Talking Shop with Rick Watson
Guest: Rick Watson
Topics: E-commerce, DTC brands
Chris Ressa 0:00
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Welcome to retail retold everyone. Today I am joined by Rick Watson. Rick has been an E-commerce innovator and operator for over 20 years. Recently, he created and founded his E commerce consulting platform where he advises ecommerce retailers. I’m excited for him to be here. Welcome to the show, Rick.
Rick Watson 1:27
Thanks a lot, Chris. Really happy to be here.
So Rick, why don’t you tell everyone a little bit more about who you are and what you do?
Yeah, so you know, I’m probably a little bit different than your average guest on the show who you know, focuses on retail, which, so hopefully it’s a it’s a safe place for me. And so I’ve been in E commerce for the past 20 years originally in technology, and then kind of over time, with with companies like ChannelAdvisor Pitney Bowes, merchant tree, Barnes and noble.com, helping them scale their online businesses. Three years ago, I founded a consulting firm called Arm W commerce. And I’ve worked with a number of private equity brands that are essentially trying to scale their e commerce businesses, what they see is that ecommerce isn’t going anywhere. And many of them have been doing business the same way for 2025 years, and they need someone to help with PayPal process technology. What should the roadmap look like for our brand? Is it marketplaces? Is it direct to consumer? How does that overlap, or not hurt our existing, usually retail clients? So they’re on the shelves on Lowe’s and Home Depot and Walmart and places like this? And one of the reasons they haven’t taken advantage of E commerce so far is their sales team doesn’t want them to?
Understood, understood. Um, how did you get started in E commerce?
Yeah, so I started out as a software engineer, back in 9899. And one of the first companies I worked at what’s called channel advisor. And, you know, kind of think back 20 plus years ago, eBay IPO in 98. And so that was one of the first big IPOs and kind of the.com era and the E commerce revolution. And he Scott, the CEO founded a company called Chanalyzer, which, you know, the goal of which is to help small brands and large brands sell on online auction sites. So really, he was one of the first software providers that saw that this marketplace idea, the fact that there are 2 million businesses selling products on Amazon’s website was going to be a big business. So I was actually at that company for 10 years, I was in product management and technology. And so I really got a front row seat to work with eBay, Amazon, Google, from very early days and work with merchants trying to figure out like, how do I ship products? How do I market myself online?
Excellent. Very cool. Okay, I think we got some cool stuff to talk about today. Before we do. I want the audience to get to know Rick, a little bit more. I’ve got three questions for you. We call this clear the air. Tell me if you’re ready.
I’m ready. I’m ready.
Question one. What is one skill you don’t possess? But wish you did?
You know, I think it’s an interesting question. I would say graphics and and design and design is an interesting area where you’re always like trying to create a presentation or whatever and you’re like, I want to make it look nicer. And you’re like, there’s only so nice I can make a presentation. I can do the basics, but I’m a little bit font blind and the design might look like stick figures or it just doesn’t look pretty. So having that skill yourself and not having to go you know, to someone else to clean that up. I think that would be nice.
You’re not alone there. Yeah. I can’t draw a stick figure with a ruler. So I understand. Okay. Question two. When is the last time you tried something for the first time, Rick?
tried for the first time probably, I was thinking about this question. And about three or four months ago, I actually started my own podcast, which I had never done before. You know, I do a lot of writing and speaking, but never had tried podcasting before. So that’s been fun. So I started a weekly ecommerce podcast, it’s essentially a digest format. It’s not like this format, it’s like maybe 10 or 15 minutes every week, where it just updates on what’s going on not only sort of what’s happening, but the analysis of why it’s happening and what it means for listeners, and so something every Monday morning, it’s called the Watson weekly, I encourage folks to check it out. But that’s, that’s been a big thing for me. And I think, two things I’ve learned. One is just the consistency and the habit of it is it’s challenging. And the format demands that you continue to produce new content. And then just the idea that you’re you’re on when when the recording was on, as you’re on obviously, there’s post production, and then things like this, but ultimately, it’s about you. And so it’s a more intimate format.
