How E-commerce is Eroding Retailer Earnings: Study

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A new study from retail consulting firm HRC Advisory provides groundbreaking insight into how online sales are eating into retailer profits in the United States, and how Canadian retailers should be trying to mitigate this effect as e-commerce becomes a larger component of their businesses. According to HRC’s CEO, Antony Karabus, Canadian retailers still have time to avoid this situation that is affecting numerous U.S. retailers.

The HRC Advisory study analyzed sales revenues for 37 of North America’s top retailers (many of whom also do business in Canada), examining growth and share of online versus brick-and-mortar retail sales. The study found that between 2011 and 2015, while online sales were growing substantially for the vast majority of retailers, many of the same retailers experienced flat to modestly declining sales in their brick-and-mortar stores over the same period.  

In some instances, the numbers were profound. The study specifically found that for 11 luxury and department store chains, the aggregate brick and mortar sales growth rate has been at negative 1% since 2011, with sales per store declining by 2.5%. To contrast, aggregate online sales for the same group grew by 178% since 2011, reaching 16.6% of total company sales in 2015 versus 6.5% in 2011. The significant online growth barely compensated for the decline in aggregate brick and mortar sales over the same period, as in-store sales still comprise the lion’s share of total sales, being 83.5% of total sales in 2015 (versus 93.5% in 2011). For 22 U.S-headquartered North American specialty apparel and beauty chains, the aggregate increase in brick and mortar sales was an anemic 3% since 2011, with sales per store declining by 5% over this period. Online sales for this group of retailers grew by 59% since 2011, reaching 17% of total company sales in 2015 versus 11.8% in 2011.

In addition to this financial research, Mr. Karabus interviewed 15 U.S Retail CEOs and CFOs to better understand the impact of e-commerce on operating earnings. Mr. Karabus determined that EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) as a percent of total sales have declined 25% percent or more for many retailers – due entirely to the combined impact of the channel shift from in-store to online sales, the high additional investments that retailers have been making to enable e-commerce and omni-channel capabilities and the much higher variable cost of servicing, completing and fulfilling e-commerce transactions.

In terms of e-commerce maturity and penetration, Canada is about two to three years behind the United States, according to Mr. Karabus, who led this significant HRC Advisory study. Having the foresight of what is happening south of the border is an advantage to Canadian retailers, Mr. Karabus noted, and he suggested solutions best suited to this market.

Given Canada’s generally sparse population density and large geographic area, the cost of fulfilling product ordered online to customer homes can be extremely expensive. Mr. Karabus therefore suggests that Canadian retailers focus omni-channel endeavours into the realm of click-and-collect, for several reasons. Besides the cost savings and efficiencies of shipping to stores for pickup, click-and-collect sees fewer returns (because the consumer can examine goods at pickup and cancel the sale while in the store if they choose to), increased engagement/relationship building with store employees, instant consumer gratification, and the opportunity to suggest a further purchase while the consumer is in-store. Picking up product is also more convenient for busy households that might not otherwise be home at the time of delivery.

The study also notes that in the United States, the rate of growth for e-commerce after a number of years of very high growth is now de-escalating — for all sectors studied, online sales growth dropped to 10.4% in 2015 from 16.3% in 2012. Although many Canadian retailers continue to see double-digit growth in online sales volume, Mr. Karabus is of the opinion that the online growth rates will naturally peak and start declining in the same way in 2-3 years’ time as has already occurred south of the border.

As part of the report, HRC Advisory made five recommendations for retailers to mitigate potential negative consequences of e-commerce on retailers:  

1) Maximize the value of their local assets — which is a huge advantage over Amazon and the pure play online retailers.

2) Re-calibrate their store fleet footprints and close or re-purpose weaker locations and outlets to provide additional fulfillment assets, thereby increasing their productivity and lowering variable costs.

3) Objectively examine store and support infrastructure costs and make informed choices as to where and how and when to invest in digital and brick and mortar channels.

4) Re-examine breadth and depth of free shipping and return policies. Do not try to beat Amazon at its own game.

5) Fine-tune price-matching policies to reduce negative impact on gross margins without losing the sale.

Furthermore, Mr. Karabus says that strong Canadian retailers can utilize click-and-collect to drive increases in market share. Leading Canadian retailers which are performing extremely well, may be able to increase market share from weaker competitors as they further drive new and existing consumers to stores through online channels and in-store pickup, he said.

Article Author

Craig Patterson
Craig Patterson
Located in Toronto, Craig is the Publisher & CEO of Retail Insider Media Ltd. He is also a retail analyst and consultant, Advisor at the University of Alberta School Centre for Cities and Communities in Edmonton, former lawyer and a public speaker. He has studied the Canadian retail landscape for over 25 years and he holds Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws Degrees.

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