Steve Dennis

President, Sageberry Consulting/Forbes Contributor

Steve Dennis is a strategic advisor, keynote speaker, organizational catalyst and writer on retail innovation and the future of shopping. He was recently named a top 10 global retail influencer by two leading organizations.

During a more than 30 year career as a senior executive at two Fortune 500 retailers and as a strategy consultant, Steve has worked with dozens of retail, luxury and social impact brands to inspire, catalyze and design their journey from boring to remarkable.

Steve has delivered keynote talks and led growth strategy workshops on five continents, sharing his unique take on what it takes to win in the age of Amazon, Alibaba and digital disruption. He is also a contributor to Forbes magazine and his perspectives and insights are regularly featured in the media including Bloomberg/Business Week, CNBC, CNN, Fortune, the Harvard Business Review, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, among many others.

Steve is the President of SageBerry Consulting. Prior to founding SageBerry, Steve was the chief strategy officer and SVP, multichannel marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group. Earlier in his career he held senior leadership roles at Sears, including VP, multichannel integration and VP/General Manager of a $600MM operating division. He also serves on several advisory boards.

Steve received his MBA from Harvard and a BA from Tufts University.

Read Steve’s Blog: Remarkable Retail In The Age of Amazon

  • Posted on: 04/23/2019

    Are secondhand sales the right branding move for Neiman Marcus?

    I was the chief strategy officer at two big retailers (including Neiman Marcus) and through that experience, as well as consulting and studying innovation for my book, I found that one of the consistent themes in retailers' failure to innovate is the irrational fear of cannabilization. Almost no brand can control the evolution of the market and it's very easy to calculate the share you get of a market you don't participate in. When I was at Sears I can't tell you how many times we failed to place meaningful bets in key categories for fear of cannabilization or diversion from our core business. Along the way the amount of share and market value that was ceded to Home Depot, Lowe's and Best Buy (among others) was, as everyone knows by now, massive and will ultimately prove fatal. Whether Fashionphile is the right horse to ride, I don't know. But re-commerce is becoming an important market and Neiman Marcus would be stupid not to experiment with it. Of course one must be careful not to over-invest and be mindful of the underlying long-term growth prospects. It's easy to go down a rabbit hole, as many did with flash sales where Neiman's, wisely it turns out, failed to take the bait.
  • Posted on: 04/19/2019

    Sears Holdings sues Eddie Lampert for illegally stripping retailer of its assets

    As a former long-term Sears executive, including working on a good chunk of the efforts to re-position Sears for success in the late '90s through 2003, I can say with a great deal of confidence that it is extremely unlikely that Sears could have been saved by anyone. As I've written about previously on my blog and for Forbes, the one thing that could have saved Sears was to have entered (or acquired into) the home improvement warehouse category before Home Depot and Lowe's secured the opportunity. Having said that, Lampert did a number of things that both assured its demise AND kept Sears around longer than it deserved to be. The thing that would have maximized shareholder value would have been to liquidate the company years ago when the underlying assets (Kenmore, Craftsman, customer data, etc) had not been so trashed as to get closer and closer to essentially worthless. Instead, whether out of ignorance or malfeasance, Lampert perpetuated the nonsense that Sears could be a going concern of any significance. So on the one hand, there is a good reason that I have called Sears #TheWorldsSlowestLiquidationSale for many years. Anyone who really understood what was happening knew (to paraphrase my former boss Alan Lacy) how the movie was going to end, it was just a question of when. On the other, by Lampert's willingness to sell off stuff to fund clearly unsustainable operating losses he kept Sears around years past its expiration date. Dead brand walking.
  • Posted on: 04/17/2019

    Apple owns the checkout at Decathlon’s sporting goods store

    I suggest we think about this from the human-centered design perspective AND the efficiency standpoint. Untethering checkout allows the brand to meet the customer where she is and build more of a personal connection; something many retailers don't spend enough time thinking through. Whether it's efficient or not will depend on the situation, and this to me is the risk. For a customer with an easy-to-carry item it streamlines the process. For customers with many products a conventional checkout system likely works better. For me, the best answer is likely a hybrid approach, which will also better handle any queuing issues.
  • Posted on: 04/16/2019

    Hubert Joly: New Best Buy CEO has the right stuff to lead chain to new heights

    I often include Best Buy in my keynotes as an example of a company that proves legacy brands can go from boring to remarkable. In particular Joly's decision to see Best Buy's stores as assets rather than liabilities and to work hard to harmonize the shopping experience across channels will be his legacy. As I alluded to here, I don't expect a lot of change, but given the intense competitiveness of many of the categories Best Buy is in I don't expect the next chapter of their story to get any easier. As more and more business moves online there is also the challenge of optimizing their store footprints, in terms of number of units, size of each unit, and potential new formats.
  • Posted on: 04/15/2019

    Is Bed Bath & Beyond smart to draw the line on coupons?

    Bed, Bath & Beyond is emblematic of what I often refer to as the pointless pursuit of the promiscuous shopper. There are at least two big issues with this. The first is that, as many have observed, we teach customers that shopping without a coupon is "the sucker price," i.e. only an idiot would pay regular price. So as we've seen many times over, retailers get addicted to these promotions. The second issue is that one-size-fits-all promotions do a lousy job of optimizing sales and margins. A 15 percent off coupon may not be enough to stimulate some customers, while it gives a needless discount to others. With today's customer analytic and personalization capabilities there is no reason to execute a marketing strategy this way. The best way for Bed, Bath & Beyond to move away is to begin aggressively testing their way into more mass customized and personalized promotions, so that they can understand where to pull back at their current batch, blast and hope strategy. Of course, this is only part of their journey from boring to remarkable. The overall brand experience must evolve substantially or an improved marketing strategy just means a better invitation when the party is still pretty mediocre.
  • Posted on: 04/11/2019

    Will more consumers listen now that Macy’s has a new STORY to tell?