For sure. Any, anything I can help with that? Let me know I’m about 150 episodes in so I’m very, yeah. Last question. What is one thing most people agree with, but you do not?
You know, I think, like the guy the question is, like, who is most people? You know, I think the I think if you look at kind of the retail, breakups that are happening, or attempting to be happening, you would probably saying that I called Wall Street is very happy that Saks is breaking up. The retail stores and AECOM and Macy’s stock is up because the market thinks they’re looking at breaking up as well. And then Kohl’s is now being targeted. So I think for investors, that’s going to be great. First of all, I can’t figure out why they can’t value the same company, the same way, rather than having Why does it have to be two different companies that I don’t understand. And I also don’t agree that they’re going to be able to make the consumer experience as good as a unified company. In the long term.
I’m curious to see on the profitability on the standalone as well. So we could talk about that later. So thanks for that. Little those insights about you, Rick, really appreciate it. I really echo your artistic concerns. I have the same. But we’ve got three things we’re going to talk about, hopefully we get to them all, if not, no worries. But the first thing that we’re going to talk about is what’s going on in supply chain logistics, and how our groups thinking about it, and not necessarily about the shortages we’re having, but how are people trying to solve for supply chain, get products to consumers on a go forward? So I’m just going to put that out there and let you kind of respond to that.
Yeah, I mean, particularly, I think, you know, the world has evolved in an interesting way. And Amazon didn’t know a thing about retail, when it started it learned everything Amazon knows that it learns from Walmart, and and, and even Jeff Bezos would admit this and has admitted this in interviews and books that, you know, they basically went to Bentonville and just try to get as much information as possible and hired all these Walmart people. So I think even from the get beginning, Walmart knew that retail is logistics, which I think is pretty common knowledge. If you’re in the space for a long time. I think the scale of the E commerce delivery network now is at a scale, you know, it’s only seen by, you know, maybe someone like Alibaba and Asia, but no one else in America where, you know, in the next three or four years, I personally think Amazon’s gonna be three or four times bigger than UPS even. What does that mean for the rest of retail? Like, how can you match Amazon’s delivery performance? And I think if you look at who is doing a good job, even coming close to what Amazon is doing, the first company that I think still does not get enough credit in the world is target. And they saw that, look, there’s this thing called Amazon that is not going away for a while they’ve been really big for 15 years. They’re right about the consumer experience. However, we can’t deliver the same way that Amazon does. We have to make the stores the center of our strategy. So to me, that’s the start of thinking about supply chain in a different way. And in treating your stores as fulfillment centers. I think really, they have played a pioneering role in that.
Yeah, I agree. I think they have. We were talking offline. My wife loves target. You know, they have this and I talked about target a lot because their app is phenomenal, right? You can Get it something from shipped delivered to your house a couple hours. You can go shop the store, you can buy it online, pick it up in the store, or you can buy it online and they’ll drop it in your trunk. And they execute unbelievably, with this. So they’re really, really amazing. The the place that I go, though Rick is on target and Amazon are excellent companies, right? They got and they’ve got these big balance sheets, they’re multi multi billion dollar companies. And I often say like ecommerce. 65% of all ecommerce sales are done by 10 companies. And there’s 2.1 million online stores. And I’ll tell you, the you’ll like this, I gave my my 2022 predictions. It was in my last podcast, for retail real estate. My number one is that in 2022, more online stores will close than physical stores. There there’s there’s there’s too many stores going after too few pie with customer acquisition costs and reverse logistics. The math doesn’t work for a lot of these brands. That doesn’t mean ecommerce sales are not going to grow. I just think it’s going to be Amazon Walmart target, getting their share Wayfarer, getting their share Costco getting their share. So how what can these smaller brands direct to consumer brands do because most of these companies will never have the logistics capabilities of target Walmart, Amazon, and this logistics war that’s happening. And if they even try, they’ll be trying is his is death? Because they will they don’t have the money to get there. They’ll go broke trying. So what do they do?
