Thursday, July 9, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #265: Two Stores, Two Stories

Ritz Camera, the largest specialty camera and imaging retail chain in the US, filed for bankruptcy in February 2009. Now, it has recently said that if it does not find a buyer soon for the chain, it will liquidate its assets in an open auction.

At the beginning of 2009, Ritz Camera had more than 800 stores in operation. It is now less than half that size.

By contrast, Best Buy is doing rather well. Its balance sheet is very healthy and it is gaining market share. Although the recession has had its impact on Best Buy, the company will survive and looks poised to thrive for quite awhile.

Why such different fates for these chains? A friend of mine used to work in the photography specialty retail business many years ago. He said that when taking good photos was very difficult, many flocked to photography as a “hobby.” These photo hobbyists carried around bags of gear to make better photos—lots of lenses, filters, light meters and shades. They would have a darkroom in their basement with lots of chemicals and enlargers, so that they could develop their own film and photos and crop them to be “just right.”

All of this took skill, knowledge, dedication and lots of practice—as well as lots of money. It was not for the average “amateur.” These hobbyists could take great pride in their unique skills and abilities. Others marveled in jealousy at the “magic” of their great photographs.

Then something happened. Technology got sophisticated enough that cameras could take pretty good pictures all on their own—just point and shoot. Now everyone could take pretty good pictures without any advanced training, skills or lots of gear. Being a photo hobbyist no longer carried the same cache. It wasn’t all that special anymore once the average Joe could do just about as well.

As a result, those who looked to their hobby as their point of pride and status saw that being a photo hobbyist no longer satisfied that ego stroking. Therefore, many quit photography and found new hobbies in areas which still held status, like electronics or computers.

Now, with the digital revolution, everyone has access to cheap and easy tools to take, edit, modify and photoshop their pictures into great works of art—and place them on the internet for all to see. And you don’t even need a camera. I was recently at the zoo—a place full of young families. I looked around me and noticed that I was the only one with a camera. Everyone else around me was taking photos with their cell phone.

It is getting harder to even think of photography as a hobby. It’s just something people do, like breathing. And nobody thinks of breathing as a hobby. Without a large hobby segment, there is no reason to for a large photo hobby specialty store like Ritz. Hence the problems at Ritz: it’s camera focus fell out of touch with where pictures evolved.

By contrast, Best buy has frequently changed its product focus. I remember back in the 1980s, when their big emphasis was on microwave ovens. It was the cool new technology, and people flocked to Best Buy because they held seminars and cooking classes on how to use this cool new gizmo. Soon thereafter microwave ovens became mature and were treated like a toaster that you replace at Walmart when they break.

Of course, by then Best Buy had moved on to the next cool new gizmo—VCRs. Then when that started to get mature, they went on to follow with computers, then DVDs, then Digital TV and now Mobile Devices. The idea was to abandon categories before they matured and replace them with the next new thing. That way Best Buy was always hot and always successful.

As a business, companies have two strategic choices. They can either define themselves primarily by specializing in the type of products they sell (like Ritz Camera) or they can define themselves primarily by the specializing in the place in the product lifecycle where they want to be.

This is a critical strategic decision which can dramatically impact how your company evolves. How you answer this question can even be one of the major reasons why you succeed (like Best Buy) or fail (like Ritz Camera).

The principle here is that the decision to focus on product versus lifestage is critical. It needs to be a conscious choice, because it will drive so many of your other strategic decisions. If done well, there are opportunities to succeed with either approach. But to do so takes hard work, tough choices and significant strategic modifications. You have to be fully committed to one side or the other. A half-hearted middle approach will tend to fail.

Let’s look at either option in detail to illustrate the particular types of risks and tough choices which apply to either decision.

Focus On Product
The biggest problem on a product focus is that products evolve and go through a lifecycle. At first, they are the cool new thing, desired by leading edge hobbyists who desire the status of taking the time to become an expert when others aren’t. Second, the experts help the rest of us “get it” so that the product achieves mass demand. It is the hot thing everyone wants. Then, it becomes just another thing that everyone already has. Your sales shift from first-timers to replacement purchases and the priority shifts from expertise/service to low price. Finally, your product becomes a lowly commodity at best, and an obsolete has-been at worst, which is replaced by the next new cool thing.

