the Dollar Shave Club and Unilever

Unilever has made a $1 billion offer to buy the Dollar Shave Club, an online razor blade (and other grooming accessories) business started from scratch in 2011.

Media reaction to the deal is that this is a story about the power of the internet   …which it partly is.  The big traditional makers of razors and blades, Gillette and Schick, ignored the possibility of alternate distribution channels despite almost two decades of strong evidence of the “creative destruction” power of the internet.

But that’s not the whole story.  Two other, more traditional factors are involved:

–over the past ten years or more, razors and blades from Gillette and other manufacturers have become more complex and much more expensive.  “New and improved” (read: higher-priced) models have been introduced with greater frequency.  This has also been happening at a time when the overall market is stagnating as fewer men are shaving every day.  I can’t help believing that this behavior is at least in part as a way to justify the $54 billion Procter and Gamble paid to acquire Gillette in 2005.

No matter what the cause, however, the result has been to make the ground-level mistake of creating a pricing umbrella under which an online competitor–which, after all, will have higher unit production and distribution costs–could prosper.

–A fundamental rule of marketing is that self-cannibalization of a product market is always preferable to having an outsider grab market share from you.  Gillette et al. should have responded to the emergence of services like DSC by aggressively creating similar online products.  Yes, this may mean that total profits may end up being only 75% of what they once were.  And it means abandoning the illusion that the prior market structure will magically be restored.  But having the 75 for yourself is better than you having 50 and a new entrant having 25.

Pretended that this new competition doesn’t exist won’t make it go away.  Nevertheless, the sad fact is that the first strategy of the status quo is almost always denial.  In the short term, this protects bonuses and perks.  But allowing new competition to flourish is invariably a long-term disaster.

Amusingly, DSC investor David Pakman’s blog offers this strategy tidbit:

  • Choose categories where the CEOs of the incumbents are professional CEOs, not founders (thus are far less-likely to cannibalize existing businesses and adopt new business models).

That says it all.

UPS survey of online shopping

A week ago, UPS released its fifth annual survey of online shopping.  The main results:

–for the first time ever, more than half of the purchases made by survey respondents are made online

–over three quarters use smartphones for their buys

–a third use social media sites to gather information; a quarter have bought things through social media sites

–a third start their shopping either at Amazon or eBay

half of online shoppers take delivery at a physical store.  Almost half make additional purchases when they go to pick their items up

–60% of returns go through physical stores.  Again, consumers frequently buy additional items once they’re inside

–almost a third of purchases in a store are smartphone-guided, meaning buyers use their phones for product information, price comparison or download discount coupons

–35% of packages not sent to a store go to non-home locations, a trend that has been steadily rising recently

pure physical-store shopping, meaning no online involvement in either search or purchasing, is down to 20% of all buys in the US.

 

No wonder traditional retailers, especially mall-based ones, are taking such a beating.  No wonder Amazon is aggressively beefing up its own shipping operations, while starting to tiptoe into opening physical stores (as a better way of processing returns?).

Square, venture capital and the late-1990s Internet bubble

a bubble deflating

Internet payments company Square came to market yesterday.  It has a two-letter symbol, SQ, and trades on the NYSE, not NASDAQ.  But the most salient fact about the offering is that the IPO price was a lot below the private market value that venture capital investors had placed on SQas little as a year ago.

At the same time, the small number of mutual funds which have been aggressive venture capital buyers in Silicon Valley have been, more or less quietly, writing down the carrying value of their non-public company holdings.

What we’re seeing is, I think, a smaller and much more benign–both for the economy and for us as stock market investors–analogue of the deflation of the Internet mania of the late 1990s that started in early 2000.

the late 1990s and the internet

I remember noticing in 1998, that earlier- and earlier-stage companies were coming to market successfully.  Some were little more than concepts.  Take Amazon (AMZN), for example, which IPOed in mid-1997.  The pre-offering roadshow that I saw emphasized that investors had made gigantic fortunes on buying unknown companies like Microsoft during the personal computer era and that AMZN was a lottery ticket to a similar outcome in the Internet Age.  Of course, even a success like AMZN didn’t turn profit for its first eight years as a public company, surviving on the proceed from the IPO and follow-on debt offerings.

I thought at the time, and unfortunately committed my theory to writing, that we were seeing a fundamental change in the role of the stock market in capital formation.  Portfolio managers were gradually taking on the role previously played by venture capital.  So, I mused, managers of mutual funds like me might have to think about reserving a small place–no more than, say, 5%–of their portfolios for developing companies that they normally wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole.

