Fashion & Lifestyle from HETAIL


Smart ways to honor, or apologize.


Assiduously edited by TWIG & GRASS



We're Moving

Thursday, January 29

The Oasis is on the move.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Go back and read the November and early December posts and match them to today's business headlines until we get back on....

February 6th.

Until then.....

Take care of yourself, take care of your family, take care of your community and don't forget to take care of your customers.

Sak's Reacts...

Friday, January 16

To Costco!

The plot thickens, as the profit at a troubled retailer thins...

The Difference Between Coal and Diamonds is...


In our case, let's call it "Downward Pressure."

As a result of: 
being heavily inventoried
awful Holiday sales results
shrinking access to credit

Large retailers, especially those of the high-end variety, have not been able to order goods in their usual quantities from vendor partners.

This has created a boom in luxury goods at what I have coined as "echo-sites", defined as reputable retailers, usually restricted from carrying the brands due to the retailers discounting policies.

If one regularly reads the Oasis, this comes as no surprise, as the post-Thanksgiving business (or lack thereof), presaged this inevitability.

Last August TJX , the Marshall's and TJ Maxx parent company, announced plans to designate special floor space at each of it's locations to better spotlight the new collections previously unavailable to them.

And if that is not enough to convince skeptics, my trip to a Oasis fave, Costco, should do the trick.

While shopping at my neighborhood Costco in Chicago yesterday, The first table I encountered in the clothing area was stacked high with Ed Hardy t-shirts. These were not clearance peices, sent as one off, but piled high and 12 different shirts to chose from. 

What makes this development even more interesting was the price, an astonishing $31.99 for your choice of the shirts! The Nordstrom website has Ed Hardy t-shirts (while not exactly the same) for $106.

After collecting my usual food, book and hygiene needs, I noticed another table in the clothing area with an unusual amount of activity. Only this one had several women sorting though Seven Jeans. 

While the Neiman Marcus website features denim by Seven Jeans for prices ranging from $155 to (gulp!) $275, Costco sells 4 styles, all at $99.00

With the realities of the new economy becoming more clear each day, which of these three retailers seems better suited to deliver on their customer's demand for fashion and value?

Me too.

December's Echo

Thursday, January 15

More shakeout from December retail business (click headline to read story):

Saks, as previously noted, is one of the company's in BIG trouble. Along with cutting 1100 jobs (most of which I cannot imagine coming from New York, where the company is strongest), the company plans to reduce inventory by 20%, has decided to close it's Club Libby Lu chain entirely and suspended a number of benefits to employees.

Let me be the first to say, it won't be enough. Print it.

Macy's is planning to cut their four regional offices down to two, eliminating Miami and Atlanta, with New York and San Francisco remaining.

As I stated last month after their announcement of 11 store closings, this is still the tip of the iceberg. I foresee lots more trimming in the near future, as the longer they wait, the more severe the measures needed to right the ship.

Not all my prognostications for the Retail Sector were negative for the Holiday Season.

A 9% increase for December year-over-year, and 19% increase YTD 2008! 

That is a "roar", if ever I heard one.

The revenue for the industry also was over $5 BILLION for the month for the 1st time in history.

As stated in November, the value to cost ratio for gaming has no rival, with $30-$60 games providing, literally, weeks of entertainment.

Look for this win streak to continue.

Lastly, while most retailers are still refusing to fully face the realities of the new economy, one (the same as always) retailer stands above all the rest in how they are dealing with the downturn, Walmart.

Love 'em or hate 'em, Walmart may not be the prettiest girl in the class, but there can be no doubt they are valedictorian. 

Lee Scott was on Charlie Rose yesterday, in what I think is a must see interview. He discussed the impact the economy is having on Small Businesses and suppliers, which has not been discussed with the degree of specificity Mr. Scott shared. 

As they move forward, the focus at their stores will be continued improvement in customer service (he said this is not a slogan, but a actual goal), a better edited buying selection (less is more in his eyes, which is sooooo smart) and better presentation standards (thus making the store easier to shop for the consumer).

Three simple goals, which will translate into a big win for the world's biggest retailer. 

Not sexy, just smart. A formula to emulate if ever there was one.

Psychology in the Economic Marketplace, Part I

Tuesday, January 13

Ben Bernanke needs some help. This is my contribution:

In 1969 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described, with great specificity, the five stages human beings go through to cope with tragedy and grief, especially in regards to terminal illness. This led to ground-breaking research and new treatment models throughout the medical diaspora, and is now taught as an essential part of any Psychology 101 class.

