TGT - Temporary 'Free Shipping' is a Very Bad Precedent For All

Takeaway: Don’t let this ‘free shipping’ promo sneak under the radar. It ushers Retail to a place where few can be profitable. TGT is not one of them.

Conclusion: Target offering free shipping over the holidays accelerates a trend that we think will play out over two years -- which is that almost all retailers offer free shipping and free returns. Only those with the highest basket size (Nordstrom) can win at this game. Other retailers are likely to follow TGT over the near term. The math does not look good.




Every year there seems to be a new strategy the retailers embrace to gain share of wallet as the Holiday's approach.  With many stores now open all day on Thanksgiving and staying open 24/7 in the final stretch in December, there's not much more (aside from price) that the retailers can do to get more people to shop at the stores. But Target has an interesting, albeit costly, idea.


TGT is offering free shipping on all items in the store for online customers beginning yesterday, and lasting through Dec 20th. This is a huge event for retail -- at least how we see it.  And it does not result in profitability going up, unfortunately.


Common perception is that e-commerce margins are higher than brick & mortar. That might be true for content owners like Ralph Lauren, Nike and UnderArmour -- who can side step a wholesaler and capture 100% of the margin. But for retailers like Target, Macy's, Kohl's and JC Penney, e-commerce is not margin accretive.


Take KSS, for example. It's e-commerce gross margins are about 25% -- 1,200 basis points below the company average. The big culprit is the triangulation of lower-value (commodity) product, low basket size, and fixed shipping costs.


In the example below, you can see that a company like Nordstrom, which is the only retailer that offers free shipping and free returns, has a big enough basket size due to very defendable brands and price/points such that it can still print a superior e-commerce gross margin. Other retailers -- even Macy's, which is known for being a trailblazer in e-commerce (we don't particularly agree) has an extremely high threshold for free shipping ($99), and still does not have a superior e-commerce margin.

TGT - Temporary 'Free Shipping' is a Very Bad Precedent For All  - TGT 10 23 chart1



Our concern about this move by TGT is that it currently has a $50 'free shipping' threshold. Over the next two months, if you want to buy a package of q-tips for $3.89, or a package of pacifiers for $5.89, you get them delivered for free.   Unfortunately, the shipping cost on those items is about double the gross profit that Target would otherwise record.

TGT - Temporary 'Free Shipping' is a Very Bad Precedent For All  - TGT 10 23 chart2



Another angle on shipping costs is that a by-product of a 'free shipping' threshold is that it causes many consumers with a low basket size to come in to the store to pick up the product to avoid a $5-$10 shipping charge. According to Target, 14% of its digital sales are picked up in stores, and then about 20% of those customers buy additional items. What happens now that shipping is free?


We're not as concerned about this event as a negative for Target, but we are definitely concerned that (almost) all retailers are gravitating to a very unprofitable place -- that's free shipping and free returns. Free shipping is kind of like a dividend -- once you give it, you really can't take it away without severe repercussions.

TGT - Temporary 'Free Shipping' is a Very Bad Precedent For All  - TGT 10 23 chart3

MCD: Millennials Aren't the Problem

MCD is a financially healthy company, but its business model is broken and in desperate needing of a fixing.  Alas, merely changing the service style is not the answer and could, in fact, create additional friction within the franchise system.  More importantly, McDonald’s does not have a Millennial problem, as it hinted on Tuesday’s earnings call.  The real issue is the food it is serving.  Food that is, for the most part, inferior to that of its competitors.  It simply doesn’t resonate with consumers, and it will take much more than a “myth buster” for this to change. 


McDonald’s recent earnings call lacked clarity.  To their credit, management is trying to stem the sales decline and even conveyed a sense of urgency in doing so.  The issue, however, is that management can’t properly communicate what the actual problem is, rendering their solution haphazard.  But, perhaps more concerning is the reactionary nature of these initiatives.


Both management and analysts alike were focused on the fact that Millennials are skipping out on McDonald’s to go to chains such as Chipotle.  Last night, Sonic reported a +4.6% same-store sales increase and, interestingly enough, didn’t mention the word Millennials once on the earnings call.  Wendy’s, another brand that has been resonating lately, isn’t particularly focused on Millennials either.  Why then is it necessary for McDonald’s to pin its troubles on Millennials?  The company’s issues run far deeper than this and it will take some serious soul-searching for it to regain the momentum it once had.


The message sent to the McDonald’s franchise system yesterday was loud and clear: we will do what it takes to grow sales and you better get on board.  The current plan, as it stands, will be very expensive for franchisees and will not impact sales until sometime in 2016.  It also fails to address the issues that have been plaguing the system for the better part of the past three years.


McDonald’s CEO, Don Thompson, said on the call:


“The reality is we haven’t been changing at the same rate as our customers’ eating out expectations, or more specifically, their expectations of us at McDonald’s.  So we’re changing, and we’re changing aggressively as we refocus on building the business for the McDonald’s system and four our shareholders.”


