Follow Up: Larian Ditches Bid To Buy Toys R Us

In a follow up to earlier posts here on Frank’s Forum the news on Tuesday is that billionaire Isaac Larian has ditched his bid to buy Toys R Us. The bid would have saved some of the store locations in the once-iconic chain and would have saved some of the several thousands of jobs being lost in the liquidation.

The original offer was believed to be made for around $675 million and the negotiations broke down when the court refused the offer on the table. Larian also found out this week that his bid to purchase the mammoth toy maker, Mattel, has also failed.

The toy industry is bracing for a U.S. industry landscape that does not include Toys R Us, which averaged $11 billion in toy sales which is a 50% market share of the $22 billion domestic toy business. Mattel and Hasbro have both seen tremendous losses in value since the announcement of the liquidation of Toys R Us.

Hasbro spent money in recent days to purchase the Power Rangers brand name and retail rights. The other toy manufacturers are quickly adjusting their distribution patterns and working with brick and mortar retail giants such as Wal-Mart and Target, which are both increasing their toy orders.

The emergence of toys in other more obscure regional chains will increase as well to fill the void left by Toys R Us. The major players mentioned earlier and Amazon will also be working together to grab larger pieces of the pie in the industry space.

Meanwhile, the last of the Toys R Us store locations are winding down their operations to close in the next few weeks. The future for the Toys R Us brand is completely unknown at this point, if there is a future at all. The bid from Larian was the only major bid for the business that is even known to be out there and that has fallen apart. The entry of another group of investors is certainly plausible but the amount of capital it will take to reinvent the brand and create a significantly better customer experience are two big mitigating factors in my view which could doom the brick and mortar presence of the brand.

The one viable potential opportunity for Toys R Us to get a reboot is if it is purchased by one of the major toy brands, such as Hasbro. The major toy makers have a great deal to lose in the reality of Toys R Us leaving the U.S. toy industry space. Mr. Larian, as I previously wrote about believes that the toy industry will collapse without Toys R Us. These toy makers have a big stake in the situation and could decide to try their hand at rebuilding the brand.

The other alternative is that Toys R Us will be purchased by another entity to be used as an online only retail presence. In my perspective, I have felt since this news broke on the liquidation of the once-dominant chain, that this route was the most likely scenario for the future of the brand. The shifts in the retail space toward the online shopping experience could make a lot of sense to an investment group or private equity group.

The Toys R Us name still has a value and a consumer visibility that would translate well into a strictly online presence. The potential investors would be far more likely to go that direction than to take on the significant costs of rebuilding a brick and mortar chain. The sad reality is the loss of jobs, and that is why I was rooting for Mr. Larian to be successful in his bid.

The next five to six weeks will be critical to the future of the Toys R Us brand, in that time period another bid could emerge, or the business may be sold off in pieces until there is nothing left but the memories most of us have from our childhood. It is a sad narrative that those memories could not be passed on to future generations.

Follow Up: Toys R Us Buyout Bid From Larian Revisited

The fallout from the liquidation of the iconic toy retailer, Toys R Us, is back in the news cycle. The news about a week ago was that billionaire toy retail brand owner, Isaac Larian, the man behind the Bratz franchise; placed a bid to purchase about 270 stores in the former Toys R Us chain plus their operation in Canada.

The bid was rejected by the courts that oversee the liquidation of the once premiere toy retailer because they deemed the valuation was too low. The court and the management of Toys R Us have an obligation to get the best value for their creditors in selling the business. They deemed that the offer from Larian was not the best value they could obtain at this point.

In the past couple of days, Larian is back in the news stating that he will put another bid into play for the U.S. stores that he has targeted that are viable for his new concept for the rebooted brand.

Larian was outbid for the Canadian operation of Toys R Us by another investment group. His new bid is focused on saving a portion of the U.S. stores, would involve retaining the U.S. corporate headquarters in New Jersey, and would save between 7,000 and 10,000 workers according to CNN Money.

Toys R Us originally had 735 stores and 31,000 workers in the United States and the potential liquidation of the chain is already showing signs of impacting the toy industry in a deleterious manner. Hasbro, according to CNN Money, has just reported a 16% drop in sales based on the absence of Toys R Us from the equation.

Mr. Larian has a theory that the job losses at other toy companies and vendors that marketed products with Toys R Us will be significant if the company is not rebooted in some form. He has a vision for the company where each location will be renovated to be a type of “mini-Disney World” in each neighborhood. The visits to the store will be very experiential for the children and their parents and family members.

This plan may sound great on paper especially because it addresses some of the core issues behind the precipitous decline of Toys R Us; customer feedback in recent years centered on the shopping environment being cold, sterile, and not inviting. The renovation of the stores and the focus shifting to one of experiences and interactivity is necessary to breathe new life into a once prominent brand.

However, that plan will have to overcome some barriers, namely a brand that has been tarnished by underperformance and a liquidation proceeding. It is similar to any brand that struggles or fails the public perception of that brand is very powerful. The public could have made a decision in their mind about Toys R Us based on past experiences which will be difficult for Mr. Larian and his group to overcome.

The perception of the consumer public has doomed many other brands throughout the course of history. In the case of Toys R Us the brand does have value because it is the only retailer which focused solely on toys. The Larian group or whomever gains the winning bid for the brand has to refocus their business around the core niche of toys.

