Monday, April 23, 2018

“Fire Your Customer” Reaches Consumer Retail, With Disastrous Results

Two racial profiling incidents, days apart. A Starbucks manager in Philadelphia called the police on two customers almost as soon as they walked in the door. The police arrived quickly and arrested the two for trespassing. The Starbucks CEO had to fly in from Seattle to sort out the situation. The charges were dropped, the manager, removed from duty but not fired. Three LA Fitness employees in Secaucus, New Jersey, called the police on a member and guest, again claiming trespassing. The police arrived but found no reason to arrest the two. The staff nevertheless ejected the two customers, telling the member he was banned from the club for life. Again executives had to sort the matter out. The three employees were fired, the member, reinstated.

What happened? Activists and executives alike concluded that these were simple cases of racial profiling. All four of the customers accused of trespassing were black. Staffers singled them out for hostile treatment because of their race. Blinded by racial prejudice, staff members looked at perfectly ordinary customers and saw them as a menace.

No doubt that is accurate, but there is more to it than that. No one would claim that either Starbucks or LA Fitness can succeed based only on its white customers. Executives and store staff would agree that the store’s success depends on having as many customers as possible — and even filling the store with customers is no guarantee of success. So where did this idea of having customers arrested come from? Furthermore, it is not just the nonwhite customers who are shaken up by seeing these events unfold.

Starbucks and the Syms Incident

Personally, I am particularly troubled by the Starbucks arrests, and it is not just because I saw them on video. The timeline is more troubling than the video. A Starbucks manager glanced at two customers and decided instantly that they were troublemakers, dangerous enough that the police would have to be called to remove them. I’ve had that experience — when people in a position of authority look at me and decide at a glance I am a troublemaker. When I was in school, I was a model student, but there were teachers who hated me instantly and forever, and earning straight A’s didn’t change their minds about me. I expect this, though of course it is not as frequent today as it was when I was younger. I am a rock musician and look like it. There are millions of people in America, surely more than 1 in 100, who would like to see all rock musicians and their fans locked up. It is a matter of religious faith for most of them. They will never change their minds. So how many of them are Starbucks store managers? Is it safe for me to go back into a newly aggressive Starbucks? The company hasn’t breathed a word of reassurance, so it remains an open question, and in the meantime, I haven’t been to a Starbucks.

How long before I go back to Starbucks? I am reminded of my experience at Syms, a clothing discounter. I always liked the idea of discounts so at one time it was my favorite clothing store. I must have spent thousands of dollars there. Then one day a sales representative hounded me out of the store. I think he must have taken me for a shoplifter based on my appearance and the fact that I was shopping for clothing for people other than myself. I was shaken to see how I had been profiled and targeted. I left the store quickly. At the time I told myself it was no big deal. Five years went by before I noticed that I had never gone back. A few years after that, I heard that Syms had failed and was going out of business. I went to the store one last time to see what I could buy at the liquidation sale, but my local store had already closed.

I was not the customer targeted in Starbucks’ new policy taking a more aggressive approach to its customers, but I so easily could have been. And while Starbucks is disavowing the racism behind the Philadelphia arrests, it is standing by its policies in all other respects. Is it safe for people like me to go back into Starbucks? I am not sure it is. One thing is certain. Starbucks is not the same company that it was a year or two ago.

Syms had multiple problems. Toward the end, its buyers were having trouble buying the well-designed clothing that the store was known for. Formal business clothing, surely its most profitable department, had just gone into a long-term decline. Still, treating its loyal customers with suspicion and driving many of them away could not have helped its prospects. Now Starbucks had decided to go down that same road. It won’t end well for Starbucks either, as I will eventually explain.

Customer Value

Both the Starbucks arrests and the LA Fitness police call have the hallmarks of a fire-your-customer event gone badly wrong. Perhaps “gone badly wrong” is the wrong way of putting it. From a corporate perspective, any false police report that turns into a public relations fiasco has gone badly wrong. But these incidents were wrong even before the police were called. The decision to expel the customers was wrong from the start. The starkly different reactions of the two companies when the respective incidents came to light shows a real difference in strategy between them. But first, what does it mean to fire your customer?

