Sears Today, Walmart Tomorrow? Why You Don’t Want To Own Any Retail Stocks

Sears Today, Walmart Tomorrow? Why You Don’t Want To Own Any Retail Stocks

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Traditional retailers just keep providing more bad newsPayless Shoes said it plans to file bankruptcy next week, closing 500 of its 4,000 stores. Most likely it will follow the path of Radio Shack, which hasn’t made a profit since 2011. Radio Shack filed bankruptcy and shut a gob of stores as part of its “turnaround plan.” Then in February Radio Shack filed its second bankruptcy — most likely killing the chain entirely this time.

Sears Holdings finally admitted it probably can’t survive as a going concern this week. Sears has lost over $10 billion since 2010 — when it last showed a profit — and owes over $4 billion to its creditors. Retail stocks cratered Monday as the list of retailers closing stores accelerated: Sears, KMart, Macy’s, Radio Shack, JCPenney, American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, The Limited, CVS, GNC, Office Depot, HHGregg, The Children’s Place and Crocs are just some of the household names that are slowly (or not so slowly) dying.

None of this should be surprising. By the time CEO Ed Lampert merged KMart with Sears the trend to e-commerce was already pronounced. Anyone could build an excel spreadsheet that would demonstrate as online retail grew, brick-and-mortar retail would decline. In the low margin world of retail, profits would evaporate. It would be a blood bath. Any retailer with any weakness simply would not survive this market shift — and that clearly included outdated store concepts like Sears, KMart and Radio Shack which long ago were outflanked by on-line shopping and trendier storefronts.

 Yet, not everyone is ready to give up on some retailers. Walmart, for example, still trades at $70 per share, which is higher than it traded in 2015 and about where it traded back in 2012. Some investors still think that there are brick-and-mortar outfits that are either immune to the trends, or will survive the shake-out and have higher profits in the future.

And that is why we have to be very careful about business myths. There are a lot of people that believe as markets shrink the ultimate consolidation will leave one, or a few, competitors who will be very profitable. Capacity will go away, and profits will return. In the end, they believe if you are the last buggy whip maker you will be profitable — so investors just need to pick who will be the survivor and wait it out. And, if you believe this, then you have justified owning Walmart.

 Only, markets don’t work that way. As industries consolidate they end up with competitors who either lose money or just barely eke out a small profit. Think about the auto industry, airlines or land-line telecom companies.

Two factors exist which effectively forces all the profits out of these businesses and therefore make it impossible for investors to make money long-term.

First, competitive capacity always remains just a bit too much for the market need. Management, and often investors, simply don’t want to give up in the face of industry consolidation. They keep hoping to reach a rainbow that will save them. So capacity lingers and lingers — always pushing prices down even as costs increase. Even after someone fails, and that capacity theoretically goes away, someone jumps in with great hopes for the future and boosts capacity again. Therefore, excess capacity overhangs the marketplace forcing prices down to break-even, or below, and never really goes away.

Given the amount of retail real estate out there and the bargains being offered to anyone who wants to open, or expand, stores this problem will persist for decades in retail.

Second, demand in most markets keeps declining. Hopefuls project that demand will “stabilize,” thus balancing the capacity and allowing for price increases. Because demand changes aren’t linear, there are often plateaus that make it appear as if demand won’t go down more. But then something changes — an innovation, regulatory change, taste change — and demand takes another hit. And all the hope goes away as profits drop, again.

It is not a successful strategy to try being the “last man standing” in any declining market. No competitor is immune to these forces when markets shift. No matter how big, when trends shift and new forms of competition start growing every old-line company will be negatively affected. Whether fast, or slow, the value of these companies will continue declining until they eventually become worthless.

Nor is it successful long-term to try and segment the business into small groupings which management thinks can be protected. When Xerox brought to market photocopying, small offset press manufacturers (ABDick and Multigraphics ) said not to worry. Xeroxing might be OK in some office installations, but there were customer segments that would forever use lithography. Even as demand shrunk, well into the 1990s, they said that big corporations, industrial users, government entities, schools and other segments would forever need the benefits of lithography, so investors were safe. Today the small offset press market is a tiny fraction of its size in the 1960s. ABDick and Multigraphics both went through rounds of bankruptcies before disappearing. Xerography, its child desktop publishing, and its grandchild electronic screens, killed offset for almost all applications.

So don’t be lured into false hopes by retailers who claim their segment is “protected.” Short-term things might not look bad. But the market has already shifted to e-commerce and this is just round one of change. More and more innovations are coming that will make the need for traditional stores increasingly unnecessary.

Many readers have expressed their disappointment in my chronic warnings about Walmart. But those warnings are no different than my warnings about Sears Holdings. It’s just that the timing may be different. Both companies have been over-investing in assets (brick-and-mortar stores) that are declining in value as they have attempted to defend and extend their old business model. Both radically under-invested in new markets which were cannibalizing their old business. And, in the end, both will end up with the same results.

And this is true for all retailers that depend on traditional brick-and-mortar sales for their revenues and profits — it’s only a matter of when things will go badly, not if. So traditional retail is nowhere that any investor wants to be.

McDonald’s: Here’s Why Your New Big Mac Is Doomed

(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

McDonald’s has been trying for years to re-ignite growth. But, unfortunately for customers and investors alike, leadership keeps going about it the wrong way. Rather than building on new trends to create a new McDonald’s, they keep trying to defend extend the worn out old strategy with new tactics.

Recently McDonald’s leadership tested a new version of the Big Mac,first launched in 1967. They replaced the “special sauce” with Sriracha sauce in order to make the sandwich a bit spicier. They are now rolling it out to a full test market in central Ohio with 128 stores. If this goes well – a term not yet defined – the sandwich could roll out nationally.

This is a classic sustaining innovation. Take something that exists, make a minor change, and offer it as a new version. The hope is that current customers keep buying the original version, and the new version attracts new customers. Great idea, if it works. But most of the time it doesn’t.

 Unfortunately, most people who buy a product like it the way it is. Slower Big Mac sales aren’t due to making bad sandwiches. They’re due to people changing their buying habits to new trends. Fifty years ago a Big Mac from McDonald’s was something people really wanted. Famously, in the 1970s a character on the TV series Good Times used to become very excited about going to eat his weekly Big Mac.

People who are still eating Big Macs know exactly what they want. And it’s the old Big Mac, not a new one. Thus the initial test results were “mixed” – with many customers registering disgust at the new product.  Just like the failure of New Coke, a New Big Mac isn’t what customers are seeking.

After 50 years, times and trends have changed. Fewer people are going to McDonald’s, and fewer are eating Big Macs. Many new competitors have emerged, and people are eating at Panera, Panda Express, Zaxby’s, Five Guys and even beleaguered Chipotle. Customers are looking for a very different dining experience, and different food. While a version two of the Big Mac might have driven incremental sales in 1977, in 2017 the product has grown tired and out of step with too many people and there are too many alternative choices.