The unfortunate reality is that it is going to take a great deal of time and money to bring back Toys R Us in a form that will be relevant and competitive in today’s consumer marketplace. The competition from Target, Amazon, Wal-Mart, and other online retailers is very fierce. Those are the barriers that any rebooted form of Toys R Us must be ready to contend with in the future.

The demise of Toys R Us was a very sad side effect of a much larger issue that faces retailers today: the consumer today has different expectations from a brick and mortar shopping experience than they did even five years ago. Toys R Us in their original form could not afford to change with the times due to the debt load they were carrying on loans from private equity investors.

The potential for Mr. Larian or the next group to submit a bid to reinvent the brand should have one central theme: they can be the niche “go-to” place for toys. This is an important attribute in an increasing focus on specialization. They can be the experts on toys and the showcase area for people to experience toys. It can still be a place where children can go to dream.

The next few weeks will be critical in the future of the Toys R Us brand in the U.S. and the decisions made will then take several months to determine the progress or the chances of success for the revamped concept. In my own personal view, if the reboot of the store experience fails, I still stand behind the idea that the brand has definite value as an online only presence. This is substantiated by the visibility and nostalgia components of the brand and the connectedness with a variety of age demographics.

This is just another chapter in what could be a long story: whether it will be one of redemption is what time will reveal.

Amazon Targeting Expansion Into Healthcare

Amazon announced a partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan to provide better healthcare for the employees of the three respective American corporate giants. The details of the exact parameters of the newly formed joint venture are unclear. It appears that the partnership will not be to form a healthcare company to compete with major health insurers.

However, the announcement certainly shook up the industry: from Wall Street to Main Street, everyone was talking about this news on Tuesday. The prospect of these three companies getting involved in the evaluation of costs is a daunting set of circumstances for the healthcare industry.

In addition, Amazon is rumored to be targeting expansion into the pharmaceutical area. The online retail giant filed for pharmaceutical licenses in a handful of states back before the holidays, but it is unclear whether they were related to the medical devices which they already sell on their site.

The strategy and route for Amazon into this space is through this partnership with Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan. The stakes for certain retailers or interested parties in the pharmaceutical industry could be very significant. The other side of the situation is the protection of patient records should Amazon start peddling prescription drug delivery services.

The potential for misdirected prescription abuse is also at stake here should Amazon enter the prescription drug space. This is all transpiring amid the backdrop of a prescription painkiller abuse epidemic in America.

Those are just some of the ethical issues presented in this situation. The business implications are also significant with the “Big Pharma” companies falling somewhere in between the distributors and the retail drug chains. The sentiment within the pharmaceutical manufacturers is that the potential entry of Amazon into the industry would be a welcome turn of events because it would provide greater competition.

The translation there is that the pharma companies have been at odds with the PBMs (Pharmacy Benefit Managers) for years. The PBMs handle mail order prescriptions and they negotiate prices for the large insurance companies and for large corporations that have a bigger “say” in the benefits for their employees.

The insertion of Amazon into the equation is problematic for the PBMs such as Express Scripts, CVS Caremark, and United Health/Optum. They will have diminished leverage in negotiating pricing and other terms with the pharmaceutical companies because Amazon will essentially disrupt the way that game has been played. This is why the pharmaceutical companies have no problem with Amazon entering the space, the online retail behemoth is going to look to undercut the other players in the mix.

The potential entry of Amazon into prescription drugs will also hinder the prescription drug distributors, particularly the top three: McKesson, Amerisource Bergen, and Cardinal Health. Amazon is going to push back on them on price and that is going to squeeze their margins. The massive consumer base that Amazon will bring to the table and could command with greater potential for consumers to join Amazon Prime membership just for the prescription drug services will put these distributors in a tough position.

The entry of Amazon would shift the distribution paradigm as well. Their presence would shape the cost structures for that component of the industry. The benefits would definitely be reaped by the consumer because it will have a domino effect on the prescription drug pricing across the board.

The final area is the retail prescription drug channel, which if Amazon does indeed enter this part of the industry it could have a profound impact on the entire industry. The biggest players that would be at risk in that scenario are: CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid.

Those three companies have existed for decades by servicing customers through predominately brick and mortar operations where the customer or patient will pick up their prescription products. These companies have delivery services available in some markets as well.

However, Amazon would turn that part of the industry on its head, so to speak, and reinvent the way that patients would get their prescriptions. The concept of ordering a prescription online, or through a voice- controlled device such as the Amazon Echo, one would think would be a compelling option for consumers.

There is a definite argument for the convenience that Amazon would provide to someone who was feeling too ill to drive to the pharmacy to get a prescription. It is appealing to people with busy lives as well, who need maintenance meds for a given medical condition to eliminate having to run over to the pharmacy from their routine thereby saving that time.

The retail pharmacy chains mentioned earlier would certainly have to adapt in the advent of Amazon potentially entering that sector. The strategy to combat Amazon would be two-pronged, in my opinion, in order to create resistance to Amazon grabbing too much market share.

First, the retail pharmacy chains can tout that they can fill prescriptions in one hour or less. The order of a prescription through Amazon will take more time to fill, so if you are sick (and the fact remains that being sick is when most people see a doctor and need prescriptions filled) the traditional retail route is still the most effective method.

