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Customer Feedback Systems to Go Beyond Customer Expectations

Customer Feedback Systems to Go Beyond Customer Expectations

There used to be a sofa in Microsoft’s telephone customer support center called “the Mail Merge couch”—named for a feature in Microsoft’s word-processing program that lets users customize form letters. The early version of Mail Merge was so complicated that whenever a customer called for help, Microsoft’s representative would lie down on the couch, knowing the conversation was likely to take a long time.

Clearly, something was wrong with that feature. Microsoft fixed the problem in the next generation of Word (and eliminated the need for the couch), but the story illustrates just how important customer feedback can be.

Most business managers understand that using customer feedback to guide the development and improvement of products and services is critical to success. However, some companies and individual managers are better than others are at collecting feedback and using it to make strategy decisions.

Nine Customer Feedback Rules for Managers

Managers who want to help their companies be customer-driven might observe the following nine rules.

  1. Create a system for effectively soliciting customer feedback, and then put that system to work. Boeing uses extensive customer involvement when developing new jetliner models. United Airlines influenced the design of both the 767 and the 777, and British Airways and Eastern Airlines participated in developing of the 757. As a result, the airlines were able to tailor the planes to their specific needs and preferences.
  2. Make sure your feedback system provides reliable information from a cross-section of customers. When a company has thousands or millions of customers, it can’t involve many of them in the product design, but it can involve a representative sample of customers.
  3. Make it easy for customers to provide feedback. Some companies offer a customer-feedback phone number. Surveys are another system for gathering feedback, but many people, including me, are not willing to spend much time answering them. Observing customers while they are using existing products and services is habitually the only way to identify hidden frustrations that they may not even be deliberately conscious of.
  4. Microsoft's Nine Customer Feedback Rules for Managers Send e-mail surveys to customers and offer incentives to fill them out and return them. The incentive may be a little digital money or coupons to buy products at a discount. The electronic survey will be immensely efficient for the company, because the survey results will be in electronic form, making results easier to compile and analyze. Some companies already use the Internet in this way. Encyclopedia Britannica recently e-mailed people who had accepted a free seven-day trial of the company’s online reference, offering another free week to those willing to fill out an online survey about their reactions to the product and its price.
  5. Use focus group and customer councils. Getting a few customers together to discuss their reactions to current and new products or services is another good way to collect customer feedback, although these groups and councils, too, have their limitations.
  6. Go beyond what market research tells you. The transition to graphical computing is an example of an instance where Microsoft needed to go beyond what Microsoft’s market research was telling us. Most software customers who were surveyed did not know they would prefer graphical computing because they had not tried it. Microsoft believed that customers would prefer the new way of interacting with their computers, even though Microsoft’s market research was not very positive. Microsoft’s gamble proved right.
  7. Log and evaluate all service requests, customer suggestions, and product complaints. Microsoft logs and evaluates hundreds of thousands of calls made to Microsoft’s support technicians every year. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Observe them using products and watch for frustrations they may not even notice.
  8. Require that the software engineers who develop products spend some time listening to calls from customers. These engineers need to get firsthand feedback. To get the attention of Microsoft’s group managers, Microsoft charges their departments for the cost of providing technical support to customers who use their products.
  9. Request, receive, and act on input from your salespeople. Microsoft seeks and use input for the people who are out in the field with customers. In this industry, customers are eager to share their ideas, frustrations, and enthusiasm. Microsoft is also lucky to be in an industry where products are so adaptable. Whereas it might take an automobile company five years to retool a car model to adapt to customer preferences, software companies can—and do—update their products constantly in response to customer input.

Beyond Customer Feedback

Customer feedback is critical to success of a business No system of market research is foolproof, of course. Even companies that do a good job of listening to customers can make mistakes. Business partners are relying on questionable information to make customer-related decisions. Our new understanding of customer-related decision making should be the starting point for a research approach that has impact on a greater proportion of high-value customer-related decisions.

I am a strong believer that heeding customer feedback is critical to success in any business, especially a dynamic, fast-moving industry such as ours. Despite Microsoft’s willingness to look beyond customer input, 80 percent of the improvements in products like Windows result from customer feedback. Experience has taught us that it is also important to trust your instincts, to take risks, and to provide leadership, even when the customer is not demanding that you do so.

Apply these rules to your business and use the feedback to make improvements. Companies often make the blunder of organizing customer feedback systems around one structure—say lines of business or channel—and employee feedback systems around another—say geography or function. In the end, well-designed feedback loops facilitate employees to be more empowered and companies to be more approachable, creating the competitive edge companies need to adapt and thrive.

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GE Capital Aviation Services: A Fantastic Asset for General Electric

GE Capital Aviation Services: A Fantastic Asset for General Electric

Of the 12 firms that constituted the initial Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896, General Electric Company (GE) is the only one yet on the list. For more than a century, it has been one of the most successful companies in the world, well-liked for its products, culture, and series of dedicated chief executives.