Not my finest intellectual hour.

today’s bubble deflation

The slow escape of air from the venture capital bubble that is now going on will not have much effect on publicly traded companies, I think, for several reasons:

–the amount of money involved in this speculation is much smaller

–investors of all stripes still wear the scars of 2000-2001, so they haven’t been anywhere near as crazy this time around

–the people who are losing money now are, or represent, wealthy, seasoned speculators, not retail investors

–maybe most important, much of the original internet froth surrounded highly capital-intensive efforts to build a global physical internet transport infrastructure.  Names like Global Crossing and Worldcom come to mind.

Yes, too much physical capacity did get built back then, and some builders were highly financially leveraged.  But also dense wave division multiplexing, a technological breakthrough in technique (basically, putting glorified prisms on each end of a cable), made it possible for each fiber optic strand to carry 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x ( in 2015 the number is 240x)…  more traffic than initially anticipated.  Thanks to DWDM, suddenly, despite the rapid growth of internet traffic, an acute shortage of signal transport capacity turned to mind-boggling glut.  The transport industry was facing collapse as customers played a ton of potential suppliers against each other for lower prices.  Naturally, new construction–and related orders for all sorts of high-and low-tech components, dried up completely.   So did investment, employment in civil engineering   …and the stocks.

In today’s software world, there’s no equivalent, other than perhaps the market for software engineers.  And there are no signs I can see of recession in this arena.  Quite the opposite.

 

am I reviving my Odds and Ends page?

I once thought that Odds and Ends would be a regular feature of my blog–a place to record information that might be useful but which had no immediate stock market urgency.  It hasn’t turned out that way.  I’m not sure why.

Fir the first time in a long while, however, I”m writing about two items that really belong there:  Activision and King Digital, and Urban Outfitters’ acquisition of a small upscale pizza business.  Here they are.

the holiday retail season: Millennials vs. Boomers

Conventional wisdom in the US has long been that 30-somethings want a house, a car and clothing suitable for work.  Fifty-somethings want a vacation home, jewelry and a cruise.

As the Baby Boom generation became more important, therefore, an investor wanting exposure to consumer spending should have shifted away from homebuilders and carmakers and toward high-end specialty retail, luxury goods and hotels and cruise lines.

Of course, there were other secular forces at work, as well–the move from the cities to the suburbs and the dismembering of the traditional department store by specialty retail, just to name two.

Today we’re in the early days of another significant demographic change.  Millennials now outnumber Boomers in the US.  Millennials only earn about half what Boomers do.  And they were hurt much more severely than the older generation by the recession.  But they’re on the up escalator, while Boomers as a group will see their economic power wane as they retire.

Playing the aging of the Boomer generation had two aspects to it, one positive and one negative.  The positive side was hard–finding the small, relatively obscure companies like the Limited or Toys R Us or Home Depot/Lowes or Target or (later on) Coach that would catch the fancy of the Baby Boom.  The negative side was easier–avoiding the losers who didn’t “get” what was going on.  These included American carmakers and the department stores.

In 3Q15 corporate results, we’re already beginning to see the new generational change begin to play out.  Home improvement stores are doing surprisingly well.  Large retail chains are reporting relatively weak results.  What strikes me about the latter is that the worst-affected seem to be the most heavily style-dependent and the firms that have put the least effort into their online presence.  In contrast, I’m struck by how many small online, even crowdsourcing, alternatives to bricks and mortar there now are to buy apparel.

How to play this emerging trend?

The negative side is easy– avoid the potential losers, that is, firms whose main appeal is to Boomers and companies with a weak online presence.

The positive side is, as usual, harder.  Arguably, many of the winners–Uber, and the sharing economy in general being an example–aren’t yet publicly traded.  Absent a pure play, my best idea is to invest in the winners’ onlineness.  The easiest, and safest, way to do so is through an internet or e-commerce ETF.

 

One other point:  for many years, economists have tracked the activity of Boomers as a way to estimate the health of the economy.  To the degree that they, too, fail to adjust quickly enough, their assessments, like department store sales, may understate growth momentum.

is the e-commerce market in China saturated?

I’ve recently begun receiving emails again from the Fung Business Intelligence Center, an arm of the Hong Kong-based, garment-oriented logistics company Li and Fung.  One of the latest poses the question that’s the title of this post.

The answer:  yes  …and no.

Yes, the market in the developed areas of China is close to saturation today.  However, rural areas of the Asian giant remain relatively unexploited, both by internet and traditional bricks-and-mortar retail.  FBIC thinks that the rural sector, which now makes up about 10% of Chinese e-commerce revenue will be at least as large as the urban sector in as little as 10 years.  My back of the envelope calculation is that rural e-commerce growth will add at least five percentage points annually to what overall e-commerce expansion would otherwise be.  Presumably, some Chinese e-commerce players will be more adept at wooing this business than others, meaning their rural business could add 10% or so to annual sales growth.

The FBIC report, which is relatively short, is well worth taking a look at.