Next, is an adaptation of the retail pharmacy operation into a true omnichannel approach. This approach is key to the survival of essentially every traditional retailer with a brick and mortar presence moving forward. The CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid chains and others in a regional presence have to consider developing delivery in most every market they serve. They also have to develop some type of website portal that can handle prescription orders for delivery to the consumer. This would allow for a truly omnichannel approach.

The patient prescription history and personal data are already in their database so these chains can tout the security and trust they have established with the patient over a period of time. This could become their pathway to remaining relevant with Amazon actively competing in the channel.

The patient confidentiality issues which were raised earlier in this piece still have significance as Amazon weighs whether to enter the pharmaceutical space or not. The potential for prescriptions to fall into the wrong hands is an aspect of this situation that should be careful considered by the government with respect to Amazon.

Conversely, that argument can be made for the major retailers and PBMs that are currently active in the retail pharmacy channel currently. The way the systems function today certainly provides some openings for the potential for prescription drugs to be misused or used by someone other than the patient it was intended to help. The mail order supply could easily get into the possession of someone who has the propensity to abuse prescription pain medications, anti-depressants, or some other type of pharmaceutical product.

The “Big Pharma” companies seem at this point, from their public statements, to be largely unconcerned with Amazon entering the market. I can understand how some people might be confused by this position. However, when you consider how the industry functions, and through my professional experience in different roles within the pharmaceutical industry, I can attest that the “Big Pharma” guys only care about making money. Amazon will allow them to do that especially with the PBMs.

The PBMs must be concerned about retaining profitability should Amazon enter that area of the industry. The joint venture announced on Tuesday with Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan has the healthcare industry shaken up already.

In full disclosure, some reports have also speculated whether Amazon is announcing this partnership to “save face” because of reports that they make their employees who work there for a certain length of time and then leave the company pay back the amount that Amazon paid for the healthcare coverage for that particular employee.

This new partnership could integrate new technology into the sector with rumors that the three companies in the venture will have an employee web portal that will provide healthcare planning information to help reduce the cost of tests and other services for those on their payrolls. The other rumor is that they are going to launch a smartphone app that streamlines healthcare choices and explains the protocols for different procedures very simply.

It is clear though that Amazon wants to get into the healthcare and potentially the pharmaceutical space and that has put everyone from the major health insurers, to PBMs, to those involved in the pharmaceutical retail drugstore segments on notice that changes are coming whether they are ready for them or not.

Follow Up: Toys R Us to Close 180 Stores

In a follow -up to a prior article on Toys R Us entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection back in the Fall of 2017, the company announced on Wednesday that they will be closing 180 stores by April.

The beleaguered toy retailer has been consistently losing market share and foot traffic due to stiff competition from Amazon, Wal-Mart, and Target. The Chapter 11 filing was due to a heavy debt load of $5 billion and the need to reorganize the company to emerge a more streamlined organization.

However, while most experts and industry analysts understood the Chapter 11 filing, and my prior article covered the necessity of the timing of the decision, consumer perception was that the chain was “going under”.

The chain had to file when they did for bankruptcy protection because they had to be able to pay the suppliers to get the shelves stocked for the Christmas and holiday season (where the chain makes 90% of their annual sales).

The plan backfired because they failed to market the promotional items properly during the holiday season, and the toy seller neglected to properly provide a concise and simple explanation of the Chapter 11 decision.

Therefore, in survey results from customers the top reason why the company struggled at the holidays was because the public perception was that the chain was going to close their doors, so any gifts for the holidays were perceived to be not returnable merchandise. This perception caused shoppers to avoid the purchase decision at Toys R Us and to purchase those gifts elsewhere.
The company made a statement Wednesday regarding the store closures and cited “operational missteps” during the holiday season as the reason behind the closings. The company now has to move fast to salvage the future of the entire chain.

The competition from Target, who has placed many of their store locations near current Toys R Us locations as well as expanded their toy product offerings, has definitely cut into the revenue capture for Toys R Us. This competition is heightened by aggressive marketing campaigns from Amazon and Wal-Mart that are convenient places for customers to get a wider range of products as well.

The main issue with Toys R Us, in the survey results from consumers, is that they are not easy to shop either in-store or on-line. The company has recognized that both of these areas are a major source of the downward spiral they find themselves within at this point.

The ability to succeed in retail today in an increasingly competitive marketplace is to be an easy place for the consumer to make a purchase. The products must be easy to find and priced to move, and the omnichannel approach: in-store, over the phone, store pickup for large items, and a robust on-line presence are all essential to survival.

Toys R Us is apparently struggling in all of these areas, and they have to hope that this decision today will be approved by the bankruptcy court. They have to hope that they can restore confidence in both the toy suppliers and the consumers. The company has to improve operationally and become aggressive in promoting in-store and on-line product offerings which create a sense of urgency for the customer.

The unfortunate reality of the announcement today is that most likely the chain will announce more store closings in the future. The strategy is to focus on their best performing stores or their best potential locations, which is the path that other retailers have taken at this point in their life cycle.

A personal note, here amidst all of this is my own memories of going to Toys R Us as a child, and getting so excited about a new toy or game that just was released. It was a place you could go and be happy because they sold toys and that nostalgia for a different time makes this article really bittersweet.

The resources I consulted mentioned a rift between the company and toy suppliers because Toys R Us was still giving out executive bonuses before they paid the suppliers, and they were behind on payments. The argument can be made for both sides of that situation: the company does not want to lose quality executives to competitors over a compensation gap, but you also have to pay your bills.

