Vera Bradley in 2015: Can Its Turnaround Strategy Reverse Its Continuing Decline?
Vera Bradley had grown rapidly since the mid-2000s with a strategy keyed to offering a distinctive line of colorful, patterned women’s luggage, handbags, and accessories sold in department stores, in company-owned full-price retail stores and factory outlet stores, and over the Internet. As the mid-2010s approached, the company’s standing seemed less certain as competition intensified in the market for ladies’ handbags and accessories. Its meteoric growth had stalled in fiscal 2014, with revenues slipping by only 1 percent but net income declining by nearly 15 percent. This decline in revenues and profits came on the heels of the company’s rollout of its new strategic plan in early 2014 that would focus the company on a product line of a limited assortment of the highest-quality ladies’ handbags and accessories, expanded distribution channels with an emphasis on outlets and e-commerce, and an enhanced marketing approach.
By 2015, the company’s strategic plan had failed to produce the desired results, with fiscal 2015 net revenues slipping 4.1 percent, from $530.9 million in fiscal 2014 to $509 million in fiscal 2015. In addition, operating income had fallen by 33 percent, and net income dropped 35 percent, from $58.8 million in fiscal 2014 to $38.4 million in fiscal 2015.
The strategic plan appeared to match the company’s external market conditions and internal situation, but it provided little uniqueness since Vera Bradley’s rivals were all competing with similar strategies. Vera Bradley’s management believed that the quality of the plan, coupled with the company’s management expertise, would yield a competitive advantage. Robert Wallstrom, Vera Bradley’s chief executive officer, commented shortly after the new strategic plan was announced that the company’s strategies and talented and seasoned team of retail executives would reverse the company’s recent decline in revenue and profits and return it to an impressive growth trajectory.
The inspiration for Vera Bradley occurred in 1982 when two traveling friends, Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia Miller, observed that passersby in the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport all had similar, bland luggage and that a market for colorful, stylish luggage might exist. Almost immediately upon their return to Fort Wayne, Indiana, the two women began creating colorful, quilted fabric duffle bags from their homes. They named the company after Barbara Baekgaard’s mother, Vera Bradley, and initially focused only on duffle bags, handbags, and sports bags.
As consumer interest in the brand grew, the company developed additional assortments of patterns and products to reach a broader range of customers. The focus of the company’s merchandising was changed to highlight Vera Bradley as a lifestyle brand. The company enhanced its marketing function to work collaboratively with the design group in 2012 to improve the product development to market process. In 2014, the company designed, manufactured, marketed, and retailed accessories for women, including luggage, purses, wallets, cell phone and computer covers, jewelry, a wide variety of bags, lunch sacks, scarves, beach accessories, and baby clothing.
As the company grew, Vera Bradley’s management realized the importance of a strong infrastructure and began strengthening its supply chain capabilities and IT systems early on. These improvements resulted in significant cost savings and a more flexible and scalable operating structure. In 2005, the company shifted its production from primarily domestic manufacturing to global sourcing, which was substantially more cost-effective. A new state-of-the-art distribution facility was built in Roanoke, Indiana, in 2007 and was expanded in 2013 to approximately 400,000 square feet, which was double its original size.
Vera Bradley’s products were initially sold wholesale to department stores and other retailers specializing in women’s accessories. The company also maintained specialty retailer accounts that marketed Vera Bradley bags and other distinctive items as corporate gifts. By 2014, the company’s products were sold through indirect department store and specialty retailer channels and through direct channels that included the Internet, full-price retail stores, and factory outlet stores. As of February 2014, the company had about 3,100 indirect retail partners, with about 30 percent of the indirect retailers accounting for over 70 percent of the indirect revenue in 2013. The company entered into direct sales in 2006 with the launch of an e-commerce site in the United States, and in 2007 it opened its first retail store. Vera Bradley launched an e-commerce site in Japan in 2012. The company operated 96 full-price retail stores in the United States in 2015. Vera Bradley retail stores were about 1,800 square feet in size and were designed to reflect the casual comfort of a home. The company also operated 29 factory outlet stores in the United States. Its seven retail stores in Japan had been closed by 2015.
Vera Bradley executed its initial public offering in October 2010 and was listed on the NASDAQ with the symbol “VRA.” According to Vera Bradley’s management, the company’s direct competitors were manufacturers and marketers of handbags and accessories, such as Coach, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade. Miller and Baekgaard had been honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration as “Outstanding Women Entrepreneurs” and by the Indiana Historical Society as “Indiana Living Legends.” The Vera Bradley Foundation for Breast Cancer had pledged over $35 million to the Indiana University Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center to support cancer research. Exhibit 1 presents a financial summary for Vera Bradley for fiscal 2011 through fiscal 2015. The company’s balance sheets for fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015 are presented in Exhibit 2.
