gap stores

When retail chieftains gather to address Wall Street, there’s usually more chest-thumping than hand-wringing — with chief executive officers touting their growth and unbridled potential while downplaying any major challenges.

This story first appeared in the September 9, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

But the 23rd edition of the Goldman Sachs Global Retailing Conference in New York found retail executives to be an unusually contemplative bunch on Wednesday and Thursday, with many pointing to near-term concerns of an unsure market for fall as well as systemic changes reordering the industry. (That’s not to say there wasn’t also some chest-thumping.)

“We’re seeing a change in consumer buying patterns for sure,” said Arthur Peck, Gap Inc. ceo. “If you just look at the industry-reported traffic numbers, historically over a decade, year-over-year footsteps into the stores have been down 3 percent, in the last couple of quarters you see that down midsingle digits to high-single digits, some of that is the consumer going online, some of that again is the lack of a need to really refresh your closet.”

Slow traffic at malls was the key point for many.

“To put it nicely, the dynamic has been choppy for a number of retailers across the summer and as we head into fall,” said Goldman analyst Lindsay Drucker Mann as she questioned David Kornberg, ceo of Express Inc.

Kornberg said: “Mall traffic continues to be a macro issue. And I think that, clearly, technology has been a disruptor and will continue to be a disruptor. As the ease and the convenience of shopping online continues to get easier and continues to be more convenient, I think that the move away bricks-and-mortar to online shopping, the adjustment is going to continue to happen.”

And even if that footfall has migrated online, retailers revving up their e-commerce businesses are finding that as their web sales grow, so do their costs.

Michael Koppel, Nordstrom’s chief financial officer and executive vice president, put it this way: “One of the biggest challenges we have in our industry is that for a long time, we operated it on a relatively well understood highly predictable four-wall model, that was built well over half a century ago that everybody understood, learned how to make it operate and got very good at it. Now all of a sudden, we’re dealing with two models and the four-wall model is a high fixed cost base, which means when the sales improve you leverage, when sales go down, you don’t leverage. And then we have an e-commerce model that has a very high variable component.”

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — which used to be its own disruptive force — is taking an especially aggressive approach to meet the online challenge, having agreed to buy for $3.3 billion last month.

Brett Biggs, executive vice president and cfo of Wal-Mart, told investors that the acquisition was multifaceted, with Jet bringing Wal-Mart its data-driven approach to reduce basket costs and a tech-savvy team lead by Marc Lore, who will lead the retail giant’s digital efforts.

“There’s things that you can do with a brand like, it’s different than what we do at,” Briggs said.

Wal-Mart, and nearly everyone else, is working to counter Amazon — or in the case of some brands, work with the e-commerce leader.

John Idol, chairman and ceo of Michael Kors, said: “We also consider Amazon to be a competitor of ours because we’re all competing for dollars of people….And if you can get something quickly, we believe that is a form of luxury in and of itself.” Accordingly, the brand is going to start testing same-day shipping later this year.

It’s an environment that has retailers looking for silver linings and celebrating what they can, such increases in efficiency only a chief financial officer could love.

As Urban Outfitters Inc.’s cfo Frank Conforti said: “I’ll do a little bit of bragging here. I think we’ve done a fantastic job over the last almost two years now at growing our inventory slower than sales.”