January 12, 2017

Metro and the art of the magical balance sheet

Magic hat I (photo: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock)
Goodwill: Now you see it, now you don't
Chief Executive Officer Olaf Koch likes to joke about his surname when discussing plans to split German retail giant Metro Group into two separate entities by mid-2017. Koch means 'cook' in German, so the pleasantry is moderately witty, but perhaps 'magician' would be the better word. After all, a man who can make nearly €580m in goodwill disappear off a corporate balance sheet in a perfectly legal way is little less than a financial wizard.
January 7, 2017

Lidl is right in black or white

Lidl advertising brochure (photo: screenshot of Lidl's website by Lebensmittel Zeitung)
Lidl's Czech model: "Black as my own face" (Othello)
Over the last seven years, this satirical column has been particularly critical of Lidl and its parent company Schwarz Group. Along with some trade unionists and NGOs, German Retail Blog has often questioned the ethics of this low-profile German discount giant. The company has been termed "ruthless", "hard-nosed" or "redneck" and its management "macho". Doubt has also been cast on an internal decision to burnish corporate morals. Even a recent move by the c-suite towards a less formal management culture has been teased without mercy. But an apology is now called for: Lidl has proved that a leopard can change its spots. How did this conversion of Saul to Paul on the journalist road to Damascus come about? A threat of legal action? A chummy lunch with the publisher? The promise of a job in the press department? No, Lidl has revealed its moral integrity through the eloquence of action.
January 6, 2017

German retailers await Amazon Fresh in 2017

Medieval warrior with chain mail armour (photo: guerrieroale_Fotolia)
Ready for the challenge?
Flood the moat, raise the drawbridge, lower the portcullis! The robber barons of German retailing are making ready to protect their lands and traditional fiefdoms from the relentless advance of a foreign army carrying the banners of 'Prime Now' and 'Amazon Fresh'. For years German retailers have tried to withstand the strong arm of progress. Customers with credit cards were turned away at the tills; private equity was met with vinculated shares; and CEOs continued to exercise feudal rights over their serfs. But these bastions have slowly crumbled. To date they have at least been successful in keeping online food delivery to a mere 1 per cent of the trade. So will their castles be able to withstand the coming siege? Admittedly, these knights in shining armour are brave and ready to die for the cause of bricks & mortar, but will this help them when the invader has gunpowder?
December 27, 2016

Retail pundits predict 2017 and beyond

Soothsaying in Ancient Greece (source: Imago/United Archives International)
Long tradition: Soothsaying in Ancient Greece
In ancient times when the priestess Pythia presided over the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, interpreting the future was big business. Little has changed since then; we just call our soothsayers consultants. Then, as now, we urgently need to demythologise the often sibylline answers today's highly-paid experts give to the overhyped mystery of things to come. The best way to predict the future is, of course, to make it yourself. The next best thing is to interpret what the movers and shakers are doing as the minnows will usually follow the Tritons. In retrospect, the future may have looked unfathomable to most contemporaries, but often turns out to be little more than a continuation of existing trends that should have been glaringly obvious to all concerned at the time. So perhaps we should look at what is in order to know what will be. But do the trade gurus we have asked to ponder the future agree?
December 22, 2016

A Christmas look at retailing in NYC and Europe

A Christmas drone (caricature: Oliver Sebel)
Santa goes cyber
In case you hadn't noticed, it's nearly Christmas and surely a time to be a little less formal. One of the pleasures of being a journalist is the broad variety of people you get to meet. These range from bolshie trade unionists, blowing whistles and ranting about the evils of private equity, to sleek, narcissistic CEOs. Fortunately, there are positive exceptions in both categories. One also has one's colleagues, who, as with most publications, include a remarkable number of eccentrics. Then there are some infectiously enthusiastic stringers, like Werner Prill and Christian Lattmann, who have just returned from whistle-stop store tours in New York City viz. Europe. Both were astonished that we wanted to put their photos online as neither of them claims to be a professional photographer, but in our opinion the odd shaky or underdeveloped picture makes for authenticity. Want to have a peek?
December 20, 2016