Yeah, I think there’s a couple of things. Number one is, I think you need to separate who’s trying to compete, you know, just because they’re both online doesn’t mean they’re necessarily competing with each other. So I think the short answer with everyone is you’re not trying to be Amazon, you’re trying not to be Walmart or Target, you’re trying to be a different look and feel for a niche audience. And you don’t need the kind of scale that they do. So I think that’s to me, that’s where I start. Second is, I think the logistics service providers space will continue to grow, where, to your point, there are only so many companies. And you know, I think Amazon Walmart and Target are investing the most. And they’re acquiring startups for this, to add to their own capabilities. Everyone else has to use the service provider, which means there’s actually a big supply chain technology space for third parties to actually help these brands scale in the regional and then eventually national area to improve their logistics capability. So they will help you figure out where does your inventory need to be to get it close to your consumers. And they will help you execute things like curbside, you know, multi hour delivery. Now, isn’t everyone’s first thing they need to do all the time? Not necessarily. But I think the short answer is those third party service providers will is a big part of the solution for people.
That’s interesting. Don’t hear that enough. But that’s an interesting perspective. One of the places I go to what I’m hearing that though, is you mentioned one part about I actually agree, not everybody needs the scale of Amazon, target Walmart. These are international companies they and they’re selling primarily commodities. There are a lot of retail products that quite candidly, Amazon, Walmart and Target don’t want to sell, they don’t sell. When we, as much as they have depth of merchandise, there’s still a lot of products that they’re not getting into. They’re there. They’re selling a lot of Pampers and Pepsi. And probably if that’s what you want to sell, it’s going to be a tough road to open up a e commerce or physical business trying to get in the Pampers and Pepsi business and compete with them. But you mentioned, I agree, they don’t have to get to that scale. But even if you look at some of these DTC brands, it seems to be that getting to scale is what they’re telling everyone is the answer to the profitability problem. And it’s, and now it’s getting it’s widening. Because the more they try to get to scale, the bigger the costs get, and it seems like this never ending race to get to scale. Because that’s the holy grail of profitability. And it seems to still be a challenge to get there. And yet, they’re all trying to get to scale up
I look, I definitely agree with you, I think the dirty secret of direct consumer brands is that it’s very hard, particularly in them, like apparel and lifestyle to get farther than a $200 million business. You know, just because no one knows who you are. And you look at it with Wal Allbirds, or view worry, or any of these sort of up and coming ones that, you know, maybe have enough to buy nationwide. television ads, even though most of these brands don’t even have that kind of distribution. But if you look at, you compare the number of Google searches for Google lemon versus Allbirds, for instance, which is trying to be another lifestyle brand. And they’re not even the same chart these like 20 times bigger. So that’s kind of what these brands are up against. And so what generally has seemed to happen is, because these are venture backed businesses, venture back, investors are looking for return, they tend to be acquired, rather than being able to go it alone, forever. And so I think that that also helps. That’s also something you have to think about what these brands most of these are like, they started as one or two product companies, you know, whether it’s like Tommy John, with underwear, or all birds with the single shoe, you’re not going to scale a nationwide retail business on the back of like five products or just, you don’t who would walk in that store?
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That brings to the next point from an E commerce person, what do you think of all these direct to consumer brands opening up physical stores?
Okay, I think it’s interesting. I think for many of them, it can be profitable if they take their time and figure it out. Because I think the biggest problem, there are two problems that most of these direct consumer brands have. Number one is no one knows who they are, they tend to start on the coasts. And so everyone in middle America doesn’t care about all birds. What do they know, they know Nike, they know Adidas, and most people aren’t looking for these brands, you know, because they start you know, some usually a lot of times the hot trend in the in the in big cities. But so they need people to know who they are, it’s very hard to infer any brand anywhere to introduce new product without some kind of physical experience, period and discussion like online has not solved that problem, you know, even for even for Amazon. And so their devices are getting stores, and they’re seeing the need for retail too. And second is profitability. And so it’s particularly after the changes that Apple made this year with iOS, the a lot of direct to consumer brands, in the past six or seven years, were saying like Facebook is maybe twice as cheap as Google, let’s scale our business to the, to a certain point and get acquired. Well, for some of these brands now that like the party is over on the on the cheap and easy consumer acquisition front, even though many of them still weren’t weren’t profitable, even using that. But now it’s even getting worse. And so to me, I think that’s a good thing for retail generally. Is it a good thing for these venture capital business models? I’m not I’m not certain.