The following are the five stages, more universally known as DABDA:

Stage 1 Denial "This isn't happening to me"
Stage 2 Anger "Why me?"
Stage 3 Bargaining "I'll do anything if I can live on."
Stage 4 Depression "Why should I do anything? It wont matter."
Stage 5 Acceptance "This is inevitable. I will make the most of what's left."

Before reviewing current economic conditions through the lens of these five stages, understand the terminal patient in our model is the old Western Financial Model, not America, which will re-emerge. 

Stage 1 - Denial

It is quite simple to point at Summer 2008 as America's "period of denial", though I have a differing theory.

The Denial Stage started in September of 2006, a month after home prices peaked, sending lenders (Banking Institutions) into an industry-wide panic as to how to fight off the inevitable fall in the Housing Sector/Recession, sure to occur during that year's 4th Quarter or the 1st Quarter of 2007.

The solution these lenders came up with was to open up the housing market to the only people in America that did not currently own the housing they lived in, people unable to afford to the costs of making such a large purchase, many of which where low-income racial minorities.

As ridiculous as it sounds (Literally giving money to people that CANNOT repay the loan), the rush of new home buyers had the duel effect of: continuing the home building boom in the country (intended), while simultaneously causing prices of existing housing inventory  to rise precipitously (unintended).

The bad loans were securitized (bundled, chopped up and re-bundled) by the lending institutions, then sold to others on the world financial market, thus leaving the lenders with zero risk for the very risky, highly predatory loans.

The endgame was set before the first loan was made. The system's death sentence was set before the first loan was made. This was the ultimate form of denial.

Stage 2 - Anger

The Anger Stage set in as you started to hear reports of "waitresses buying million dollar homes." Although the wider public had no idea of what was coming down the road, the lending institutions started putting the onus of impending doom on the people at the bottom of America's totem pole, the working-class.

"Why did they take such big loans?", they asked. "What were these people thinking?", newspaper headlines screamed. The term "sub-prime" entered the lexicon of American public as a negative connotation for, not the predatory lenders, but instead, the borrowers.

False outrage from the banking institutions gave rise to real outrage in communities throughout America, as home-owners began to find it harder to sell their homes.

Whether the  difficulty arose from lack of interest from new home-buyers, sliding home values due to unkempt or abandoned vacancies in their neighborhoods, or the lack of loans available to those that truly qualified, home-owners with inventory to sell found themselves at the front line of a problem they could never have seen coming.

To home-owners, anger was the only rational reaction to the unpredictable circumstance which had befallen them. To lending institutions, faux anger was the only way to keep the public eye off trail of the actual culprits.

Stage 3 - Bargaining

The Bargaining Stage is perhaps the most perilous stage in the process. In is the stage the full extent of the problem crystallizes, which in turn often leads to drastic measures being taken to improve the diagnosis.

The Bargaining Stage for this financial crisis was characterized by the Federal Reserve making steady cuts to the Interest Rate, all the way down to virtually nothing, to help reverse the future which was set in motion so long ago. Additionally, the TARP ($700 billion) bill was passed in haste by Congress and signed by the President, and an additional $2 trillion dollars in "emergency loans" was issued by the Treasury Department to the same lending institutions that brought the crisis to bear. The thinking being, everything was on the table to save the old system.

For home-owners the bargaining stage was disastrous, characterized by actions that only worsened their collective situations.

Upon the first evidence of a slow-down in the housing market, instead of reporting the origins and culprits of the problem, media cranked up their output of their perceived solution to the problem, home improvement. The HGTV network best exemplifies the new attitude, changing the majority of it's programming from a theme in line with What You Get For the Money - a show built around sharing how much home you can buy for the same price in several different cities, to more programming like Curb Appeal - a show about enhancing you ability to sell your home by making minor changes to your home. And for the most part, home-owners went for it wholesale.

Even with a downturn in the housing market, retailers such as Home Depot, Lowes and Menard's saw brisk business through the entirety of 2007 and the very early part of 2008.  Americans decided a new marble kitchen and/ or luxury bathroom would change their fortunes, with many taking out equity loans to make the necessary changes. 

When home improvements did not work, home-owners turned to incentives in hopes of unloading their unwanted property. Covering closing costs, down-payment assistance, new paint budgeting and assessment deferrals became the norm. The problem with incentives was individual owners could not compete with Developers, who were giving the same incentives, in addition to free scooters, cars, upgraded appliances and gift cards. The problem remained unchanged.

Lastly, and begrudgingly, home-owners started to accept their ability to sell their homes at asking prices was illusory, so they started to discount the prices of the houses.