In 2015, GE assertively moved to wind down GE Capital, which was a considerable but volatile driver of earnings. After selling large portions of its financial business over the past few years, General Electric (GE) has finally shed the “too big to fail” designation. This is for the most part completed, and the residual specialty finance segments have understandable ties to the company’s principal industrial business, such as aircraft leasing. Investors should gain from a much smaller, better-capitalized GE Capital over the long run. Barclays analyst Scott Davis calls one remaining piece of GE Capital, GECAS, GE Capital Aviation Services, “a fantastic asset.” Barclays explains,

GECAS is a fantastic asset, making up more than half of the GE Capital verticals’ asset base and almost 3/4 of its profits/cash. Aircraft leasing is a lucrative and relatively stable business with favorable cyclical and secular market dynamics. The market is becoming an oligopoly with increasing concentration amongst a few key players, and GECAS is the clear leader. Large global players benefit from significant advantages, including large discounts to the latest next-gen aircraft and valuable relationships with top-tier airline customers. From a cyclical perspective, air traffic growth remains strong and lower oil has resulted in strong airline customer profitability. There are also secular tailwinds from a growing global middle class, as well as airlines increasingly choosing to lease their fleets.

'General Electric and the Pursuit of Profit' by Thomas F. O'Boyle (ISBN 0375705678) During the Jack Welch tenure, General Electric benefited from the evolution of financial services in the American economy and the growth of GE Capital. That strategy backfired in 2008 with the arrival of the financial crisis. General Electric had no competitive advantage in financial services. If anything, their risk controls were even inferior to those at other large financial institutions.

Barclays also says GECAS is an asset that’s underappreciated by investors: “We estimate that GECAS will help deliver ~$1.3–1.4B in run-rate free cash flow going forward… not an insignificant amount relative to GE’s ~$9B Industrial FCF in 2016.”

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Posted in Airlines and Airliners Business and Strategy

FedEx’s ZapMail Service: Failure to Foresee

Innovation is Not Without Risk

How Federal Express's Zapmail System Works

One of the defining characteristics of great leaders is their knack for seeing into the future.

Innovation is not without risk. There are plenty examples of failures at companies. However, on the other side of the coin, if you’re too cautious and too late—all you have is a dinosaur business. Navigating that fine line between risk and innovation is very important.

FedEx's Zapmail System Case in Point: ZapMail Service was a system that used fax machines at FedEx offices to transmit documents for clients in different cities. After being introduced in 1983, when FedEx was known as Federal Express, the service was soon eclipsed by the rise of fax machines priced cheaply enough that most offices could purchase their own. In addition, ZapMail was based on satellite technology, which needed the space shuttle to work effectively. However, the space shuttle blew up, dealing a body blow to FedEx’s plans. FedEx folded ZapMail in 1986, taking a costly write-off.

No Innovation Without Experimentation

Commenting about FedEx’s ability to integrating new acquisitions into its fold after its purchase of Paul Orfalea’s Kinko’s franchise, journalist Michael Copeland commented in the Autumn-2006 issue of Booz & Company’s Strategy & Leadership magazine:

As with other acquisitions, Fred Smith saw something in Flying Tigers and American Freightways that others didn’t because his point of focus lay far beyond theirs. Mr. Smith doesn’t always get it right when he looks into the future. His expensive and ultimately failed experiment in ZapMail, a dedicated fax network that couldn’t compete in the early 1980s with the new, inexpensive consumer fax machines, is proof. “A guy like Fred Smith doesn’t build a company like FedEx without taking some risks and making some mistakes,” says Mr. Hatfield, the Morgan Keegan analyst, “but clearly the successes far outweigh the failures.”

Federal Express's Zapmail System There can be no innovation without experimentation, and there can be no experimentation without the risk failure. In addition, taking risk goes against the grain of many companies’ cultures. In the corporate world, there are powerful incentives for people to play it safe. However, leaders must work particularly hard to offset these forces and give their teams the consent to fail and the assurance to make their case and go out on a limb. Leaders must not only promote experimentation, but also encourage people to terminate faster on projects that are not working without fear of reprisal. That is to repeat the cliche “fail, but fail as fast as possible” and take the lessons learned to the next experiment.

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Talented People Work for More Than Pay

Reevaluate your compensation and rewards to create a performance culture

Reevaluate your compensation and rewards to create a performance culture Many companies are changing how they pay to keep the people they need. People who want to remain on a fast career track need to monitor what is happening to pay and rewards. Companies no longer just use options to get and keep the best people. And, when they move to cash compensation, this creates tax problems for key people.

  • Options underwater? Don’t hold your breath for re-pricing options. But companies are making major option grants to key people. You may not get options on your company stock at the current price for a long time. So, if you are up for pay negotiations, it may be a time for more options.
  • 'Fearless Salary Negotiation' by Josh Doody (ISBN 0692568689) 2020 incentives sparse? Many incentive plans are based on earnings growth for their dollars. And some companies missed their goals near the end of 2020. It is time to look at the measures your incentive plan has for 2021. Do they start where the missed 2020 goals left off? Do you have financial goals that are realistic and based on what your company can do in 2021?
  • Base pay adjustments? This will probably be a 4 percent budget year for most companies. So you need to focus on variable pay in the form of incentives and stock options. Companies set their plans at the start of the year, and even if things get better, they don’t change their budgeting processes easily.

Paying Smart: Time of Transition

Talented People Work for More Than Pay This year will be a watershed year for pay and rewards. The game is changing fast. Leaders will have some critical decisions to make, as companies are transitioning from a period of economic growth to a time of uncertainty. In recent years, everything we did with pay and rewards seemed to work. Now companies need a powerful business case for everything they do. Pay and rewards must add value to the business—good news for a change. But people need to be agile and adaptable.