“Fire your customer” arises from the relatively recent discovery that some customers are more valuable to a business than others. It is not easy, never a fully valid exercise, to quantify the profit a business draws from an individual customer. A business is the combined effort of serving all of its customers. It isn’t literally correct to slice up the business into different parts for different customers. Nevertheless, there are meaningful ways to approach this problem, and the results are conclusive and surprising. In the typical business, a small fraction of customers provide most of the profit. The typical customer is not profitable at all. This last conclusion can be debated endlessly. With small changes in assumptions, you can conclude that the common customer types are generating either a very small loss or a very small profit, but this difference doesn’t matter.

The essential conclusion you must come away with is that the typical customers are not keeping the company in business. This realization busts a myth that business had labored under for five centuries. This remains our cultural assumption about business even though we have known for a generation that it is false. We imagine a business with thousands of customers, each one bringing in a small amount of money. Combined, this is a lot of money, enough to keep the company in business. It’s a nice picture. It is simply not true. The customer that contributes in a meaningful way to the profitability of a business is the rare exception.

When quantitative marketing analysts (such as myself) consider the customer base of a business, one of the first and most important distinctions we make is an attempt to separate the high value customers, the ones we think contribute to profitability, from the low value customers, the ones who contribute little or nothing to the profitability of the business. This customer segmentation is never perfect, but it is rarely subtle. In formal business clothing, for example, the high value customer is one who buys suits two or three at a time, multiple times per year. The business will never make a healthy profit on the customer who buys one suit at a time, no matter how often.

In an accounting fantasy, you could make a business more profitable by taking away all the low value customers leaving the business with a much smaller base of high value customers. As far as I know, it is with this concept that the “fire your customer” idea was born. In the fantasy world, your business keeps the 5 percent of customers who provide 80 percent of the profit. You’re doing 5 percent of the work, but getting 80 percent of the reward. Sounds pretty good, right?

The Unprofitable Customer

“Fire your customer” is the rallying cry. In its most extreme form, the objective is to refuse to serve, or “fire,” the masses of customers who don’t directly add anything to your bottom line. In rare cases, this might work. Imagine a print shop with 10,000 customers. It studies its customer base and finds that almost all of its profit comes from 18 customers — customers it barely thinks about as it spends most of its time on its largest customers. The president goes to talk to these 18 customers one by one and they all seem to agree with the idea that the print shop could scale down drastically so it can devote more attention on their jobs. The print shop closes its doors and lays off most of its staff. The workers who remain are doing work only for these remaining 18 customers. The business might even become more profitable than before as it finds ways to expand on the work it does for its 18 private customers. On the other hand, as far as the world is concerned, it is almost the same as shutting the business down. The doors are locked, and the print shop is no longer talking to the public. Most of the workers have lost their jobs. Their customers, other than the few private customers that remain, have lost a supplier. It might be the best outcome for the workers and customers who remain, and perhaps those gains outweigh the losses. But it’s still a drastic change, and that points to why the fire-your-customer strategy doesn’t work for very many businesses.

Fire your customer doesn’t work because after you’re done, the business you started out with no longer exists. To see this in stark relief, imagine that a restaurant refuses reservations from 90 percent of its customers out so it can only serve the few dozen customers who order the high-priced entrees and leave large tips. In an emergency, if the kitchen has almost run out of food, this might make sense, but it won’t work as an ongoing strategy. Do the few high-value customers want to eat in an empty dining room? No. They come to the restaurant not just for the food, but for the atmosphere. Without the customers, the atmosphere is gone. In the meantime, how can the restaurant ever bring in new customers if it is refusing reservations from people it does not know? Will there be enough qualified referrals from the existing customers to keep the restaurant in business? Probably not.

There are other ways that firing your unprofitable customers just doesn’t work. Knowledge@Wharton points out that a business with only profitable customers is especially vulnerable to poaching. That is, competitors will do anything they can to take away the customers of such a business, knowing that any such customer is likely to be profitable. Researchers think this may be the main reason why no fire-your-customers approach, no matter how well planned, ever seems to make a business more profitable in practice.

It is impossible to guess when an “unprofitable” customer may suddenly become important. A business may need a large number of customers to have the reputation that it takes to bring in new profitable customers. An unprofitable customer turns into a profitable customer at random times that a business can’t possibly predict.