The consolidation of stores, especially the elimination of underperforming stores, is a logical first step. The unfortunate consequence is the lost jobs involved, which in their statement the company did not address the actual number of eliminated jobs. The company needs capital to run a more streamlined operation, so executive bonus pay probably should be suspended until they emerge from Chapter 11 protection.

In the end, as one who has covered the retail space and bankrupt companies in the past, this is a familiar pattern which usually results in the end of the chain in question. The biggest issue here with the potential demise of Toys R Us is that some industry experts maintain that the toy business cannot survive without the presence of Toys R Us. The validity of that analysis may be tested in the near future.

Gray Area: The CVS – Aetna Merger

The area of mergers and acquisitions is a key area of focus here on Frank’s Forum and that is what makes the CVS pursuit of purchasing and consolidating Aetna such significant news. The merger would be the largest transaction of 2017 (and we have had some tremendous M&A activity this year) and the largest health insurance merger in American history.

The price tag is astounding: under the terms of the current proposal CVS would obtain Aetna for $66 billion. The implications are of tremendous concern for several entities: health insurers, PBMs (Pharmacy Benefit Managers), other pharmacy retailers, drug companies, and most importantly: the consumer.

The potential combination of the second-largest retail drug chain and one of the largest health insurance providers in the nation is an alarming proposition. It has a feeling of a conflict of interest written all over it. The mainstream media and some other internet based news outlets have done an amazing job covering this emerging story and I encourage you to check out some of those related articles.

The thought process within some of the coverage in those outlets also corresponded with my first thoughts on this merger due to my understanding of the pharmaceutical network coverages through major insurance providers: higher costs for the consumer. This merger, should it clear all of the hurdles, would have tremendous implications on cost.

The consumer should have reservations because essentially this merger will translate to being given the following options: use a CVS location to fill your prescriptions for medications or use CVS mail order service for your prescriptions or end up paying a significant amount of additional money using a different option.

The retail brick and mortar locations of CVS are ubiquitous in certain areas of the country, but there will be some cases geographically where finding a CVS will be cumbersome for some consumers. That is a concern right off the top for the consumer.

The proposal clearly benefits CVS in providing them with a captive audience of consumers also has the ancillary benefit of fixing an issue most retailers are experiencing: reduced foot traffic in their stores.

Many retailers are dealing with reduced foot traffic due to a variety of factors, most notably the convenience of online shopping. This is a good segue to another driving force behind the CVS – Aetna proposed merger which is Amazon.

The online retail giant has been exploring for several weeks now whether to enter the prescription drug marketplace. Amazon has already been granted some preliminary licenses within this area, but I am not an expert on licensing requirements for prescription drug carriage across multiple states, for more information in that area I would suggest researching some of the great articles out there on the topic.

The industry experts insist that the hurdles for entry into the market are high for Amazon to attain. The ethical and procedural questions from a compliance standpoint will most certainly follow this new strategic direction for Amazon.

In addition, the recent legal changes to the policies regarding the dispensing of painkillers and opioid class narcotic drugs would be of particular scrutiny. The ramifications of Amazon carrying those types of products could potentially increase the rate of prescription drug addiction which the government is trying to curtail. Amazon has the two components needed to make this ultimately work: smart people and tons of money.

The convenience of filling your blood pressure medication from your Amazon Echo, your tablet, or your computer is enticing to some, and frightening to others. The “Amazon effect” has already impacted traditional retail channels, especially with their recent entry into the grocery channel with the purchase of Whole Foods, but where does it stop? Should Amazon be able to access prescription drug channels?

However, the case for a conflict of interest could also be made for CVS and Aetna. The merger of health insurance carriers and retail pharmacy chains also has been met with apprehension by some consumers as well. This type of arrangement essentially forces the consumer to use a particular pharmacy if they have insurance coverage from their job which is, in this case, through Aetna.

In fair balance, the other side of the argument would be made by those who have no problem with this merger by pointing out that many current arrangements are made between health insurance carriers, PBMs, and retail pharmacy chains. Some insurance carriers or their PBMs have relationships with Rite Aid, some with Walgreens, and some with CVS which create a “preferred provider” type of situation.

The implications for CVS to actually be the same company as Aetna run far deeper than just a strategic partnership. The potential for an approved bid for CVS to merge with Aetna, would have a domino effect on the retail drug business segment.

The nature of these situations and their impact on an industry segment would invariably begin the speculation of other similar potential mergers. Some examples could be Walgreens with United Health Group, Rite Aid with United or another smaller insurance carrier, and Jewel/Osco with Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The ramifications of a CVS merger with Aetna could change the way health insurance and prescription drug coverage is currently set up, it would have a dramatic impact on prescription formulary coverage, and result in potentially higher costs for the consumer.

The potential for Amazon to enter the prescription drug space is a whole other topic for debate on the potential for a wide range of potential ways that those products could be misallocated or abused.

The merger potential for the second largest retail pharmacy chains with one of the largest health insurance carriers compared to the largest online retailer getting involved in dispensing medications: in the words of the rock legend, Tom Petty, “I don’t know which one is worse”.