Similarly, McDonald’s CEO’s effort to revitalize the brand by adding ordering kiosks and table service in stores, in a new format labeled the “Experience of the Future,” will not make much difference.  Due to the dramatic reconfiguration, only about 500 stores will be changed – roughly 3.5% of the 14,500 McDonald’s. It is an incremental effort to make a small change when competitors are offering substantially different products and experiences.

When a business, brand or product line is growing it is on a trend. Like McDonald’s was in the 1960s and 1970s, offering quality food, fast and at a consistent price nationwide at a time when customers could not count on those factors across independent cafes. At that time, offering new products – like a Big Mac – that are variations on the theme that is riding the trend is a good way to expand sales.

But over time trends change, and adding new features has less and less impact. These sustaining innovations, as Clayton Christensen of Harvard calls them, have “diminishing marginal returns.” That’s an academic’s fancy way of saying that you have to spend ever greater amounts to create the variations, but their benefits keep having less and less impact on growing, or even maintaining, sales. Yet, most leaders keep right on trying to defend & extend the old business by investing in these sustaining measures, even as returns keep falling.

Over time a re-invention gap is created between the customer and the company. Customers want something new and different, which would require the business re-invent itself. But the business keeps trying to tweak the old model. And thus the gap. The longer this goes on, the bigger the re-invention gap. Eventually customers give up, and the product, or company, disappears.

Source: (c) Adam Hartung

Source: (c) Adam Hartung

Think about portable hand held AM radios. If someone gave you the best one in the world you wouldn’t care. Same for a really good portable cassette tape player. Now you listen to your portable music on a phone.  Companies like Zenith were destroyed, and Sony made far less profitable, as the market shifted from radios and cathode-ray televisions to more portable, smarter, better products.

Motorola, one of the radio pioneers, survived this decline by undertaking a “strategic pivot.”  Motorola invested in cell phone technology and transformed itself into something entirely new and different – from a radio maker into a pioneer in mobile phones. (Of course leadership missed the transition to apps and smart phones, and now Motorola Solutions is a ghost of the former company.)

McDonald’s could have re-invented itself a decade ago when it owned Chipotle’s. Leadership could have stopped investing in McDonald’s and poured money into Chipotle’s, aiding the cannibalization of the old while simultaneously capturing a strong position on the new trend. But instead of pivoting, leadership sold Chipotle’s and used the money to defend & extend the already tiring McDonald’s brand.

Strategic pivots are hard.  Just look at Netflix, which pivoted from sending videos in the mail to streaming, and is pivoting again into original content. But, they are a necessity if you want to keep growing. Because eventually all strategies become out of step with changing trends, and sustaining innovations fail to keep customers.

McDonald’s needs a very different strategy. It has hit a growth stall, and has a very low probability of ever growing consistently at even 2%. The company needs a lot more than sriracha sauce on a Big Mac if it is to spice up revenue and profit growth.

Why to Worry About Apple

Why to Worry About Apple

 Apple AAPL -0.72% announced sales and earnings yesterday. For the first time in 15 years, ever since it rebuilt on a strategy to be the leader in mobile products, full year sales declined. After three consecutive down quarters, it was not unanticipated. And Apple’s guidance for next quarter was for investors to expect a 1% or 2% improvement in sales or earnings. That’s comparing to the disastrous quarter reported last January, which started this terrible year for Apple investors.

Yet, most analysts remain bullish on Apple stock. At a price/earnings (P/E) of 13.5, it is by far the cheapest tech stock. iPad sales are stagnant, iPhone sales are declining, Apple Watch sales dropped some 70% and Chromebook breakout sales caused a 20% drop in Mac Sales. Yet most analysts believe that something will improve and Apple will get its mojo back.

Only, the odds are against Apple. As I pointed out last January, Apple’s value took a huge hit because stagnating sales caused the company to completely lose its growth story. And, the message that Apple doesn’t know how to grow just keeps rolling along. By last quarter – July – I wrote Apple had fallen into a Growth Stall. And that should worry investors a lot.

Growth Stall primary slide

Ten Deadly Sins Of Networking

Companies that hit growth stalls almost always do a lot worse before things improve – if they ever improve. Seventy-five percent of companies that hit a growth stall have negative growth for several quarters after a stall. Only 7% of companies grow a mere 6%. To understand the pattern, think about companies like Sears, Sony, RIM/Blackberry, Caterpillar Tractor. When they slip off the growth curve, there is almost always an ongoing decline.

And because so few regain a growth story, 70% of the companies that hit a growth stall lose over half their market capitalization. Only 5% lose less than 25% of their market cap.

Why? Because results reflect history, and by the time sales and profits are falling the company has already missed a market shift. The company begins defending and extending its old products, services and business practices in an effort to “shore up” sales. But the market shifted, either to a competitor or often a new solution, and new rev levels do not excite customers enough to create renewed growth. But since the company missed the shift, and hunkered down to fight it, things get worse (usually a lot worse) before they get better.

Think about how Microsoft MSFT -0.42% missed the move to mobile. Too late, and its Windows 10 phones and tablet never captured more than 3% market share. A big miss as the traditional PC market eroded.

Right now there is nothing which indicates Apple is not going to follow the trend created by almost all growth stalls. Yes, it has a mountain of cash. But debt is growing faster than cash now, and companies have shown a long history of burning through cash hoards rather than returning the money to shareholders.

Apple has no new products generating market shifts, like the “i” line did. And several products are selling less than in previous quarters. And the CEO, Tim Cook, for all his operational skills, offers no vision. He actually grew testy when asked, and his answer about a “strong pipeline” should be far from reassuring to investors looking for the next iPhone.

Will Apple shares rise or fall over the next quarter or year? I don’t know. The stock’s P/E is cheap, and it has plenty of cash to repurchase shares in order to manipulate the price. And investors are often far from rational when assessing future prospects. But everyone would be wise to pay attention to patterns, and Apple’s Growth Stall indicates the road ahead is likely to be rocky.

Trends: Understanding Aging and Immigration Are Critical for Future Success

Trends: Understanding Aging and Immigration Are Critical for Future Success

I write about trends. Technology trends are exciting, because they can come and go fast – making big winners of some companies (Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Amazon) and big losers out of others (Blackberry, Motorola, Saab, Sears.) Leaders that predict technology trends can make lots of money, in a hurry, while those who miss these trends can fail faster than anyone expected.

But unlike technology, one of the most important trends is also the most predictable trend. That is demographics. Quite simply, it is easy to predict the population of most countries, and most states. And predict the demographic composition of countries by age, gender, ancestry, even religion. And while demographic trends are remarkably easy to predict very accurately, it is amazing how few people actually plan for them. Yet, increasingly, ignoring demographic trends is a bad idea.

Take for example the aging world population. Quite simply, in most of the world there have not been enough births to keep up with those who ar\e getting older. Fewer babies, across decades, and you end up with a population that is skewed to older age. And, eventually, a population decline. And that has a lot of implications, almost all of which are bad.