Restaurant chain Denny’s tried the fire-your-customer strategy on the largest scale of any business I know of, and the attempt not only failed, but it ruined the company’s reputation and effectively drove it out of business. Denny’s decided its best customers were a certain demographic segment, never mind what that segment was, and it deliberately mistreated all customers who didn’t fit that profile. I can vouch for that because I was one of the customers who was mistreated. Items I ordered weren’t delivered to the table. The bowl of chili was hot on the outside but still icy in the middle. Denny’s was trying to get rid of me. The reason I am convinced of this is that these incidents never happened when I was accompanied by a member of their preferred demographic — on those occasions I was treated well. Of course, we have heard stories from Denny’s that were much worse than anything I experienced myself.

It is easy to see how this strategy backfired. Denny’s made a negative impression on an enormous number of people, literally more than half of its potential customers. Many of the people who they drove out were acquaintances and family members of the demographic they were trying to reach. Indirectly, their preferred customer group got a negative impression too, or they had to go elsewhere because they were dining with a group. In the end, the publicity was so bad that even people who had never heard a personal account of mistreatment at Denny’s decided they were safer to stay away. A brand doesn’t recover from that kind of negative publicity.

Fire Your Customer

If fire your customer doesn’t work as a way to reduce the number of low-value customers, then what is it good for? Marketing experts agree you can’t “fire” a large number of customers, so the strategy has to be reserved for customers who represent a real problem. These might be the customers who are never happy, no matter how good the service is. There are customers who are simply bad for employee morale. Some customers clash a business’s values and principles. Others are constantly trying to take advantage of you in some way or have shown that they can’t be trusted. These are the customers you fire. But if you are firing more than a few customers, it’s not your customers. If that happens, there is something that is fundamentally wrong with the business or the way it is presented.

A classic example of a failure here is Sprint, which decided at one point to cancel the mobile phone contracts of all customers who had made multiple customer service calls per month. The accounting looked sound: these were customers who cost more in call-center time than the company could possibly cover with the monthly subscription fees. Yet it was all a big mistake. The customers Sprint fired were not voluntarily calling Sprint customer service so often. They were calling because the company continued to make operational errors on their accounts, so that their service was interrupted or they were billed incorrectly again and again. By firing these customers, Sprint missed the chance to focus in on and correct some of its worst operational failings — fixes it needed to make urgently because the errors were costing the company tens of millions of dollars a year in extra work. By blaming the customers instead of taking responsibility for its own operations, Sprint not only procrastinated on the improvements it needed to make, it also gave a very poor impression to a very large number of people and created a public relations problem larger in financial terms than the problem it thought it was solving.

Seth Godin explains the principles of “fire your customer” in the short post “The Customer is Always Right.” One of the key principles he and others mention is that you must do your best to make a good impression on the customer you are firing. If the person you are facing is your former customer, your reputation is still on the line. The is a principle Sprint failed to think of when it cut off close to a million customers without having taken time to look into the customers’ very real complaints. Needless to say, the strategy did not lead to the savings and customer growth Sprint had been planning on.

You can’t fire very many customers without savaging your company’s reputation, so it is a strategy you have to use sparingly and strategically. It’s not the answer for every unprofitable customer, only for a few problem customers. It has to be only a few. If it seems you are seeing bad customers everywhere you turn, those are not bad customers. That is just a bad business.

CRM and Consumer Retail

The concept of customer value comes from the relatively new field of customer relationship management, or CRM. Some marketing experts take a narrower view of the field and refer to customer value management, or CVM. The objective of either CRM or CVM is to know what a customer means to the company and manage the customer relationship accordingly. The first part, knowing what a customer means to a company, depends on analytics frameworks that are not yet fully mature at this point, though they can provide useful guidance. In the last three years retail customer analytics have advanced to the point where retail store managers and even retail workers can get a meaningful sense of customer value. The customer value concept is making its way into consumer retail, and for the first time the analytic measures are detailed enough that the customer value score is not just a shot in the dark.

