After a decade of turmoil in the retail industry, many stores are entering the all-important holiday season with strong momentum and customers wanting to spend.
Fueled by record low unemployment and consumer confidence at its highest level in 18 years, the National Retail Federation projects holiday spending to top $1.1 trillion.
“We are ready,” Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly said last week.
The retailers who so far have figured out the balance of in-store and online sales and the complexity of distribution channels to compete with Amazon have the advantage going into the holiday season, analysts say.
“Some retailers — Target and Best Buy among them — have been able to adapt to the new reality,” said Stephen Baker of the market research firm NPD Group. “Companies that missed pieces of those changes are struggling or are going away.”
Think Sears, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week and announced another round of store closures.
The question will be whether those companies now on solid ground financially have built systems flexible enough to survive another disruption in the retail landscape.
“Amazon has been at the forefront of selection, delivery, reliability,” said research analyst Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics. “It continues to roll more benefits into Prime and challenge the whole shopping ecosystem. Everyone has to have their A-game to compete with them.”
Target CEO Brian Cornell recently described the company’s strategy. “There are going to be billions of dollars of retail market share up for grabs. We’re going to position ourselves to take more than our fair share of that.”
Target has hit the halfway point of a three-year, $7 billion effort to modernize operations and overhaul online and digital shopping. The Minneapolis-based company is reporting unprecedented store traffic and has gained market share in every major merchandising category.
With a five-year turnaround in the rearview mirror and its reputation as a showroom for Amazon faded, Richfield-based Best Buy is gaining market share and investing in a future centered on services that help people get more out of all the technology.
All the changes occurred with an eye on shoppers like Tanetta Adams Licht, a special education teacher with the St. Paul Public Schools. She’s ready to up her holiday budget this year, and while she shops in stores, she also uses apps on her phone or buys online for gifts and household basics.
“As I’ve gotten older, I like that I don’t always have to go into the store,” she said.
In recent years, both Target and Best Buy have spent millions updating their websites, distribution centers and stores, where the backroom area now serves as central packaging and shipping hub.
They have turned their stores into mini-distribution hubs. Customers can shop in a store, order online in a store, order online and pick it up at a store or have it delivered.
Best Buy worked with vendors to showcase their wares and put front-line staff through extensive training. Target regained its fashion sense and amped up celebrity ties.
Target is hiring more seasonal staff than any other retailer — 120,000 workers — and doubling the number of workers to handle store pickup and curbside service. Best Buy is also shifting workers to assure its products can be conveniently picked up and delivered.
While Best Buy has offered in-store pickup for more than a decade, about half the retailer’s online revenue now comes from products that are either picked up or shipped out of a store.
It also has developed an app that alerts store workers when customers are on the way to pick up large items. Same-day delivery is available in about 40 markets.
With Amazon breathing down the necks of all retailers, Target had to play catch-up on the multichannel delivery game.
The retail chain spent a full year figuring out how to nail its store pickup option. It now claims that 95 percent of orders are ready for store pickup within one hour. It also spent $550 million late last year to purchase Shipt, a subscription-based same-day grocery delivery service that relies on personal shoppers.
All those steps were critical for any large retailer that wanted to survive the last decade, said Perkins of Retail Metrics.
“The Great Recession expedited the move to e-commerce and online shopping that required more investments in technology, logistics and a functioning website that you could actually navigate,” he said.
Now, multichannel retail is “absolutely crucial,” Perkins said. “If you don’t have that component right, you’re not in the game.”
Several middle-market players such as Dress Barn, Duluth-based Maurice’s and Plymouth-based Christopher & Banks have joined J.C. Penney and others in trying to quickly build out the infrastructure needed in the new retail landscape before they miss the industry shift.
Meanwhile, stronger players such as Target and Best Buy, analysts say, must continue to evolve to keep in step with the marketplace.
Best Buy’s Joly said his long-term focus is on what he calls “selling solutions and building customer relationships.” That means helping customers navigate the high-tech world by offering at-home and in-store tech support.
“We’ve dealt with the basics,” he said. “Now we’re building a purposeful focus for the company, where we have a human connection with the customers. It allows us to thrive in this new era.”