This is what the media called the "bubble" bursting.

With home prices peaking in August of 2006, many major cities had not seen an even 10% correction (price drop to reality) as of April 2008. However massive discounting across the country led the national average to see a drop in the high teens by June of that year.

Two months later, in August of 2008, banks had stopped lending money, even to qualified applicants, and the die was cast.

Home-owners were left with a home the did not want, at a price they could not pay, worth  a lot less than was paid for it, and a home equity loan taken out to pay for the improvements and incentives offered to the increasingly shrinking home-buyer pool that found it virtually impossible qualify for a loan of any kind.

This led to the Stock Market failure in September and then, ultimately, to...

Stage 4 - Depression

In many ways, this is the stage we are currently in as of this writing. 

There is so much confusion about what happened, why nothing is seeming to have an impact on the situation and how to move forward, Americans for the most part have chosen to just tune out.

We would rather just ignore this mess, not talk about it. "This to shall pass", seems to be the refrain of the moment.

The is unanimity in the understanding of where we are in our history, however there is no real mobilization by the leadership. Has anyone asked of us to sacrifice anything since this crisis began? We were told to, "get out there and grab those bargains" for Christmas.

The collective depression has led to stagnation in the housing market, with sellers holding firm on prices at hat are admittedly overly-inflated, buyers looking for new homes at foreclosure pricing, financially overly-extended families literally packing up and walking away from homes their kids grew up in, and banks too busy predating themselves to open up the credit instruments necessary to get the economy moving again.

We are all collectively stung...and depressed.

Stage 5 - Acceptance

The very final stage before transition, though it is not necessarily guaranteed that everyone makes it here, as depression can be a mutha!

The Acceptance Stage is so critical, in that it is made possible by accepting the idea of transitioning from what we have known and grown comfortable with, to something unknown, yet inevitable. The peace that comes in this stage derives from gaining the knowledge that what we have experienced is no longer possible.

For the American public, acceptance will come when we decide: 

  • That things cannot go back to the way they were in the 1990's.
  • The house we own is going to be worth about 30-45% of it's 2006 value.
  • Owning a home in their lifetime will not be a reality for a large number of people.
  • There will be a rise in unemployment and an (almost) across the board reduction in wages in the near future.
  • The ability to buy a new car, let alone every 4 years,  has already been altered for a large number of the populace.
  • Volunteerism, social activism and local purchasing decisions are going to be required to assist in this turnaround, and I mean from everyone.
  • Government is not gong to solve this, at least not exclusively.
  • Wild expansion & profiteering is a thing of the past, slow growth is the new way forward.
  • Rampant consumerism does not have to go away, but needs to at least slow down in the interim.

All things that I would never hope for, but are required to find the peace we need as a country to move forward and regain our footing.

Four decades ago Elisabeth Kubler-Ross changed the way the medical profession deals with the aggrieved, including those with terminal illnesses. Perhaps, using her ingenious model, we can find our way, as a country, out of the darkness of our current situation.

Can we do it?

With apologies to Bob the Builder and the President-elect, Yes We Can!

Slipping Into Darkness

Thursday, January 8

I promised  today, Thursday, would be a hot day for the press, as retailers reported December figures.

Here are a few stories to illustrate the point (Click Headline to read entire story):

This may seem like a lot to read, so I will ask that you only read this one in it's entirety:

Now that we have looked back, barring something spectacular being revealed, I only plan to look forward.

If one is a regular reader of the Oasis, these headlines are not surprising. There seemed to be no question this past holiday season would be horrible, the only question was how bad. 

By Thanksgiving the picture, literally (CLICK HERE), crystalized.

Our new goal, moving forward, is to discuss how to get through the coming downturn, both for retailers and consumers. Additionally, I will spot trends, spotlight innovative practices and continue to provide a lens to the retail marketplace for you, the reader.

Let's Get It Started!

Many Happy Returns

Tuesday, January 6

I was reading Ray A. Smith's article (U.S. Retailers to Report Grim Results)  on the Wall Street Journal website regarding the much anticipated December retail numbers due out Thursday and something sparked a memory of an unusual experience I had yesterday. 

Allow me to share and expand.

I went to my neighborhood Costco (a retailer who's praises I have sung on numerous occasions) yesterday and, as I approached the doors, saw something I have never witnessed before, a line to get in.

Mind you, yesterday's weather in Chicago was in the upper 20's, maybe 30, maybe.

Yet and still there were about 8-12 people standing in an orderly line outside the store. As I moved closer and closer I noticed the line extended some ways inside the store as well.  While walking and searching my wallet for the always misplaced membership card required to enter, I started wondering if the few items I needed was really worth standing in freezing weather.

