The shakeout among retailers has been building for years and is now arriving in full force.
The retrenchment comes as shoppers move online and begin to embrace smaller, niche merchants. As a result, many major chains find themselves victims of a problem of their own making, having elbowed their way into so many locations that the United States has more retail square footage per capita than any other nation. To use the industry vernacular, they are simply “overstored.”
Many have begun cutting back, sending ripples through the economy. The wave of store closures by Macy’s and Sears alone will empty 28 million square feet of retail real estate, according to an analysis by research firm CoStar. Often those vacancies are slow to fill, leaving shopping centers less hospitable to the chains that remain, feeding even more departures and job losses.
The malaise has spread even as the economy overall grows stronger and the stock market marches higher. Just this week, Urban Outfitters reported that in the current quarter to-date, its comparable sales are “mid single-digit negative.” The women’s clothing chain Bebe said in a regulatory filing Wednesday that it is closing 21 locations. Last week, yoga clothier Lululemon chief executive Laurent Potdevin acknowledged that the chain had seen “a slow start to 2017.”
Few traditional retailers are immune: The Limited filed for bankruptcy and shuttered all 250 of its stores. Hudson’s Bay, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, announced a $75 million annual cost-cutting effort. Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch each named a new chief executive, leadership changes that were precipitated by ongoing struggles to connect with customers.
In a report published in late February, Standard & Poor’s said it had already lowered ratings 20 times on various retailers this year. S&P analysts wrote that they expect to see “increased levels of stress for the sector in 2017.”
As big retail closes stores, it has cost many Americans their jobs. So far in 2017, retailers have announced plans to slash more than 38,000 positions, according to data from job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And yet some of those losses have probably been offset by new jobs at start-up retailers and e-commerce operations. Amazon.com, for example, said this year that it expects to create 100,000 full-time roles over 18 months.
Retailers are deploying different kinds of firepower to try to regain some momentum. J. Crew announced this week that it is parting ways with its longtime creative director, Jenna Lyons, a change that effectively concedes that it needs to fix its fashion if it wants to boost its sales. Still other companies are exploring branching into different kinds of retailing formats: Ralph Lauren, for example, said it is exploring new opportunities for its Ralph’s Coffee concept. Macy’s is selling off some of its lucrative real estate portfolio, hoping to strengthen its balance sheet.
Another chain, J.C. Penney, looks to be trying to position itself to take advantage of fallout from the turmoil: The retailer has started to carry large appliances again, a potentially shrewd move that could fill a void in the marketplace as Sears and HHGregg close stores.
It doesn’t help any of these legacy bricks-and-mortar companies that customers are increasingly seeking out under-the-radar labels with a more specialized, boutique feel. The likes of Bonobos, Warby Parker, Shinola and Marine Layer are picking off shoppers that might once have filled their closets with goods from more ubiquitous chains.
And now the old guard has to worry about Amazon encroaching in new ways: It is branching into physical retailing, including opening several bookstores. In Seattle, it is preparing to open a concept called Amazon Go, a technology-powered grocery store that would not require shoppers to go through a checkout line.
All of this change is not just pushing traditional retailers to reduce their overall numbers of stores — it is also forcing them to rethink what their stores should look like. Office Depot, for example, is converting some stores to a smaller footprint of just 15,000 square feet. Target recently announced that it is testing a new store prototype in which there will be a separate entrance and dedicated parking for shoppers looking to retrieve a “buy online, pick up in store” order.