Macy's Statement Argues That IT Really Matters To Wall Street. Now If Only Wall Street Really Believed That

When Macy's on Tuesday (Sept. 13) issued a statement summarizing a wide range of IT investments, including stores borrowing inventory from each other, a cosmetics kiosk, some tablet deployments, digital receipts, Wi-Fi, Google Wallet support and online chats (Really? No touting those newfangled UPC codes?), the fact that many of these IT efforts happened months ago made the compilation news release seem baffling. Baffling, that is, until we figured out the point: IT is now cool. Or at least Wall Street thinks it is.

To be specific, Wall Street doesn't think that all IT investments are cool. It's when IT investments come from companies where it's not expected. When eBay or, heaven forbid, Amazon invest in IT, Wall Street lets them have it with both spreadsheets, in a way that they would have never criticized Wal-Mart for opening new stores. But when the Sears and Macy's of the world start talking about these space-age computer thingies, stock analysts get all starry-eyed.

To be fair, the Macy's statement did include a few legitimately new details in its list. For mobile and tablets: "This fall, about 350 stores will be using tablets to help customers research and select skin care products at Macy's and Bloomingdale's Clinique counters. In shoes, Bloomingdale's will be using tablets and hand-held devices in five stores to help customers view and shop from the largest possible variety of styles and colors, including products at other Bloomingdale's stores. In fine jewelry, 25 Macy's stores are beginning to use tablets to demonstrate product features and offer coordinating jewelry pieces that may not be available in that particular location."

On mobile payment, it revealed the specific number of Macy's/Bloomingdale's stores involved in the Google Wallet trial (219 stores in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). And it also gave more details about its digital receipt efforts: "Beginning in late October, Macy's will experiment with digital receipts in 50 selected stores across the country. When making a purchase, customers can choose to have a copy of their receipt E-mailed to them. In spring 2012, Macy's customers will also have the option to select digital receipts only."

But the point remains that this was an investor statement, and it illustrates a frightening truth. Even though it should be no news at all that the likes of Macy's, Target, Sears and Walgreens are huge IT shops, Wall Street is still impressed with the efforts.

Much worse, though, are the chains' assumptions about how well Wall Street understands IT efforts. The Macy's statement was, pure and simple, a piece designed to cheerlead the chain's technology efforts, which is an entirely worthy and appropriate endeavor. Consider, then, the carefully selected words attributed to CEO Terry Lundgren.Consider, then, the carefully selected words attributed to CEO Terry Lundgren. The opening of his quote reads: "As we build our culture of growth at Macy's, Inc., it is important that we develop and test new ideas so we can learn and continue to improve. We are committed to leading in the adoption of technology that resonates with our customers, recognizing that not every idea will prove to be successful in the long term."

To put that into context, imagine if Macy's had instead been announcing the opening of 80 new stores across the country. Would Investor Relations have felt it necessary to say, "We're opening 80 new stores in some of the most vibrant high-growth markets in the U.S., recognizing that not every store will end up selling very much." IR assumes that Wall Street investors understand that a new store may or may not turn out, but the group felt it necessary to volunteer that technology doesn't always work? Did someone honestly think that not pointing that out—in a statement crafted to trumpet technology—would somehow be a legally punishable material omission? Do retail IR execs really think that little of Wall Street analysts?

Lundgren's quote continues: "We are using technology in our stores to mirror the online shopping experience, and adding functionality and content online to provide customers with additional assistance in product selection. The ultimate goal of our omnichannel strategy is to build deeper relationships with customers and to ensure Macy's and Bloomingdale's are accessible no matter how or when our customers prefer to explore or shop."

We much prefer the term merged channel to omnichannel because merged channel speaks more to Lundgren's last point, which is that chains need to be channel-agnostic. That way, the focus is on the interactions between the customer and the retailer and not on the particular route the customer is using to enable that particular interaction.

The beginning of that quote, though, is of some concern: "We are using technology in our stores to mirror the online shopping experience." Why? In other words, why not let in-store build on the many attributes that in-store-only has, such as the ability to touch merchandise, try on clothes, speak with an associate in-person and have near-instant gratification (taking the product home right now)?

Bringing tech into the physical stores is fabulous, but it should be done to address and minimize the weaknesses of in-store—long lines to checkout, difficulty in finding an associate, challenge in locating the desired product, etc.—and not to act as a poor man's E-Commerce.

In reality, Macy's is indeed doing many of the right things with IT in-store and online. But management needs to adopt that attitude in statements to Wall Street and to stop half-heartedly championing IT—"we're doing lots of stuff, but it may not work so don't blame us if it doesn't"—and apologizing for in-store being in-store. Macy's is, in fact, an IT leader among retailers and it should be proud. Sometimes, a level of pride is communicated not by your key words but by your qualifications. If Wall Street knows nothing else, it knows that the real truth about companies is not in their mission statements. It's in their footnotes.