North America

Like Night and Day

The e-commerce vs bricks-and-mortar debate never stays out of the headlines for long, it seems. It has surfaced again this past week, prompted by the discussion of whether or not Calgary can compete to host Amazon’s planned second headquarters. This has left Canadian investors to mull yet again what the state of retailing will become in the near future.

One of the crucial questions is what the extent of retailing and e-retailing’s convergence will be. Will the line between retailers and e-retailers blur, such that there will remain few differences between them? Or, will they stay distinct?

Lately the argument for convergence has never looked stronger. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, the eighth largest grocery chain in the US by market share, will give it 470 new brick and mortar locations in North America and Britain. Walmart, meanwhile, bought for $3.3 billion in cash and stock at the end of 2016, in what was at the time the largest ever acquisition of an e-commerce firm.

“They’re meeting in the middle right now,” says Chieh Huang, chief executive of Boxed, an e-commerce start-up. “If you think of a mountaintop, on one side you have the tech folks trying to figure out retail, while the retailers are trying to figure out technology. Amazon said screw this: we’re going to figure out physical retail faster by paying $13bn [for Whole Foods].”

Interpreting Valuations

This question of convergence can inform even how market valuations may be perceived. If, hypothetically, we knew for certain that retailing and e-retailing will converge fully, then Amazon’s position would appear dominant: its market capitilization is twice as large as Walmart’s.

If, on the other hand, we knew for certain that retailing and e-retailing will remain more distinct than they become similar, then it may instead be Walmart that seems the better positioned of the two. Walmart, after all, is the dominant retailer; it towers over the next largest retailer (Costco), grocer (Kroger) and brick and mortar outlet (Home Depot) in terms of market capitalization. Amazon, in contrast, lags behind four of its fellow tech giants—and is barely ahead of Alibaba—in market cap.

If, in other words, we consider Amazon a retailer, then it is the leading retailer in the world (at least, in terms of market capitalization; Amazon trades at a notoriously high price-to-earnings ratio, so its earnings trail its valuation). Yet if we consider Amazon to be “only” a tech firm, not a retailer, then Walmart would continue to be viewed as the world’s leading retailer, whereas Amazon would still not be its leading tech firm.

Strategies and Imperatives

It is extremely difficult to predict the future level of convergence between retailing and e-retailing. While it is obvious that brick and mortar retailers will continue to make their products more easily available online, the more significant and difficult to predict question is how many of their brick and mortar outlets they will get rid of—and, conversely, how many brick and mortar outlets e-retailers like Amazon will purchase. Without knowing this, we cannot answer the convergence question.

Still, we can make two statements with relative confidence. First, the recent trend towards convergence is by no means a definitive one. For one thing, they were not actually such significant purchases, once you take into account the gigantic size of Amazon and Walmart. This was particularly true in Walmart’s case, where the acquisition of accounted for just 1.4 percent of the retailer’s current market cap. But it was also true for Amazon’s Whole Foods purchase, which, though more than four times larger than the Jet deal in absolute terms, still represented only 2.9 percent of Amazon’s current market cap of $474 billion.

The Whole Foods deal, moreover, does not even necessarily signal a strategy shift towards brick and mortar retailing. Rather, because grocery deliveries are bulky and frequent compared to deliveries of other categories of goods, groceries act in effect as “liquidity” in the goods-delivery market. In other words, the acquisition of a grocery chain does not have to indicate a desire to gain brick and mortar market share, but instead can be intended mainly to buttress e-commerce services in areas that would otherwise have low liquidity in the delivery market; i.e. in low-density suburbs where most Americans live.

Second, we can state that, if convergence does not occur, then the business imperatives of retailers and e-retailers will not merely be opposing, but opposite. The imperative of e-commerce retailers is to deliver cargo to consumers. The imperative of brick and mortar retailers, in contrast, is to deliver consumers to cargo:

Bricks, Mortar, and Pavement

The one asset that brick and mortar retailers have which their nimbler, higher-valuation e-commerce rivals lack is real estate—buildings and parking lots—located in urban and suburban areas where most people live. Walmart alone has 3522 supercentres within the US. Most, when combined with their parking lots, occupy roughly 17 acres (larger than twelve football fields). Over 90 percent of Americans live within 16 km of a Walmart-owned store.

