Even though stores were closed for much of March and April, huge amounts of shoes, shirts, suits and swimwear poured into the United States from global supply chains that continued churning despite the pandemic. Retailers have to decide what to do with their leftover March goods and a glut of seasonal gear while they place their bets on what consumer spending will look like in six months.
“The lion’s share of our spring inventory is still in distribution centers,” said Tom Cusick, chief operating officer of Columbia Sportswear. “There was no time to prepare before our stores shut down in mid-March.”
Weakness in the roughly $3.8 trillion retail sector could ripple across the wounded U.S. economy, hobbling prospects for a rapid recovery from the unprecedented economic shutdown put in place to combat the pandemic, economists said.
Without a Treasury or Fed guarantee of its routine financing, the retail industry could suffer “a commercial credit crisis that threatens to seize up our economy and stall the safe restart in its infancy," the American Apparel and Footwear Association will warn Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell in a letter early this week. The trade group represents more than 1,000 name-brand companies, including manufacturers and retailers.
The wholesalers that supply retail giants are caught in a financial squeeze. Just when they need more credit to compensate for the pandemic cutting off their cash flow, financial institutions that customarily support them are pulling back, the association will say in the letter, reviewed by The Washington Post.
“Unless this is fixed soon, the retail engine that supports one in four American jobs will have a hard time coming back to life,” a draft of the letter says.
More than 2.1 million retail workers in April lost their jobs as nonessential businesses closed to ride out the health scare, while companies such as Neiman Marcus and J. Crew toppled into bankruptcy.
More retailers probably will follow. Even as giants Amazon and Walmart thrived, cash-strapped mall tenants failed to make three-quarters of their rent payments in April, leaving more than $1.3 billion unpaid, according to CoStar Group. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
National chains like Macy’s and Urban Outfitters have canceled orders placed before the pandemic. Foot Locker, saddled with 20 percent more inventory than one year ago, is offering deep discounts on spring clothing and footwear. Other companies are waiting until the last possible moment to determine whether newly arriving goods will be sold through a physical store or online channels, said Razat Gaurav, chief executive of Llamasoft, a supply chain consultancy.
“Store inventory hasn’t been moving because distribution centers don’t have enough storage capacity. There’s a backup,” said Gaurav. “They’re trying everything possible to make room.”
As the coronavirus forced retailers temporarily to shut more than 260,000 U.S. stores, retail sales plunged a record 16.4 percent last month. Clothiers fared the worst, with sales down 89 percent from a year earlier, according to Commerce Department data.
Department store chain Kohl’s, with more than 1,150 stores in 49 states, told investors May 19 its gross profit margin in the first three months of the year plummeted by more than half, largely because of excess inventory and shipping costs. To ease a cash crunch, the company temporarily delayed vendor payments for up to 100 days.
In Europe, Bestseller, a privately held Danish clothing company, receives an average of 6 million pieces of clothing each week, even though its stores are closed, its chief executive last month told Berlingske, a Copenhagen newspaper. After renting all available warehouse space in southern Jutland, the company still had 1,000 shipping containers lined up outdoors.
“We have definitely seen significant order cancellations, closed shops not wanting to take delivery, full warehouses, and even customers asking if there were slower ways to bring their shipments across the ocean,” Phil Levy, chief economist for freight forwarder Flexport wrote in an email.
When the pandemic shutdown began in March, some distribution centers were stuck with apparel packaged on hanging garment racks for delivery to stores. Before the items could be diverted to online channels, they had to be removed, folded, repackaged and labeled for shipment to consumers’ homes. Many facilities lack adequate space for that work, Gaurav said.
The pandemic hit as retailers were still shaking off the effects of the tariffs President Trump imposed on most goods from China and as the industry was navigating an ongoing shift from traditional brick-and-mortar stores to online sales.
The industry’s supply networks have been disrupted since January when Chinese authorities responded to the novel coronavirus outbreak by effectively closing down their economy, a major source of textile and apparel production.
Chinese factories resumed production just as major parts of the European and American economies were closing. Given the weeks between order placement and goods’ arrival in U.S. ports, ships continued steaming across the Pacific even after the U.S. shut down.
Many of Columbia Sportswear’s raw material suppliers closed their Chinese factories in January. Even once they resumed production, it was difficult to get items out of Chinese ports to apparel manufacturers in countries like India and Vietnam, delaying deliveries of fall merchandise.
The company’s distribution centers in Portland, Ore., and Robards, Ky., are jammed with raincoats, shorts, sandals and other warm-weather apparel as the company struggles to clear leftover winter merchandise from its stores.
