The start of a new decade isn’t offering much hope for beleaguered retailers.
Traditional chains are looking increasingly frail less than a month into 2020, with vacancies piling up and few near-term prospects for a turnaround.
National chains Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Papyrus, Express and Pier 1 Imports, as well as other retailers, have collectively announced 1,218 store closures this year, according to global marketing research firm Coresight Research.
The fallout comes after a year in which retailers closed more than 9,200 stores, according to Coresight. Those included the liquidation of Payless ShoeSource, Fred’s, Gymboree and Charlotte Russe and mass closures by Family Dollar, Forever 21, Charming Charlie, Sears, Kmart, A.C. Moore and GameStop.
Retailers will likely announce plans to close more than 100 million square feet of space in 2020 for the fourth straight year, projected real estate data tracker CoStar. That’s the equivalent of about 562 Walmart supercenters.
“This year will generally be more of the same,” said Robin Trantham, a consultant for CoStar. “We expect many companies – and many sizable companies – to announce closures.”
To be sure, it’s common for the industry to face a reckoning of sorts early in the year following the do-or-die holiday shopping season. About half of closures are typically announced in the first quarter, according to CoStar.
But the cascading nature of the recent closure announcements reflects a deepening crisis for retail. Some recent closure announcements include:
• Home goods retailer Pier 1 Imports announced plans to close up to 450 locations, or nearly half of its stores.
• Schurman Retail Group announced the closure of its 246 stores, including stationery and greeting card chains Papyrus and American Greetings.
• Fashion retailer Express announced plans to close 91 locations, including 31 stores by the end of January and 35 by the end of January 2021.
• Department store chains Macy’s and J.C. Penney are closing 29 and six stores, respectively.
• Bed Bath & Beyond is closing 60 locations, including 40 of its namesake locations.
With too many stores in the U.S. and chains trying to figure out the right approach, “the current decade will continue to see store closures and a repurposing of retail real estate as the retail landscape adapts to the digital era,” Coresight Research analyst Marie Driscoll said in an email.
Off to a bad start
As the new year starts, many stores are already looking ghostly. In the third week of the month, foot traffic to stores fell 4.9% compared with the same period last year. And it was down 1.4% compared with the previous week, according to Cowen retail analysts.
That came despite nice weather, which typically encourages shopping. Average temperatures were 3.8 degrees warmer last week than the same week a year earlier, and they were 6.8 degrees warmer than usual for this time of year.
Don’t expect conditions to get much better for the retail sector later in the year, either.
The second half of 2020 poses particular challenges for the industry, according to Morgan Stanley research analyst Kimberly Greenberger, who tracks specialty retailers, department stores and footwear.
It will be “tricky with the election looming” for retailers to stand their ground, since the presidential election could cause consumers to get skittish about spending, Greenberger wrote Wednesday in a research note.
Although the “fundamental consumer backdrop is healthy,” people’s spending on discretionary items “is likely to be challenged,” Greenberger wrote.
Even some chains that were recently thought to be on solid ground are encountering turbulence. The proposed split of Old Navy from its troubled counterpart, Gap, was called off last week amid a “lackluster performance” for Old Navy, Cowen retail analyst Oliver Chen wrote in a research note.
“The company has a lot of work ahead to drive consistent performance,” and figure out the right number of stores to keep open,” Chen said of Old Navy.
Department stores falter
Of course, digital threats remain at the heart of the retail industry’s crisis. E-commerce made up 11.2% of total retail in the third quarter of 2019, up from 4.2% during the same period in 2010, according to financial data firm Refinitiv.
Department stores, which historically set themselves apart with their wide variety of merchandise, are particularly threatened by Amazon and other digital marketplaces.
Sears and J.C. Penney, in particular, are facing the fight for their lives in 2020. Sears barely survived its recent bankruptcy filing but almost immediately resumed store closures after emerging from Chapter 11 last February.
Some retailers are taking an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em approach. Department store chain Kohl’s won praise last year when it announced a returns partnership with Amazon that was hailed as effective insulation from digital competition because of the foot traffic it would presumably create.
But the significance of that deal is being called into question after Kohl’s surprised investors this month by reporting a same-store sales decrease of 0.2% in November and December. The company experienced what CEO Michelle Gass called “softness” in women’s apparel, “which we are working with speed to address.”
In an effort to lure shoppers into the store, department stores put an average of 74% of their merchandise on sale in 2019, according to Refnitiv.
Haves and have-nots
It’s not all doom and gloom for the retail sector. Retailers have announced about 500 more openings than closures so far this year, Coresight Research said.
And some retailers are capitalizing on the demise of others.
Makeup chain Ulta Beauty is projected to pick up sales as department stores continue to wither, according to Oppenheimer equity analyst Rupesh Parikh. Ulta could benefit if J.C. Penney accelerates store closures, which would affect the Sephora beauty shops located within the ailing department store.
In a world of haves and have-nots, the haves are still flourishing.
Namely, Walmart and Target are still in great shape, with sales growing and profits rising for discount chains. And specialty retailers like Five Below continue to lure shoppers with low prices and convenient options.
But even they’re not immune. Target reported same-store sales growth of 1.4% in November and December, which was “below expectations,” the company said earlier this month. And Five Below reported weaker-than-expected holiday season as same-store sales fell 2.6%.
For retailers to thrive in 2020, they’ll have to place an emphasis on “building customer loyalty via authenticity and innovation through inspiring product, relevant marketing and customer-centric stores,” Chen wrote.
And they need to place an emphasis on a smooth customer experience between their digital and physical operations, including options like buy-online-pick-up-in-store.
Customers who shop in a physical store become more likely to shop at the store online, and the other way around, according to a recent study by the International Council of Shopping Centers.
For every $100 a customer spends online with a retailer, they spent $131 in-store with the same retailer within a 15-day period, according to the ICSC report.
It also works in reverse. After spending $100 in a physical store, the average customer spends $167 online with the same retailer, according to the study.
“Though many are inclined to pit e-commerce against physical retail, those retailers that offer their customers both options – a choice of shopping online and in stores – tend to boost sales in both arenas,” ICSC reported.