Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Why Are So Many Stores Closing?

Perhaps you’re wondering why soooo many chain store retailers are closing sooooo many stores, especially after what has been hailed as a gonzo holiday season. To be sure, after every New Year retailers have always pruned deadbeat locations. But the numbers going into the trash bin of history are dizzying. More than 9,000 store units closed last year. A higher number is predicted for 2020 (

The names coming off marquees across the country include some venerable labels: Sears, Kmart, Macy’s, Forever 21, Pier 1 Imports, Gap, Chico’s, Bed Bath & Beyond. Why is the contraction reaching unparalleled heights? Though each chain has its own problems, there are common threads that have unraveled throughout the retail industry.

Start with the fact that in the United States we are overstored (forgive me for not providing actual statistics, but after 32 years covering the retail industry as an editor and publisher of Chain Store Age I am taking retirement privilege and just providing trend analysis. You’ll have to trust I know what I am talking about).

How did we get overstored? No retailer thinks their store is not desired by voracious consumers. So when real estate developers pitched less than A+ locations they signed on the bottom line, sometimes induced to do so as the price of landing a truly A+ spot in a different coveted shopping venue owned or operated by the same developer. The developers, of course, needed those tenants to get their construction loans. Thus, it is no wonder that stores in secondary market are closing and with them secondary market shopping centers.

Everyone wants to blame Amazon and other Internet retailers and before them Walmart, Target, Home Depot and an assortment of big box retailers. Yes, they all contributed to the blacking out of storefronts on Main Streets and in strip centers. They killed off lots of independent merchants and weaker chain stores. As for Internet retailing, it still accounts for just about 15% of all sales.

So what’s behind the tsunami of store closings? Lousy merchandising choices, for one. For apparel and fashion home goods stores, if the wrong stuff is put up for sale customers will stay away in droves. As rents and labor costs are high, the combination with the cost of goods put retailers in a swimming pool of red ink.

Many chain stores have high levels of debt because private equity firms bought them by leveraging retail assets, mostly their leases or the land they owned for their stores, warehouses and distribution centers. When sales fail to meet budget expectations debt payments cannot be met. Suppliers refrain from selling them merchandise because if a company files for Chapter XI bankruptcy protection the law allows creditors to claw back all payments made in the prior 90 days. Suppliers fear being paid pennies on the dollar for their products. That’s why the first clue of a pending bankruptcy filing is insufficient product on shelves or clothing racks.

Failure to keep abreast of state of the art technology and distribution efficiencies are more harbingers of doom. Often it’s because companies did not have the cash flow to make the necessary investments. It’s a melting snowball effect in a red hot competitive industry driven by shoppers who demand instant gratification.

Let’s not overlook the polarization of our population. Not our political divide. The economic bifurcation. The fastest growing retail formats are dollar stores and food discounters like Aldi and Lidl, both European imports, that cater to families on tight budgets. Companies that serve middle income consumers are being squeezed.

Being a high end retailer doesn’t guarantee success. Barneys New York failed because of the aforementioned heavy debt load strapped on it by private equity owners. Toys “R” Us, which knocked off almost all toy competitors, succumbed as well from its private equity debt load. Toys “R” Us was never the price leader. It based its success on being in stock on the most wanted toys. When Walmart and Target matched Toys “R” Us on inventory management the game was lost. Walmart and Target had many more stores than Toys “R” Us in most markets, making it more convenient for shoppers to find what they wanted in their stores. Location, location, location. Three keys to success. Or failure.

Can you still make it in retailing? A resounding, emphatic, YES! Required are merchandise tailored to a specific audience; systems that provide seamless customer fulfillment and support; dedicated, driven staff from the top down; sufficient capital, and even more capital; savvy marketing including an Internet presence; and those historical three keys—location, location, location.

Successful retailers make customers their unpaid promoters. Think Trader Joe’s or The Container Store. A successful retailer would be missed if it closed its doors, missed not because it was nearby or a long time presence in a community, but rather because it brought excitement and fulfillment to the often mundane task of buying and selling everyday goods and services plus the occasional frills that make shopping essential and enjoyable.