My Bold Retail Predictions for 2023 — Steve Dennis
As I share my annual retail predictions I’m reminded of a joke a colleague of mine recently shared with me:
Q. What’s the difference between God and a retail futurist?
A. God doesn’t think he’s a retail futurist.
So damn the humility and full speed ahead as I bring forth the first batch of my dozen educated guesses on what will shape the future of retail this year, plus three bonus long-shot prognostications. We also discussed them in more depth on a two-part episode of the Remarkable Retail podcast. Listen to part 1 here and/or part 2 here.
- Physical experiences matter even more in a digital world. As it turns out, physical retail is still not dead. But the role of the store continues to evolve dramatically and brick-and-mortar locations that cannot demonstrate a clear reason for being are becoming increasingly irrelevant (see moderate department stores, Bed, Bath & Beyond, et al). Struggling retailers need to move out of the boring middle and pick a lane between “buying” and “shopping.” Everyone need to be sure to amplify the wow in their in-store execution and invest to leverage the unique advantages of a physical location.
- C-Suite changes will accelerate. In recent months, we’ve already seen some big moves in the C-suite. As relentlessly mediocre retailers continue to deliver lackluster performance, many Boards will take more aggressive action to shake up their leadership ranks. And while this may be more hope than prediction, I would love to see more executives recruited to companies (or promoted from within) with much more diverse backgrounds. This diversity should reflect better representation, as well as experience beyond the channel and product-centric thinking that can limit the boldness of vision needed to become (and stay) remarkable.
- Disruptor reset. 2022 was a pretty rough year for retail disruptors. Profitless prosperity largely ruled the day, and valuations plummeted. 2023 is unlikely to be much better with big changes afoot for those not on a clear trajectory to profitability. These changes will include replacement of several founding executives, additional expense reductions, and more moves to take the D out of DTC (i.e. more wholesale distribution). The wobbliest of unicorns may also rethink their store expansion strategies and/or run into the arms of an acquisitive suitor.
- Media networks grow fast-but start to experience growing pains. The land rush to secure the potentially sizable profits from launching and growing captive media networks was the subject of not one, but two of our podcast episodes last year. The magnitude of the opportunity is undeniable, but so are the executional challenges. As retailers like WalmartWMT and KrogerKR double down on their existing efforts, many more retailers will leap into the arena. In doing so the organizational challenges will become more pronounced and some will find that the cash will not rain down quite so easily. Moreover, brands will need to find the right balance between emphasizing their core value proposition with the interruption based marketing that can detract from the overall customer experience.
- Bold changes hit the Amazon retail flywheel. With big layoffs now announced, we should brace ourselves for a lot more change. While it’s likely to be steady as she goes with AWS and Advertising, just about everything else at Amazon is likely to get a big rethink given how obviously they overshot the runway on e-commerce and other parts of its business. The future of brick-and-mortar expansion in grocery stores, apparel, and convenience stores is very much up in the air as Amazon struggles to find winning formulas. The mess that is Whole Foods needs a long overdue fix. Fulfillment capacity need to be rationalized, merchandise margins need to be improved, returns need to be reduced, and much, much more. The days of growth over profits moon shots seem to be over.
- The collapse of the unremarkable middle picks up steam. More than a decade ago I noticed what eventually came to be called “retail’s great bifurcation.” In the years leading up to the pandemic, success was increasingly being found at either end of the price spectrum. Accordingly, poor financial performance and store closings were overwhelmingly concentrated among undifferentiated retailers stuck in the middle (think JC Penney, Macy’s, et al). During the depths of the pandemic-with interest rates hovering near zero and a big boost in retail spending propelled by stimulus payments-many struggling retailers were gifted a life line. That protection is now over and the retailers that think a slightly better version of mediocre is a winning strategy will find themselves edging every closer to the precipice.
- The hybridization of retail steals the crown from omni-channel. As I often say, I only have two problems with the term “omni-channel”: the omni part and the channel part. It’s not about being everywhere or worrying about channels. It’s about being remarkable in the moments that matter and moving away from siloed ideas of online and in-store to see the customer as the channel. As digital and physical shopping converge, brands must embrace the blur of modern retail and invest in the increasingly hybrid role of stores-as fulfillment hubs, services centers, advertising nodes, and more. One-size-fits-all supply chains and single store prototype go-to-market strategies are also giving way to models that are more diverse, agile, and hybrid at their core.
- “Trading down” will define the year. While luxury is likely to do okay, the best performing sector this year will be value retailers (dollar stores, off-price, discount mass merchants, resale, and the like) as economically challenged consumers continue to flee higher priced options. Moreover, within particular formats, private brands will steal share from established national brands, benefitting from their “more bang for the buck” value proposition.
- Troubles emerge in the consumer credit market. Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) may not turn completely into buy now pay never, but at least one of the leading players will encounter serious trouble. At the same time, traditional consumer finance players will materially raise their loss provisions and tighten the reins on credit lines as consumer debt balances grow considerably as we move into the second half of the year.
- Strong corporate balance sheets reign supreme. For better or worse, the strong are continuing to grow more powerful, while the weak fight to keep their heads above water. Retailers with remarkable business models and strong balance sheets will double down on their advantages by opening new locations, investing in the stores they already have, testing new growth initiatives, and deploying high leverage technology to steal market share from mediocre players overly focused on cost cutting, store closings, and defending the status quo. I also expect several industry leaders to take advantage of fire sale prices to consolidate their competitive positions via acquisitions.
- The Metaverse: Still not ready for its closeup. While experimentation will (and should) continue, consumer awareness and engagement will remain at low levels outside of already established beachheads like Roblox. Apple’sAAPL rumored “Reality Pro” headset release could provide the jump start that Meta’s cash incineration machine has failed to ignite thus far. But it won’t meaningfully change the adoption trajectory until next year, at the earliest.
- Artificial Intelligence on the other hand… While the Metaverse is still in search of compelling and large scale use cases-outside of the usual suspects of gaming, porn, and gambling-the promise of artificial intelligence (with ChatGPT as just one technology that is grabbing folk’s attention) seems clear. The ability to automate mundane or dangerous tasks can create major cost savings. The ability to enhance the effectiveness of numerous activities also has great unlock potential. While huge dividends from AI aren’t likely to be realized within the next twelve months, the traction and investment I expect to see-particularly given on-going talent shortages-should prove significant.
3 Bonus (Longer-shot) Predictions
- Nike buys Peloton. Nike continues to expand into new fitness categories, direct-to-consumer distribution, and membership-centric programs. Peloton has a solid brand, but overshot the runway on expansion, resulting in a huge drop in its valuation. The worst of the right-sizing and pull forward of demand should soon be in their rear view mirror, giving Nike a chance to pick Peloton up at a reasonable price and then drive substantial synergies.
- Wholesale changes at Whole Foods. Something big needs to happen here and it might just be that Amazon is dressing up the struggling brand for sale as its overall physical store growth plans seem to be fizzling. A new CEO suggests bold things are afoot and that a turn around is possible. Color me skeptical that the necessary changes will occur under Amazon’s ownership.
- Kohl’s and JC Penney merge. To be clear, combining, at best, a very average retailer with a lousy one does not make for a strong brand (see Sears and Kmart). But things continue to be quite bad at both companies and they look to only get worse. Desperation can breed strange bedfellows.
These predictions originally appeared at Forbes, where I am a senior retail contributor.
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