Oversaturation Point: The Uncertain Future Of Amazon

The financial news is buzzing with the analysis of the earnings reported from Amazon and the trendline toward potential trouble in the waters ahead. The recent acquisition of Whole Foods and the expenses on the balance sheet compared to the offset from the investor and the average consumer portends a future that is uncertain for the mammoth online retailer.

The question I find myself asking, from the perspective of one who has covered mergers and other financial news, is: has Amazon reached an oversaturation point?

The investment analysts on Wall Street are stating that investors are fatigued with the process of shelling out huge sums of money for Amazon stock shares. The consumer side of the business also seems to be displaying signs of fatigue as well. The company is starting to find out that it is difficult to grow your base membership business when the Prime subscription cost is $99 per year.

The question that Amazon should ask themselves is: should we put in place a tiered subscription structure to widen the potential consumer base of the business? The answer to that question will go a long way toward the determination of the future direction of their business.

The other solution they could determine is that they could market the Prime membership differently: instead of focusing on the $99 per year cost, they could break it out into a monthly cost. This type of marketing strategy might appeal more to a younger demographic and to families that are feeling the budget squeeze.

The stock value analysis of Amazon seems to indicate troubled waters ahead. The blue-chip stocks traded on the major indices all have “breaking points”. The averages for stock performance whether by month, by quarter, or the most common: the 52-week average; all provide a snap-shot of the financial picture around the given stock valuation for a company.

The “breaking point” on Amazon is a staggering figure of $925, according to industry analysts. That point seems to be approaching unless the trend lines change. The long- range forecast for the company, and the analysis around their balance sheets, suggests that the expenses stemming from the consolidations of Whole Foods and other businesses will impact their overall outlook.

The reaction from industry analysts and those within the financial markets has been mixed overall with respect to Amazon and their future path. These groups include a faction which maintains that the Amazon purchase and consolidation of Whole Foods will eventually have a negative impact on the company from both an expense and strategic perspective. The variables of external factors that could impact their profit margins now increased exponentially with the inclusion of a retail grocery business.

The reality is that no company is “bulletproof”, no company is immune to the outside forces driven from marketplace supply and demand. Amazon will still remain one of the most influential companies in the world, but everyone goes through a slump. The average consumer will still enjoy the convenience that their shopping experience provides, while another group of consumers will choose another site for their shopping, and still yet another group will shop primarily in brick and mortar stores.

In my view, Amazon is heading toward an oversaturation point. They should adapt, like any other business, with a strategy that addresses ways to reinvigorate their core customer base. They also need to determine ways that they can attract new customers in younger demographics both now and in the future.

The company continues to be a leader in both technology and convenience in the way we can obtain or consume a huge range of products. However, the Whole Foods acquisition has changed the overall public perception of Amazon into a type of “grim reaper” for American small businesses and the jobs that they create.

A stroll through your local Whole Foods store today will invariably include an “end cap” shelf space selling the Amazon Echo, which is a stark departure from what Whole Foods built their brand imaging around over the years. These types of changes could serve to alienate the core customers of the Whole Foods brand in the short term.

In addition, Amazon continues to grow, especially in certain states such as my home state of New Jersey. The first-hand accounts that I have been told about the negative quality of life impact that the Amazon distribution center expansion has had in the area outside of Trenton, are incredible. The constant rumbling of trucks and the increased traffic congestion and noise are just naming a few of those adverse impacts.

Those negative effects are followed by accounts of the working conditions at the New Jersey distribution centers as well as the corporate office roles which support those sites. The company culture has been exposed as one where the employees are pushed beyond their limits and that working conditions need improvement.

Amazon will have to contend with this image problem amid a rising tide of expenses as well as a potential stock sell-off if the share price drops below that breaking point. The oversaturation of Amazon in the marketplace has begun, the repercussions will have a significant impact on the retail industry space, the consumer, and the economy in the future.

Return To Football & Media Companies Protection Of Live Sports Content

The NFL preseason is already three weeks old, and college football will begin traditionally on Labor Day weekend; football is back and for many Americans that means that they have something to watch on TV again. The excitement for the start of both a new college football season as well as a new NFL football season is tempered by the continued movement of media companies to protect live sports content.

The trend towards eliminating cable television service, or “cord-cutting”, is gaining momentum each year as Americans look to trim the monthly expenses in order to pay for rising costs for other services, such as healthcare. The “cord-cutting” trend has been aided by the prevalence of streaming television products and platforms available to the consumer.

However, the consumer that is looking to still utilize “live TV” can do so through a few different pathways: HD antenna, streaming devices, and hybrid streaming services. The HD antenna is very simple: it attaches next to your TV and provides the broadcast channels within the mileage range on the box. The antenna would provide CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC, CW, and PBS as well as a few more local stations.

The antenna would provide you access to live sports broadcast on the national networks, and would not include any games broadcast on cable television. This option would work very well for NFL football, and some college football games. It would be of little use to obtain access to any other major sports, other than an occasional game.

The local baseball, basketball, and hockey games are almost exclusively aired on cable regional sports networks or on national cable sports networks such as ESPN or NBC Sports Network. This leads us to option two: streaming devices.

The streaming device route or Smart TV route can provide access to a huge amount of live sports content, but most of that content is not free of charge. The NBA, NHL, and MLB all have streaming “apps” but they require a subscription to access. The streaming device route can also support “live streaming” of certain networks but most of that would require either a cable subscription or another type of payment arrangement to access that content.