If the concept of customer value is just now trickling into in-store retail operations, it is arriving without the customer-specific analytics that make it work. CRM assumes you know who the customer is so that you can look up that specific customer’s history. At this point, this is still easier to do online or on the phone than in-store. Nevertheless, store workers must be starting to hear how little profit potential there is in the average customer. This is a particularly difficult thing to hear if you are a store manager and held responsible for bringing in more customers and making your store profitable. It must be tempting to try to reduce the number of low-value customers while increasing the number of high-value customers, in spite of the marketing experts who say this doesn’t work.

One area where retailers could do a lot better is with loyalty programs such as the frequent-shopper cards you might have in your wallet. When you study loyalty programs, it is the rare exception that they reach out to high-value customers. Most of the time, a loyalty program is geared directly toward the low-value customers, encouraging them to stay with the retailer and giving them extra discounts as an incentive to stay even though the retailer is already losing money on them. Retailers need to look for ways to redesign loyalty programs so that they preferentially attract high-value customers. They shouldn’t be going to such lengths to retain low-value customers.

The principles of CRM and customer value are simple enough. It is important to retain high-value customers and impress low-value customers. If these ideas are applied correctly, they won’t do much harm even if you are often mistaken about what a customer’s value is.

But if the concept of customer value is applied badly, starting with a fire-your-customer approach to low-value customers and compounding the error with a series of mistaken assumptions about what a customer’s value is, I think it’s obvious that the result can be chaos. My guess is that this is what happened both at Starbucks and at LA Fitness. Two store managers mistakenly thought they saw a threat to their profitability, and they panicked. If it can happen to these two managers, it will happen again. The more data retail managers see that shows them how little profit their ordinary customers provide, the less generous they will feel toward those customers. The way it looks to me, this is just the beginning. Fire your customer has just barely reached the retail space, and it is already a disaster.

Rogue Store Managers

In both places the actions can be attributed to rogue store managers, and the respective companies have publicly taken that stance. It fits well enough that not many will question it. If your first thought on seeing a customer you don’t recognize, who is acting essentially the way you expect from a customer, is, “We’ve got to get rid of this pesky customer,” then you may not be fit to work in retail at all. This degree of hostility toward ordinary customers is a fireable offense all by itself in a retail establishment. Dialing 911 and making a false statement to the emergency dispatcher, and subsequently to the police, turns a fireable offense into probably a criminal offense. A company that faces the public can’t put up with either from a store manager.

The rogue manager story almost covers the LA Fitness incident. Part of the reason I say that is that it is obvious that the staff was acting against their company’s interests. A health club has high fixed costs and sells on a subscription basis. It needs a large number of customers. Outside of busy city centers there are no health clubs that really have enough customers. Everyone who has been around a health club for a few years knows this, but even if the manager did not, LA Fitness staff are well trained and would have been trained in the company’s business model. The last thing you can afford to do in this kind of business is to tell a paid subscriber who is doing nothing more than acting like a paying customer that he is banned for life. It is no wonder if the CEO was infuriated to hear it. Even if the subscriber was seen as a unregistered guest, a club manager would still have the responsibility to try to sell him a subscription. But it was the club manager who checked in the customer when he arrived at the club, so the manager knew or should have known from the start that this was a paying customer. Somehow the manager saw a problem customer. It is hard to explain as a matter of confusion, hard to escape the conclusion of racial profiling and a rogue strategy of excluding a demographic class of customers.

It is also clear that the Starbucks manager was knowingly departing from company policy, just knowing how quickly she called the police after the customers entered the store. You know for a fact that no one from the store had a meaningful conversation with the two customers because they were not in the store long enough for that to have happened. There is nothing in Starbucks policy that says a customer has to place an order within a certain number of seconds after arriving in a store. It that is a policy in that store, it is one that the local management made up in a departure from company policy.

Despite this, the rogue manager story doesn’t quite hold up in the Starbucks story. In contrast to LA Fitness, Starbucks store staff are virtually untrained, and that includes store managers and the managers they report to. Managers also get shockingly little corporate support. There isn’t a clear system in place for how to do the basics of store operation, such as ordering supplies. This is why Starbucks stores are constantly running out of essential supplies — cups, lids, milk, napkins, pastries. Store managers are pretty much on their own in figuring these things out. You have to get to the third level of management, a manager responsible for maybe 40 or 50 stores, before you reach someone who is reasonably well informed on the Starbucks way of doing things. The store managers are encouraged to find their own ways of making each store profitable. And store managers are held responsible for store profitability, so they are under pressure to find solutions that might skirt company policy or even run afoul of the law if that’s what it takes. In this sense, every Starbucks store manager is a rogue manager, and that is by design. So Starbucks as a company can hardly sidestep its culpability by shifting the blame to a rogue manager. Starbucks barely knows what goes on in its stores, and it doesn’t really want to know. As troubles mount, it will eventually have to start paying attention, but the lack of reaction to the Philadelphia arrests suggests that the company is not yet taking its problems seriously.