Hiring is changing—from recruitment that placed a premium on all skills to a situation where hiring is more selective. Companies should build a performance culture employment model. Rather than designing rewards to attract and keep everyone, now they need rewards that are attractive to people who add value. As businesses offer incentives and equity lower in the workforce ranks, it is important to link rewards to what drives growth. Use rewards as the engine to make the company grow again. We now know that stock options are not the “secret sauce” of financial rewards. This gives us a chance to restart equity-sharing strategies.

You need to know how to deal with a workforce that is more “pay and reward savvy.” We will now see a return to basic design elements, including workforce involvement, alignment with business metrics, win-win for company and people, and simplicity.

'Designing Effective Incentive Compensation Plans' by Sal DiFonzo (ISBN 0692568689) Companies need pay and reward solutions that are more cost justified and based on contribution to the business. Talented people work for more than pay: total rewards in the form of providing a compelling and attractive future; individual growth so people continue to add value and adapt as they grow in economic value; a positive workplace where people want to do well; and total pay comprised of base pay, incentives, recognition, celebration and benefits.

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Marketing Demographics by Age

Marketing Demographics by Age

Companies seeking long-term business growth can find it by emphasizing the earning power of young workers, near-retirees, and women.

We all want to be treated equally and fairly during the buying and service process, regardless of our age. Let’s examine how you, as a service provider, can give exceptional service by understanding the needs and values of each age group.

Marketing to The Veterans

Marketing to The Veterans These people were born before 1943. Their beliefs and values include: Everyone should adhere and conform to the same rules, regulations, and policies. Those who are older or in positions of authority automatically deserve respect. Patience is an important virtue. The bigger the better. Personal pleasure is secondary to job responsibilities and tasks.

To win them over as a lifetime customers, make them feel special by remembering their name. Honor them by calling them Mr. or Mrs. or Sir and Ma’am. Thank them for their patronage with a personal note. Add a personal touch, and show genuine interest in them as a person.

Marketing to The Boomers

Marketing to The Boomers These people were born between 1943 and 1960. Their beliefs include: If it’s not working, either fix it or move on and find something better. They value personal growth, health, and wellness. They are optimistic. They believe they are the star and deserve center stage.

To keep them as lifetime customers, provide service that treats them as individuals, not just clients. Be personable. They value personal relationships that grow with time. Be solution oriented. If you can’t fix something, be honest; and then offer alternatives. Boomers value their time and want solutions now. Don’t tell Boomers what they can do.

Marketing to Generation X

Marketing to Generation X Baby Busters or 20-somethings were born between 1960 and 1980. They have a need to be self-reliant. They value family and friends. They tend to be informal and look for fun in every situation. They treat everyone as an equal regardless of “rank” but tend to be skeptical. They have respect for knowledge and technology.

If you want them to do business with your company, show interest in their family and friends, and admire their children if they are tagging along, or their pictures are prominently displayed on their desk. Treat them as equals. Approach situations in a relaxed and informal manner. Let them ask questions and seek information. Show that you have nothing to hide. Use technology to demonstrate your product and services.

Marketing to The Nexters

Marketing to The Nexters Generation Y or the Internet Generation were born between 1980 and 2000. They tend to be optimistic, street smart and very computer and technology literate. Achievement oriented, they are also strong believers in civic duty. They learn flexibility early since many come from divorced families.

If you want these customers to do business with your company, appeal to their strengths. These young people like to spend money, and they are more likely to purchase your product if your business donates to non-profit organizations. Also, appeal to their technical shrewdness. If it makes life more convenient, easier or is the latest in technology, they will probably want it.

Conclusion: For successful marketing by age-demographics, consider each age group and customize your service

Service providers can give exceptional service by understanding the needs and values of each age group. I give these guidelines to assist you in providing the best possible customer care, but nothing will ever surpass kind and equal treatment to each and every customer you serve.

Learn to present information in a different manner to appeal to core values, which are different for each generation.

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100 Best Business Books of All Time

Following years of reading, appraising, and retailing business books, 800-CEO-READ creator Jack Covert, ex-president Todd Sattersten, and present general manager Sally Haldorson have selected and appraised the one hundred greatest business titles of all time—the ones that dispense the biggest payoff for today’s occupied readers. It’s a great list, and in the vein of all lists, bound by argument and long-windedness about what is and isn’t contained in this list. Each book gets a couple of pages of outline handling.

Best Business Books on Improving Your Life

Best Business Books on Leadership

Best Business Books on Strategy

Best Business Books on Sales and Marketing

Best Business Books on Economics and Metrics

Best Business Books on Management

Best Business Biographies

Best Business Books on Entrepreneurship

Best Narratives of Fortune and Failure

Best Business Books on Innovation and Creativity

Best Books on Big Ideas About the Future of Business

Best Business Books on Management and Leadership Lessons

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Posted in Business and Strategy Leaders and Innovators Management and Leadership Mental Models and Psychology Philosophy and Wisdom

Billionaire Li Ka-shing’s Path to Success: Biography and Timeline

Billionaire Li Ka-shing's Path to Success

At 88, Li Ka-shing (b. 29-July-1928) is the richest man in Asia, with a networth of almost $35 billion, and one of the most powerful people in the world, but he began life as a impoverished war refugee.

Here is a chronicle of Li’s systematic rise from poverty and life as a plastic flower salesman to one of the world’s richest individuals with investments in banks, container ports, digital and traditional media, energy, property, and various other businesses.