Absent convergence, brick and mortar retailers will have to find new ways of enticing people to their stores. This will be a difficult task, given consumers will have the option of ordering from e-commerce firms instead.

One method of enticement brick and mortar retailers will attempt is likely to be via an involvement in the transportation industry. They might, in effect, use their large buildings and enormous parking lots to become modern, “liquid” transportation marketplaces, by offering bus, ride-sharing, or even autonomous parking services at their stores. In other words, to remain competitive with e-commerce, the retailers may also have to compete (or collaborate) with transportation services like Uber, Car2Go, Greyhound, or even Tesla. Only by becoming transport hubs could they continue to compete as commercial hubs.

Logical (read: Extreme) Conclusions

The goal of e-retailers, on the other hand, would remain the cheap, efficient, quick, and plentiful delivery of goods. As Amazon is not shy of saying, this will involve the automation of delivery vehicles, intended not just to save on labour costs but also to utilize all 24 hours of the day. Overnight deliveries benefit from there being little road traffic, and they are crucial if e-commerce firms are to be able to deliver goods as quickly as possible.

As a result, if retailers and e-retailers do not converge fully in the years ahead, their differing business imperatives will be likely to lead them down divergent paths. The retailers, to remain competitive, will attempt to control consumers’ transportation patterns during the daytime. But the e-retailers, to become even more efficient, will focus on dominating the transportation of goods at night.









North America

The Eternal Question


…Should I buy a treadmill?

According to Statista, wholesale consumer treadmill sales in the United States have fluctuated around one billion dollars per year since 2007; they dropped to 800 million dollars in 2009 after the recession and have gradually risen back up since. There are some reasons, though, why treadmills — or, perhaps, stationary bikes, ellipticals, rowing machines?, etcetera — could still be the “next big thing”:

1. Headphones 

Treadmills, I don’t need to tell you, are loud. As you use them, people living in the same home or apartment as you are often annoyed by both their noise and their vibrations. If you use them while watching television, you will probably have to turn the volume on the tv way up, which will bother people around you even more. You may even be bothered by the loud noise yourself; indeed if you make a habit of going on the treadmill with the tv blaring at full volume, you may damage your ears in the long run.

Wireless headphones, then, could make treadmills much more appealing. And high-quality wireless headphones are for the first time going to be widely owned within the next few years — or months.

2. Netflix 

Sorry Wolf Blitzer, I don’t want to see your face ever again. From now when I am on the treadmill I am going to watch Netflix or last night’s Raptors or Warriors game (nobody tell me who won!). Hey, that actually makes exercising sound pretty good: it’s a great excuse for me to binge on tv.

3. Televisions

The year is 1995 and I am building an exercise room in my house. I decide to put a big tv in front of the treadmill, so I spend hundreds of dollars on a large television with a big behind, then a few hundred dollars more on a cabinet set to hold this voluptuous television. Wow, this is so expensive, and takes up too much space in this room! Maybe I should just wait until 2015, when I can get a 32 inch flatscreen LCD tv for less than $300 (down from $1600 in 2005) and mount it directly on the wall.

In fact, tv’s have now become so skinny that they can be attached directly to the exercise equipment. This could potentially allow people to move their exercise equipment outdoors in some cases, taking advantage of the space and fresh air in their backyards. Combined with wearing wireless headphones so as to not annoy one’s neighbours, this could make purchasing exercise equipment more reasonable.

4. Occulus!

Is virtual reality coming at last? Recently people have begun to believe that it is. If it does become advanced and widespread, then it may require a means to simulate movement in order to create a more dynamic virtual experience. Treadmills are an obvious candidate for such a simulation. Virtual reality may benefit from treadmills, therefore, and treadmills may benefit from virtual reality. Of course this might not actually end up happening, but it is worth speculating on nonetheless.

5. Fitbit 

Fitbit, the Apple Watch, Stepcounter apps, etcetera. Devices that let you know, in real time, what a lazy bum you really are could change the exercise industry in a big way. I know that I spend too much time sitting in front of a computer or television, and have been thinking about downloading a new app that has your phone alert you whenever you have been sitting down for more than an hour at a time. (I probably won’t download it, but I have been thinking about it!).