Look at Japan. Every September 19 the Japanese honor Respect for the Aged Day by awarding silver sake dishes to those who are 100 or older. In 1966, they gave out a few hundred. But after 46 straight years of adding centenarians to the population, including adding 32,000 in just the last year, there are over 65,000 people in Japan over 100 years old. While this is a small percentage, it is a marker for serious economic problems.

Over 25% of all Japanese are over 65. For decades Japan has had only 1.4 births per woman, a full third less than the necessary 2.1 to keep a population from shrinking. That means today there are only 3 people in Japan for every “retiree.” So a very large percentage of the population are no longer economically productive. They no longer are creating income, spending and growing the economy. With only 3 people to maintain every retiree, the national cost to maintain the ageds’ health and well being soon starts becoming an enormous tax, and economic strain.

What’s worse, by 2060 demographers expect that 40% of Japanese will be 65+. Think about that – there will be almost as many over 65 as under 65. Who will cover the costs of maintaining this population? The country’s infrastructure? Japan’s defense from potentially being overtaken by neighbors, such as China? How does an economy grow when every citizen is supporting a retiree in addition to themselves?

aging-populationGovernment policies had a lot to do with creating this aging trend. For example in China there was a 1 child per family policy from 1978 to 2015 – 37 years. The result is a massive population of people born prior to 1978 (their own “baby boom”) who are ready to retire. But there are now far fewer people available to replace this workforce. Worse, the 1 child policy also caused young families to abort – or even kill – baby girls, thus causing the population to skew heavily male, and reduce the available women to reproduce.

This means that China’s aging population problem will not recover for several more decades. Today there are 5 workers for every retiree in China. But there are already more people exiting China’s workforce than entering it each year. We can easily predict there will be both an aging, and a declining, population in China for another 40 years. Thus, by 2040 (just 24 years away) there will be only 1.6 workers for each retiree. The median age will shift from 30 to 46, making China one of the planet’s oldest populations. There will be more people over age 65 in China than the entire populations of Germany, Japan, France and Britain combined!

While it is popular to discuss an emerging Chinese middle class, that phenomenon will be short-lived as the country faces questions like – who will take care of these aging people? Who will be available to work, and grow the economy? To cover health care costs? Continued infrastructure investment? Lacking immigration, how will China maintain its own population?

“OK,” American readers are asking, “that’s them, but what about us?” In 1970 there were about 20M age 65+ in the USA. Today, 50M. By 2050, 90M. In 1980 this was 11% of the population. But 2040 it will be over 20% (stats from Population Reference Bureau.)

While this is a worrisome trend, one could ask why the U.S. problem isn’t as bad as other countries? The answer is simply immigration. While Japan and China have almost no immigration, the U.S. immigrant population is adding younger people who maintain the workforce, and add new babies. If it were not for immigration, the U.S. statistics would look far more like Asian countries.

Think about that the next time it seems appealing to reduce the number of existing immigrants, or slow the number of entering immigrants. Without immigrants the U.S. would be unable to care for its own aging population, and simultaneously unable to maintain sufficient economic growth to maintain a competitive lead globally. While the impact is a big shift in the population from European ancestry toward Latino, Indian and Asian, without a flood of immigrants America would crush (like Japan and China) under the weight of its own aging demographics.

Like many issues, what looks obvious in the short-term can be completely at odds with a long-term solution. In this case, the desire to remove and restrict immigration sounds like a good idea to improve employment and wages for American citizens. And shutting down trade with China sounds like a positive step toward the same goals. But if we look at trends, it is clear that demographic shifts indicate that the countries that maximize their immigration will actually do better for their indigenous population, while improving international competitiveness.

Demographic trends are incredibly accurately predictable. And they have enormous implications for not only countries (and their policies,) but companies. Do your forward looking plans use demographic trends to plan for:

  • maintaining a trained workforce?
  • sourcing products from a stable, competitive country?
  • having a workplace conducive to employees who speak English as a second language?
  • a workplace conducive to religions beyond Christianity?
  • investing in more capital to produce more with fewer workers?
  • products that appeal to people not born in the USA?
  • selling products in countries with growing populations, and economies?
  • paying higher costs for more retirees who live longer?

Most planning systems, unfortunately, are backward-looking. They bring forward lots of data about what happened yesterday, but precious few projections about trends. Yet, we live in an ever changing world where trends create important, large shifts – often faster than anticipated. And these trends can have significant implications. To prepare everyone should use trends in their planning, and you can start with the basics. No trend is more basic than understanding demographics.

Why Investors Should Support the Tesla, SolarCity Merger

Why Investors Should Support the Tesla, SolarCity Merger

In early August Tesla announced it would be buying SolarCity. The New York Times discussed how this combination would help CEO Elon Musk move toward his aspirations for greater clean energy use. But the Los Angeles Times took the companies to task for merging in the face of tremendous capital needs at both, while Tesla was far short of hitting its goals for auto and battery production.

Since then the press has been almost wholly negative on the merger. Marketwatch’s Barry Randall wrote that the deal makes no sense. He argues the companies are in two very different businesses that are not synergistic – and he analogizes this deal to GM buying Chevron. He also makes the case that SolarCity will likely go bankrupt, so there is no good reason for Tesla shareholders to “bail out” the company. And he argues that the capital requirements of the combined entities are unlikely to be fundable, even for its visionary CEO.

musk-tesla-solarcityFortune quotes legendary short seller Jim Chanos as saying the deal is “crazy.” He argues that SolarCity has an uneconomic business model based on his analysis of historical financial statements. And now Fortune is reporting that shareholder lawsuits to block the deal could delay, or kill, the merger.

But short-sellers are clearly not long-term investors. And there is a lot more ability for this deal to succeed and produce tremendous investor returns than anyone could ever glean from studying historical financial statements of both companies.

GM buying Chevron is entirely the wrong analogy to compare with Tesla buying SolarCity. Instead, compare this deal to what happened in the creation of television after General Sarnoff, who ran RCA, bought what he renamed NBC.

The world already had radio (just as we already have combustion powered cars.) The conundrum was that nobody needed a TV, especially when there were no TV programs. But nobody would create TV programs if there were no consumers with TVs. General Sarnoff realized that both had to happen simultaneously – the creation of both demand, and supply. It would only be by the creation, and promotion, of both that television could be a success. And it was General Sarnoff who used this experience to launch the first color televisions at the same time as NBC launched the first color programming – which fairly quickly pushed the industry into color.

Skeptics think Mr. Musk and his companies are in over their heads, because there are manufacturing issues for the batteries and the cars, and the solar panel business has yet to be profitable. Yet, the older among us can recall all the troubles with launching TV.

Early sets were not only expensive, they were often problematic, with frequent component failures causing owners to take the TV to a repairman. Often reception was poor, as people relied on poor antennas and weak network signals. It was common to turn on a set and have “snow” as we called it – images that were far from clear. And there was often that still image on the screen with the words “Technical Difficulties,” meaning that viewers just waited to see when programming would return. And programming was far from 24×7 – and quality could be sketchy. But all these problems have been overcome by innovation across the industry.