“It’s really across the board that we have an excess — footwear, rainwear, shorts, T-shirts, sandals,” said Cusick, the Columbia executive. “And it’s not just us. It’s a nationwide challenge.”
Under normal circumstances, the retail industry simultaneously designs, produces and sells products for distinct seasons. The pandemic unexpectedly interrupted this synchronized process, creating a merchandise traffic jam with all the grace of a multicar pileup on the freeway.
The disruption has been especially evident in clothing and department stores, according to preliminary Census Bureau data.
The inventory-to-sales ratio for clothing stores more than doubled in March, as stores closed and shipments continued to arrive. Likewise, the figure for department stores jumped to unusually elevated levels.
Off-price retailer Ross Stores has temporarily stopped buying inventory as it tries to sell what it calls “aged seasonal goods” in its stores and distribution centers. Meanwhile, executives at TJX Companies, which owns TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods, say they have marked down items “significantly more” than usual to clear shelves of dated merchandise.
“The marketplace is loaded with inventory,” chief executive Ernie Herrman said in an earnings call last week. “As a company, we’re aggressive on clearing goods.”
Many retailers are offering deep discounts on spring clothing, while others are offloading items to discounters or putting seasonal items in storage for next year. Some large retailers are even shipping spring apparel back to China, in hopes of selling it on online platforms like Alibaba, according to Deborah Weinswig, chief executive of Coresight Research, a retail advisory firm.
“Every retailer is handling this differently, but for the most part, everything is on hold," she said.
Whatever inventory strategy is used will entail losses. Retailers may sell some products below cost while paying storage bills for items they hope to salvage for next year.
“It may be less expensive to pay the carry costs, but companies that have to raise cash may have no choice,” said Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner for MMG Advisors, a N.Y.-based investment bank.
Analysts say the surplus of inventory, combined with slowing sales, has put countless retailers in a tight spot to fund future purchases. As the industry reopens, a tightening of credit conditions could dampen the rebound, according to Stephen Lamar, president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association.
Insurers such as Euler Hermes and Coface, which protect merchandise suppliers against the risk retailers won’t pay their bills, are limiting the amounts they will guarantee, even for longtime clients. Just three months ago, a wholesale supplier with a $1 million contract from a major retailer could have bought insurance on $800,000 of that business. Today, the wholesaler might secure only a $100,000 guarantee on the same $1 million, making the order too risky to complete, according to AAFA.
The industry group wants Treasury or the Fed to provide “credit insurance backstops” to facilitate the resumption of normal retail business. Last month, the German government unveiled a 30 billion euro guarantee for its companies, which mirrored similar moves by France and Belgium.
Credit insurers are increasingly risk averse, finding it difficult to predict future consumer demand and sales prospects especially for midsized retailers, said Paul Rotstein, CEO of Gold Medal International, which supplies hosiery and cold weather accessories to retailers such as Nordstrom, Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods.
“With retail being shut down — except for a handful of big retailers — there’s no cash flow forecast you can rely on. So their response is to greatly reduce, or pull, the credit line on everybody,” said Rotstein. “If the credit insurance dries up, I can’t afford to bear the entire credit risk on my own and that will greatly reduce my sales.”
Paris-based Euler Hermes, a leading credit insurer, expects a 20 percent increase in global bankruptcies, underscoring the risk it faces in guaranteeing payments. The price of credit insurance for suppliers to major retailers has accordingly risen.
Likewise, Coface is bracing for higher insurance claims as retailers suffer from lower demand, said Oscar Villalonga, Coface’s CEO for North America.
“This is a very extreme scenario we’re all going through,” said Villalonga, calling the environment “much more severe” than 2008.
Villalonga declined to comment on press reports that Coface had stopped writing policies on some cash-strapped retailers including Macy’s. A spokesman for the department store chain also declined to respond to the reports, which said Euler also had halted coverage.
The glut of merchandise also creates challenges for companies as they finalize orders for the fall and winter holidays. Many retailers, low on cash and unsure of consumers’ return, are ordering only 50 to 75 percent of last year’s holiday inventory, according to Weinswig of Coresight Research.
Some also are investing more in basics they can sell year-round. Online lingerie brand ThirdLove is deferring trendier items, like lace bras or pieces in seasonal colors, to 2021, according to co-founder Heidi Zak.
“It’s virtually impossible to forecast right now," she said. “We’ve had to use two weeks of data to make four to six months of supply-chain decisions."
Eva Dou contributed to this report.