Amazon go forces staff to go

Still taken from Amazon go's videoclip (artwork: Gudrun Kiender)
Ever young, beautiful and with a smartphone: Frame from the promotional video of Amazon go
At first blush it looks like progress. Next month Amazon will go public with a pilot convenience shop that has no checkout lines or cashiers. The beta model for the new "Amazon go" store is currently being tested by company employees in hometown Seattle. A corporate video explains the concept: Sensors and articifial intelligence detect what shoppers take from the shelves and add each item to a virtual cart. The price of the goods is then debited from their smartphone when they leave the store. If the "Just Walk Out" technology is implemented by Amazon for bricks & mortar retailers or is copied by them, checkout-free stores will obviously have a positive impact on their P&L. Like most employers, retailers, whatever their highly paid CEOs may say to the contrary in public, generally see their staff as a cost rather than as an asset. So they are likely to embrace the new idea with open arms. But it is surely also a tacit admission of failure.
November 18, 2016

Amazon Fresh builds pick-up store in Seattle

US eagle with a burden (photo: passengerz/Fotolia)
Eagle has landed
It's certainly counter-intuitive. Amazon has become big and brawny through being mean and lean. While traditional bricks & mortar retailers remain encumbered with their physical store bases, the US online giant has soared through cyber space like an eagle. So why is Amazon Fresh going offline in Seattle and experimenting with a drive-in? Could the tech star be on the verge of clipping its prime competitive advantage? Or is the project just another laudable example of the way US companies fearlessly progress by trial & error? Meanwhile, retailers can only hope Amazon doesn't conclude that they charge far too much for their often grim customer service and depressing store ambience. As there is no point in asking the secretive and opaque behemoth for more information about its ultimate intentions, let's take a sneak peek at what exactly the company is building in its home town.
November 11, 2016

Eurelec buys for Rewe and Leclerc

Michel-Édouard Leclerc, President Leclerc, & Alain Caparros, Rewe CEO
French connection: Michel-Édouard Leclerc and Rewe boss Alain Caparros like shopping together in Brussels
It was only a little letter from a small office in Brussels, but it has sent a big shockwave through the industry that could revolutionise the way retail groups do business with their major suppliers. The sender, Eurelec Trading Scrl, opened for business in June as a cooperative joint-venture between Rewe und Leclerc. Its function as a European buying office is to obtain the best possible terms & conditions for these German viz. French retail giants. Logically, Eurelec has started its annual negotiations for 2017 with the big boys. We understand that there were originally six international brand manufacturers involved, but now only four: Mars, Mondelez, PepsiCo and SCA. Apparently, they have been asked to come to a decision by the end of this month, and it is generally believed that they will accept. Eurelec seems to have detailed knowledge of the terms & conditions these suppliers accord retailers on both sides of the Rhine. So has there been collusion between Rewe and Leclerc in contravention of EU cartel law?
November 10, 2016

Aldi loosens up

Sergeant major (photo: Dario Lo Presti_Shutterstock)
Get soft, now!
There has been a sudden disappearance of ties within the ranks of German discount retailer Aldi. "Our company is open to the world," says one manager by way of explanation. After all, when a retailer constantly modernises its stores and operations, why not trendy-up the appearance of your staff? This will surely also make one seem more attractive as a potential employer to a rapidly declining number of young job seekers. The move, however, is far more revolutionary than it sounds because perfect ties have always been part of the uniform for men at Aldi. "They even used to keep them on in Australia when it was 40 degrees Celsius," says one astonished supplier.
November 10, 2016

German retailers and the Trump card

Statue of Liberty (photo: Andrea Izzotti_Shutterstock)
In God we trust
Times have just got a lot tougher for Latinos, Muslims, Blacks and all women who don't look like Barbie dolls. Perhaps they will appear better to unemployed steelworkers in the Rust Belt if they seriously believe that a billionaire businessman, who seems happy to use cheap labour and Chinese steel, is really their best friend. But times are certainly better for manspreading Russian premier Vladimir Putin. So perhaps we will soon be treated to photos of two middle-aged men with arresting hairstyles riding bare-chested on a stallion or in judo gear. As the media debate "Trumponomics" and the moods of the man the world's most powerful nation intends to entrust with the nuclear attack code, may we ask whether president-elect Donald Trump will be good or bad for German retailers?