Starbucks’ More Aggressive Tone, and Why It Could End Badly

There is another, larger reason why Starbucks cannot blame the incident on one rogue manager. Starbucks has shifted its approach in the last half year in a way that suggests corporate management has bought into the flawed version of customer value theory and is trying to reduce the number of low-value customers it has in stores while increasing the number of high-value customers. This builds on Starbucks’ efforts of the four previous years in promoting its mobile ordering app, drive-through windows, and loyalty programs. Starbucks seems to be trying to boost its business among its most frequent customers while reducing the labor costs of serving them. It wants to see fewer of the new and casual customers who are the most labor-intensive customers to serve. It is trying to make customers a little less comfortable in its cafés. As far as I can tell, this last change in strategy is the reason Starbucks headquarters ordered the new locks on the restrooms at the store in Philadelphia where the customer arrests took place. Extrapolating, it looks like Starbucks intends to be little more than a drive-through five years from now. I have heard Starbucks managers say out loud that we might eventually see all chairs removed from the café so that customers have no place to sit down.

Obviously that would be a drastic change. Yet as marketing experts have advised, you don’t undertake a broad fire-your-customer strategy and still have the same business standing when you are done. Starbucks knows this. It employs marketing experts and understands marketing better than most businesses. The reason its recent changes have been made so quietly is that the company is trying to delay the inevitable loss of customers that it knows is coming.

But I believe Starbucks is making a mistake. There is a reason to believe that Starbucks’ fire-your-customer strategy will undercut the core of its business. To see this, think of the most profitable transaction a Starbucks location is likely to have on a given day. This could be a customer purchasing 10 quarts of coffee and 15 pastries for a business meeting. If the customer has called ahead so that the coffee is ready, the store can make an hour’s worth of profit in five minutes. Who wouldn’t want more customers like that?

But consider why the business-meeting customer is possible. A business orders from Starbucks to impress on meeting attendees that the company has spared no expense in preparing such an important meeting. It is possible to make this impression only if most of the people attending the meeting have experienced Starbucks before. Most commonly they do so by going into the store as individual customers before 9 a.m. and ordering a cup of coffee and one other item — the most typical Starbucks customer, but also just about the lowest-value customer transaction Starbucks can imagine. The high-value customer is possible only because of a much larger number of low-value customers. This is what almost all businesses find when they analyze customer value. If Starbucks is successful enough in driving out the low-value customers, so that ordinary office workers lose their connection to the chain, the high-value office-meeting customer will stop going there. There won’t be any point in getting Starbucks coffee for a meeting if no one attending the meeting knows what that means. Without the low-value customers, the high-value customers fall away too, perhaps not immediately, but with a lag of no more than a few years.

In a similar way, if Starbucks succeeds in making customers less comfortable, customers will no longer think of it as a place to hang out with friends for an hour or as the place to go for a low-key first date. But then, those same customers are less likely to think of Starbucks when they want something special. If you lose customers for one type of transaction, you lose them for the other type too. The end game for this strategy is that Starbucks is the go-to place for coffee addicts seeking high-quality coffee, and hardly anyone else. Yet my belief is that that customer base won’t stand up either.

Consider the history of Starbucks. Starting in the late 1980s, Starbucks rescued a coffee culture that seemed to be in terminal decline. It did this by promising high-quality coffee and a friendly, fun environment. Starbucks is already not much fun anymore, and now it is losing the friendly part too. Then take away the casual customers, and even the hardcore addicts will notice the difference. It will seem as if the life has been sucked out of the place. This is the inevitable result because hardcore addicts, even if addicted to a drug as mild as coffee, can never be very lively. Lively and addicted don’t naturally go together.

