Retail Math: Ladder of Causation

The Wall Street Journal: “Suppose, for example, that a drugstore decides to entrust its pricing to a machine learning program that we’ll call Charlie. The program reviews the store’s records and sees that past variations of the price of toothpaste haven’t correlated with changes in sales volume. So Charlie recommends raising the price to generate more revenue. A month later, the sales of toothpaste have dropped—along with dental floss, cookies and other items. Where did Charlie go wrong?”

“Charlie didn’t understand that the previous (human) manager varied prices only when the competition did. When Charlie unilaterally raised the price, dentally price-conscious customers took their business elsewhere. The example shows that historical data alone tells us nothing about causes—and that the direction of causation is crucial.”

“Machine-learning systems have made astounding progress at analyzing data patterns, but that is the low-hanging fruit of artificial intelligence. To reach the higher fruit, AI needs a ladder, which we call the Ladder of Causation … To reach the higher rungs, in place of ever-more data, machines need a model of the underlying causal factors—essentially, a mathematics of cause and effect.”

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Slow Tickets: Swift ‘Reputation’ for Empty Seats

The Wall Street Journal: “The biggest pop star’s current concert tour isn’t a sellout. And that’s a good thing, according to some in the concert industry. Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ tour, which kicked off last week in Glendale, Ariz., is a test case in squeezing out scalpers and capturing more profits from ticket sales. The strategy … is to use aggressive pricing to limit the ability of scalpers to purchase tickets and later sell them at higher prices. In addition, a program from Ticketmaster is aimed at giving passionate fans earlier access to tickets at discounted prices.”

“One downside to the plan: empty seats at some of the roughly 36 stadiums on Ms. Swift’s 53-date tour. However, even if those seats remain unsold, the ‘Reputation’ tour already has grossed more on its North American leg than Ms. Swift’s previous tour in 2015 … For decades, artists and their teams have claimed ‘sold out’ shows as a badge of honor showing the high demand for their music. The new approach is raising questions in the music industry about whether an end is nearing for the days of instant sellouts.”

“The best seats—some with added VIP perks—cost $800 to $1,500 at face value for a given show, with those immediately behind them at $250 each. Spots in the back of the house go for about $50.”

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Stadium Goods: Getting Kicks From Luxury

The New York Times</strong>: “To walk into the 3,000-square-foot Stadium Goods store in SoHo is to be confronted by rows and rows of pristine, shrink-wrapped athletic footwear. Look closely and you might be a little stunned by the price tags. On a recent afternoon, for instance, a pair of white Nike Jordan 1’s by the fashion designer Virgil Abloh (Off-White, Louis Vuitton) originally priced at $190, was selling for $2,750 … Nearby was a rare pair of Adidas PW Human Race NMD TR, designed by the musician Pharrell Williams. Price tag: $12,350.”

“Sneaker fanatics have been around for decades, with swaps and buys largely happening on eBay or as personal transactions. But it’s only in the last few years that the reseller market has accelerated and gone sharply upscale. John McPheters, who co-founded Stadium Goods with Jed Stiller, says the shift has been driven by ‘men who are now learning from childhood how to treat fashion as a sport — the way that women have always treated fashion’.”

“The partners believe the future of sneaker retail will be a hybrid model combining traditional channels and aftermarket selling. ‘We’re a microcosm of what’s hot,’ Mr. Stiller said, noting that in the sneaker world what’s trending is not necessarily the newest item. ‘Where a lot of retailers are dependent on what brands are releasing at the moment, we’re not. Ninety-five percent of our stock are styles that are no longer on the market’.”

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H&M Stores Buy Into Big Data

The Wall Street Journal: “H&M, like most retailers, relies on a team of designers to figure out what shoppers want to buy. Now, it’s using algorithms to analyze store receipts, returns and loyalty-card data to better align supply and demand, with the goal of reducing markdowns. As a result, some stores have started carrying more fashion and fewer basics such as T-shirts and leggings … H&M’s strategy of using granular data to tailor merchandise in each store to local tastes, rather than take a cookie-cutter approach that groups stores by location or size, is largely untested in the retail industry, consultants say.”

