your consumers, there is no omni-channel strategy. No growth with no innovation.

Like Apple did with the Apple Watch, the answer to finding your omni-channel path is engaging much earlier with your fans and building longer-lasting relationships that resonate with modern consumers. The current process many brands and retailers use is essentially this: design it, produce it, deliver it, and then pray that it sells. Think about that. Is that what your brand is essentially doing? Best to get out of that box if it is.

We know that this process of “make and pray” doesn’t work. There’s much better technology available. We should be using data to inform our decisions. And most importantly, modern consumers are smart and they want to be engaged in the experience.

So let’s get innovative and think about how to engage with consumers. And yes you should be using PreeLine, but if not, go build your own crowd-engagement platform. Just do it and do it well. It’s a big step towards driving growth and innovation.

Image from TotalRetail