    When Macy's bought STORY last May I had mixed emotions, as I shared in this Forbes article. On the one hand, to emerge from the boring middle, Macy's clearly has to try a lot of new and remarkable things. On the other, prior to being bought by Macy's, STORY was interesting but hadn't scaled. It was also unclear whether Macy's would really let Rachel Schechtman's creativity run free. With the launch of the initial STORY concept departments, it's clear that Macy's is willing to take some chances on a decent scale. For that they should be applauded. Only time will tell whether as a new idea STORY at Macy's can move the dial. But even under the best circumstances Macy's has plenty of other work ahead in its journey from boring to remarkable.
  • Posted on: 04/10/2019

    Madewell is on the way up, J.Crew is not

    Madewell seems to have a clear idea of who its customer is and executes in a consistent and remarkable way. J. Crew lost its bearing over the last several years, confusing its positioning and becoming overly reliant on promotions. There is no fundamental reason why both brands cannot successfully co-exist under the same corporate ownership. In fact, there should be some synergies. But unless J. Crew can quickly right the ship it risks weighing down Madewell's potential. While there are some similarities (beyond the Mickey Drexler connection) between Madewell/J.Crew and Old Navy/Gap, Gap's problems stem largely from over-expansion, whereas J. Crew's are more about poor positioning and promotional/inventory management.
  • Posted on: 04/10/2019

    Will retailers see more rewards from multi-banner loyalty programs?

    First, at the risk of being overly focused on semantics, these really aren't loyalty programs, but frequency rewards programs. Loyalty is an emotion and to the extent these programs were about brand building it would make little sense to lump them together. But since they are primarily data grabs and promotional tools it makes sense, particularly as more proprietary data should improve the ability to deliver more relevant, targeted offers. Moreover, many single brand rewards programs suffer from getting enough engagement given that customers may feel they'll never spend enough at one logo to make it worthwhile.
  • Posted on: 04/09/2019

    Will Rent the Runway become all the fashion for kids?

    This seems like a logical add on, but a relatively small opportunity. The reason that the high-end kids fashion business is small is that most kids don't have the wearing occasions where this would be of interest. It's also important to note that, as I know from my time at Neiman Marcus, a good chunk of the fancier kids clothing category is affectionately known as "grandparent bait," i.e. it is bought by grandma and grandpa as gifts. It's hard to see grandparents seeing RTR as a good substitute.
  • Posted on: 04/03/2019

    Can subscription retail solve its retention problem?

    Subscription models can offer clear utility. But, so far at least, the relative price/value relationship keeps these businesses much smaller than their original VC investors hoped. Meal kits in particular are expensive at regular price so this limits the addressable market. The companies got in the practice of heavy discounting, which did two things. It made the market appear larger than it could be profitability and it taught what I call the promiscuous shopper (i.e. they don't care that much about the product, they go for the best discount) to just wait for the best offer and bounce back and forth between brands. The best way for these brands to solve their retention problem is deliver more value consistently and stop chasing the promiscuous shopper.
  • Posted on: 04/02/2019

    Wayfair takes a bigger step into brick and mortar retailing

    Two things we know for sure about Wayfair. The first is that their current business model is a mess and requires dramatic improvements to be sustainable at its current trajectory. The second is (like just about every "disruptive" brand has discovered) a physical presence is required to fully penetrate the addressable market and, often, to reduce customer acquisition costs and the debilitating cost of returns. Opening stores are necessary, but hardly sufficient, to assure Wayfair's long term success. Here's more on my thoughts at Forbes.
  • Posted on: 03/21/2019

    Can Instagrammable moments turn into immediate and direct sales?

    This move was inevitable. All brands should be dissecting the customer journey and looking for ways to eliminate friction and/or "amplify the wow" at key moments of truth. While many (if not most) customers will still prefer a more comprehensive shopping experience, I suspect many will appreciate the convenience of being able to buy within the Instagram app.
  • Posted on: 03/12/2019

    What will it take to make department stores relevant again?

    There are three big issues with the reinvention of moderate department stores. The first is that there has been a long-trend secular decline in the sector. It's easy to blame Amazon, but the decline has been more than two decades in the making. At this point, it's primarily a market share game. Second, as I've been saying for years, the middle continues to collapse and too many of these retailers think that a slight better version of mediocre is a long-term strategy. Third, massive investment is likely required to not only turn their existing real estate into something remarkable, but to invest in alternative formats (like Nordstrom with Local). It's a long, tough journey that few will survive.
  • Posted on: 03/07/2019

    Amazon puts a pin in its pop-ups to focus on permanent stores

    There are a few things we know about Amazon. One, they are committed to testing and learning. Their pop-up experiments were mostly about gathering data and insight, not about a sustainable retail model. Two, they will continue to experiment with physical retail because it is key to sustaining their long-term growth. Three they are setting their sites on bigger retail plays in grocery, books and with 4-Star.
  • Posted on: 03/07/2019

    Do retailers need to reevaluate their omnichannel strategies and tactics?

    I have long said that it is not about being everywhere (as "omni" implies) but by showing up in remarkable ways for customer's where it really matters. I prefer the term "harmonized" retail, because the real key is to eliminate the discordant notes in the customer journey and to amplify the wow in beautiful ways to create a memorable experience. As a practical matter it is often easier for DTC brands to move in physical retail because they can place "right-sized" stores in the best locations for today, whereas legacy retailers are often hindered by poorly spaced and laid out stores in less desirable real estate. Digitally native vertical brands also have the huge benefit of having built their front-end customer facing systems in the cloud and without having to undue silo-ed systems, metrics and incentives.

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