  • 'Li Ka-shing Hong Kong's Elusive Billionaire' by Anthony B. Chan (ISBN 0195900766) 1928: Born in Chaozhou in China’s Guangdong Province to a school-principal father.
  • 1940: With the Japanese invading, his father packs up the family and flees to Hong Kong. Dad dies from tuberculosis two years afterward; at 12 Li joined an uncle’s plastic-watch-strap company watch company to help with his household’s rent. “The great tug of war and the taste of povert—-they are hardly memories one can forget,” Li says.
  • 1950: He quits and starts his own small business making plastic toys, shortly switching to plastic flowers. More than a decade later, riots in Hong Kong push down property values, giving him the chance to buy up commercial real estate on the cheap. As time wore on and the war ended, young Li weighed where his future lay. The Chinese nationalists were finished, he calculated, so he laid business stakes in Hong Kong. With money tight, he skipped movies and shaved his head to extend the time between haircuts, he says. What he didn’t forgo was reading–used books, manuals, leftover journals. He credits superior preparation–he was often self-taught–for his gains. When he famously gained a manufacturing foothold with the plastic flowers in the 1950s, he says, he was able to engineer critical molding machinery with an injection process made using a Coca-Cola bottle and a plastic straw, using something he saw in Modern Plastics as a guide.
  • 'Li Ka-shing No Accidental Success' by Li Yongning (ISBN 751134352X) 1972: Li lists his holding company Cheung Kong Ltd., in Hong Kong. Investors can’t get enough. The IPO is oversubscribed more than 65-fold.
  • 1978: Li visited China, after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms had begun. He later recalled, “I went to see some friends in the guesthouse. They would write notes to me because they were afraid of being eavesdropped on. They had been scared by the Cultural Revolution. Today they can openly criticize the government.”
  • 1979: Li becomes the earliest ethnic Chinese to buy a controlling stake in one of the old British trading houses, the then-struggling Hutchinson Whampoa.
  • 1979: Li begins his foray into the port business began, when he bought control of Hutchison Whampoa, a British trading house that had long dominated Hong Kong’s economy but had been struggling. One of the assets was a successful container-terminal operation in Hong Kong.
  • 'Asian Godfathers Money and Power' by Joe Studwell (ISBN 0802143911) 1986: Acquires a controlling stake in Canada’s Husky Energy. That investment plus his other assets earn him a spot on Forbes’ first ranking of the world’s billionaires a year later. “My life has been filled with challenges. But I must say, fortune has indeed bestowed many opportunities.”
  • 1990: Less than a year after the bloody Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing, Shanghai’s mayor asked Li to invest in its port operations, a congested environment where ships had to wait up to seven days at sea before gaining dock access.
  • 1999: Jackpot! Hutchinson does its biggest deal ever: selling its stake in telecom Orange Plc. to German Mannesmann for nearly $15 billion.

Li Ka-shing Biography

  • 2006: Pledges to bequeath one-third of his wealth to the Li Ka Shing Foundation to support education and health care around the world. “We all know the importance of identifying the right capital investment. Social capital is the key”
  • 'The New Elite' by Jim Taylor, Doug Harrison (ISBN 0814400485) 2007: Goes with his gut and invests in Facebook within five minutes of hearing the pitch for the fledging business. The social network scores a big valuation ($15 billion) despite scant revenue. “A person investing in technology will feel younger.”
  • 2010 to 2014: Li trims some Chinese and Hong Kong investments and looks to Europe instead. In all, his companies spend more than $28 billion buying assets on that continent, including a water company, utility firms, and two mobile phone operators. “Businesspeople in general shouldn’t have an overly narrow view of their industry.”
  • 2015: Perceiving that more of his attention is directed overseas, the government-controlled media questions his loyalty to greater China. Li issues a three-page response denying the allegations.

Through his publicly listed Hutchison Whampoa and Cheung Kong holdings, Li ka-shing controls more than $60 billion worth of assets in telecommunications, real estate, infrastructure, ports, retailing and manufacturing, energy, and technology.

Recommended Reading

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Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz Calls It a Day

Starbucks COO Kevin Johnson is the right replacement for CEO Howard Schultz

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has called it a day, and that’s causing some investors a bit of worry, primarily because the coffee giant struggled the last time Schultz left in 2000.

Starbucks COO Kevin Johnson Replaces CEO Howard Schultz

Kevin Johnson, the current president and chief operating officer of Starbucks, will take over as CEO. Johnson is a 30-year veteran of the tech industry held senior leadership roles for 16 years at Microsoft and a five-year stint CEO of Juniper Networks.

Johnson’s consumer technology background is impressive and is a key asset for Starbucks in expanding the company’s already-leading digital platform across channels and geographies in the years to come.

Former Starbucks COO Troy Alstead Quit in January 2015

When Starbucks’ longtime COO Troy Alstead quit, Schultz wrote, “Looking back on the 23 years we spent together side-by-side as Starbucks colleagues, I can recall so many memorable moments and accomplishments in which Troy can take pride in a job well done. Troy is a beloved Starbucks partner and has played an invaluable role in our growth as an enterprise and in the development of our culture as a performance-driven company balanced with humanity, which is unique for our industry. Troy’s humanity and humility will be missed and we wish him the best.”