Yes, the evolution of electric cars will involve a lot of ongoing innovation. So judging its likely success on the basis of recent history would be foolhardy. Today Tesla sells 100% of its cars, with no discounts. The market has said it really, really wants its vehicles. And everybody who is offered electric panels with (a) the opportunity to sell excess power back to the grid and (b) financing, takes the offer. People enjoy the low cost, sustainable electricity, and want it to grow. But lacking a good storage device, or the inability to sell excess power, their personal economics are more difficult.

Electricity production, electricity storage (batteries) and electricity consumption are tightly linked technologies. Nobody will build charging stations if there are no electric cars. Nobody will build electric cars if there are not good batteries. Nobody will make better batteries if there are no electric cars. Nobody will install solar panels if they can’t use all the electricity, or store what they don’t immediately need (or sell it.)

This is not a world of an established marketplace, where GM and Chevron can stand alone. To grow the business requires a vision, business strategy and technical capability to put it all together. To make this work someone has to make progress in all the core technologies simultaneously – which will continue to improve the storage capability, quality and safety of the electric consuming automobiles, and the electric generating solar panels, as well as the storage capabilities associated with those panels and the creation of a new grid for distribution.

This is why Mr. Musk says that combining Tesla and SolarCity is obvious. Yes, he will have to raise huge sums of money. So did such early pioneers as Vanderbilt (railways,) Rockefeller (oil,) Ford (autos,) and Watson (computers.) More recently, Steve Jobs of Apple became heroic for figuring out how to simultaneously create an iPhone, get a network to support the phone (his much maligned exclusive deal with AT&T,) getting developers to write enough apps for the phone to make it valuable, and creating the retail store to distribute those apps (iTunes.) Without all those pieces, the ubiquitous iPhone would have been as successful as the Microsoft Zune.

It is fair for investors to worry if Tesla can raise enough money to pull this off. But, we don’t know how creative Mr. Musk may become in organizing the resources and identifying investors. So far, Tesla has beaten all the skeptics who predicted failure based on price of the cars (Tesla has sold 100% of its production,) lack of range (now up to nearly 300 miles,) lack of charging network (Tesla built one itself) and charging time (now only 20 minutes.) It would be shortsighted to think that the creativity which has made Tesla a success so far will suddenly disappear. And thus remarkably thoughtless to base an analysis on the industry as it exists today, rather than how it might well look in 3, 5 and 10 years.

The combination of Tesla and SolarCity allows Tesla to have all the components to pursue greater future success. Investors with sufficient risk appetite are justified in supporting this merger because they will be positioned to receive the future rewards of this pioneering change in the auto and electric utility industries.

A salute to immigrants, America’s unsung national treasure

A salute to immigrants, America’s unsung national treasure

I’m amazed about Americans’ debate regarding immigration. And all the rhetoric from candidate Trump about the need to close America’s borders.

I was raised in Oklahoma, which prior to statehood was called The Indian Territory. I was raised around the only real Native Americans. All the rest of us are immigrants. Some voluntarily, some as slaves. But the fact that people want to debate whether we allow people to become Americans seems to me somewhat ridiculous, since 98% of Americans are immigrants. The majority within two generations.

immigrationThroughout America’s history, being an immigrant has been tough. The first ones had to deal with bad weather, difficult farming techniques, hostile terrain, wild animals – it was very difficult. As time passed immigrants continued to face these issues, expanding westward. But they also faced horrible living conditions in major cities, poor food, bad pay, minimal medical care and often abuse by the people already that previously immigrated.

And almost since the beginning, immigrants have been not only abused but scammed. Those who have resources frequently took advantage of the newcomers that did not. And this persists. Immigrants that lack a social security card are unable to obtain a driver’s license, unable to open bank accounts, unable to apply for credit cards, unable to even sign up for phone service. Thus they remain at the will of others to help them, which creates the opportunity for scamming.

Take for example an immigrant trying to make a phone call to his relatives back home. For most immigrants this means using a calling card. Only these cards are often a maze of fees, charges and complex rules that result in much of the card’s value being lost. A 10-minute call to Ghana can range from $2.86 to $8.19 depending on which card you use. This problem is so bad that the FCC has fined six of the largest card companies for misleading consumers about calling cards. They continue to advise consumers about fraud. And even Congress has held hearings on the problem.

One outcome of immigrants’ difficulties has been the ingenuity and innovativeness of Americans. To this day around the world people marvel at how clever Americans are, and how often America leads the world in developing new things. As a young country, and due to the combination of resources and immigrants’ tough situation, America frequently is first at developing new solutions to solve problems – many of which are problems that clearly affect the immigrant population.

So, back to that phone call. Some immigrants can use Microsoft Skype to talk with their relatives, using the Internet rather than a phone. But this requires the people back home have a PC and an internet connection. Both of which could be dicey. Another option would be to use something like Facebook’s WhatsApp, but this requires the person back home have either a PC or mobile device, and either a wireless connection or mobile coverage. And, again, this is problematic.

But once again, ingenuity prevails. A Romanian immigrant named Daniel Popa saw this problem, and set out to make communications better for immigrants and their families back home. In 2014 he founded QuickCall.com to allow users to make a call over wireless technology, but which can then interface with the old-fashioned wired (or wireless) telecom systems around the world. No easy task, since telephone systems are a complex environment of different international, national and state players that use a raft of different technologies and have an even greater set of complicated charging systems.

But this new virtual phone network, which links the internet to the traditional telecom system, is a blessing for any immigrant who needs to contact someone in a rural, or poor, location that still depends on phone service. If the person on the other end can access a WiFi system, then the calls are free. If the connection is to a phone system then the WiFi interface on the American end makes the call much cheaper – and performs far, far better than any other technology. QuickCall has built the carrier relationships around the world to make the connections far more seamless, and the quality far higher.

But like all disruptive innovations, the initial market (immigrants) is just the early adopter with a huge need. Being able to lace together an internet call to a phone system is pretty powerful for a lot of other users. Travelers heading to a remote location, like Micronesia, Africa or much of South America — and even Eastern Europe – can lower the cost of planning their trip and connect with locals by using QuickCall.com. And for most Americans traveling in non-European locations their cell phone service from Sprint, Verizon, AT&T or another carrier simply does not work well (if at all) and is very expensive when they arrive. QuickCall.com solves that problem for these travelers.

Small businesspeople who have suppliers, or customers, in these locations can use QuickCall.com to connect with their business partners at far lower cost. Businesses can even have their local partners obtain a local phone number via QuickCall.com and they can drive the cost down further (potentially to zero). This makes it affordable to expand the offshore business, possibly even establishing small scale customer support centers at the local supplier, or distributor, location.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma Clayton Christensen makes the case that disruptive innovations develop by targeting a customer with an unmet need. Usually the innovation isn’t as good as the current “standard,” and is also more costly. Today, making an international call through the phone system is the standard, and it is fairly cheap. But this solution is often unavailable to immigrants, and thus QuickCall.com fills their unmet need, and at a cost substantially lower than the infamous calling cards, and with higher quality than a pure WiFi option.