“The H&M store in Stockholm’s swanky residential Östermalm neighborhood hints at how data can help. The store used to focus on basics for men, women and children, with managers assuming that was what local customers wanted. But by analyzing purchases and returns in a more granular way, H&M found most of the store’s customers were women, and fashion-focused items like floral skirts in pastel colors for spring, along with higher-priced items, sold unexpectedly well.”

“With the help of about 200 data scientists, analysts and engineers—internal staff and external contractors—H&M also is using analytics to look back on purchasing patterns for every item in each of its stores. The data pool includes information collected from five billion visits last year to its stores and websites, along with what it buys or scrapes from external sources … The chain uses algorithms to take into account factors such as currency fluctuations and the cost of raw materials, to ensure goods are priced right when they arrive in stores.” Nils Vinge of H&M comments: “The algorithms work around the clock and adjust continuously to the customers’ ever-changing behavior and expectations.”

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Are Shoppers ‘Primed’ For Price Hikes?

The Washington Post: “Hard-wired into the DNA of companies of all kinds is a fear of losing customers with even the slightest uptick in prices. Netflix watchers and McDonald’s eaters appeared undeterred by the rise in subscription and menu costs over the past seven months, with both companies reporting strong sales growth in the first quarter … Amazon may be the next big test of whether consumers who are already stretching their pocketbooks will open them even wider.”

“The retail giant announced … that the price of a Prime membership will increase 20 percent, to $119 per year.” Ryan Hamilton, an associate professor of marketing at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, comments: “In general, people are sensitive to losses, and price increases count as losses psychologically. The broader perspective, though, is that people tend to be willing to pay for what they perceive as value.”

“Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, noted that in deciding when to raise prices, companies have to time the rollout carefully. Make the announcement too abruptly and viral anxiety might cause customers to drop off. A safer bet is often to announce weeks ahead of when the change will go into effect. At that point, customers are less likely to fixate on a hit to the wallet that’s still weeks away.” He elaborates: “But if it’s [done] the day it happens, there’s this huge outcry. It can start framing in their minds that they are getting ripped off. The outcry is not going to happen if the soft launch in done months ahead of time.”

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Branding The Brandless Brand

Business Insider: Brandless, “which sells food and consumable essentials all for $3 and pitched itself as the “Procter & Gamble for millennials,” first launched in July … The brand is now moving into the physical world with a pop-launching in May, called ‘Popup with a Purpose.’ It will be a ‘three-dimensional experience of the values of what Brandless is really about,’ according to CEO and co-founder Tina Sharkey. The Brandless brand will be on display, but no products will be for sale. Instead, the 3,500 square foot location on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles will be offering samples, and opportunities to “live, learn, and love with intention,” according to a press release.”

“The pop-up will be interactive and there will be panels, workshops, and talks by experts in the fields associated with the areas of food and wellness that Brandless has staked out. Along with the pop-up, Brandless is also launching a lifestyle blog that will be focused on educating consumers of the claimed benefits of, for example, ‘tree-free toilet paper’.”

“Sharkey sees Brandless as filling gaps where the ease of shipping and low point of entry can allow people to try new things — like gluten-free baking mix — that would otherwise be either too expensive or just hard to find locally in some areas … The B.more membership program, which previously only lowered the free shipping order threshold to $48 dollars, now makes all orders ship free. The company has since started focusing on offering B.more to repeat Brandless customers.”

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Retail Politics: Is Fast Fashion Tone Deaf?

The New York Times: “Every once in a while, tucked into the stream of speedily made garments rushed into stores, designs with shockingly bad taste stand out: a shirt comparing women to dogs at Topman, symbols of the Holocaust on a top at Zara … Retail experts blame a heated competitive environment, where companies, many of them based in Europe, are spread thin trying to cater to a global customer base that is easily bored, is extremely demanding and can buy almost anything via e-commerce. Many brands develop a cavalier attitude: Churn out products now, ask forgiveness later.”

“Earlier this year, H&M, one of the largest clothing retailers in the world … was taken to task over a children’s hoodie emblazoned with the phrase ‘coolest monkey in the jungle’ and modeled in marketing materials by a young black boy. The description, which has been used to dehumanize black people, set off protests at South African stores that left mannequins toppled and racks overturned. In the aftermath, H&M chose a lawyer and company insider, Annie Wu, to lead a new four-person team at its Stockholm headquarters focused on global diversity and inclusiveness.” She comments: “We didn’t recognize that in this now new age of transparency, what the brand stands for is super important to people.”