Starbucks' Premium Roastery and Reserve Stores

Schultz Focused on Sustaining Revenue

For the last several years, Schultz focused on sustaining revenue growth by moving beyond his coffee house roots. In 2012, he purchased Teavana as another brick in the road, which has encompassed instant coffee, energy drinks, juice, a single-serve brewer and food to sell in its shops and in grocery stores. In 2013, Starbucks and yogurt-maker Danone, declared a plan to cooperatively create an assortment of specialty yogurt products in contributing Starbucks stores in 2014 and in grocery channels in 2015 as part of the coffee chain’s growing Evolution Fresh brand. With cafe-like atmospheres and a brand that evokes a high-quality customer experience, Starbucks appreciates pricing power benefits over nearly all specialty coffee peers. This will be expanded by the development of the Starbucks Reserve sub-brand to deliver exclusive, higher-end coffee blends.

While Schultz’s forethought and attention to customer experience have been significant motives that Starbucks has established one of the widest-moat and most consistent growth stories in the global consumer coverage universe, Starbucks has one of the deepest benches in the consumer sector. While most of the focus is technically on new CEO Johnson and his wide-ranging consumer technology background, Schultz will still be immersed with the development of Starbucks’ Premium Roastery and Reserve stores.

'Onward How Starbucks Fought for Its Life' by Howard Schultz (ISBN 1609613821) Don’t liken Schultz’s switch to that of 2000, when he undertook the chairman role and assigned Jim Donald as CEO. Schultz ultimately returned as CEO in 2008 in the wake of disappointing sales figures and a “watering down of the Starbucks experience”. In his turnaround memoir Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, Schultz wrote “The merchant’s success depends on his or her ability to tell a story. What people see or hear or smell or do when they enter a space guides their feelings, enticing them to celebrate whatever the seller has to offer. Intuitively I have always understood this. So when, in 2006 and 2007, I walked into more and more Starbucks stores and sensed that we were no longer celebrating coffee, my heart sank. Our customers deserved better.”

How Starbucks Became Successful

How Starbucks Became Successful

Brand, channel, and technology advantages have positioned Starbucks for a long runway for growth:

  • Starbucks coffee is robust, and people get used to the taste, making it difficult for them to be content somewhere else, either to coffee chains such as Dunkin’ Brands, Tim Hortons, or McDonald’s. Joh. A. Benckiser’s amalgamation of Mondelez’s coffee properties (D.E Master Blenders, Peet’s, Caribou, Einstein Noah, and Keurig) are emerging as Starbucks’s noteworthy competitors. Despite the tenacity of the legend, Starbucks doesn’t really burn its beans. Nonetheless it uses two tablespoons of coffee per 6 ounces of water, which is beyond a lot of other places.
  • Decades ago, in many markets, the only place a customer could get a cappuccino was a restaurant, and there indeed weren’t any flavored or distinguished coffees anywhere. Starbucks was the pioneer in bringing those to the masses. There’s countless brand loyalty they’ve built up over the years. As good the coffee beans are a good amount of training goes in the way they make specialized drinks. Wet, dry cappucino, lattes in perfect ratios of coffee, milk and foam.
  • Starbucks has been known for being pretty generous to its employees, together with presenting full benefits to those working as a minimum 20 hours per week. That made customers feel good about buying coffee there.
  • Customers appreciate the consistency of Starbucks products. A customer can go to a Starbucks pretty much anyplace in the world, and know what they’re getting. A grande vanilla latte will be on the menu and taste the same whether in Seattle, New York, London, Istanbul, or Moscow.

The Recipe to Starbucks Success

The Recipe to Starbucks’ Success

Yet same-store sales have been decelerating, however from very high levels, and the company ran into difficulty the last time Schultz stepped back from the CEO role. Regardless of impressive growth plans, and commodity cost and foreign currency volatility, Starbucks can endure a 40%-45% dividend payout ratio over the next decade.

Some analysts and investors aren’t worried about the management change. Wells Fargo’s Bonnie Herzog acknowledged that while Schultz’s departure is “a loss, in our view the show must (and will) go on” and added, “While we acknowledge that Schultz is without question one of the strongest and most visionary leaders in the consumer/retail world, we believe the succession planning put in place several years ago assures the recent exceptional performance will likely continue.”

Starbucks Future Strategy for Invigorated Growth

Starbucks Future Strategy for Invigorated Growth

Speaking of how Starbucks’ invigorated food and beverage menu and store reformats have uplifted the Starbucks customer experience, pierced new markets and times, and enhanced unit-level productivity metrics, Herzog also wrote,

The leadership change announced today has been a long-time in the making, starting nearly 3 years ago with the shuffling of the senior leadership team, and subsequent promotion of Johnson in early 2015 to the role of President/COO. We believe that Johnson is a very capable leader, with strong experience working side-by-side Schultz for the past two years. Importantly Johnson has an exceptionally good relationship with Schultz, which should keep Schultz sufficiently removed to allow Johnson to lead effectively given his trust in Johnson, while also remaining sufficiently nearby to ensure the ship remains on course… We believe Johnson’s technology background positions him well to ensure SBUX’s mobile and digital initiatives—key to SBUX’s long-term success, in our view—will remain a primary focus of the company. Importantly, Schultz will remain focused on his ongoing efforts to premiumize the SBUX brand and experience through Roastery and Reserve stores, which should support accelerated innovation and allow the broader store network led by Johnson to continue to thrive.

Investors are also cheerful about Starbucks’ mobile, digital, and loyalty program collaborations across the various business lines, affiliations with Spotify, New York Times, and Lyft, and new payment technologies. Starbucks’ worldwide opportunities are undisputable–particularly in China, India, Japan, Brazil, and Eastern Europe–and Starbucks will apply its best practices from the U.S. to accelerate its growth aspirations.

Starbucks has organized an investor meeting next week, during which its leaders are expected to release news on current and future initiatives.

