Davis: It depends on what kind of company you are. I’ll boil it down to just PUMA and the wholesale channels because this is a landscape of your retail and wholesale channels; and obviously your wholesalers are partners and clients too. Secondly, the brand has to decide what is the balance between sales and marketing. So it’s a complicated dance to figure out, and there isn’t one right or wrong answer. Further, how do you get these channels to work in concert while still balancing the needs of marketing and brand? Making sure that all of these business interests—everything—work together and complement each other is much easier said than done.
Customers don’t care or understand the internal conflicts. Nor should they. Customers simply want what they want, which in our case is our product and our brand experience. Customers don’t think in terms of business units or channels. They think in terms of product and buying that product as easily as possible.
Trying to find that multi-channel synergy is really, really hard because traditional brands like a PUMA or anybody of this size that has grown as a traditional wholesaler aren’t prepared for some of the changes happening in the retail world. Some of the rules for the last 60 or 70 years are breaking down. And what took decades to establish is now being broken down in months as the speed of the digital world is accelerating. Example: Rocket Internet. They are basically copying the Zappos model outside the U.S. and growing their business to billions in revenue in just a year or two, which is x-fold faster than Zappos, which was x-fold faster than traditional wholesale distribution. It’s jaw-dropping how fast everything is evolving, especially outside the U.S. What retail looks like in five or 10 years, who knows? But you’re seeing examples of companies trying to find their way in this marketplace. Some are doing well at it and some aren’t.
Embodee: Speaking of those challenges, how does your vision for e-commerce address them?
Davis: For PUMA specifically, we have to attack the market in a very focused way because the reality of our situation is that we can’t compete on price, meaning we can’t be the lowest price out in the market. That’s just kind of cutting ourselves off at the knees. Further, we don’t have the luxury of running a break-even business, meaning we can’t put all of our operating expenses toward overnight shipping and service. Yet, we are consistently compared to those digital players. But that is the reality we live within, and we have to find creative ways to be relevant.
So I try to look at where can we compete and compete effectively. One is product content. I believe we must have world-class PUMA information about our products (photography, copy, content, digital assets, etc.). We also should have the most comprehensive, user-friendly experience for shopping decision-making in the digital world.
We hope that our PUMA experience will be better than an Amazon’s “shop in shop” presentation for PUMA, and better than a Zappos, for example. Specifically, as a retailer we don’t have much control over the presentation of our products in our partners’ stores/marketplaces. We’re losing brand control, if you will. Search Google for “puma suede” and you will see the varying degrees of photography/presentation. Some good, some bad. Theoretically, we should be able to showcase our products in our store in the best lens possible, and we will aim to do this over the next few seasons.
One of our key strategies is product information management. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of effort and time over the last two years honing these skills internally. Unfortunately, it’s generally a behind-the-scenes kind of project. The only in-front-of-the scenes result of that is really the output of a website and customers interacting with that information.
But I believe that’s a cornerstone of our strategy. The other cornerstone is product selection. If we’re selling the same exact product as Amazon, and if they’re going to beat us on price and service and be comparable on product information, then we’re still going to lose. Probably nine times out of 10. But if we can create a product assortment, develop product awareness, product depth—whether its size, color or make of material—that’s different than what’s in the wholesale channel—then we have an area for competition and a reason for customers to come to our online store.
So between world class product content and offering a product selection that’s different or at least complementary to what is in other channels, that’s where we can play and immediately be competitive.
Embodee: How does mass customization fit in from your perspective?
Davis: When you start thinking about a diversified product strategy in terms of more SKUs, more colors, and more options, you start running into liability. Meaning, you have to front load cash flow to pay for inventory/product that might sit on shelves for weeks if not months before it’s purchased and your return on the investments is recouped. It’s the long-tail game. When you’re trying to keep your margins high and your turn ratios high, it’s a very difficult one to balance. Creating lots of inventory that sits on shelves all over the world is just basically money sitting there that can’t be allocated toward other business-enhancing projects. The turnaround time on product is probably a year lead time for some companies. That’s a long time to tie up money, especially when there’s no guarantee in the world of fashion.