But now that it is established, and expanding to more countries – including developed markets like the U.K. – the technology behind QuickCall.com is becoming more mainstream. And its uses are expanding. And it is reducing the need for people to have international calling service on their wired or wireless phone because the available market is expanding, the quality is going up, and the cost is going down. Exactly the way all disruptive innovations grow, and thus threaten the entrenched competition.

The end-game may be some form of Facebook in-app solution. But that depends on Facebook or one of its competitors seizing this opportunity quickly, and learning all QuickCall.com already knows about the technology and customers, and building out that network of carrier relationships. Notice that Skype was founded in 2003, and acquired by Microsoft in 2011, and it still doesn’t have a major presence as a telecom replacement. Will a social media company choose to make the investment and undertake developing this new solution?

As small as QuickCall.com is – and even though you may have never heard of it – it is an example of a disruptive innovation that has been successfully launched, and is successfully expanding. It may seem like an impossibility that this company, founded by an immigrant to solve an unmet need of immigrants, could actually change the way everyone makes international calls. But, then again, few of us thought the iPhone and its apps would cause us to give up Blackberries and quit carrying our PCs around.

America is known for its ingenuity and innovations. We can thank our heritage as immigrants for this, as well as the immigrant marketplace that spurs new innovation. America’s immigrants have the need to succeed, and the unmet needs that create new markets for launching new solutions. For all those conservatives who fear “European socialism,” they would be wise to realize the tremendous benefits we receive from our immigrant population. Perhaps these naysayers should use QuickCall.com to connect with a few more immigrants and understand the benefits they bring to America.

Can Jet.Com Save Walmart From Sears’ Fate?

Can Jet.Com Save Walmart From Sears’ Fate?

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Add me to the mailing list!

Walmart is in more trouble than its leadership wants to acknowledge. Investors
need to realize that it is up to Jet.com to turn around the ailing giant. And
that is a big task for the under $1 billion company.

Relevancy Is Hard To Keep – Look At Sears

Nobody likes to think their business can disappear. What CEO wants to tell his investors or employees “we’re no longer relevant, and it looks like our customers are all going somewhere else for their solutions”? Unfortunately, most leadership teams become entrenched in the business model and deny serious threats to longevity, thus leading to inevitable failure as customers switch.

Gallery: “Walmart Goes Small”

In early September the Howard Johnson’s in Bangor, Maine will close. This will leave just one remaining HoJo in the USA. What was once an iconic brand with hundreds of outlets strung along the fast growing interstate highway system is now nearly dead. People still drive the interstate, but trends changed, fast food became a good substitute, and unable to update its business model this once great brand died.

Sears store entrance

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Sears announced another $350 million quarterly loss this week. That makes $9 billion in accumulated losses the last several quarters. Since Chairman and CEO Ed Lampert took over, Sears and Kmart have seen same store sales decline every single quarter except one. Unable to keep its customers Mr. Lampert has been closing stores and selling assets to stem the cash drain. But to keep the company afloat his hedge fund, ESL, is loaning Sears Holdings SHLD -2.94% another $300 million. On top of the $500 million the company borrowed last quarter. That the once iconic company, and Dow Jones Industrial Average component, is going to fail is a foregone conclusion.

 But most people still think this fate cannot befall the nearly $500 billion revenue behemoth Walmart. It’s simply too big to fail in most people’s eyes.

Walmart’s Crime Problem Is Another Telltale Sign Of Problems In The Business Model

Yet, the primary news about Walmart is not good. Bloomberg this week broke the news that one of the most crime-ridden places in America is the local Walmart store. One store in Tulsa, Oklahoma has had 5,000 police visits in the last five years, and four local stores have had 2,000 visits in the last year alone. Across the system, there is one violent crime in a Walmart every day. By constantly promoting its low cost strategy Walmart has attracted a class of customer that simply is more prone to committing crime. And policies implemented to hang onto customers, like letting them camp out overnight in the parking lots, serve to increase the likelihood of poverty-induced crime.

But this outcome is also directly related to Walmart’s business model and strategy. To promote low prices Walmart has automated more operations, and cut employees like greeters. Thus leadership brags about a 23% increase in sales/employee the last decade. But that has happened as the employment shrank by 400,000. Fewer employees in the stores encourages more crime.

In a real way Walmart has “outsourced” its security to local police departments. Experts say the cost to eliminate this security problem are about $3.2 billion – or about 20% of Walmart’s total profitability. Ouch! In a world where Walmart’s net margin of 3% is fully one-third lower than Target’s 4.6% the money just isn’t there any longer for Walmart to invest in keeping its stores safe.

With each passing month Walmart is becoming the “retailer of last resort” for people who cannot shop online. People who lack credit cards, or even bank accounts. People without the means, or capability, of shopping by computer, or paying electronically. People who have nowhere else to go to shop, due to poverty and societal conditions. Not exactly the ideal customer base for building a growing, profitable business.

Competitors Relentlessly Pick Away At Walmart’s Sales And Profits

To maintain revenues the last several years Walmart has invested heavily in transitioning to superstores which offer a large grocery section. But now Kroger KR -0.5%, Walmart’s no. 1 grocery competitor, is taking aim at the giant retailer, slashing prices on 1,000 items. Just like competition from the “dollar stores” has been attacking Walmart’s general merchandise aisles. Thus putting even more pressure on thinning margins, and leaving less money available to beef up security or entice new customers to the stores.

And the pressure from e-commerce is relentless. As detailed in the Wall Street Journal, Walmart has been selling online for about 15 years, and has a $14 billion online sales presence. But this is only 3% of total sales. And growth has been decelerating for several quarters. Last quarter Walmart’s e-commerce sales grew 7%, while the overall market grew 15% and Amazon ($100 billion revenues) grew 31%. It is clear that Walmart.com simply is not attracting enough customers to grow a healthy replacement business for the struggling stores.

Thus the acquisition of Jet.com.

The hope is that this extremely unprofitable $1 billion online retailer will turn around Walmart’s fortunes. Imbue it with much higher growth, and enhanced profitability. But will Walmart make this transition. Is leadership ready to cannibalize the stores for higher electronic sales? Are they willing to make stores smaller, and close many more, to shift revenues online? Are they willing to suffer Amazon-like profits (or losses) to grow?  Are they willing to change the Walmart brand to something different, while letting Jet.com replace Walmart as the dominant brand?  Are they willing to give up on the past, and let new leadership guide the company forward?

If they do then Walmart could become something very different in the future. If they really realize that the market is shifting, and that an extreme change is necessary in strategy and tactics then Walmart could become something very different, and remain competitive in the highly segmented and largely online retail future. But if they don’t, Walmart will follow Sears into the whirlpool, and end up much like Howard Johnson’s.

I'd like to receive newsletters.