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Is Costco threatened by Amazon?

Is Costco Wholesale threatened by Amazon?

The North American retail landscape appears entirely different today than it did even ten years ago. The method that consumers make purchasing decisions has radically changed: they stand in stores, using their smartphones to match prices and product reviews; family and friends instantaneously chip in on shopping choices via social media; and when they’re ready to buy, an ever-growing list of online retailers deliver products directly to them, occasionally on the same day.

Brick-and-mortar retailers such as Costco simply focus on selling items that Amazon can’t beat them on. Some products do not lend themselves to package delivery since they are too big, heavy, cheap, fragile, or reliant on fitting properly. Likewise, lawn chairs, boots, thumbtacks, bags of cement, frozen shrimp, and thousands of other items are difficult to move via ecommerce channels.

Paradoxically, Costco is not one of the many companies that accuse Amazon for uninspiring growth or stagnation. Amazon can easily take bites out of the edges of Costco’s market share, and that’s all it takes to flatten out comparable sales, an important metric in the retailing industry.

Costco is remarkable at staying in stock on the goods it sells, but when it comes to general merchandise, you have to mostly grab what they have. Want Fancy Feast cat food? They’ve got it, but only in one specific flavor combination packet. If your cats don’t like it, so it goes. However, you can get precisely the flavors you want from Amazon, without waiting in lines.

Then there’s items like deodorants. While I’m happy to buy in quantity, I was unsure if Costco sells the brand I like. I ordered a four-pack from Amazon and it was here when I got home. Same with shaving cream. Women won’t find “Edge” shaving cream to have anything like a feminine smell. I bought it once. That was that: another item, gone to Amazon.

Costco established the warehouse club retail model, which depends on customer-friendly average markups on branded products (in the low double digits, compared to the high teens at WalMart and the mid-20s at most grocery stores), high throughput, bargaining power, a no-frills shopping environment, and supply-chain effectiveness.

Costco-Amazon Competitive Analysis

I still like Costco, and I’ll definitely continue re-upping my membership. The treasure hunt can be fun and the moveable feast is great. But quantity purchases of exactly the household items I want aren’t available often enough. It sells one kind of almond butter, two kinds of detergent. These are items that have forever left my Costco basket, and have actually caused a reduction in trips, as well.

Costco has lots of options left available to it. It rarely advertises. It can change that. It has been a real laggard in omnichannel retailing…any relationship between items on the website and items in stores is purely coincidental (or opportunistic). I think the company has to change that. There are some items that have to be touched and seen, even if the sale consummates on-line.

The company’s business model remains sound, but the assortment on certain items and sundries might have to broaden. No one wants to go on a treasure hunt for deodorant. That’s a seriously risky proposition.

In May 2016, UBS analyst Michael Lasser and team argued after Costco’s quarterly results that the quarter was so good that it “refutes the bear case that centers on the potential that Costco is losing customers to Amazon.com”:

We think this provides evidence that refutes the bear case that centers on the potential that Costco is losing customers to Amazon. Further, Costco’s op. margin was in line w. our expectations showing how well it’s managing in this tough environment. A lower than expected tax rate added ~$0.01 to EPS. While Costco’s sales slowed in 3Q, we think the deceleration was largely due to the pending transition of its credit card. We believe its sales will pick back up once the transition occurs on June 20. This provides a visible NT catalyst. Plus, there’s a secondary catalyst next year when Costco is likely to raise its membership fees. We think buying shares ahead of these catalysts is a prudent move.

Grocery One of Coscto's Advantages in comparison to Amazon

In July 2016, UBS analyst Michael Lasser and team explained why shares of Costco Wholesale soared after the company reported same-store sales for June:

While there was no mention of a disruption from the credit card transition, we believe it had some impact. So, the result would have been even better without this effect. Further, it’s probably too early for the shift to Visa (V) to have that much of a benefit. The gains should build in the coming months, driving an acceleration in Costco’s US comp. Even so, the company still generated a 3% increase in its global traffic. This type of performance warrants a premium valuation, in our view.

With the credit card switch in effect, spend/member is likely to pick up as private-label credit-card customers take advantage of the new card’s more attractive reward structure (2% cash back at Costco vs. 1% prior). Also, we think Costco’s reliance on grocery & gas sales (~2/3 of total sales) helps insulate it from Amazon.com (AMZN). These factors support our forecast of 4% core US comp growth in July, which would match its highest growth rate since Nov ’15.

Costco has long been known for giving higher wages and presenting more liberal benefits than its competitors —and producing superior sales per square foot, too. The benefits of the good old days are unreasonable because of rising costs and an aging population. Lifespan job tenure is obsolete and most people embrace workforce mobility. Yet in a consumption-based economy, workers must be able to afford more than the basics, and they deserve a certain measure of security.

Citing a recent report from Cowen’s Internet analyst John Blackledge, Cowen analyst Oliver Chen wrote that Amazon Prime members are expanding their shopping well beyond books, clothing and movies. Data shows that 22% of those Amazon Prime members shopping on the web site 3.5 times each month buy groceries on the web site.

As detailed in the Ahead of the Curve: Amazon Dominates “Prime” Time 50-page report by Cowen’s Internet Analyst John Blackledge), AMZN’s aggressive growth of Prime is both impressive and has wide ranging competitive implications given broad HHI, permeation across media and appeal among young consumers. How can bricks-and-mortar retail compete?