Overview of the Handbag and Leather Accessories Market in 2015
The handbag and leather accessories market was estimated at approximately $96 billion in 2013, with the largest markets being the United States with 36 percent of industry sales, Europe with 21 percent of industry sales, Japan with 16 percent of industry sales, and China with 11 percent of industry sales. The retail market for global luxury goods was affected significantly by general economic conditions, with consumers curtailing expenditures for luxury goods in general during recessions and economic slowdowns. For example, the poor general economic conditions between 2006 and 2010 contributed to a 0.6 percent annual decline in industry sales during those years. Continued growth in China and other emerging markets was expected to increase the sales of luxury goods by 7.8 percent annually through 2015.
Euromonitor predicted that by 2018, the AsiaPacific region would be the largest market in the world for luxury goods. This growth was due primarily to China but also to other emerging Asian markets such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and India. Emerging markets, especially China and India, were expected to provide a major boost to the luxury goods market because of rapidly increasing wealth levels and standard-of-living gains. China surpassed Japan in 2010 as the third-largest luxury market, with sales of luxury goods approaching $32 billion. The Chinese market for luxury goods was predicted to increase substantially over the next several years, which would make it possibly the world’s largest market for luxury goods….
Written Guidelines for Case Analysis:
Break the analysis into the following major headings:
- Introduction 1 page
- Strategic Issue ½ – 1 page
- External Analysis 4+ pages
- Company Situation 3-4+ pages
- Recommendations 2+ pages
- Appendix Financial Ratios, SWOT, etc.
In addition, use the subheadings described in this document to break up long sections.
Use APA style which means double space throughout – do not add any additional space between paragraphs. Be sure to indent the first word of each new paragraph. Do not have long paragraphs containing a variety of related but different topics – break into smaller paragraphs for organization and ease of reading. Use a topic sentence to clarify the purpose of each paragraph. Number the pages starting with the Introduction , e.g., do not include the title page.
Proof! Check your work and correct the spelling and grammar errors. Write clearly with correctly structured complete sentences. The ability to present an effective case analysis depends on your critical thinking skills AND your ability to express your ideas in writing. Students who turn in a “first draft” may not earn a grade that is desired. When sections are returned to you, note all comments from the instructor and take notes in the class discussion to incorporate into your next case analysis.
Start each of the major sections with an introduction that briefly characterizes and sets the stage for the section. Also at the end of each significant section, summarize with a paragraph capturing the key strategic findings of your analysis for that section. Do not make comments like “The case did not provide information on . . .” You do not need to site the textbook or case. Eliminate personal pronouns such as I, we, etc.
Staple or clip the paper in the upper left hand corner – no binders, please.
3. Show Impact
Your job is not to “spill back” the facts from the case. Assume that the person who reads your write up will have read the case carefully. Support your statements of analysis with brief examples from the case information. Your focus should be on the impact, effect, and strategic implications of your analysis. Do not overlook exhibits in the case with additional data.
4. Apply Tools and Vocabulary
Demonstrate that you understand and can effectively apply the tools of strategic analysis: macro environment, driving forces, key success factors, industry analysis, financial analysis, SWOT, strategic group map and the nine cell industry attractiveness, competitive strength matrix. An effective case analysis effectively incorporates the language of strategic analysis throughout.
Provide a brief overview of the mission, business, markets, products and scope of operations the company is in. The past/current strategic direction of the firm can be briefly summarized but the focus should be on the most recent events that will impact the decisions and future direction of the firm. Identify strategic actions by generic and grand strategies.
This is NOT a long historical view. It shows how capable you are of describing the company’s business and current strategy using strategic vocabulary.
- Focusing on history rather than the current situation.
- Not using strategic vocabulary for strategies.
- Giving too much detail about the case – assume I’ve read the case.
2. Strategic Issue
In one or two paragraphs, summarize the company and strategic situation. This should characterize the fundamental state of affairs that exists in the focus company and industry with enough background information to understand it. See page 85 in the textbook for a definition of strategic issue and review page 9 for the tests of a winning strategy.
This section MUST summarize the strategic situation the company faces. “Situation” means “state of affairs.” Summarize and connect to the key findings of each section. Weave these findings into a summary story leading to a clear and specific statement about the future prospects for strategic success for the company. Make a specific statement about whether the company’s prospects are good, indefinite, or poor.
