By Evan Clark
with contributions from Vicki M. Young, Kali Hays
 on August 11, 2017
Macy's is embracing innovation.

There are few ills that are unfamiliar to the down and out department stores.

They’ve been closing locations. Losing foot traffic. Warring with the relentless Amazon machine. And struggling for relevance as Millennials pack their phones full of selfies instead of their closets full of fashion.

But even though some of the sector’s stocks weathered sharp declines Thursday as investor doubts lingered and markets slipped with geopolitical jitters, there were small signs of hope in the latest round of department store earnings.

Nordstrom Inc.’s comparable sales inched up 1.7 percent, Kohl’s Corp. saw the traffic momentum it gained in the spring accelerate as summer came and Macy’s Inc.’s new chief executive officer, Jeff Gennette, sounded quite an upbeat note.

“We had a solid second quarter,” Gennette told WWD in an interview. “When you look at overall comp trend, it was two points better than the first quarter. So progress was made. The margin was a little better than expected and inventory is in a good position for the back half of year. We feel good about initiatives that we are carrying into the back half of year…fine jewelry, shoes, men’s tailored, big tickets [furniture], mattresses, fragrances — it’s all good news.”

Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean it’s a straight path from here or that the department store business is indeed pointed in the right direction. So WWD reached out to retail experts for a quick straw poll on Thursday, asking: “Are department store turning the corner?”

Here’s what they had to say.

Mike Kim, a director in the retail practice of consultancy AArete

“These are early glimmerings of a turnaround, but calling a celebration party is way too early. It’s a tough environment and department stores still struggle to maintain gross margins. They can’t take their eyes off of controlling costs. But to get back to profitability, what’ll count most is delivering on an array of strategic initiatives, whether its off-price retail, exciting new brand partnerships, doubling down on their most-profitable categories or getting the digital experience right.”

Walter Loeb, former retail analyst and now consultant

“I feel we have seen the worst of it. But you still have a problem, which is what will management determine are the innovations that department stores should be doing. Department stores are not going away and they have been through worse, but how they will evolve is the big question. There are too many right now focusing on the immediate moment and not thinking too much about the long term.”

Craig Johnson, president of retail research firm Customer Growth Partners

“Although it is a bit too soon to call a turn, we believe that the sector has bottomed, and the winners will be those that are most aggressive in matching supply and demand. The sector remains badly over capacitated, and since aggregate sales are down about 5 percent year-over-year — while the overall retail market is growing about 3.8 percent — department stores continue to bleed market share, now down to only 1.6 percent of the retail market excluding auto, gasoline and restaurants.”

Natalie Kotlyar, partner at BDO USA and the national retail and consumer business industry leader

“We are seeing retailers right-sizing [their store fleet] and they are now getting close to where they need to be….I think there is a little bit more positive feeling to back-to-school and holiday. Retailers have made improvements in in-store optimization, taken a good look at the real estate and what brands they carry.…The investments they’ve made in technology and digital will help them ramp out of rock bottom.”

Bill Lewis, director in AlixPartners’ retail practice

“There’s not strong enough evidence yet to say the corner has necessarily been turned. These modest sales gains are more than likely the result of slightly higher average unit retails resulting from somewhat reduced discounting and leaner inventories. We likely need to see signs of better traffic in stores and sustained improvements in operating margin throughout the third and fourth quarters before we can say the tide is turning.”

Christina Boni, Moody’s Investors Service analyst

“Clearly, the first quarter was disappointment across the board, but [the second-quarter] showed some improvement on a general basis. It’s still very early days in terms of the actual initiatives in place at these companies to stabilize the business. The third and fourth quarters are more meaningful in terms of performance with back-to-school and holiday, so we’ll see. What is encouraging is each company has put in place initiatives to work on this issue and we’re seeing some traction. There’s clearly much more work to be done.”

Greg Portell, lead partner in A.T. Kearney’s retail practice

“Covering retail has become a blood sport with observers ready to overreact on either side of the ledger. Despite some positive early earnings releases, I’m skeptical that today’s earnings results will be a sign of a trend. It will take two to three quarters of positive momentum before anyone should be talking about a retail renaissance regardless of what was reported today. That said, it’s is never a bad thing to celebrate some good news.”

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