The hybrid streaming device route would be a DirecTV now, Sling box, or a few other smaller services that allow for the content available on a very large package of channels to be viewed in other rooms in your home. This would require a subscription and at least one box connected from either a cable or satellite provider. This route may also require the purchase of additional equipment.

However, this setup would enable access to a significant amount of live sports content. The other service is through Hulu which will feature a package of channels for $40.00 per month which would allow for live streaming of network and cable television, including live sports.

The networks pay such a high premium for the live sporting events that it is, in some ways, understandable that they have put in place certain measures to make it more difficult to stream the content without a cable or satellite subscription. The challenge will be in adapting their content providing platforms to attract other audience/fan base demographics.

The younger generation is conditioned toward streaming versus watching any regular television programming. The advertising around some of the streaming services and apps can be a bit misleading. Some of the sports related streaming apps will give you access to certain content for free and require a fee or cable subscription for access to the most important content: the live game or archived game broadcasts.

The NFL has partnered with e-commerce giant, Amazon, to stream 10 games this year as part of the Thursday Night Football package. This exclusive opportunity with the NFL and their coveted live game content cost Amazon $50 million. The broadcasts are free for all those with an Amazon Prime membership which runs at $99.00 per year.

This agreement with Amazon is different than the agreement they had last year with Twitter for the Thursday night games because Twitter streamed them live for free to everyone with an account, Amazon requires a Prime membership for access. It will remain to be seen if that will have an impact on live stream viewership, either positively or negatively.

The future of sports content on TV, and other content on TV is trending more toward a structure where the consumer will pay to have all sorts of content streamed on a customized basis. The consumer access to a broad range of content will require membership to a wide range of services, similar to the premium channel cable TV subscriptions currently (HBO, Showtime, Starz, Encore). It is important to note that whatever service or method you use it is like the old adage: “there is no free lunch”.

A good example of this trend is the decision by Disney recently to end their partnership with Netflix to start their own streaming service. This translates into a scenario where in order to gain access to Disney content you will have to purchase their streaming service. I think that many other major media companies are going to follow suit.

The return to football means some exciting weekends relaxing with family and friends. It conjures up memories of past football weekends with the big college games on Saturday nights, and the CBS games at 4 o’clock on the East Coast with the aroma of a home cooked dinner in the background.

It is time for many of us to watch TV again, and I hope that this piece informed you on the best options that you have to access this content. I wish you all a happy and safe football season.

Mergers & Acquisitions Roundup

The mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity in this quarter was slow compared to the two most recent quarters in the financial world. The total amount of the deals was reportedly higher in dollar volume than the prior quarter, but the overall M&A picture is overshadowed by the unknown impact of new antitrust policies coming from Washington.

Those policies remain unrevealed to the public by the White House, and has placed most of the potential M&A activity on hold until further details emerge. However, amid all those changes some pending deals made progress and others fell apart. The past few months were still busy when it came to consolidations and other types of acquisitions.

Amazon Enters The Grocery Aisle

Amazon made a bold move into the retail grocery channel by acquiring Whole Foods in an all cash deal in June. The deal will give Amazon a foothold into an industry they have been trying to tap into for a long time without having to spend major capital on leasing or building store locations, training management and staff, as well as developing a distribution network specifically for those stores.

The addition of Whole Foods is going to make Amazon an even greater threat to the other players in the fresh grocery business segment. Amazon plans on keeping Whole Foods operational strategies mostly intact with retaining their business headquarters in Austin and keeping the brick and mortar store experience largely the same.

Walgreens Proposed Merger With Rite Aid Shelved

In the opposite direction, the M&A area was dealt a blow when Walgreens and Rite Aid announced that their long-pursued foray into merging together was being abandoned completely.

This proposed marriage of two of the largest retail pharmacy chains in the U.S. was riddled with issues from the outset. The regulatory boards involved have consistently been concerned with the fact that Walgreens and Rite Aid both had to divest a certain number of stores to meet antitrust requirements. This was further complicated because the industry contains a lack of suitable buyers for those locations.

Walgreens/ Rite Aid identified Fred’s, a largely Southeastern U.S. based chain of both pharmacies and discount type dollar stores, as the partner to absorb the locations that they both would have to sell off in order to meet approval on the merger. The regulators were not sure that Fred’s could double in size basically overnight and survive, especially expanding into the Northeast and other areas where they had no previous presence.

The sheer potential size of a combined Walgreens and Rite Aid ultimately doomed this proposed M&A transaction. Walgreens now has to determine another consolidation strategy in order to compete with CVS Caremark. Rite Aid, while pretty healthy overall with their business, has to be concerned about the tough competition from CVS and Walgreens in the Northeast. They also have to be concerned that another company is going to try to obtain them and absorb them in the short term.

The Big Get Bigger

In perhaps the most under the radar move of the year, AT&T is poised to become even bigger than they are currently with a proposed $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner. This is not just the cable television unit of Time Warner, this is the entire company.

This merger is expected, according to analysts close to the deal, to close and meet all final approval metrics within the next 60 days. This is a controversial merger in the eyes of many in the general public who have justifiable concerns about a multimedia conglomerate with that much influence.

AT&T and DirecTV are the same company, and they will now have control over broadcast channels such as TBS, TNT, CNN, and HLN. This represents a monopoly which can exert pressure upon advertisers and control the message in the media in a way that could be very dangerous.