Therefore, if you focus on the product, then your greatest strategic challenge is to align your business with the changing demands from managing to the life cycle. For example, if the basic product you sell doesn’t change, then you have to change, to have the most appropriate business model for the particular period in the lifecycle where that product lies. At the beginning, you need to be creative, inventive and cool, and you have fat profit margins to pull it off. At the end, you have to think like a commodities manufacturer, with razor-thin margins and a merciless emphasis on cost reduction. That’s a big cultural change. Distribution channels can change over time, too, from dealing with boutiques to dealing with Walmart.

The second strategic challenge is to slow-down the natural progress of the life cycle, to keep it as alive and cool as possible for as long as possible. Rapid obsolescence via frequent product upgrades can help to keep it cool longer. Strong image advertising can help keep some status with the product longer. Look at the mature automobile industry. Cars can last a decade, but clever strategies like leasing and restyling induce people to want to change cars every 3 to 4 years. Relentless beer image advertising has helped beer brands keep at least some preference and status rub-off in that mature business.

The third strategic challenge is to try to outlast all the competition, so that in the end-game you have a near monopoly. That is what Budweiser has done in the US beer market. Everything has pretty much consolidated into their lap, so that they still have enough volume and clout to make a killing.

The biggest risk is that your company dies when the product eventually dies. If you’re in the newspaper business and nobody wants newspapers, you’re in big trouble.

I think the problem at Ritz Camera was:

1) They picked the wrong product (cameras instead of photos)
2) They did not try aggressively enough to own all the new places where photo status was going (scrapbooking, on-line editing software, You-Tube, etc.)
3) They did not try to develop and get an exclusive on the ultimate cool photo-phone.
4) They did not change their business model enough to win when things get commoditized and margins go away (i.e., their stores could not beat Walmart when the product matured).

In other words, they did not manage the lifecycle well because they did not realize how much of a priority that was, so they lost.

Focus On Lifestage
The other option is to be more like Best Buy and focus on staying in a particular lifestage. For example, if you focus on the early stage, when products lose their cool, you switch to the next cool thing. This is also pretty much how GE has worked over the years. As industries they were in starting to get mature, they would sell off the division and add a new division still in the early cool stage. That way, the portfolio stayed hot (and profitable). The benefits here are that a) you can focus on perfecting a management style for that life stage; and b) your lifespan is not tied to the lifespan of a particular product.

With this strategy, the biggest issues are timing and transitioning. By timing, I mean knowing when to let go of old products and when to dive into new products. If you sell off too quickly, you may walk away from a lot of profit. If you stay too long, you may not find a profitable way to exit the business.

If you enter a new business too early, it may take too long to get a return (and you are more likely to guess wrong on whether it will get hot). If you enter too late, you may have to pay too much to enter and be too far behind in the race for leadership.

By transitioning, the problem is getting people to accept that your brand has a right to be in that new space. If you are too far afield, then the customers will not give you credit in that new space. Also the farther away the transition is from your core, the less likely you will have the proper skills needed to win. For example, if Best had gotten into high end designer handbags when they were hot, it would have failed because it does not line up well with the brand customer or the brand image, and they know nothing about designer fashion. That transition would not have worked.

Best Buy has succeeded because their timing was great and they always transitioned into products that were consistent with the brand and its core customer’s desires. They were also willing to be very aggressive in the transition—killing off old categories entirely and going full-out to win in the new category. This is not a game for the half-hearted.

Great strategies tend to be explicit on whether the company is going to focus on a type of product or a particular lifecycle stage. Then one needs to aggressively adapt the company over time to stay true to the chosen path. Half-hearted efforts on either path can lead to failure.

You don’t have to only focus on the early stage of the life-cycle. Pinnacle Foods has done well by purchasing the cast-off mature food brands from the food companies trying to get out of mature businesses. They own brands like Duncan Hines, Hungry Man, Aunt Jemima and Swanson. Because they are experts in running brands in their late maturity, they can make them successful when their former parents found them to be a drag on profits.

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