It also looks bad to be going to a place frequented only by addicts. If it comes to that, people will be embarrassed to admit that they are regular Starbucks customers. Beyond that, there is the risk of a cultural shift if coffee addicts someday notice how they are being played by the coffee industry — a nightmare scenario for Starbucks that becomes more plausible if its customer base is reduced to just one class of customers. Coffee is not really as addictive as that. Half of coffee addicts could give it up entirely in less than six months just out of spite or shame. As unlikely as it sounds today, this could happen if the coffee industry is no longer propped up by Starbucks’ reputation. Starbucks is playing with fire in liquidating its reputation.

Starbucks’ Bungled Response

Starbucks’ response to the Philadelphia arrests has done little to reassure its regular customers. Starbucks, I believe, is correct to focus on the problem of racial profiling and unconscious bias as a way of defusing a volatile situation. Promising a day of in-store training to its staff on this subject is a good step. However, the training being planned appears to fall short of what was promised, and Starbucks has not said a word about addressing its underlying problems.

The training. Closing the store for a full day of training? It sounds like a strong move, but I am told it will be only half a day of training. And what will the training cover? From what I am hearing so far, it will not be limited to avoiding racial bias. It will also, and perhaps primarily, cover the topic of how store employees should respond to protests. It also does not look good that Starbucks’ main emphasis in this regard is the steps workers can take to minimize property damage. There is a brief mention of customer safety, employee safety, and cooperating with police, but Starbucks’ biggest fear is the cost of replacing the windows that might be broken or cleaning any spray-paint from vandals. The emphasis on defending the premises is demoralizing to some Starbucks employees I have read accounts from. Is Starbucks responding to its racist gaffe by digging its heels in? Does the company expect to repeat this kind of mistake after the CEO said publicly that it wouldn’t? Is every Starbucks location expecting to see picketers?

So maybe the “day” of training will include a solid hour of racial bias training. That hardly seems enough, but it could do some good. But what of the other issues? This is the only major training initiative Starbucks has undertaken in at least five years. Will it start to train store managers on the Starbucks way, so that Starbucks culture is no longer just a nice idea that lives in Seattle? Will it start checking in on its stores in a meaningful way? Will it do anything to address the extremely high turnover among its store staff? Will it find a way to respond more quickly when store managers make major errors? In every case, the answer appears to be no.

Most of all, customers want to know what has changed and what to expect from Starbucks now, and the company so far is keeping us in suspense. As customers, we can see that there are some customers Starbucks wants to keep and other customers it no longer wants to have around, and it is clear enough that this distinction is not meant to be made on the basis of race, but beyond this, we are left guessing. Customers are not abandoning Starbucks yet, at least not in large numbers, but after another incident, and then another after that, almost every Starbucks customer will start to have second thoughts, similar to the way the most loyal Chipotle Mexican Grill customers acknowledge they are taking a calculated risk in eating there after that chain’s endless series of foodborne illnesses. Do I want a good cup of coffee? Starbucks customers will ask. Yes. Is it worth the risk? Well, maybe just this one time.

Customer Beware

The phrase caveat emptor is written in Latin because it refers to a particular problem in ancient Rome. Vendors would sell substandard merchandise to unsuspecting buyers. Setting aside that caution about the goods, the essential social contract between a public-facing vendor and the public has remained essentially intact for the entire time since, a period of at least 25 centuries. One side of the contract says that essentially anyone can go into a public-facing retail space and can take the actions that the place implies. The reason that LA Fitness and Starbucks calling the police on their respective customers is so shocking is that it breaks this social contract. When a powerful institution breaks a social contract, everyone pays attention because suddenly we don’t know what to expect from the world.

In this sense, the breach from LA Fitness is not so unsettling, and accordingly has not drawn so much attention, because the company took it all back in emphatic fashion. The breach from Starbucks is far more unsettling. Starbucks has disowned the arrests but not the changes in policy and approach that led to the arrests. Starbucks is still a place for people to hang out, but in a more limited fashion than you would traditionally expect from a coffee shop, and we don’t know what the new rules are. The social contract is normally assumed and so internalized that it is barely conscious, so when it is broken, people who were confident about their place in the world start to question everything, and that is starting to happen in response to the Starbucks arrests. This explains the enormous scale of the reaction to the incident at Starbucks. Two business men were arrested just for walking into Starbucks and sitting down? What is the world turning into?

