Here’s the lowdown: Mattress makers rename identical products for each different retail store. Different labels, exact same guts. Why? Obfuscation. It’s hard to shop for the lowest price when you can’t compare apples to apples. Lucky for you, they’re all subtle variations on the same appleâ€”not only within each brand, but even among different brands.
The heart of an innerspring mattress is the coils. Otherwise it’s just foam, cotton, quilting, and stitches. But the big-name mattress makers (with some exceptions) all get their coils from a single company, Leggett and Platt, for their highest-end mattresses down to their lowest. This is akin to every single car on the market, Lamborghinis to Kias, using an engine made by Ford. Except that mattresses are far less complicated than cars. In fact, they’re so simple that there’s no real difference among them at all.
While the story is about Wal-Mart, the interesting point is that failure comes very, very quickly in retail.
Wal-Mart recently reported that it will be laying off 2,300 workers at its Sam’s Club subsidiary, reportedly to cut the fat of middle management. Layoffs in and of themselves aren’t uncommon at any large company — competitor Target (NYSE: TGT ) also recently said it would lay off nearly 500 employees and keep hundreds more positions vacant — but such personnel reductions also aren’t something a growing company does very often.
What’s worth keeping an eye on is whether the Sam’s Club layoffs are a symptom of much larger problems at Wal-Mart. The company has been a giant of retail for decades, but there are signs that its reign is coming to an end.
Retail is a tough business to be in.
It doesn’t take long for a retailer to go from the top of the world to bankrupt. Kmart lost just $22 million in the second quarter of 2001, but was bankrupt by Jan. 22, 2002. In the four months leading up to bankruptcy, same-store sales fell 1.8%, 4.4%, 2.6%, and 1%, respectively, from a year earlier. You don’t need a big decline in sales to suck up all of your profits in retail.
Circuit City reported a 4.2% rise in same-store sales as late as December 2006, even raising its fiscal-year guidance to growth of 7%-8% in U.S. stores. But by December 2007, same-store sales were down 11% for the month and the company would be out of business by November 2008. From optimism to bust in less than two years.
The reason that retailers are sensitive to declines in sales is that there is a lot of overhead that goes into selling in brick-and-mortar stores. Wal-Mart spent $89.2 billion on overhead over the past year, and based on current margins and overhead spending, it would only take a 13.6% decline in sales to eat up all of Wal-Mart’s profits.
Amazon is Wal-Martâ€™s biggest competitor
What makes Amazon a bigger threat today is the company’s sheer size. It’s now bigger than Target, and every percentage point of growth takes growth away from Wal-Mart. In fact, Wal-Mart’s budget-conscious consumers are probably more likely to shop on Amazon than Target’s consumers.
Why closed-down stores?
The idea went back to 2005 when I drove weekly past a large closed supermarket on the North Side of Chicago. At night the space really transformed from one of neglect and misuse to something incredibly visual that described a Rothko-esque painting space divided in three parts (parking lot, building, and sky). I spent a few nights making some photographs to try and replicate what I saw. I had been working on a larger project dealing with American consumerism, and it was no surprise to me that these spaces would fail and dwindle as fast they arise. I was in the midst of a deeper project, photographing in thrift stores and recycling shops as part of my â€œCopiaâ€ series, so I shelved the idea.
At the end of 2007 with many rumblings of recession, I thought of those pictures and began the project in earnest in May of 2008. In many senses it was a vindication of what I had been talking about in my earlier work. How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? Itâ€™s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail. Whatâ€™s strange is how ingrained the brands and spaces are to us that so many were not only surprised to see major retailers and malls sink but were saddened. Many of these ideas were set in motion decades ago.
Mark Cohen, an American who ran the department store operations north of the border between 2001 and 2004, lambasted the CEO and majority owner of the U.S. operation during a Tuesday interview with Bloomberg News.
â€œSears is slowly and steadily failing at the hands of a ruthless, methodical asset-stripper,â€ Cohen said of Eddie Lampert, who has been widely lambasted for his management style, including restructuring moves likened to a losing game of Jenga.
â€œLampert will come up with some cash every quarter or two to make sure the balance sheet is still viable,â€ added Cohen. â€œItâ€™s a tragedy because Sears is a legacy brand that needed to be and couldâ€™ve been repositioned.â€
The retail operations in Canada â€” a public company with 51 per cent of shares owned by Sears Holdings â€” were in a relatively unflattering spotlight last week as northern CEO Calvin McDonald confirmed that it would sell back its leases for anchor locations in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and Square One Shopping Centre in Mississauga and close them by next spring.
An option for a similar deal was signed with Torontoâ€™s Scarborough Town Centre.
The arrangement promised a cash infusion for the company and has also boosted its stock. But the prevailing assumption was that Sears was no longer the kind of big-box tenant that these malls were looking for when other retailers are eager to take the space.
Nordstrom, the higher-end U.S. department store which will move into former Sears spaces at the Pacific Centre in Vancouver, Chinook Centre in Calgary and the Rideau Centre in Ottawa, was expected to make a bid to take over at least part of the vacated Yorkdale and Square One locations.
A couple of years ago we were in Sears 10 days before Christmas. Â We were the only ones on the second floor and all of these staff were chatting with our kids. Â I was looking for something and there was not another shopper in the store. Â The sales looked like Boxing Day with big 75% off signs everywhere. Â
I walked back to Wendy and said, “we need to leave before the creditors lock all of the doors”. Â
I can’t see the chain lasting much longer.
Brick-and-mortar outlets “have become less relevant,” he said, and as a result “the handwritingâ€™s on the wall” when it comes to selling electronics in a big-box format.
Another factor is that electronics are being “downsized” as technology advances, making it less necessary to maintain huge stores, and cheaper for retailers to sell goods online and ship them to customers, Williams said.
While a big box is good for things like television, there really isn’t an advantage when it comes to other items. Â The Source is every bit as compitive on a lot of items. Â Even today I went to Best Buy and then actually found what I was looking for at The Source for a lower price. Â That happens quite a bit. Â It’s especially a big deal with The Source having locations all over the city. Â I often find it really easy to wander in and find what I am looking for on a break or while I am out and about.
The other issue is especially with Apple products is that I can buy direct from Apple and if it is over $50, I get free shipping and I don’t have to pay tax. Â I am looking at replacing my iPod with a new iPod Nano and it’s cheaper to buy direct from Apple than it is from anywhere in the city. Â The same thing when I buy from MEC. Â Expect others like Microsoft and even brands like Dr. Dre to do the same thing. Â Even if they don’t, shopping from Amazon is so easy and with Amazon’s low margins, it’s almost the same thing for an established brand.
In the end the big box stores use the format to compete on price and if they can’t compete on price, they bring very little else to the table (unless they can create an in-store experience like Cabelas) As online retail continues to grow, look for smaller stores with better customer service, and easy access to make a comeback. Â It isn’t just electronics. Â Stores like Rona are asking the same questions about how easy is it to compete with Home Depot and Lowes on a large scale when they may have the supply chain efficiencies and infrastructure to do it.
The other part of the retail discussion is Sears laying off 700 people in Canada. Â I wasn’t surprised. Â Several times I have been the only customer I could see in a Sears store and when I walk through it I have to dodge rack after rack of discounted goods. Â While The Bay has rallied around the voice and leadership of Bonnie Brooks, Sears seems to just be drifting with empty stores, an aging demographic, and no real leadership. Â I can’t see them being around in five years time.