You’re taking physical bets on what the trend or the style will be a year from now, and who knows whether Jay-Z comes out with a new record, Justin Timberlake does something, or Taylor Swift wears a pair of PUMAs in her video. It’s serendipity to some extent (or really good product placement—hah). So when I start thinking about those kinds of constraints I start to look at on-demand products. What’s better than being able to create something on demand and eliminate those upfront risks?
To develop products, colors and/or styles that may mean nothing to the customer a year from now, you end up with excess product. This is what happened in 2008 when we hit the recession and companies were left with shelves full of product which needed to be liquidated. The only way to push that amount of excess product is to flood the market and discount like crazy. That is not sustainable from a business perspective. So I start to look at on-demand or mass customization as a plausible solution for a company like PUMA, which answers a lot of our financial challenges. But it allows the consumer to dictate freely what he or she wants.
That’s liberating for a business owner and also creates desire from consumers, which gives us a great competitive advantage—provided we do something really cool for the brand, that’s PUMA-fied, that the consumers love. I see that as a pinnacle piece of our strategy going forward, and I think it will be so in the retail industry for years to come. Look at the entrants into this new paradigm: Threadless, Zazzle, NIKEiD, miadidas, New Balance, Timberland, Converse, etc. etc. The list grows every month. It’s happening in myriad industries as well, so it’s not just limited to footwear and t-shirts. More examples: Shutterfly, ForYourParty.com, L.L.Bean, the lists go on. Remember Dell Computers? Designing your own computer system was a breakthrough.
I’ll fully admit that PUMA is late to the game. We only recently launched PUMA Factory, our first crack at online customization. Currently, it’s live for the U.S. and Germany. We believe it’s still in “beta” stage, and over the next few months we will determine if we’re on the right track operationally as well as from a presentation point of view. The opportunities are amazing if we get the block and tackling done.
People pay a premium for customization. They expect to have to wait for it to be made, so the immediate gratification may not be there, but it’s still quick and it’s individually driven. Dare I say, a younger generation? They want to stand out, they want to be unique, and that’s just in the U.S. Once you start going global with these ideas, your ability to function with less risk—less cash flow volatility—it’s potential, it’s plausible. It could be fantastic on so many levels for the brand, like PUMA, as well as for the customer.
It still needs to be proven, but I think you’re seeing companies like the NIKEiDs of the world going this way. I think you’re seeing the Zazzles having done really well. Threadless. There are the big retailers trying to do it like H&M or even Zara. This is the way you can close that timeline to market. I think it’s the future—part of the future—of retail at least. I think it has to be.
Embodee: You mentioned young people. They have an expectation that they should be able to order on demand or customize because they’ve grown up with that option in other arenas. Almost everything they do is customized whether it’s music or pick your topic.
Davis: I completely agree. My nieces and nephews are in their late teens and they’ve never known anything different, and that’s only going to become more amplified globally. Their expectations will include the ability to customize as a standard, not an exception. It’s going to get to the point where everything is a showroom. You’re seeing stores go out of business because they try to overstock. I think they should be embracing the showroom aspect and let people customize. “Here are three basic colors in the store, buy them if you want, but if you want the new shiny toy—insert your product—in purple and chartreuse, order it customized and we’ll have it for you next week.”
The question is what companies are going to truly embrace that? If you’re buying a year ahead, you can support putting product on a boat and letting it ship from China to the U.S., and that takes six weeks. That’s all gone when you go to this model, you’re just speeding up the processing chain, but it is completely doable. This may be a reach, but Ford was the first to create the assembly line for cars. This was a drastic and radical step almost a 100 years ago. There is nothing stopping retailers, like PUMA, from making a radical shift in the production pipeline if it will not only solve a company’s cash/investment challenges but (even more importantly) satisfy the customer’s want and need.
I think there is an old adage that says something like, “The customer is always right…” This is truer now than ever in the world of customization.
The original interview and a lot more about embodee can also be found at the embodee website!