Some consumers will feel that this is a conflict of interest with AT&T controlling a major satellite television platform as well as a full stable of broadcast channels.

New Rules Coming Soon

The White House will announce some sort of new rules for M&A activity that could make it potentially easier to consummate some of these mega deals. The Dow – DuPont merger looks like it is going to meet regulatory approval regardless of these future changes to the antitrust regulatory requirements.

The rules could allow for less oversight of potential monopolistic deals and could lead to a road where all the consumer is left with are very small “mom & pop” type stores or a store owned by some giant conglomerate with nothing in between.

The Dow-DuPont merger would be one of the largest in history and would be a very complex deal that would eventually create a corporate structure with separate divisions running as autonomous companies based on their shared specialty.

The analysts expect that the Dow-DuPont approval coupled with the regulatory changes could create conditions where M&A activity will ramp up significantly.

The “Q” Gobbles Up HSN

Liberty Interactive/QVC announced on Thursday that they have purchased the remaining stake in HSN (Home Shopping Network) to complete the acquisition of the network. QVC, or “the Q” as it is known in shopping circles, now has control of their top competitor, HSN, and the company is touting the cost savings from the shared core synergies for both networks.

It stands to reason that the systems for ordering and shipping will be upgraded to a unified platform. The knock on HSN is that the ordering process could be more cumbersome and the return process more complicated than that of the processes used by QVC. An improvement to any of those processes at HSN would be a real win for the consumer. This deal is also an indication of how robust the online competition from Amazon and other sites have been to the sales for twenty-four-hour home shopping networks.

Those networks, QVC and HSN respectively, were the advent of online shopping. They provided the first convenience factor of shopping from home, before the genesis of eBay, Amazon, and Craig’s List. Some feel that this merger could be seen as a monopoly, but the reality is that it is a necessary move for the survival of home shopping networks amid intense marketplace competition.

Berkshire Bets Big On Electricity

Berkshire Hathaway and their high-profile owner, Warren Buffet, announced on Friday that they have purchased Oncor, a Texas based power grid leader, for $9 billion in cash.

The acquisition is one of the largest that Berkshire Hathaway has ever undertaken. They are intrigued by the steady demand for electricity and the continued importance of electricity infrastructure in the future.

This move also pulls Oncor out of bankruptcy and into a stable of other companies and brands owned by Berkshire which could provide opportunities for strategic partnerships in energy delivery in the future.

Europe Cracks Down

The news on Thursday that the E.U. has reviewed the M&A activity of certain major players and decided to take punitive steps came as a surprise to some, and as no surprise to others within the business world.

The E.U. is investigating whether GE mislead their regulatory compliance process when the consumer products giant purchased a wind farming operation. The line of defense for GE, according to their spokespeople, is that the company did nothing to intentionally misguide the process. The E.U. law is written in a way that GE should they be found guilty of any wrongdoing would have to pay a fine in excess of one billion dollars.

The E.U. is also investigating Merck (the German company not the American pharmaceutical titan) for a similar matter in a completed merger where the valuations might have been altered to mislead the regulatory powers involved. They also face a hefty fine and the potential for an increased level of scrutiny whenever they decide to consolidate in the future.

The E.U. is also investigating electronics giant, Canon, for some alleged deceptive practices during their purchase of Toshiba’s medical imaging business unit. It would not reverse the acquisition, but it would be a significant fine if guilt is established. The reputation and corporate image of Canon could also take a hit in this situation as well.

The M&A activity has been largely put on hold in recent months. However, some of the largest merger activity could become reality in the next few months. These transactions will have an undeniable impact on the average consumer and will have influence over entire industry segments moving forward. It is important to understand how they can impact you and your family from the way it can impact costs of goods and services. The future will bring more of the same, so stay prepared.

Pushing The Easy Button: Staples Sold To Sycamore

The sale of office supply retail giant, Staples to a private equity firm, Sycamore Partners, is the most recent in a string of merger activity in the retail sector. It is no secret that Staples has had difficulties recently competing with online retailing behemoth, Amazon, who has taken quite a significant chunk of the market share away from Staples.

This transaction represents yet another major American retail brand taking the first of many options along the “decision tree” to retail survival. The key to this sale is that Staples will transition from a publicly traded company on the stock exchange into a privately held enterprise.

This is a huge distinction because, quite often, companies make decisions on any number of matters based upon how it will potentially impact the valuation of their stock, or how it will “play” with the analysts on Wall Street, or their shareholders perception of the decision.

Conversely, a privately held company has none of those same considerations. These types of enterprises can make decisions based upon what is good for the overall health of their business. In this case, with Staples, the company that once touted the “easy button” for solutions to home office or small business needs; the company pressed the button to solve their overall issues.

Staples initially attempted the “get bigger” strategy by attempting to purchase one of their largest competitors, Office Depot, but the proposed acquisition was rejected by regulatory anti-trust officials.

Staples remains the largest brick and mortar retailer of office supplies in the United States, and this is after shutting down hundreds of underperforming locations to free up more cash flow. That is the advantage they have over Amazon and other retail competition, is the in-store option. They have to play that to their advantage and refocus their brand on what they do very well particularly in the service area of copy and print.

The investment from the perspective of Sycamore is a reasonable one at face value because they obtain a recognizable brand with a huge network of retail stores that could own that space if they recalibrate themselves correctly.