Yeah, I often say customer acquisition cost is the new rent. You know that the customer acquisition, most if you look at Legacy retailers, and you look at their marketing plus occupancy cost, it doesn’t the combination doesn’t come close to some of these brands customer acquisition cost alone. So I think, you know, customer acquisition cost is the new rent,
paying rent to Facebook and Google instead of you know, your landlord
said, You got it. And it’s more it cost more and it’s variable, right? And it’s variable costs more than its variable. It’s not fixed for a time period. Right. One of the things that the good news is about a store right is you can lock in a long lease term, and fix your costs. So as your business grows, you can keep the upside versus give it to Facebook. Right. You know, that’s, that’s the challenge. I think, you know, as it relates to the direct to consumer brands, Today, at least today, the most profitable way. I keep saying this, I think ecommerce is going to grow, I think, but I also think physical is gonna grow because today the most affordable way for brands to deliver products to consumers, and still profit history of store, they just haven’t cracked the crack the code on how to do that through E commerce. But you can look at Warby Parker’s numbers and see how productive their physical stores are, from a profitability standpoint. So I think that’s good for retail. There’s no doubt, ecommerce is here to stay. And there needs to be this, you know, symbiotic, Omni channel presence. But I think that I think that’s only going to be more apparent as we start to really go down the line because it doesn’t seem like customer acquisition costs are coming down anytime soon. And reverse logistics, and logistics, those costs are rising, and tremendously. So it’s making it more and more challenging. I mean, it the most retailers don’t make money when they give free shipping. And most Americans cannot afford to pay for shipping on every product. So you’ve run into this. Right? And so the answer is can you go to the store? That’s solution? Now the store is gotta be good. Right?
Right. And yeah, I like to say like, retail is not dying, but bad. Retail is dying every day.
For sure, and and you’ll have the groups like Target who can solve a conundrum differently than a $200 million company, right, a $200 million company, not going to be able to do what target does. But I think there are other solutions. So that’s kind of my, my, my take on that the. So that’s the direct to consumer, we’ll talk a little bit about supply chain, one more topic, to kind of chat about, I think those those are interesting, I really liked the third, I think the third party service provider, point to scale is going to be interesting, there’s probably going to be more and more innovation in that world. Because people are realizing it’s too hard to go at it alone to try to get to scale and too costly. So it makes a lot of sense.
Definitely, it definitely is something that investors are looking at. It’s a space that I track. And there are hundreds of millions of dollars of investments going into startups in supply chain technology, particularly in the intersection. Last Mile is obviously a huge investment. Particularly in grocery a lot of those people go out of the business because the economics aren’t there either. But in general, last mile pickup, and then kind of the Omni supply chain Tech, I think is still a super interesting sector.
Do you think overtime majority of grocery will still be done in a store?
I think over time, the majority of grocery will still be powered by a store. And a store is a different question. I think, you know, I try to avoid the attribution trap that a lot of people get them selves into is like, is this a commerce or as a store? It’s like, at the end of the day, the consumer just wants something super convenient. And they want it to fit into their day. And you call it Omni, call it e commerce call it retail. I think it’s very hard to match the distribution costs of a store except for very narrow assortments. And I think that’s where you see kind of the dark store idea come in where it’s something like blocks from a consumer for stuff that you know, people ordering all the time. But you can’t walk into the average family still is going to walk into a grocery store. That’s 100%.