The strategic issue must be a single, well-crafted sentence that captures the fundamental problems and concerns that came out of the analysis. This single sentence must be formed as a question and will end with a question mark. Write this in very specific terms addressing both the company’s short-term situation and the broader strategic situation. Incorporate the need to provide shareholder value, sales growth, profitability and sustained competitive advantage but incorporate the specific challenges with which the focus company must deal. Everything prior to this question is headed toward this one culminating formulation of the problem. This question forms the basis for the recommendations.
Do not make recommendations in this section. For example, a strategic issue for ZU could be “What degree programs should be offered to meet the labor needs of the UAE government? This can be followed up with more specific questions such as:
- Should ZU offer degrees in engineering or medicine?
- How can ZU differentiate their brand from other universities?
- What degrees are desired by prospective students?
- What degree programs are needed that are not offered by other universities?
- What programs need to be in place so that students are prepared better for higher education?
- Failure to introduce the key conditions or “givens” in a problem statement.
- Addressing only the external or the internal situation rather than both.
- Making recommendations.
3. External Environment
Provide an introduction that characterizes the essence of the external environment and industry situation at the time of the case and sets the stage for the analysis that follows. In each section/paragraph that follows, discuss the STRATEGIC IMPLICATIONS of the analysis. ALL the discussion in this section relates to the INDUSTRY, not the focus company. You may use examples of the focus company or other competitors to justify your analysis.
- Writing about historical events rather than the current state of the industry.
- Identifying the topics you are about to discuss without discussing the state of the industry.
- Not using the vocabulary and discussion in the textbook supported with facts from the case.
Porter’s 5 Forces Analysis. Use the Porter model to evaluate the strength of the five forces that affect the strategic choices of all firms in the industry. Discuss the balance of power in the industry. Relatively weak forces (low threats) place power in the hands of the firms that comprise the industry, and, therefore, broaden their freedom of choice of strategic actions. Relatively strong forces (high threats) reduce the power of the industry firms and limit their strategic choices. An industry with strong forces tends to be less attractive than an industry with weak forces.
Specifically state your assessment of the strength of each of the 5 forces – intense, strong, moderate or weak. Justify and show why you reached your conclusion. For example, it is not enough to write, “Competitive rivalry is strong because the number of competitors is high, barriers to entry are low and product differentiation is low.” A better explanation is, “The many competitors in this industry must aggressively battle for market share in this slow-growth market. They each have considerable investments in the physical plant, which makes it difficult to leave the industry. The products are difficult to distinguish from one another, so companies must focus on aggressive, marketing programs to win customers away from their competitors. All these factors contribute to a strong rivalry and continued downward pressure on profit margins.”
Put the actual diagram of the model in the APPENDIX and discuss each force in the body of this section. Include a closing paragraph on the implications of the analysis to the overall attractiveness of the industry and the potential for companies to be profitable.
- Not identifying the strength of a force or the conditions that lead you to your finding of a force as being strong or weak.
- Getting supplier, firm and buyer mixed up.
- Overlooking key factors you previously identified in the external/industry analysis.
- Not recognizing the strength of competitive rivalry.
Key Success Factors
Key success factors affect industry players’ ability to be competitive and successful. They are so important that firms must consider them in developing their strategy or risk significant loss of sales, profits, market standing, etc. Develop three key success factors for the focus industry and identify WHAT they are, WHY they are key success factors, and HOW they affect the industry. Finish each key success factor by discussing the strategic implication.
For example, it is not enough to say, “Distribution capabilities are essential for success in the online order fulfillment industry.” Go on to say why and present a convincing argument for your position. To illustrate, “A web site that is appealing and easy to navigate, coupled with fast order delivery is essential to customer satisfaction in internet selling. Today’s consumer, especially the younger consumer, is technically savvy and has a myriad of ways to access internet sales, e.g., ipads, computers, iphones. Brick and mortar retail stores provide buyers with a quick solution for their shopping needs but are not as convenient. In order to be competitive, companies must develop the ability to respond with fast delivery times or potentially lose sales to competitors who are able to provide high levels of customer service.”
- Being too general.
- Not specifically identifying why the factor force is important.
- Failure to convince why the factor is important.
Industry Profile and Attractiveness. Summarize the characteristics of the industry. Draw together all of the key findings from each area of the external analysis. What conclusions can you draw about the nature of the industry? How attractive is it to its current incumbents? What are the future prospects for the industry? Why? What challenges does the industry face? Provide a summary statement about whether it is highly attractive, moderately attractive, etc., to current players re profits, sales and competitive intensity.