Just as I resigned myself to the idea, I noticed the line was not to get inside the store, but an extension of the "Returns" line that was now, literally, winding outside the store.

The sight of that line and the thought, sparked by Mr. Smith's article, drove home a point I had not considered, how tough January business is in the retailing business.

This January, much like this December, is sure to be perhaps the worst month for retailing in, excusing the hyperbole, modern history.

Three things are needed to make a Perfect Storm in retailing:

  • First, an uncertain economy. A bad economy is one thing, but "better the devil you know", they say. In bad economy, people have already made adjustments and pared down their spending habits. In uncertain economy, which is really a bad economy where people refuse to accept that reality, people attempt to maintain their lifestyles regardless of how difficult the reality of doing so is. This leads to large spending expenditures, followed by mass returns, pawning and borrowing. Sound familiar?
  • Secondly, you need swollen inventories. Swollen inventories take up room needed to show new goods, inhibit buying teams from investing in newer, more relevant merchandise and forestall payments to vendors, banks and other creditors. If you consider we just came through the worst holiday season on record, and 4th quarter is when retail inventories swell to their highest levels, inventories are now HUGE, everywhere. This is why you are seeing, "Buy 1 Get 2 Free" signs in place of, "66% Off" signs popping up in stores. They seem to be the same thing,and while the latter gives customers merchandise for 1/3 the price, the former gives customers merchandise at 1/3 the price, but additionally removes two more items from the store's inventory. Inventory is a major problem at virtually every retailer right now.
  • Lastly, you need reduced consumer foot-traffic. This point is not as obvious as it seems. Of course January is going to be infinitely slower than pre-Holiday business. However this January is sure to be slower than most because of something I wrote about in November, the greatly reduced number of gift cards sold this past Holiday Season. Gift cards ensure future business, period. When customers decided to steer clear from purchasing gift cards over the holidays, the message was clear, "We are not sure if we will be back, or if you we will be here when we do." The combination of loaded gift cards and huge discounts would have made for a festive January in retailing, instead we have the opposite effect.
Coupling these three factors with record rates of merchandise returns brings the problems many retailers face more clearly into focus.

Perfect Storm has descended on the entire retail landscape and will have a disastrous impact on this, the last fiscal month of the calendar year. Look for Thursday's numbers to be bad, and this month's numbers to only accelerate the inevitable thinning of the retail herd.

Headlines vs Reality

Monday, January 5

There seems to be a bit more chatter in the press about a "new economic outlook" for the country. Some economists are even talking about a "mid-year turnaround" (read THIS).

Well I did a cursory search on the housing website hotpads.com for "foreclosed property" in my zipcode (60607, click through HERE), and WOW!!!!! I discovered something I could not have known: my neighbors are feeling the absolute crush of the economic downturn already. There is no denying this fact when there are 40 foreclosures within a 6 square block area.

The map below is startling, with each red house representing a foreclosed residential property (CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE):

Well over 600 foreclosures in 8 of the best neighborhoods in Chicago: Streeterville, Gold Coast, Loop, West Loop, River West, West Town, New East and (oh my goodness!!!!!!!!!!!!!) South Loop, which is starting to get national attention for it's housing woes. 

Read a bit more about South Loop HERE (read the comment section as well, there a few people I truly respect that weigh in on the topic).

This does not even aggregate all the foreclosure data available. There are lots and lots more, but to stare at in visual form on a map just brings the scale of the problem into focus.

Hunker down people, in the world of economist and newspaper people, alternate reality is the new reality. I am not young and I have never lived through what we have experienced thus far, let alone what cometh.

Best of Inbox 01.02.09

Friday, January 2

Here's the best nugget I found in my box today:

I can't believe I am saying this, but NOW is the time to make your move. 

95% off is less than free. Here is the math on my theory.

If item a is $100 and tax is 10%, then your cost to take it out the door is $110.

If that item is 95% off, the math is as follows:

$100 - 95% = $5 and 10% tax of $0.50, so you are paying $5.50.

That is 45% less than the tax you would have paid on the item at the original price.

So as Jean Luc Picard said best: "ENGAGE!"

Required Reading

I implore you to read THIS article.

It deals with a number of themes I have discussed over the last month regarding the mindset of the American consumer and, most interestingly,  our inability to alter our shopping habits.

The title is the tease:

"People Pulling Up to Pawnshops Today Are Driving Cadillacs and BMWs"

And so it continues to begin...

2009 ·clean needles by TNB