Why McDonald’s and Apple Investors Should Be Very Wary

Why McDonald’s and Apple Investors Should Be Very Wary

Growth Stalls are deadly for valuation, and both Mcdonald’s and Apple are in one.

August, 2014 I wrote about McDonald’s Growth Stall.  The company had 7 straight months of revenue declines, and leadership was predicting the trend would continue.  Using data from several thousand companies across more than 3 decades, companies in a Growth Stall are unable to maintain a mere 2% growth rate 93% of the time. 55% fall into a consistent revenue decline of more than 2%. 20% drop into a negative 6%/year revenue slide. 69% of Growth Stalled companies will lose at least half their market capitalization in just a few years. 95% will lose more than 25% of their market value.  So it is a long-term concern when any company hits a Growth Stall.

Growth StallA new CEO was hired, and he implemented several changes.  He implemented all-day breakfast, and multiple new promotions.  He also closed 700 stores in 2015, and 500 in 2016.  And he announced the company would move its headquarters from suburban Oakbrook to downtown Chicago, IL. While doing something, none of these actions addressed the fundamental problem of customers switching to competitive options that meet modern consumer food trends far better than McDonald’s.

McDonald’s stock languished around $94/share from 8/2014 through 8/2015 – but then broke out to $112 in 2 months on investor hopes for a turnaround.  At the time I warned investors not to follow the herd, because there was nothing to indicate that trends had changed – and McDonald’s still had not altered its business in any meaningful way to address the new market realities.

Yet, hopes remained high and the stock peaked at $130 in May, 2016.  But since then, the lack of incremental revenue growth has become obvious again. Customers are switching from lunch food to breakfast food, and often switching to lower priced items – but these are almost wholly existing customers.  Not new, incremental customers.  Thus, the company trumpets small gains in revenue per store (recall, the number of stores were cut) but the growth is less than the predicted 2%.  The only incremental growth is in China and Russia, 2 markets known for unpredictable leadership.  The stock has now fallen back to $120.

Given that the realization is growing as to the McDonald’s inability to fundamentally change its business competitively, the prognosis is not good that a turnaround will really happen.  Instead, the common pattern emerges of investors hoping that the Growth Stall was a “blip,” and will be easily reversed.  They think the business is fundamentally sound, and a little management “tweaking” will fix everything.  Small changes will lead to the  classic hockey-stick forecast of higher future growth.  So the stock pops up on short-term news, only to fall back when reality sets in that the long-term doesn’t look so good.

Unfortunately, Apple’s Q3 2016 results (reported yesterday) clearly show the company is now in its own Growth Stall.  Revenues were down 11% vs. last year (YOY or year-over-year,) and EPS (earnings per share) were down 23% YOY.  2 consecutive quarters of either defines a Growth Stall, and Apple hit both.  Further evidence of a Growth Stall exists in iPhone unit sales declining 15% YOY, iPad unit sales off 9% YOY, Mac unit sales down 11% YOY and “other products” revenue down 16% YOY.

This was not unanticipated.  Apple started communicating growth concerns in January, causing its stock to tank. And in April, revealing Q2 results, the company not only verified its first down quarter, but predicted Q3 would be soft.  From its peak in May, 2015 of $132 to its low in May, 2016 of $90, Apple’s valuation fell a whopping 32%!  One could say it met the valuation prediction of a Growth Stall already – and incredibly quickly!

But now analysts are ready to say “the worst is behind it” for Apple investors.  They are cheering results that beat expectations, even though they are clearly very poor compared to last year.  Analysts are hoping that a new, lower baseline is being set for investors that only look backward 52 weeks, and the stock price will move up on additional company share repurchases, a successful iPhone 7 launch, higher sales in emerging countries like India, and more app revenue as the installed base grows – all leading to a higher P/E (price/earnings) multiple. The stock improved 7% on the latest news.

So far, Apple still has not addressed its big problem.  What will be the next product or solution that will replace “core” iPhone and iPad revenues?  Increasingly competitors are making smartphones far cheaper that are “good enough,” especially in markets like China.  And iPhone/iPad product improvements are no longer as powerful as before, causing new product releases to be less exciting.  And products like Apple Watch, Apple Pay, Apple TV and IBeacon are not “moving the needle” on revenues nearly enough.  And while experienced companies like HBO, Netflix and Amazon grow their expanding content creation, Apple has said it is growing its original content offerings by buying the exclusive rights to “Carpool Karaoke – yet this is very small compared to the revenue growth needs created by slowing “core” products.

Like McDonald’s stock, Apple’s stock is likely to move upward short-term.  Investor hopes are hard to kill.  Long-term investors will hold their stock, waiting to see if something good emerges.  Traders will buy, based upon beating analyst expectations or technical analysis of price movements. Or just belief that the P/E will expand closer to tech industry norms. But long-term, unless the fundamental need for new products that fulfill customer trends – as the iPad, iPhone and iPod did for mobile – it is unclear how Apple’s valuation grows.

Innovation – Why Bezos Succeeded, While Lampert Failed at Sears

Innovation – Why Bezos Succeeded, While Lampert Failed at Sears

Last week Sears announced sales and earnings.  And once again, the news was all bad.  The stock closed at a record, all time low.  One chart pretty much sums up the story, as investors are now realizing bankruptcy is the most likely outcome.

Chart Source: Yahoo Finance 5/13/16

Chart Source: Yahoo Finance 5/13/16

Quick Rundown:  In January, 2002 Kmart is headed for bankruptcy.  Ed Lampert, CEO of hedge fund ESL, starts buying the bonds.  He takes control of the company, makes himself Chairman, and rapidly moves through proceedings.  On May 1, 2003, KMart begins trading again.  The shares trade for just under $15 (for this column all prices are adjusted for any equity transactions, as reflected in the chart.)

Lampert quickly starts hacking away costs and closing stores.  Revenues tumble, but so do costs, and earnings rise.  By November, 2004 the stock has risen to $90.  Lampert owns 53% of Kmart, and 15% of Sears.  Lampert hires a new CEO for Kmart, and quickly announces his intention to buy all of slow growing, financially troubled Sears.

In March, 2005 Sears shareholders approve the deal.  The stock trades for $126.  Analysts praise the deal, saying Lampert has “the Midas touch” for cutting costs. Pumped by most analysts, and none moreso than Jim Cramer of “Mad Money” fame (Lampert’s former roommate,) in 2 years the stock soars to $178 by April, 2007.  So far Lampert has done nothing to create value but relentlessly cut costs via massive layoffs, big inventory reductions, delayed payments to suppliers and store closures.

Homebuilding falls off a cliff as real estate values tumble, and the Great Recession begins.  Retailers are creamed by investors, and appliance sales dependent Sears crashes to $33.76 in 18 months.  On hopes that a recovering economy will raise all boats, the stock recovers over the next 18 months to $113 by April, 2010.  But sales per store keep declining, even as the number of stores shrinks.  Revenues fall faster than costs, and the stock falls to $43.73 by January, 2013 when Lampert appoints himself CEO.  In just under 2.5 years with Lampert as CEO and Chairman the company’s sales keep falling, more stores are closed or sold, and the stock finds an all-time low of $11.13 – 25% lower than when Lampert took KMart public almost exactly 13 years ago – and 94% off its highs.

