Retail funk: Stores face biggest challenges since recession

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s starting to look a lot like the Great Recession redux for retailers.

More than twice as many stores have closed this year than at the same point last year. Bankruptcies are far outpacing last year’s rate. Retailers slashed jobs at the sharpest pace in seven years this spring. And retailers collectively could report the biggest drop in first-quarter profits since 2009.

This time, the culprit’s not the economy but shoppers whose habits have changed profoundly and permanently, as they shop online more and look for deals. The results this week from department stores like Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney are expected to illustrate the latest damage by the spending shift and the dominance of Amazon.

“The first-quarter reports will show how difficult the mountain retailers will have to climb,” said Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics LLC. “Things are far better from an economic perspective than before when the sky was falling.” But he says people are increasingly spending on experiences and shopping on phones and tablets, “and stores are facing pressure from off-price stores and Amazon.com.”

Perkins estimates that the 114 retailers he tracks will see an average drop of more than 5 percent in first-quarter earnings, marking the second straight quarter of declines and third in the last six quarters. But he thinks there’s even a chance they could surpass a 7.1 percent drop in the fourth quarter of 2013 that would make it the worst quarter since 2009. Moreover, 22 percent are expected to post losses, the highest percentage since the second quarter of 2009. And he forecasts that nearly half of the retailers will see total sales revenue fall, nearing the level of the last downturn.

The bad news for retail has been relentless of late: The Limited closed all its remaining 250 stores. Payless ShoeSource is shuttering nearly 400 stores as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. Others chains that have shuttered all their stores or retrenched include Abercrombie & Fitch, BCBG and Wet Seal. Mall anchors like Macy’s and J.C. Penney are closing locations. And Sears Holdings Corp. has said there’s “substantial doubt” about its future, though it has insisted that its actions to turn around its business should help reduce that risk.

Perkins believes the rash of store closings and job cuts will be a minor burden on the economy. The vast majority of retail workers are paid less than the hourly average earnings per hour of $25, so the impact is far less than losing higher-paying manufacturing jobs, he says. But Frank Badillo, director of research at MacroSavvy, believes the effect will be wider.

“The economic effects tend to reinforce the widening income equality and redistribution that favor ‘haves’ over ‘have nots’, professional class over the working class and urban over rural,” Badillo said.

Shoppers like Martha Shaughnessy, 38, are changing the landscape. The San Francisco resident says she does about three-quarters of her buying — from household goods to clothing — online or from her phone. She says even four years ago it was less than half. She likes Instacart for groceries, places like Zulily for clothing for her two toddlers and Everlane.com for clothes for herself.

“There are certain things like mobile payments that have made it easier to shop online than in person,” she said. “It’s rare I go to the mall. It’s more of an occasion than a habit.” She also says she’s discovered new brands online.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, is sticking with its annual sales growth forecast of 3.7 to 4.2 percent over 2016. But that includes a hefty expected bump of 8 percent to 12 percent from online and other non-store business.

Matthew Shay, the group’s CEO and president, says consumers are in good financial shape given a healthier job market and other economic factors, but acknowledges the industry is more turbulent.

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