21st century retailing: my trip to Home Depot

This is another mountain-out-of-a molehill thing.

We have Toto toilets in our house.  Toto is the leading brand in Asia and has been making significant inroads in the US over close to two decades.  Yes, they’re the toilets that play music, heat the seat, double as a bidet and make fake urinating noises (a Japanese must)–but we just have plain old toilets.

The other day, I went to the local Home Depot, which, by the way, sells Toto toilets, to get a replacement part for one of ours.  A friendly employee showed me where the replacement parts were–all aftermarket brands, not Toto, but that was ok with me–and which was the right one. The replacement didn’t look much like the broken part, but the employee assured me that it would work.

It didn’t.  And, in fact, in looking back on my trip, the HD employee may, strictly speaking, have only told me that that was all they had.  If so, kind of embarrassing for me, since for most of my working life I was on the alert for verbal gymnastics aimed at papering over problems.

Rather than launch a telephone search for a plumbing supply store in the neighborhood that might carry the part I needed, I found it on Amazon.

 

Around the same time, I found I needed a replacement part for a Weber grill.  Same story.  HD sells Weber grills, but not replacement parts.  So, after a wasted trip to the local HD store, I ordered from AMZN.

 

What’s interesting about this?

In the early days of the internet, there was lots of speculation about the “long tail,” meaning that e-retailers like AMZN would make most of their money from selling obscure items that potential buyers couldn’t find in bricks-and-mortar stores.

A great story   …just not the case back then.  Just like bam, online exhibited the “heavy half” phenomenon, i.e., 80% of the business came from 20% of the items.

 

But maybe the long tail is beginning to come true.  It’s not because weird stuff that no one really wants has suddenly come into vogue.  Instead, I think computer-driven inventory control programs that eliminate slow-moving items from a store’s offerings may have gone too far.  Yes, carrying fewer items has the beneficial effect of requiring fewer employees and less floor space.  But at some point, the process begins to have negative consequences, as well.

For instance, it’s training me not to go to a physical DIY store, so I’m not passing by enticing end cap displays or being tempted by the sparkly high-margin junk arrayed along the checkout line.

 

My experience as an analyst has been that any cost-control measures always seem to go too far.  They work for a while, but the continual application of the same process somehow eventually ends up creating the opposite of the intended effect (yes, experience has made me a Hegelian, after all).  This may be what is starting to happen with inventory control programs that retailers use.

If I’m correct, this is another plus for AMZN.

 

the inventory problem: holding costs vs. stockout risks

The domestic auto industry reported November vehicle sales yesterday.  The numbers were very good.  But most of the (negative) media attention centered on the elevated level of inventories–about three months worth of sales–on dealer lots. Yes, that may eventually be a worry, but I don’t think it’s the right way to look at the current situation.

The auto news also gives me the occasion to write about the balancing act every manufacturer and retailer faces in deciding how much inventory to have.

the simplified story

There’s an often convoluted dance between supplier and distributor/end user about return policy, payment terms, co-op advertising…in negotiating over how much of a product to buy and at what price.  Nevertheless, the decision about how much inventory to hold ultimately comes down to weighing two opposing risks:

stockout costs.  This is when your brilliant national advertising campaign, your sterling reputation for high quality and service–or sometimes just random factors–prompt a potential customer to either go online or enter a physical store with the intention of buying an item.

You’re out of stock.  You try to interest him in a substitute, or promise to have the item tomorrow.  He says thanks, leaves and buys the item somewhere else.

You’ve lost a sale.  And the person you’ve disappointed is at least marginally less likely to have you first on his list next time he’s shopping.

That’s stockout costs.

inventory holding costs are much more straightforwardly quantifiable.

There are three main factors:

-financing costs, which in today’s world are negligible;

-liquidity risk of having your capital tied up in inventory rather than in cash during the time it tales you to make a sale; and

-the possibility that the items either become obsolete, go out of style, or–like fresh food–exceed their shelf life before they can be sold.  Then your asset has become a wirtedown.

complications

(In the stock market, there are always complications.)

In good times, companies want to hold more inventory (because they see stockout as a greater risk than holding costs); in bad times sentiment reverses and everyone wants to hold as little as possible.

If prices are rising, procurement managers see the chance to make windfall profits and order more than they need; if prices are falling–as is chronically the case in industries like consumer electronics–inventories are kept trimmed to the bone (except in really good times, when everyone throws caution to the winds).

In industries with low fixed, high variable costs, manufacturers see no percentage in upping production volumes.  In industries like autos, with high fixed costs and therefore tons of potential operating leverage, there’s a tremendous incentive to make extra units once a firm reaches breakeven.

The competitive structure of an industry doesn’t change the nature of inventory risk, but it can change who it is who’s assuming them.  This may not always be obvious from even a detailed study of the working capital sections of the balance sheet.  If a manufacturer were to have a policy of unlimited returns (that would be crazy, but let’s just suppose), then it–not anyone farther down the distribution chain–would ultimately be responsible for any unsold goods.

 

More tomorrow.