It would not be so earth-shattering if these were just isolated incidents, but no one believes that. The Syms episode I related happened many years ago, and certain department stores have had a much worse reputation for a longer period of time for profiling and targeting their customers. What we are seeing now is just a new and more pointed version of the same thing. This kind of behavior from retailers could become more common for years to come as more retail managers gain progressively more data on how little profit the average customer is providing. Even though only a small fraction of stores will resort to throwing people out, I expect every single one of us will be profiled and expelled from a retail space at least once, not because we did something wrong, but just because someone thought we looked unprofitable or we did not look like a match for the customer profile that someone was hoping to see. When it happens to you, it will still be upsetting, but at least you can realize that you are not the first. Retail chains under financial pressure will tend to be the quickest to adopt the fire-your-customer approach, and doing so will hasten their decline, as the related profiling and targeting may have done in the case of Syms.

When the social contract starts to break, the results can be unpredictable. The retail space is struggling financially and struggling to adapt to the loss of anonymity for shoppers, long a fact of life online but now inching its way into stores. With retail already in turmoil, a generation of retail managers is facing what they now realize are mostly unprofitable customers, and too often, making snap decisions. A disaster is already upon us — just look at Starbucks and LA Fitness — and an upheaval is inevitable even if we cannot predict much of the outline of the changes ahead. For lifetimes we have taken for granted that we can go into a shop and buy what the shop is selling. When something as basic as that is no longer valid, we have little choice but to start questioning everything.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Trade War Adjustments in Sorghum

The U.S. sorghum crop is looking for new buyers after China imposed tariffs on the grain. The new tariffs are approximately two times the market value of the sorghum, so there might as well be a ban on U.S. sorghum in China.

Sorghum is considered a niche crop, but that does not mean it is small. Reuters identified 20 container ships carrying U.S. sorghum to China, en route at the time the new tariffs were announced. Five of these were seen to change course immediately when the new tariffs were announced.

One possible outcome is that all available Australian sorghum is sold to China, while U.S. sorghum is shipped to Australia to cover the shortfall. This potential change in trading pattern, resulting in greater costs which are reflected in higher prices in the importing country, is the kind of thing that makes economists skeptical of country-specific tariffs and quotas.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

FirstEnergy Bankruptcy Seeks Cost-Shifting for Coal and Nuclear Decommissioning

Among last week’s bankruptcies, there was another U.S. energy bankruptcy, but this one has more far-reaching implications than the ones that have come before. It is FirstEnergy’s coal and nuclear operations that are bankrupt. This is not surprising in itself. It has been ten years since coal and nuclear plants were cost-competitive on the U.S. grid. The most alarming thing about the FirstEnergy bankruptcy is the company’s request for an emergency subsidy from the U.S. Department of Energy. That request should be ignored. The Department of Energy has said in the past that the emergency subsidy provisions in federal law are meant for use to stabilize the grid following a regional disaster such as a hurricane or earthquake, and not as a routine way to compensate for investment mistakes. The request provides insight into the company’s intentions, though, which are to shift costs onto the public as much as the law will allow.

FirstEnergy investors lost billions of dollars buying archaic power plants that will ultimately be shut down at additional expense. It is better if those shutdowns do not happen all at once this year, but more gradually and at a more economically opportune time, but the shutdown nevertheless looms over the bankruptcy process. This appears to be a strategic bankruptcy intended to save investors the decommissioning costs of the nearly obsolete coal and nuclear plants. The cleanup has to happen to protect the public even if the investors and owners are unwilling or unable to pay for it. With the bankruptcy, most of the costs will be paid for by the public.

Coal and nuclear bankruptcies are likely to turn into a financial mess on a national scale within ten years. Absent an unexpected series of technological breakthroughs that make existing coal and nuclear plants less expensive to operate, all but a few of the best-designed coal and nuclear plants will be operating at a loss by 2027. The FirstEnergy bankruptcy case will set precedents around the question of how much of the costs of cleanup can be shifted to the public. Investors, obviously, would prefer to raid these utlities for as much money as they can and then pass the bulk of the decommissioning costs along to someone else. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that there is much that can be done under current law to stop this severely dysfunctional form of vulture capitalism.