  • The key competitive weapon remains transformation towards a consumer-led supply chain which integrates physical stores to drive convenience—Buy online pick up in store, return in store, ship from store, and car pickup along store need to be utilized across chains;
  • proprietary relationships with vendors and vertical integration such as owning factories and direct sourcing capabilities;
  • frequency of store traffic based on inventory turns and product assortment;
  • emotional, brand-lead lifestyle contact;
  • categories which are not easily replicated online (jewelry, physical fitness); and
  • fashion & curation leadership.

Citi Costco Credit Card Citi’s new Costco Anyway card is significantly more appealing than Amex’s TrueEarnings Costco card. Costco’s management has stated that the terms Citi offered were too compelling for Costco to stay with Amex; to protect/ insure continued customer service levels in transition to Citi, there are significant and specific requirements associated with the portfolio.

Amazon.com Prime Compared to Costco Membership

Morgan Stanley’s Simeon Gutman and team conducted a survey and suggest five reasons that Costco Wholesale should remain Amazon.com-proof:

  • Amazon.com (AMZN) and Costco Are Not Mutually Exclusive. Of the 23% who are Costco members (628 respondents), 45% (285 respondents) are Amazon Prime members as well, which suggests the two retailers fulfill different consumer needs. Of the 33% surveyed who are Prime members (893 respondents), 32% (285 respondents) are also Costco members…
  • Grocery One of Coscto’s Advantages. 12.5%/11% of Costco members call out increased spending on packaged/fresh grocery, well ahead of the 5%/2% of Prime members….
  • Only 8% of People Shopping at Both Costco and Amazon Plan to Shift Dollars Away from Costco. Of the 14% (285 respondents) who shop at both, only a net 8% (32 respondents) plan to shift shopping away from Costco towards Amazon. This represents just 1% of total consumers surveyed.
  • Sticky Members with Higher Spend…with Amazon Scoring Higher on Multiple Qualitative Factors. 94%/95% of surveyed Prime/Costco members intend to renew their memberships, which speaks to high loyalty and low churn. Further, 49%/26% of Prime/Costco members indicated shopping more frequently over the past 12 months and 85% of surveyed members attributed “Retailer I Trust” to Amazon and Costco. It is also notable that Amazon scored materially higher than Costco in perceived prices, selection, convenience, quality of checkout and ease of navigation…which will be important to monitor going forward as these advantages could tilt Costco members’ toward Amazon over time.
  • Costco Members Younger than Perceived. The average Costco member is 49 years old vs. 44.5 for the average Amazon Prime member. This four-year gap seems insignificant, in our view, and is counter to the bear case that Costco does not resonate with millennials…

Implications: The survey results should be a positive step in alleviating the greatest investment debate for Costco, that the club model/Costco is at risk from Amazon.

Given that membership fees represent about 70% of Costco’s operating profit and renewal rates stand at about 90% in the U.S. and Canada, Costco’s long-term revenue and profit growth could stagnate. There is little room for additional household penetration because Costco by this time has around 80 million members; historic sales and earnings growth predictions may not be maintainable. Also, new club openings in current markets could cause cannibalization of sales from older locations. Not to mention of challenges in acquiring appropriate real estate choices for 140,000-square-foot warehouse clubs in urban regions.

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Costco’s Winning Business Model Strategy

Costco Logo: Costco's Winning Business Model Strategy

Costco has built a devoted foundation of customers with low prices and workers with high wages. The discount warehouse services industry is highly competitive. There are several warehouse operators across the United States and Canada that offer similar merchandise quality, selection, and price.

At the end of financial year 2015, Costco managed 480 membership warehouse clubs in the United States, 89 in Canada, 36 in Mexico, 27 in the United Kingdom, 23 in Japan, 11 in Taiwan, 12 in Korea, 7 in Australia, and one in Spain. Base and executive memberships cost $55 and $110 per year, respectively. The company operates 557 warehouse stores, 406 of which are situated in 40 U.S. States and Puerto Rico. The rest are in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and the United Kingdom.

The internet has made it immeasurably easier for shoppers to chase for the latest deal—and a lot more demanding for brick-and- mortar retailers to command customer loyalty. However, Costco has managed to resist the tendency—with only 3% of its retail sales occurring from e-commerce. In reality, it outclasses other retailers when it comes to dependably increasing sales from its millions of loyal shoppers.

At the warehouse stores, forklifts relocate pallets into racks such that the first time an item is actually touched is when the consumer contacts into the shelf to collect the item and places it into their shopping cart.

Costco's Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Costco’s Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Costco’s objective has been to increase sales while cutting long-term costs (by trimming freight expenses, scaling its merchandise, negotiating prices with vendors, and reducing packaging) with the intention that it can pass those savings down to members. Costco has said that its “rule of thumb is to give 80% to 90% back to the customer.” Those efforts have paid off, with memberships reaching an all-time peak of 81 million members in 2015.

Shiny steel caskets exhibited amongst the stacks of snow tires and pallets of heavy applesauce, rose-scented toilet tissue, mentholated shaving cream, and mild-flavored salsa. However, in time, people may grow familiarized to the sight. By including these special deal items to the cart, the total spend at the cash register expands. This behavior diverges severely with the type of consumer who has the self-control to fill up on everyday consumables at everyday low prices. The latter type of consumer does win in the end even if the cost of the membership is factored into the equation. As one (rather demonstrative) instance, when reviewing the 1999 Kroger-Fred Meyer merger, the FTC vindicated this definition by asserting,

Supermarkets compete primarily with other supermarkets that provide one-stop shopping for food and grocery products. Supermarkets primarily base their food and grocery prices on the prices of food and grocery products sold at nearby supermarkets. Supermarkets do not regularly price-check food and grocery products sold at other types of stores and do not significantly change their food and grocery prices in response to prices at other types of stores. Most consumers shopping for food and grocery products at supermarkets are not likely to shop elsewhere in response to a small price increase by supermarkets.