Listen, we know why he said this – everyone wants to hear it.  But what does he really mean?


While we are delighted to see management recognizes the need for change, we find it slightly disingenuous that it has taken them this long to admit it.  Same-store sales have been declining for two straight years, which it why we find it odd that management has finally realized that customers wanted the ability to personalize their meals.  McDonald’s installed the made-for-you system 10 years ago for this very reason – customization. 


Also of note is the company’s commitment to having leading edge point-of-sale systems, mobile technology, and free Wi-Fi.  This isn’t a competitive advantage, in our view.  Nowadays, it’s more like… normal.  We agree that integrating Apple Pay across 14,000 U.S. restaurants is a good move, although we don’t know the impact it will have on drive-thru speed of service. 


The company has already tested a multiple order point strategy and self-order kiosks which, to their credit, have limited some of the front-of-counter confusion, but it is far from being the panacea. 


If you recall, the made-for-you rollout was initially a disaster that took several years to get right.  It makes sense, therefore, to assume that the cost and the installation of new technology will be a disrupting force within the McDonald’s system.


Yesterday, management officially announced they are accelerating the development of a new service style called, “Create Your Taste,” which combines a custom premium burger platform with new service enhancements.  According to Thompson, this new service experience will ultimately create the “McDonald’s Experience of the Future.”  However, we view these initiatives as defensive and fail to see how they will meaningfully separate McDonald’s from the competition.


The company plans to fully activate this new experience in three markets a little less than a year from now, and will roll it out to additional markets as permits.  In Australia, plans are already in place to scale this experience across the entire country by next year.


It will take years for the company to rework the system to this new service style and it will only impact approximately 40% of the business.  The other 60% of the business is generated by the drive-thru, where customization is not an option.


Noticeably absent from the call was an in-depth discussion revolving around enhancing the food and the menu.  In fact, it seems as though the current strategy is to simply tell consumers how good the food is at McDonald’s.  There appears to be no plan to actually change, or upgrade, the food to offer the quality consumers are seeking.  Merely, engaging in dialogue with consumers is unlikely to alter the secular decline in sales the company is experiencing.


Management has plans to simplify the menu next January, which we applaud, but to what extent is largely unknown.  According to them, the goal is to “highlight customers’ favorites and to make the experience faster and easier for our customers and our crew.”  But, by summer 2014, they plan to introduce different new tastes on a regional basis, essentially complicating things all over again. 


There are many issues with McDonald’s, which makes it odd that they would try to pin it on its disconnect with Millennials.  While it’s a convenient excuse, the reality is they don’t have a Millennial problem.  They have a cultural problem.  Consumers are looking for high quality food served fast, fresh, and in a clean and enjoyable environment.  Sounds more to us like they have a multitude of problems; problems that will likely take a long time to fix.


Howard Penney

Managing Director


Fred Masotta


Cartoon of the Day: #GrowthSlowing

Cartoon of the Day: #GrowthSlowing - slowing cartoon 10.22.2014


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Promotional Email From Retailers

Takeaway: Our retail team looks at the latest promotional email offerings from retailers.

If you're like us, you probably noted a severe uptick in promotional emails from brands and retailers over the past few weeks. That's expected, as this is the time of year when retailers transition from fall to colder-weather merchandise. In other words, an uptick in promo emails happens every year.


We track these pretty closely, and at least for the month of September there are some interesting changes in promo emails versus last year. Before we hit on callouts, let's be clear that it's tough to make conclusions around the year/over year trends -- for some brands with new product launches, it might be good to have more promotional campaigns.


For retailers with no square footage growth, it's probably bad. Also, this says nothing about the depth of the discount offered by the email. Nonetheless, we use this as one of many tools not just to draw the right conclusions, but to ensure that we're asking all the right questions to the companies.  Here are some thought.

  1. RL: The 40% uptick yy makes sense to us as the company is launching the Polo label on a much broader scale. That was not in place last year.
  2. Tory Burch: The interesting point is not the change in the business, but the fact that the company only had three promotional emails in the month of September. We'd argue that this is way too low. Definitely an opportunity to promote the brand better as it preps for the inevitable IPO.
  3. Coach: Only 10 emails in September compared to 18 a year ago. Definitely something we like to see for a brand that has become so grossly over-distributed.  Bullish on the margin.
  4. Kate Spade: 10% decline vs last year. Does not strike us as the kind of trend you'd see for a company that is worried about hitting numbers. Bullish on the margin.
  5. Urban: Trends look much better at Urban. Not quite at Anthro.
  6. Kohl's: had a fairly dramatic year-year increase (27%). This might be driven by lower email outreach in 2013 due to its e-commerce hiccup. But if we look back to 2012 -- when it had a nearly identical store base -- the company had 23 emails. Net/net, this is probably bearish on the margin.


Promotional Email From Retailers - chart2

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