The virtually simultaenous bankruptcies of The Sharper Image and Lillian Vernon shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
The rules of the game have changed. It started with merchandising. Once the merchandise in these catalogs went stale, both companies entered a dangerous spiral, losing demand per book while driving up marketing cost as a percent of sales. Once demand started to decline, the only lever left was price and reduced marketing costs, both of which lowered gross margins.
Gross margins are more important this year than in the past because the Internet has flattened competition among retailers, making the marketplace more efficient every year. No longer can you sell me-too products for 10 cents more than the business down the street. So margins have become compressed for look-alike competitors.
Last holiday season, competition was fierce for meager sales growth. That meant markdowns, free shipping offers and other sales promotions to drive growth. As a result, margins were further compressed. And that’s precisely why gross margins are even more important this year.
“The Internet is driving gross margins down for people that haven’t made their product unique,” says David Solomon, co-CEO of New York-based investment bank Lazard Middle Market. “Unless you have a very special business model, you’re going to have a hard time growing in this crowded Internet space.”
Think of margins as money for your company. Gross margin is a company’s total sales revenue minus cost of goods sold, divided by the total sales revenue, expressed as a percentage. The higher this percentage, the more the company retains on each sales dollar to service its other costs.
Multichannel marketing is a margin-driven business. Improve the margin by 1 percent, and that contributes directly to overhead and profit. Lose a point, and it affects the bottom line. Depending on the product line, marketers have gross margins between 40 percent to 80 percent. Most multichannel companies are in the 55 percent to 60 percent range.