What Makes Costco Successful

What Makes Costco Successful

Renewals of Costco’s $55 annual memberships stand at a remarkable 91%—a record high. On the word of financial analysts, the low price of memberships and a stable return of loyal members is what sets Costco apart from big box and department store retailers which persist to fight for market-share gains in a altering landscape of increased competition from online retailers led by Amazon. Costco’s ability to dependably drive increases in traffic is a key differentiator.

Everything at Costco is continually being evaluated for productivity. Costco manages a mix of distribution facilities to accomplish the overall objective of operating with an efficient supply chain. The company lately substituted the form of their milk cartons to get rid of the empty space at the top. They can fill thinner jugs all the way to the top, so they can get more gallons onto the same amount of space on a freight truck. The loss-leader abilities of Costco’s business model ought to endure to drive market share advances over the long term. However, it is possible that incumbent grocers could react to Costco, Sam’s Club, or Walmart Supercenter entry along one or more of these non-price dimensions, in which case their prices could continue unaffected or rise.

Costco’s philosophy is to provide its members with quality goods at the most competitive prices. It does not concentrate its efforts on maximizing prices in the short term, but instead focuses to maintain a perception among its members of “pricing authority,” or constantly providing the most competitive prices. This question is actually quite complex in that it has multiple answers that boil down to individual consumer behavior. The reality is that Costco has perfected a purchasing strategy known as the “treasure hunt” which means that there are always new items and tempting deals that extemporaneously come and go. The consumer who walks every aisle knows what I mean by this because they are subconsciously on the treasure hunt.

During the next 10 years, warehouse openings should move the number of primary cardholders to 65 million–75 million, up from 45 million in the most current fiscal year. In spite of having warehouses that spanned three acres, and piles of merchandise stacked to the ceiling, Costco carried only 4,000 carefully chosen products at a time. Three-quarters of the items were such “basic” products as batteries, laundry detergent, and instant noodles. Then there were the “high-end” name-brand products, which might be stocked at Costco one day and then gone the next.

Costco Employees Happier with Wages and Benefits

Costco Employees Happier with Wages and Benefits

While Walmart and Target just recently began increasing take-home pay for their employees, Costco has been an industry trendsetter for years. With starting hourly pay at about $11.50 and a company average of $22 per hour, Costco’s compensation costs beat the competition. Costco has asserted that paying employees well can be more advantageous eventually by keeping turnover low and capitalizing on employee efficiency. Actually, turnover stands at about 10% compared with the industry average of 55%. For employees who have been there more than one year turnover drops to just 6%. Employees rarely leave: The company turnover rate is 5% among employees who have been there over a year, and less than 1% among the executive ranks. Costco management has asserted that loyal employees bring about better customer service.

Costco purchases the majority of their merchandise promptly from manufacturers and routes it through a network of cross-docking facilities, which act as merchant consolidation points to move goods in full truckload volumes to the stores. Sam’s Club carries about 4900 items and Costco around 4000; by comparison, the normal grocery store carries approximately 50,000 and the average Walmart about 100,000. Furthermore, the shopping experience at warehouse clubs is unusual—members pay a fee for access to goods stacked high and sold in wholesale quantities in low-amenity environments. Warehouse clubs are very spartan in their accommodations. They do not bag consumers’ purchases, and a club employee checks all shoppers’ carts and receipts on exit.

Secret to Costco's Success Lies in Supply Chain Efficiency

The Secret to Costco’s Success Lies in Supply Chain Efficiency

Big-box retailers Costco, Sam’s Club, BJ’s Wholesale, and Walmart, along with full-service and fast food restaurants, are significant contributors to the nation’s obesity outbreak. Costco continues to productively increase its businesses, on account of its low prices and robust customer loyalty. Its ability to provide quality products, at a reasonable price, should appeal to most consumers in North America and around the world. While competition in the market remains ferocious, Costco’s leadership is taking the right steps to guide the company into the future. Over the years, Costco added departments, growing further than the traditional discount warehouse offerings. A large majority of the stores featured a drugstore, an optical-dispensing center, one-hour photo services, a food court, and the ever admired and low-priced hot-dog stands. More than half-offered hearing-aid centers and a handful were equipped with print shops and copy centers. More generally, not all big-box chains are created equal. The big-box retail literature has fixated almost exclusively on Walmart, examining its effects on a wide range of outcomes, including prices, labor market consequences, small business activity, time use, obesity, and social and cultural pointers.

Using city-level panel grocery price data matched with an exclusive data set on Walmart and warehouse club locations, customers find that Costco entry is associated with higher grocery prices at obligatory retailers and that the effect is sturdiest in cities with small populations and high grocery store densities. The competitive response need not be to reduce prices; conversely, as segmented-market models with a mix of brand-loyal and price-sensitive consumers have shown that in some cases incumbents can increase prices in response to a low-cost entrant.

The lesson to be learned from Costco for every manufacturer, distributor, or retailer, regardless of industry, is to figure out how to eliminate the fingerprints within the respective supply chain and within internal processes.

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