“Fast fashion companies, which specialize in low-priced, quickly produced clothing and have grown faster than the apparel industry as a whole for years, are under pressure to be more prolific and provocative as they sell across more borders. H&M, which added 479 stores last year, now has more than 4,000 stores in dozens of countries … retail experts said that much of the creative process takes place in and around its European home office, far from many of its markets … Fast fashion has produced tone-deaf products for years, passing them off as a rounding error given the enormous volume of items the companies generate each year … Several companies have pledged to diversify hiring, retool corporate guidelines and initiate other measures to prevent mistakes from going out the door.”

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Eateries Experiment with Split-Menu Pricing

The Wall Street Journal: “When the Michelin-starred, Paris-based chef Joël Robuchon opened his high-end L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant in the Meatpacking District last November, he had it share space with his “elegant, yet approachable” Le Grill de Joël Robuchon concept. At the former, a main course can cost as much as $135 and tasting menus run $145 to $265. At the latter, there is a three-course prix-fixe menu for $65. All prices include tipping.”

“Agern, the Nordic-inspired restaurant in Grand Central Terminal that also offers $100-plus tasting menus, has taken another approach to pricing. In recent weeks, it has expanded its a la carte offerings—even going so far as to add a burger and chicken wings, albeit in gourmet-minded versions. The $26 burger, for example, is made with a secret-spice mix, according to chef Gunnar Gíslason, and is served on a bun seasoned with smoked salt and vegetable ‘ash’.”

“Ultimately, each restaurant may have its individual reasons for adopting lower-price models and approaches. But if there is a common thread, it is the increased emphasis on casual dining in our culinary culture, says Arlene Spiegel, a New York-based hospitality consultant. Today’s diner ‘doesn’t want the restaurant to tell them what to wear or how much to spend,’ she says. ‘They want to feel welcome whether they are in jeans or tuxedos’.”

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Airport Malls: The Call of Duty-Free

The Wall Street Journal: “In the age of online shopping, retailers are finding that airports can take some of the sting out of declining mall traffic. Travelers have time to kill and money to spend when they’re captive inside airport security. Major airports around the world, from Singapore to Dubai, London to Beijing, have essentially become shopping malls with gates.”

“And the U.S. is finally starting to catch up. Just as they have upgraded restaurants and basic amenities like power outlets, U.S. airports are finding they need to improve duty-free stores, which have become a necessity for many world travelers who routinely stock up on perfume, cosmetics, alcohol and chocolate coming home from trips … Airports like duty-free shops because they get a cut of the revenue; luxury-goods makers like the chance to interact in person with shoppers; and customers like the convenience, savings and opportunity for capricious purchases.”

“Moët Hennessy, the Paris-based maker of Champagne and cognac, has a boutique in the Dallas duty-free store where it does tastings of rare editions—a spot of cognac before boarding. The unit of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH sees airport retail as a chance to educate consumers about its brand … The store has no doors; travelers just wander through. Brands have their own areas, creating a boutique feel. There is some seating upstairs on an open, second level designed for events such as tastings, entertainment and parties that will lure curious passengers.”

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Fake Discounts: The Price You Pay

The Washington Post: “Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s researchers tracked prices of big-ticket items sold at major retailers for 10 months and found disturbing pricing practices at 17 of the 19 studied. At these stores, many sale prices — even those that advertise big savings — are in place more than half the time. And at some stores, the ‘sales’ never end: For several chains, Checkbook found that most items it tracked were offered at a discount every week or almost every week.”

“Although Checkbook found that almost all the stores it checked often advertise misleading sales, some have more egregious pricing practices than others. For J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s and Sears, the items tracked were offered at sale prices more than 75 percent of the time. For example, at Neiman Marcus and Sears, 10 of the items tracked at both retailers were on sale every week for 10 months.”

“But nearly all the stores at which Checkbook shopped are guilty of some sales-price chicanery — among them, only Costco and Bed Bath & Beyond consistently conducted legitimate sales, meaning any discounts were in place less than half the time. The other 17 retailers as a group marked their items ‘on sale’ 57 percent of the time.”

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