Staples could weather the storm here by going into private hands, it is certainly going to make the transition to fighting Amazon easier without having to answer to “The Street”. It remains to be seen whether they make the correct course adjustments to their business to stay relevant in an extremely price sensitive marketplace with much more savvy and well informed consumers.

Television Wars: The Future of Home Entertainment

The rapid technological advancements in the mass media are causing a shift in the way in which the general public will utilize their home entertainment. The advent of Apple TV changed the landscape when it hit the market, and other streaming services and content providers are looking to continue to shape the market in the future.

 

In order to compete in the marketplace with Apple, Google launched their own product, Google TV, back in October 2010. In the years since then, the number of content providers and subscription services for the distribution of television programs and movies exploded. Google has since renamed their product after their “Chrome” product platform.

 

Now the landscape is crowded with systems such as Aveo, Roku, and Slingbox as well as subscription content providers in Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Direct Video. These products and services coupled with the telecom companies’ movement into the television market with products such as Verizon’s FIOS, and AT&T’s UVerse, and the television wars have officially begun.

 

All of this content is transmitted by a signal today, and these companies and service providers are going to compete for the right to send their signal to your home. It happens every day if you have cable television service through a company such as Comcast, and you receive calls and emails from Verizon trying to entice you to switch to their FIOS service.

 

“Binge watching”

 

I have written about the evolution in the medium of television in the past, but I was thinking about all of these changes again over the Christmas/ New Year’s holidays when I had some time to unwind and watch a couple of movies.

 

It is still incredible to me that through a service such as, Amazon Direct, you can watch whatever movie you want in their catalog, or you could “binge watch” a television series you may have never seen before from the start of the series all the way through to the end, in sequence, with no commercials.

 

This approach to watching a series is the new trend in television viewing, and the broadcast networks as well as the cable, satellite, and telecom providers are increasingly aware of this viewer preference. They are providing their viewers or subscribers with several different ways to “binge watch” their favorite programs through video-on-demand services, streaming of both old and new episodes on the network website, and providing access to the show via subscription content providers such as Netflix or Hulu.

 

This method of viewing an entire season or an entire series run of episodes is very appealing to Americans, who like the freedom to watch whatever they want, at whatever time they want to watch it. The days of “appointment TV,” when you had to be home at a certain time on a certain night because the show was something the viewer could not miss, are over. The average person is too busy today with all of the new technology and the demands of their respective careers or families for that approach to be viable anymore.

 

In this case the network and cable television broadcast companies got it right to capitalize on the marketing of these new platforms available to stream content and expand the viewership of their programming. These same executives have missed the mark at other points and have alienated viewers in the past. The networks, at another point in time, would have considered restricting access to their programming to their own detriment; though they continue to favor subscription services rather than Aveo and some other services that tend to provide the content for less money.

 

Some say the networks were smart to provide their programming content via the Internet and other platforms. However, I think they really had no choice because if they did not provide the content, they would have lost many viewers, so they did so for their own survival.

 

In fact, some people have already “cut the cable cord” and are using these other devices and services rather than paying for a cable or satellite service for television in their homes.

 

Original Programming

 

The other trend which will also serve to further accentuate the competition for viewers is the push toward the development of more original programming for the new age outlets such as Netflix, Amazon Direct, and Chrome TV.   The appeal for the high profile actors and actresses in Hollywood to sign on for original programs on these new formats is two-fold:

  1. The content providers have lots of cash to shell out to produce their own programming and pay the stars associated – so money is a key factor
  2. The rules for the content they can produce are different than if they did a mainstream show on a major network or a basic cable program. The rules for what they can display are similar to a series produced for a premium tier cable channel such as HBO or Showtime. That freedom from normal regulatory constraints is very compelling to certain stars to be able to work on a show that is unvarnished and bold.

 

Some of these programs have been successful already in their limited runs, which has only served to fill the pipeline with more concepts for future development. Netflix recently announced that they are developing original programming for children, which opens up a whole new avenue to market their service to families.  Amazon is working a few new original programming concepts as well.

 

The two other recent developments that have further continued this trend of original programming is the news of the Disney deal with Netflix, and the potential for exclusive sports programming moving to these new media service providers.

 

The Disney deal with Netflix will eventually provide for Disney movies to be available exclusively through a subscription to Netflix in probably about four years from now. However, Disney owns Marvel Studios and the rights to most of their comic book characters. Marvel and Netflix will be producing at least four original series, each focused on a single character, for release in the near future (www.usatoday.com).

 

The recent announcement by the NFL that they are strongly considering the addition of another tier of playoffs is rumored to be driven by the strong interest and deep pockets of Apple TV and Google to land the digital rights to sporting events, particularly the NFL (www.money.cnn.com).

 

These types of digital rights deals are going to be the future of professional sports viewing as well, and it serves as another reminder that the world is rapidly changing. The business activity and marketing campaigns have also made it abundantly clear: these changes are here to stay.

 

In addition, as these properties continue to advance they will get monetized differently, and as some have seen with certain programs on Hulu, you will have commercial interruptions on certain programs. The advertising agencies and the networks will find ways to deliver their sponsor’s message as these services grow more prevalent in the future.

 

So whether you have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Direct, or all three services; I hope you enjoy the viewing options for content that they provide because in the future it is only going to get bigger and better.