4. Company situation
Provide an introduction that characterizes the essence of the company situation and sets the stage for the analysis that follows. Calculate the past sales growth rate for the company if there is historical data. If the case has data on historical industry sales, calculate the sales growth rate and determine whether the industry is in the introduction, growth, maturity or decline phase of their life cycle. If there is information such as the revenue of the top 3 competitors for the last few years, combine their sales and calculate the change in sales growth to infer where the industry is in their life cycle. Then discuss this analysis in any of the sections where it is appropriate. Based on the conclusions from the preceding section and the case analysis, determine the stage of the industry life cycle (introduction, growth, maturity or decline). Identify the key company-specific issues with which the company is dealing.
Financial Analysis. Be sure to distinctly address each of the four areas of financial analysis – profitability, liquidity, leverage and activity – identify each in the topical sentence for that paragraph. The financial analysis must be thorough and accurate. Look at trends and compare the company’s performance to industry targets, if available. Evaluate the primary financial indicators, provide supporting data and interpret them to show how they affect the company regarding its present and future strategic performance.
Put the calculations of the ratios in a table in the APPENDIX.
Close this analysis by writing a paragraph that draws conclusion about the company’s overall financial situation, prospects and the impact of its financial condition on its potential strategic plans. The fundamental question you are trying to answer is, “What is the overall financial status of the company now, and what does its current financial status mean for its future strategic success or ability to grow sales?”
- Incorrect computation of the ratio.
- Incomplete computations of the ratios (trends, etc.).
- Focusing on the definition rather than the strategic impact that the ratio implies.
SWOT Analysis. Discuss each of the four legs of the SWOT fully – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in this section. Be clear that events are not the same as attributes. SWOT is about attributes, not events. An attribute describes the characteristics of the company. For example, you might say, “The company isn’t profitable.” True, but what is its weakness attribute? What characteristics of the company drives its lack of profitability? A better way to express it is, “The company has not managed costs in its value chain. This is supported by the sustained increase in cost of goods sold accompanied by flat sales reflecting a weakness that must be overcome to improve profitability.”
Summarize the SWOT analysis in a one-page table and place in the APPENDIX. Discuss the table in the body of the paper.
SWOT is the “integrator” of the analysis. SWOT draws from the findings resulting from the Macroenvironment, Industry Analysis, and Financial Analysis. No new information is provided. Use the terminology in the previous sections. For example, “An opportunity identified in the discussion of the competitive analysis . . .” Another example, “The dumping of foreign products into this industry, identified earlier as a driving force, is a significant threat to incumbents.”
- Not linking the findings to the previous analysis through the use of common terminology.
- Omitting important findings discussed previously.
- Focusing on historical events rather than inherent strengths and weaknesses.
- Not recognizing obvious strengths and weaknesses in the business functions: financial analysis, marketing (product, price, place and promotion), human resource management, operations, etc.
Strategic Issue. This is the same question that is presented at the end of Section 2.
Strategy Recommendations. Identify the GENERIC and GRAND strategy recommendations. These will tie closely to the SWOT analysis. The recommendations should play into the company’s strengths and opportunities. They should minimize the company weaknesses and overcome its threats. Discuss each strategic initiative in detail including the actions required in the functional areas to support the strategic recommendations: marketing, operations, human resource management, finance, etc.
Objectives. Specify the performance objectives that should be monitored and result from the strategic recommendations and earlier analysis. What key performance indicators should be reported and what are the appropriate targets? For example, what are the sales and profitability goals? What goals should be established for non-financial indicators?
Strategic Justification. Justify why your recommendations are the best option and why other options are not. This is a comparative analysis. Develop this fully, tying it back to the various factors in your strategic analysis. Evaluate the pros and cons of the recommended direction. Demonstrate that you understand the implications of your recommendations.
A justification analysis weights the strength of the pros and cons for a given alternative in comparison to the other alternatives. It presents a rationale for why the pros of the recommended alternatives are better than the pros of the other alternatives. It also addressed why the cons of the recommended alternatives are less significant the those of the rejected alternatives.
- Not naming and discussing a generic and several supporting grand strategies
- Developing recommendations that don’t tie clearly to the previous analysis.
- Not describing distinguishing characteristics of the strategies.
- Not clearly describing each strategy.
- Not aligning strategy recommendations with objectives.
- Writing in generalities rather than company and situation specific.
- Not describing strategies for all the relevant functions, e.g., human resource management, finance, etc.
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