What happened?

Sears became a retailing juggernaut via innovation.  When general stores were small and often far between, and stocking inventory was precious, Sears invented mail order catalogues.  Over time almost every home in America was receiving 1, or several, catalogues every year.  They were a major source of purchases, especially by people living in non-urban communities.  Then Sears realized it could open massive stores to sell all those things in its catalogue, and the company pioneered very large, well stocked stores where customers could buy everything from clothes to tools to appliances to guns.  As malls came along, Sears was again a pioneer “anchoring” many malls and obtaining lower cost space due to the company’s ability to draw in customers for other retailers.

To help customers buy more Sears created customer installment loans. If a young couple couldn’t afford a stove for their new home they could buy it on terms, paying $10 or $15 a month, long before credit cards existed.  The more people bought on their revolving credit line, and the more they paid Sears, the more Sears increased their credit limit. Sears was the “go to” place for cash strapped consumers.  (Eventually, this became what we now call the Discover card.)

In 1930 Sears expanded the Allstate tire line to include selling auto insurance – and consumers could not only maintain their car at Sears they could insure it as well.  As its customers grew older and more wealthy, many needed help with financia advice so in 1981 Sears bought Dean Witter and made it possible for customers to figure out a retirement plan while waiting for their tires to be replaced and their car insurance to update.

To put it mildly, Sears was the most innovative retailer of all time.  Until the internet came along.  Focused on its big stores, and its breadth of products and services, Sears kept trying to sell more stuff through those stores, and to those same customers.  Internet retailing seemed insignificantly small, and unappealing.  Heck, leadership had discontinued the famous catalogues in 1993 to stop store cannibalization and push people into locations where the company could promote more products and services. Focusing on its core customers shopping in its core retail locations, Sears leadership simply ignored upstarts like Amazon.com and figured its old success formula would last forever.

But they were wrong. The traditional Sears market was niched up across big box retailers like Best Buy, clothiers like Kohls, tool stores like Home Depot, parts retailers like AutoZone, and soft goods stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond.  The original need for “one stop shopping” had been overtaken by specialty retailers with wider selection, and often better pricing.  And customers now had credit cards that worked in all stores.  Meanwhile, for those who wanted to shop for many things from home the internet had taken over where the catalogue once began.  Leaving Sears’ market “hollowed out.”  While KMart was simply overwhelmed by the vast expansion of WalMart.

What should Lampert have done?

There was no way a cost cutting strategy would save KMart or Sears.  All the trends were going against the company.  Sears was destined to keep losing customers, and sales, unless it moved onto trends.  Lampert needed to innovate.  He needed to rapidly adopt the trends.  Instead, he kept cutting costs. But revenues fell even faster, and the result was huge paper losses and an outpouring of cash.

To gain more insight, take a look at Jeff Bezos.  But rather than harp on Amazon.com’s growth, look instead at the leadership he has provided to The Washington Post since acquiring it just over 2 years ago. Mr. Bezos did not try to be a better newspaper operator.  He didn’t involve himself in editorial decisions.  Nor did he focus on how to drive more subscriptions, or sell more advertising to traditional customers.  None of those initiatives had helped any newspaper the last decade, and they wouldn’t help The Washington Post to become a more relevant, viable and profitable company.  Newspapers are a dying business, and Bezos could not change that fact.

Mr. Bezos focused on trends, and what was needed to make The Washington Post grow.  Media is under change, and that change is being created by technology.  Streaming content, live content, user generated content, 24×7 content posting (vs. deadlines,) user response tracking, readers interactivity, social media connectivity, mobile access and mobile content — these are the trends impacting media today.  So that was where he had leadership focus.  The Washington Post had to transition from a “newspaper” company to a “media and technology company.”

So Mr. Bezos pushed for hiring more engineers – a lot more engineers – to build apps and tools for readers to interact with the company.  And the use of modern media tools like headline testing.  As a result, in October, 2015 The Washington Post had more unique web visitors than the vaunted New York Times.  And its lead is growing.  And while other newspapers are cutting staff, or going out of business, the Post is adding writers, editors and engineers. In a declining newspaper market The Washington Post is growing because it is using trends to transform itself into a company readers (and advertisers) value.

CEO Lampert could have chosen to transform Sears Holdings.  But he did not.  He became a very, very active “hands on” manager.  He micro-managed costs, with no sense of important trends in retail.  He kept trying to take cash out, when he needed to invest in transformation.  He should have sold the real estate very early, sensing that retail was moving on-line.  He should have sold outdated brands under intense competitive pressure, such as Kenmore, to a segment supplier like Best Buy.  He then should have invested that money in technology.  Sears should have been a leader in shopping apps, supplier storefronts, and direct-to-customer distribution.  Focused entirely on defending Sears’ core, Lampert missed the market shift and destroyed all the value which initially existed in the great retail merger he created.

Impact?

Every company must understand critical trends, and how they will apply to their business.  Nobody can hope to succeed by just protecting the core business, as it can be made obsolete very, very quickly.  And nobody can hope to change a trend.  It is more important than ever that organizations spend far less time focused on what they did, and spend a lot more time thinking about what they need to do next.  Planning needs to shift from deep numerical analysis of the past, and a lot more in-depth discussion about technology trends and how they will impact their business in the next 1, 3 and 5 years.

Sears Holdings was a 13 year ride.  Investor hope that Lampert could cut costs enough to make Sears and KMart profitable again drove the stock very high.  But the reality that this strategy was impossible finally drove the value lower than when the journey started.  The debacle has ruined 2 companies, thousands of employees’ careers, many shopping mall operators, many suppliers, many communities, and since 2007 thousands of investor’s gains. Four years up, then 9 years down. It happened a lot faster than anyone would have imagined in 2003 or 2004.  But it did.

And it could happen to you.  Invert your strategic planning time.  Spend 80% on trends and scenario planning, and 20% on historical analysis.  It might save your business.

Apple – The Sustaining Innovation March – What a Defend & Extend Strategy Looks Like

Apple – The Sustaining Innovation March – What a Defend & Extend Strategy Looks Like

My last column focused on growth, and the risks inherent in a Growth stall. As I mentioned then, Apple will enter a Growth Stall if its revenue declines year-over-year in the current quarter. This forecasts Apple has only a 7% probability of consistently growing just 2%/year in the future.

This usually happens when a company falls into Defend & Extend (D&E) management. D&E management is when the bulk of management attention, and resources, flow into protecting the “core” business by seeking ways to use sustaining innovations (rather than disruptive innovations) to defend current customers and extend into new markets. Unfortunately, this rarely leads to high growth rates, and more often leads to compressed margins as growth stalls. Instead of working on breakout performance products, efforts are focused on ways to make new versions of old products that are marginally better, faster or cheaper.