Many people have certainly been begining to use apps that show them how many “steps” they have taken every day, and in the spirit of self-competitive self-improvement have started to walk more in order to up their scores. This could, perhaps, lead to an increase in people purchasing treadmills.

 6. Millenials 

A large share of young people continue to live at home with their parents, or else on their own in small apartments or homes (often partially supported by their parents) where they do not have much space. As the large millenial population continues to age, however, they will depart from the nest, leaving behind bedrooms that can house exercise equipment. Some millennials will also be beginning to move into larger homes, where they may begin to buy equipment too. Or maybe not.

7. Real Estate

If you live in a 750 square ft. apartment space, then a typical high-quality treadmill will take up about 5 percent of your floor space. That’s no good; you will need more space in your home before thinking seriously about spending the $3000 or more that high-quality treadmills often cost. So, will indoor space in North America become cheaper?

It might, thanks to evolutions in transport (cheaper gasoline, hi-tech cars, Uber-style carpooling, driverless trucks, e-commerce with home delivery, etc.), communications (the modern Internet), and home construction (robots helping to build homes — it’s a scary thought, but get ready for it), which could make it easier for humans to spread out across cities, across suburbs, and across the countryside than ever before. E-commerce and e-commuting may also help bring home prices down by allowing some commercial real estate to be converted into residential.

8. Delivery

Good-quality exercise equipment tend to be among the more difficult-to-transport types of consumer goods. In most cases they are heavy, bulky, awkwardly shaped (and unable to fold up) and delicate. Getting them up a flight of stairs into a spare bedroom, or up many flights of stairs into an apartment building, can be a very difficult experience — and a costly one if you are employing delivery-men. If shipping and delivery-men become cheaper, then, it could be a boon to the industry, therefore.

Both, perhaps, can be expected. Delivery-men costs may fall as a result of the price of labour in general being squeezed by the double-whammy that is automation and outsourcing. Shipping costs, meanwhile, may fall because of cheap oil (if prices do not rise back up), falling labour prices leading to falling truck driver prices, innovations in trucking (smarter trucks, self-driving trucks, etc.), and the rise of the e-commerce and home-delivery industry (led, currently, by companies like Amazon).

If, moreover, self-driving trucks really do become commonplace, it could lead to much cheaper home delivery by allowing goods to be dropped off at local storage sites near the homes overnight while there is no road traffic, and then brought to the buyer’s home during the day.

9. Home Offices

Because of the Internet, in the years ahead many more people are likely to work from home, or from offices or coworking spaces close to home. This may free up time for people to go to the gym more often, lessening their need for things like treadmills. On the other hand, it may make people more likely to exercise at home, increasing their need for things like treadmills. Will it make people more likely to buy treadmills, on balance? I am not sure, but it is a possibility worth considering.

In addition, as home office spaces continue to shrink in size as a result of getting rid of fat desktop computers, printers, scanners, computer desks with pullout keyboards, and filing cabinets, and replacing them with more versatile laptops, tablets, and flatscreen desktops, there may be more space available in the home for treadmills.

10. Seasons 

In theory, treadmills should be seasonal goods: if you live in a place like Canada then you don’t really need one during the summer when you will probably prefer to exercise outdoors instead, and if you live in a place like southern California then you may only really need one during the summer when it is boiling outside. In practice, however, the high cost of shipping and delivering treadmills has prevented seasonal home rentals of treadmills, as has the fact that many people living in hot climates still do not have air conditioning and so do not want to work out indoors in the summer. 

The continued spread of air conditioning and the ability to more cheaply deliver treadmills, therefore, could perhaps lead to a situation where more people seasonally rent treadmills. In theory, at least, this could save people money as well as space in their homes. In fact, it may just be possible that long-distance shipping will eventually become cheap enough for a treadmill to become like the opposite of migratory bird, being used in a cold climate during the winter and then being shipped south to a hot climate for the summer.


On the other hand, there are reasons why such a treadmill “revolution” may not come to pass. But I am too lazy to discuss them right now; I think I will go for a long walk in front of Netflix instead.