Weekly readings 20th April, 2019

Half of Instacart’s drivers earn less than minimum wage, labor group claims. This is indeed an issue, but I am not sure if there is any wriggle room for Instacart to increase the minimum wage. From what I understand, it’s already a low margin business. Any pay raise for drivers will cut into the margin even further.

America’s Biggest Supermarket Company Struggles with Online Grocery Upheaval. A story on how Kroger has been transforming itself to stay competitive and avoid the ultimate outcome

Zoom, Zoom, Zoom! The Exclusive Inside Story Of The New Billionaire Behind Tech’s Hottest IPO. A profile of the CEO of Zoom, an imminent tech IPO this year. Eric Yuan was denied a US visa 8 times before getting one on the 9th try. Let that sink in.

Here’s How TurboTax Just Tricked You Into Paying to File Your Taxes. I used Turbo Tax this year to file my taxes and ended up paying $100 or so for the service. Though the service is advertised as free, there are numerous hidden fees that will end up on the final page of your application if you are not careful. Plus, several weeks ago, companies like Turbo Tax successfully lobbied Congress to stop IRS from building an online portal, which is a terrible decision.

In African Villages, These Phones Become Ultrasound Scanners. An example of how practical technology can positively influence and save life.

If you can. How millennials can get rich slowly. A short yet great read on personal finance.

Book: Retail Disruptors: The Spectacular Rise and Impact of the Hard Discounters

For the past two months, I lost interest in picking up a book for some reason. Nonetheless, the streak ended today as I finished this book.

The book offers a detailed and insightful view on hard discounters which usually act as disruptors in a local retail market. The book defines hard discounters as follows:

Hard-discount retailers offer basic goods and daily necessities at the lowest possible prices, while maintaining high-quality standards. A hard-discounter store differs from discount supermarkets or hypermarkets like Asda, Kaufland, or Walmart. Hard-discount stores are typically about 8,000-15,000 square feet, less than one-tenth the size of a Walmart Supercenter, with probably lower staffing levels.

To reduce costs, hard discounters often display items on shipping pallets and in the boxes in which they arrive. The store is minimally decorated and offers a limited assortment of consumer packaged goods and perishables – typically less than 2,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs). In contrast, the average US supermarket carried 40,000 to 50,000 SKUs in 2017, while a Walmart Supercenter sells over 100,000 grocery and non-grocery items.

Here is what I learned from it

Beware of potential threats in the market. The book told stories of retailers around the world that paid the price for under-estimating hard discounters. They dismissed the arrival of hard discounters at first and when they realized the threat was real, it was already too late to stop the hard discounters.

Benefits of offering a limited assortment of SKUs. I am usually overwhelmed by a plethora of choices at restaurants or supermarkets. As the book says, to shoppers who are under time pressure or who intend to buy rather than browse, a better shopping experience is to be offered streamlined options or a limited range of choices. Plus, retailers who sell a limited assortment, especially private labels, can negotiate a better economic deal with suppliers due to economies of scale. A better deal will help the margin of hard discounters. Additionally, a limited assortment of goods means smaller stores – lower rent, saved costs on logistics and staff.

Go-to-market strategy. Hard discounters tend to enter a new country through a specific market first. Get the foot in, the logistics and operations in and then expand. Also, each go-to-market strategy varies from one country to another due to a host of factors such as household income per capita, economic growth, shopping preferences. Blindly adapting a blanket strategy to different markets may lead to failures.

The book offers a comprehensive view on different aspects of hard discounters and retail in general. It confirmed my belief that a competing strategy can be made up of so many factors that are intertwined together, including to not limited to:

  • The size of assortments
  • Whether a retailer carries more private labels or national labels
  • How man perishable items a retailer carries
  • Whether it has a good brand name
  • Whether it has economies of scale
  • Whether the shopping preferences of local shoppers are a good fit
  • How much a retailer spends on marketing, promotions and discounts; and for how long it can sustain the effort.
  • A retailer’s culture

After penetrating a market, whether a retailer can survive the competition depends on the retailer’s ability to carve out a niche in the market where it can be competitive, using a combination of the above factors or more.

A few notable stats

  • Private labels account for somewhere between 70-90% of hard discounters’ assortment
  • In 2017, middle-class shoppers in the UK account for 60% of shoppers at Aldi and Lidl
  • In Germany, hard discounters accounted for three out of every ten euros spent on grocery purchases or 60 billion euros in 2017
  • Aldi entered Australia in 2001, and by 2017, had cost conventional retailers like Woolworths and Coles AU $16 billion in lost annual revenues
  • Trader Joe’s offers around 3,500 different items, Lidl between 1,500 and 2,000 while Aldi carries between 1,200 and 1,400 products
  • In Germany, Lidle was the largest advertiser among grocery retailers in 2017 (almost 280 million euros) and the sixth-largest advertiser in the country ahead of McDonald’s, Daimler, Unilever and Samsung
  • Trader Joe’s sales per square foot is $1,633, twice that of Aldi and Lidl, four times that of a Walmart supercenter and 8 times that of Dollar General
  • In Australia, 26% of Aldi shoppers were from high-income families in 2006. The figure shot up to 50% in 2014
  • For the average US grocery retailer, a loss of 1% in sales leads to a loss of 17% in operating profit

Stats on retail store size & revenue per square feet

I have been doing some industry research for work, specifically on the retail industry. One trend that CBInsights mentioned in their report was that retail stores were shrinking in size. CBInsights argued that retailers wanted to more conscious of how they made use of their retail space. The competition is so fierce that retailers cannot afford to do everything, be everything and sell everything. They tend to get more nimble in operations and conscious of what they have on display. Nonetheless, CBInsights’ latest year in their data was 2015. So I went through the financial reports by several retailers to find out if retail stores are actually shrinking in size. Before I go through the findings, below are a few important notes:

  • The list of retailers was from this article by WSJ. There are several retailers whose information was not retrieved. The omission was attributed to the way such retailers structured their data, making it time-consuming to retrieve data and complicated to explain. Hence, I decided to omit those retailers
  • Retail is a complex industry. The data is for reference only and may represent to some extent the players or trend in the industry. By no means do I believe that the data represents 100% the retail industry
  • Data from 2015 to 2017 was from the chosen retailers’ annual reports. Data in 2018 was from the latest quarterly reports. Only Walmart already filed their 2018 annual report
  • Apart from Walmart and Sam’s Club, no other companies had their revenue data retrieved. It doesn’t make sense to analyze revenue per square feet with only 3 quarters’ data recorded
  • Data is for the retailers’ US segment only
  • Revenue by Sam’s Club excludes fuel revenue

Number of stores

Among the surveyed companies, only Best Buy, JC Penny and Sam’s Club lowered their store count

Average Store Size

Best Buy, JC Penny and Sam’s Club increased their average store size. The rest decreased theirs, except Dick’s, which keeps their store size more or less the same for the past 4 years

Revenue per square feet

Only Target saw their revenue per square feet decrease in 2017, compared to 2016 and 2015. As the chart can show, 2018 looks to be a good year for Walmart. Both Walmart (the brand) and Sam’s Club increased revenue per square feet, especially the latter.

Summary

The majority of the surveyed companies reduced their total retail space, but managed to make the most of their selling space. This is in line with what CBInsights mentioned (I touched on it above as well).

The data I collected is available here on my Tableau profile