Yeah. The Yeah. I agree with that. I think one of the things I say about retail real estate and I’ll give you one you probably haven’t looked at from a real estate angle maybe. But so retail real estate is the closest real estate to the consumer. And whenever businesses talk about getting closer to the consumer it’s typically a positive for retail real estate, by example. Healthcare, wanted to get closer to the consumer basically, about a decade ago, everything that wasn’t an overnight stay, they wanted out of the hospital, too expensive to run. And now what you see in basically every shopping center in America, there’s an urgent care Right, because retail real estate is the closest real estate to the consumer. And the healthcare to me, is a precursor of what you’re seeing for some logistics and fulfillment going to happen in retail real estate because it’s the closest to the consumer. And last mile is I think, too far in some cases. So okay,
I agree with you, 100%. And in particular, what’s happening during the pandemic? No one’s working from the office anymore. So what are they doing with all this space prices? I think in generally, there’s there’s downward price pressure on these units, and they need to, there’s been a lot of discussion. discussion over the past five years has been what’s what are we gonna do with all this malls like everyone’s gonna close malls, the public parks are health care, logistics, but the commercial real estate, in the cities that were used to be offices doesn’t get as much play. And so I think, particularly in a city, or offices that are in a neighborhood where half of your workforce isn’t going in there anymore. Landlords need to do something.
For another conversation, I think more people are gonna end up going to the office than we think I think the hybrid model is here to stay. But that’s for another conversation. The last point, which is, as you mentioned, it’s obviously hot these as you’re calling them, breakups, where investors are pushing some of these major retailers to separate out their ecommerce business, from their physical store business. Why are you talking about that? A little bit?
Yeah, so I mean, this is a concept that was first pioneered and explored by Saks earlier this year. And it kind of goes back to the to me to me, you have to like, go back to 99 2000. And you had these same companies, like a pet food company. And as soon as you add, like pet food.com, you know, the valuation of that very same company, like, multiple times 10, it seems to me like we’re kind of getting back to a point where some of these valuations almost feel the same way where you have the same revenue in a company like Saks, you know, let’s say it’s an $8 billion company, and there’s 2 billion in E commerce, the E commerce is now worth more than the rest of the company put together. And now Saks doesn’t have as many retail locations as someone like a Macy’s that we’re also talking about with the same concept, which makes it harder. But the short answer is what investors are trying to do is
make it easy
for the market to invest in E commerce, because they see that as a big growth lever going forward, whereas they see generally flat to slightly up retail trends. You know, say 2%, and you know, is the number I’ve seen commonly where you might look at ecommerce growth, you know, in non pandemic times 10 or 15% a year. So that’s what investors are chasing kind of is, to me is the backdrop of this story.
So that’s growth. These companies on the breakups when you break them up, is the E commerce profitable alone?
It’s it’s a good question. I don’t think anyone first of all, I don’t know that I’ve seen it actually executed yet. The prints and sacks is the first one in the shoot, as it were, kind of sacks, Macy’s and Kohl’s are kind of the three that are being discussed. Now. Saks is not going to IPO until beginning of next year, my understanding of what’s happening is that essentially you’re turning the retail store, and the E commerce site into vendors of each other, such that there is agreed upon service, the shared service agreement between them. And my understanding is like there were like 300 of these shared services agreements between the saks.com site and the SAKs retail store. And I don’t know, I can’t keep one agreement straight. And so the fact that your average retail employee is going to figure out like, what do I need to do in this situation? Just seems hard. Yeah.
I also think, like, it’s an interesting concept that they want to do this, right. Because let’s go back to target, it’d be impossible to to with target because it’s like one company, you can’t separate them out. They’re fulfilling from this. It’s like one whole, holistic company. Now, like you said, you don’t like to talk about attribution. And that’s what these groups are doing these investors, right.
