Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Bell Tolls for Department Stores

Everyone knew it was going to happen. Department stores were being eaten alive by Amazon. We all thought that their days were numbered. Now, the pandemic has caused many of them to shut down, and the end seems to be closer than we had imagined. 

American department stores, once all-powerful shopping meccas that anchored malls and Main Streets across the country, have been dealt blow after blow in the past decade. J.C. Penney and Sears were upended by hedge funds. Macy’s has been closing stores and cutting corporate staff. Barneys New York filed for bankruptcy last year.

But nothing compares to the shock the weakened industry has taken from the coronavirus pandemic. The sales of clothing and accessories fell by more than half in March, a trend that is expected to only get worse in April. The entire executive team at Lord & Taylor was let go this month. Nordstrom has canceled orders and put off paying its vendors. The Neiman Marcus Group, the most glittering of the American department store chains, is expected to declare bankruptcy in the coming days, the first major retailer felled during the current crisis.

It is not likely to be the last.

The collapse seems to be total and ruthless:

“The department stores, which have been failing slowly for a very long time, really don’t get over this,” said Mark A. Cohen, the director of retail studies at Columbia University’s Business School. “The genre is toast, and looking at the other side of this, there are very few who are likely to survive.”

At a time when retailers should be putting in orders for the all-important holiday shopping season, stores are furloughing tens of thousands of corporate and store employees, hoarding cash and desperately planning how to survive this crisis. The specter of mass default is being discussed not just behind closed doors but in analysts’ future models. Whether or not that happens, no one doubts that the upheaval caused by the pandemic will permanently alter both the retail landscape and the relationships of brands with the stores that sell them.

For those who recall them, the end of department stores will seriously damage malls. But it will also damage commercial real estate… of course:

Department store chains account for about 30 percent of the total mall square footage in the United States, with 10 percent of that coming from Sears and J.C. Penney, according to a January report from Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm. Even before the pandemic, the firm expected about half of mall-based department stores to close in the next five years.

Even as they have worked to transform themselves for e-commerce with apps, websites and in-store exchanges, the outbreak has laid bare how dependent the department stores have remained on their physical outposts. Macy’s said on March 30 that after closing its stores for nearly two weeks, it had lost the majority of its sales.

And now the most elegant and pricey department store chain, Neiman Marcus is declaring bankruptcy. In part, we can blame it on Amazon. In part, we can blame it on the pandemic.

But, as the Times reports, one of the culprits is debt. Who would have guessed that a leveraged buyout firm took on too much debt… and pouf:

But none of them were in as immediate dire straits as Neiman Marcus, which has both an enormous debt burden — about $4.8 billion, thanks in part to a leveraged buyout in 2013 by the owners Ares Management and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board — and a raft of expensive rents in the most high-profile shopping destinations, signed during boom times.

In late March, Neiman stopped accepting new merchandise and furloughed a large portion of its approximately 14,000 employees as the rumors of bankruptcy began to swirl. Its chief executive, Geoffroy van Raemdonck, announced that he was waiving his salary for April. The brand denied to vendors and its own employees at its sister brand Bergdorf Goodman that it was engaging advisers to explore a bankruptcy filing, but on April 14, S&P downgraded Neiman’s credit rating. Last week, the retailer did not make an interest payment that was due on April 15, angering bondholders and further fueling suspicions that a bankruptcy filing was imminent. A spokesperson for Neiman Marcus declined to comment.

Of course, this will have a significant impact on the national economy. Then again, when was the last time you were in a department store?


David Foster said...

A certain portion of the problems plaguing brick-and-mortar retail have been self-generated. Checkout procedures are cumbersome and lines can be long. It's hard to get assistance. Merchandise is often poorly arranged. Employees are forced to act like robots, speaking in a scripted manner. Inventory control, despite all the investments in computer systems, is often poor. And marketing usually lacks the sense of showmanship that many earlier merchants had.

On top of all this, add the availability of the on-line alternative and now, coronavirus.

See my 2018 post What Will be the Fate of Brick & Mortar Retail?

Sam L. said...

I have no department stores within an hour's drive. Costco, however, is. Amazon, though, is about two days delivery away.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Amazon Prime has been around for 15 years.

Retail has been slow to respond.

Hard to feel bad for them.