Using the D&E lens, we can identify what looks like a sea change in Apple’s strategy.

For example, Apple’s CEO has trumpeted the company’s installed base of 1B iPhones, and stated they will be a future money maker. He bragged about the 20% growth in “services,” which are iPhone users taking advantage of Apple Music, iCloud storage, Apps and iTunes. This shows management’s desire to extend sales to its “installed base” with sustaining software innovations. Unfortunately, this 20% growth was a whopping $1.2B last quarter, which was 2.4% of revenues. Not nearly enough to make up for the decline in “core” iPhone, iPad or Mac sales of approximately $9.5B.

Apple has also been talking a lot about selling in China and India. Unfortunately, plans for selling in India were at least delayed, if not thwarted, by a decision on the part of India’s regulators to not allow Apple to sell low cost refurbished iPhones in the country. Fearing this was a cheap way to dispose of e-waste they are pushing Apple to develop a low-cost new iPhone for their market. Either tactic, selling the refurbished products or creating a cheaper version, are efforts at extending the “core” product sales at lower margins, in an effort to defend the historical iPhone business. Neither creates a superior product with new features, functions or benefits – but rather sustains traditional product sales.

Of even greater note was last week’s announcement that Apple inked a partnership with SAP to develop uses for iPhones and iPads built on the SAP ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platform.  This announcement revealed that SAP would ask developers on its platform to program in Swift in order to support iOS devices, rather than having a PC-first mentality.

This announcement builds on last year’s similar announcement with IBM. Now 2 very large enterprise players are building applications on iOS devices. This extends the iPhone, a product long thought of as great for consumers, deeply into enterprise sales. A market long dominated by Microsoft. With these partnerships Apple is growing its developer community, while circumventing Microsoft’s long-held domain, promoting sales to companies as well as individuals.

And Apple has shown a willingness to help grow this market by introducing the iPhone 6se which is smaller and cheaper in order to obtain more traction with corporate buyers and corporate employees who have been iPhone resistant. This is a classic market extension intended to sustain sales with more applications while making no significant improvements in the “core” product itself.

And Apple’s CEO has said he intends to make more acquisitions – which will surely be done to shore up weaknesses in existing products and extend into new markets. Although Apple has over $200M of cash it can use for acquisitions, unfortunately this tactic can be a very difficult way to actually find new growth. Each would be targeted at some sort of market extension, but like Beats the impact can be hard to find.

Remember, after all revenue gains and losses were summed, Apple’s revenue fell $7.6B last quarter. Let’s look at some favorite analyst acquisition targets to explain:

  1. Box could be a great acquisition to help bring more enterprise developers to Apple. Box is widely used by enterprises today, and would help grow where iCloud is weak. IBM has already partnered with Box, and is working on applications in areas like financial services.  Box is valued at $1.45B, so easily affordable. But it also has only $300M of annual revenue. Clearly Apple would have to unleash an enormous development program to have Box make any meaningful impact in a company with over $500B of revenue. Something akin of Instagram’s growth for Facebook would be required. But where Instagram made Facebook a pic (versus words) site, it is unclear what major change Box would bring to Apple’s product lines.
  2. Fitbit is considered a good buy in order to put some glamour and growth onto iWatch. Of course, iWatch already had first year sales that exceeded iPhone sales in its first year. But Apple is now so big that all numbers have to be much bigger in order to make any difference.  With a valuation of $3.7B Apple could easily afford FitBit. But FitBit has only $1.9B revenue.  Given that they are different technologies, it is unclear how FitBit drives iWatch growth in any meaningful way – even if Apple converted 100% of Fitbit users to the iWatch. There would need to be a “killer app” in development at FitBit that would drive $10B-$20B  additional annual revenue very quickly for it to have any meaningful impact on Apple.
  3. GoPro is seen as a way to kick up Apple’s photography capabilities in order to make the iPhone more valuable – or perhaps developing product extensions to drive greater revenue. At a $1.45B valuation, again easily affordable.  But with only $1.6B revenue there’s just not much oomph to the Apple top line. Even maximum Apple Store distribution would probably not make an enormous impact. It would take finding some new markets in industry (enterprise) to build on things like IoT to make this a growth engine – but nobody has said GoPro or Apple have any innovations in that direction. And when Amazon tried to build on fancy photography capability with its FirePhone the product was a flop.
  4. Tesla is seen as the savior for the Apple Car – even though nobody really knows what the latter is supposed to be. Never mind the actual business proposition, some just think Elon Musk is the perfect replacement for the late Steve Jobs. After all the excitement for its products, Tesla is valued at only $28.4B, so again easily affordable by Apple. And the thinking is that Apple would have plenty of cash to invest in much faster growth — although Apple doesn’t invest in manufacturing and has been the king of outsourcing when it comes to actually making its products. But unfortunately, Tesla has only $4B revenue – so even a rapid doubling of Tesla shipments would yield a mere 1.6% increase in Apple’s revenues.
  5. In a spree, Apple could buy all 4 companies! Current market value is $35B, so even including a market premium $55B-$60B should bring in the lot. There would still be plenty of cash in the bank for growth. But, realize this would add only $8B of annual revenue to the current run rate – barely 25% of what was needed to cover the gap last quarter – and less than 2% incremental growth to the new lower run rate (that magic growth percentage to pull out of a Growth Stall mentioned earlier in this column.)

Such acquisitions would also be problematic because all have P/E (price/earnings) ratios far higher than Apple’s 10.4.  FitBit is 24, GoPro is 43, and both Box and Tesla are infinite because they lose money. So all would have a negative impact on earnings per share, which theoretically should lower Apple’s P/E even more.

Acquisitions get the blood pumping for investment bankers and media folks alike – but, truthfully, it is very hard to see an acquisition path that solves Apple’s revenue problem.

All of Apple’s efforts big efforts today are around sustaining innovations to defend & extend current products. No longer do we hear about gee whiz innovations, nor do we hear about growth in market changing products like iBeacons or ApplePay. Today’s discussions are how to rejuvenate sales of products that are several versions old. This may work. Sales may recover via growth in India, or a big pick-up in enterprise as people leave their PCs behind. It could happen, and Apple could avoid its Growth Stall.

But investors have the right to be concerned. Apple can grow by defending and extending the iPhone market only so long. This strategy will certainly affect future margins as prices, on average, decline. In short, investors need to know what will be Apple’s next “big thing,” and when it is likely to emerge. It will take something quite significant for Apple to maintain it’s revenue, and profit, growth.

The good news is that Apple does sell for a lowly P/E of 10 today. That is incredibly low for a company as profitable as Apple, with such a large installed base and so many market extensions – even if its growth has stalled. Even if Apple is caught in the Innovator’s Dilemma (i.e. Clayton Christensen) and shifting its strategy to defending and extending, it is very lowly valued. So the stock could continue to perform well. It just may never reach the P/E of 15 or 20 that is common for its industry peers, and investors envisioned 2 or 3 years ago. Unless there is some new, disruptive innovation in the pipeline not yet revealed to investors.