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, target basically said, that, whatever we do at Target, if we go away from our core store concept, and the fact that people love our experience and our brand, they love walking into the store, if we get away from that we’re dead. So our only path is to invest in our store and so they really built their supply chain around their store. These other retailers, you know, whether it is through Don’t be too much debt under capitalized. You know, really, those are the only two choices you have from their from their point of view. Whether that has come from real estate or other loan issues or you know something. Not everyone is like in a serious about a situation that’s like a Sears with or JC Penney was in. But they’re, essentially what they’re saying is we can invest in both we can invest in E commerce, it’s too much to keep up with while transforming our retail stores. So we’re gonna punt on that problem. And we’re gonna break break up ourselves, we’re gonna get, you know, Saks is gonna get $500 million in new investment to be ecommerce unit, which everyone’s excited about, and no one, there are no stories about what’s happening to those retail stores. Which is, to me, like, a little disturbing for the consumer experience. Yeah,
it’ll be interesting. For the consumer perspective, I think it’ll also be interesting that just you mentioned the agreements. But if you’re really two separate companies, but we have the same brand name, and how are we how is this going to work? It’s new. So when people are trying things new, I idle, I don’t like to poke too many holes, because I like people who are taking shots and innovating, but I don’t know, it seems. It seems ecommerce alone, it’s hard to be profitable. It seems retail, we, you know, really works well, when you have this symbiotic thing. And so we’re going to break it up. And we’re going to settle it through shared service agreements.
Yeah, I think the only thing that they’re seeing is that it’s easy to attract investment for an econ business. To me that that is the straw that stirring the drink here. And once they get that, then all the other problems are left to the wayside. How they’re going to deliver that consumer experience. How are we going to transform these stores? You know, I was, I was talking last week on my podcast, and I was saying it’s almost like you have two kids, you have a retail kid and you’re a commerce kid, and you have a sinking ship. And you throw a you know, blow up a life raft, you throw it to, you know, the E commerce kid, you throw the life raft, you know, to the retail cage, right? Oh, you’re still there. I have this rock. Let me wrap up, like a deflated life raft, and then chuck it to you and catch that. It seems like that’s what’s happening here.
Well, last question. How do you see this all playing out? Do you think these actually, that these happen at scale, like we’re gonna start to see 2022 We’re gonna see more of these happen. We’ll get the trigger. You know,
I, I wish it weren’t the case. But I tend to follow the money in these situations. And the money is following this idea. And so I tend to be pretty realistic about what’s happening, not necessarily what I hope to happen, or don’t hold, hope happened, just call call the balls and the strikes here. There are too many investors with too much money to be made for these things to happen. The fact that there was one that’s not even executed there already two in the queue means I wouldn’t be surprised if you see three or more next year.
Got it? Well, Rick, this has been terrific. I really appreciate you coming on. You gave some insights that we normally don’t get on the show. So truly, if there’s anything I can do for you, let me know. You ever want to get some insights on what’s happening on down on the ground on the real estate lines and how retailers are looking at that? Let me know. I want to I want to take you to the final part of our show called retail wisdom. I got three questions for you. Are you ready? I’m ready. All right. Question one. What extinct retailer Do you wish would come back from the dead? Ah
you know, I think my answer is RadioShack you know, I’m I’m I’m a techy guy. You know I my background I was watching engineering. There were actually times where I used to go there to get components and evil there’s literally no other place and how you can go to get some of these parts is to walk into the store now you obviously you can get them online, but that’s my retailer.
Question too. What’s the last item over $20 You bought in a store?
That’s an easy win for me. I’m getting married in January. So the answer is a wedding ring.
Congratulations. Thank you. Thank you. Is that do you see that market growing online?
I do. Online This is tough. Buena? I was a monster in that space. And they have such a scale that it’s very hard for people to match. I think it’s very hard for expensive jewelry to be sold online, you know, for the you know, so I don’t see it growing in a in a big way. What I do see is digital services that help people have a better experience buying jewelry, and shopping for jewelry.
sure that that that that should come for sure. Yeah. Last question, Rick. You and I are shopping at Target, and I lose you. I find you.
I think you know the answer this question. You probably find me in the electronics aisle.
Well, Rick, this has been terrific. I hope you enjoyed it.
Yeah, I did. For sure, Chris. I really appreciate you inviting me on and reaching out.
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