The year is young, but there’s no fresh start for the weary retail sector.
The Limited, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew Group are all struggling with the baggage from private equity ownership (and their own missteps); American Apparel’s fate will be decided at a bankruptcy auction in New York today; Sears Holdings Corp. and Macy’s Inc. are shutting stores, while Kohl’s Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. have acknowledged tough holiday sales.
Each company is feeling the pain in their own way as they struggle with lumbering retail fleets, swift technological change and an ever-more transient consumer base.
The struggles are echoing in their stock prices, payrolls and store bases.
There is always some fallout from the holidays as companies give up on hopes that a strong season might right their books. But this year, shoppers continued to snub the traditional store set and the Ghost of Christmas Past painted a particularly grim picture of decisions stores made in years gone by.
Hardest hit was the Sun Capital Partners-owned The Limited, which called it quits and shuttered its 250 doors. WWD first reported that possibility was in the cards on Nov. 21 — a particularly early sign of weakness coming even before Black Friday.
“We’re sad to say that all The Limited stores nationwide have officially closed their doors,” read a notice on the retailer’s web site. “But this isn’t goodbye. The styles you love are still available online — we’re just a quick click away 24 hours a day.”
Last year, chief operating officer Larry Fultz told employees in a letter that, “Product misses and massive shifts in retail shopping trends have been especially difficult for the company’s business, and the company is dealing with significant debt obligations.”
Reuters reported that Sun Capital told its investors that it made 1.8-times the $50 million it invested in the chain given prior distributions and dividends. A Sun spokesman declined to comment on that report, but said, “All resources of Limited Stores are focused on operation of its e-commerce channel, TheLimited.com, which is continuing business as normal.”
On the broader scene of fashion retailing, business as normal has not been enough. Merchants find their web businesses are growing, although profitability is limited due to high shipping costs and returns and spending to acquire customers online.
Brick-and-mortar stores are still ringing up more than 90 percent of retail sales, but they’re not growing enough. That leaves an uncertain path forward, even for companies such as Neiman Marcus, which is widely lauded as being well run, but is working feverishly to innovate in its stores, bringing in Rent the Runway in its San Francisco business, for instance, while dealing with its own debt issues.
On Friday, Neiman Marcus pulled its paperwork to go public, which was filed in August 2015 and promptly shelved as the market tanked amid a devaluation of the Chinese yuan. The effort for another initial public offering was never picked back up.
“The company has determined that it is not in its best interests to proceed with the initial public offering contemplated by the registration statement at this time,” said the retailer, which reported a net loss of $23.5 million for the first quarter ended Oct. 29.
The luxe chain has been saddled with $4.7 billion in long-term debt, which is largely tied to its dealings with private equity. The current owners, Ares Management and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, are believed to be eager to sell the company, and have been for some time, but buyers who could make it worth their while are few and far between. They spent $6 billion in 2013 to take the company over from Warburg Pincus and TPG Capital, which earlier took Neiman’s private.
Also struggling with a heavy debt burden is J. Crew, which Leonard Green and TPG Capital bought for $3 billion in 2011. The retailer has been looking for ways to restructure its debt, including $566 million in bonds coming due in May 2019 and a $1.5 billion term loan due in 2121.
The company on Friday moved to expand its board from six to eight members, adding Chad A. Leat, a consultant with Apollo Global Management, and Richard D. Feintuch, former partner of the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz from 1984 until 2004, specializing in mergers, acquisitions, corporate finance and restructurings.
“The board has been heavily weighted toward internal directors,” said one debt source. “These two additions might help if the internal directors need to recuse themselves from a vote,” which could involve a number of scenarios, including potentially a sale of the intellectual property or other parts of the company that could benefit the owners, as well as restructuring debt, or choosing an eventual successor to chief executive officer Millard “Mickey” Drexler.
All of these changes among these retailers came amid a backdrop of weakening sales and a seemingly endless search by stores to find the right (and profitable balance) between clicks and bricks.
Macy’s might have set the tone for the year last week when it said it would lay off 10,000 workers, roughly 7 percent of its workforce, including 17 percent of its executives.
“Over the past year, we have been focused and disciplined about making strategic decisions to position us to gain market share and return to growth over time,” said Terry J. Lundgren, Macy’s outgoing ceo and soon to be executive chairman. “While we are pleased with the strong performance of our highly developed online business, as well as the progress we have made on selling and visual presentation programs and expense reduction initiatives in 2016, we continue to experience declining traffic in our stores where the majority of our business is still transacted.”
Macy’s combined November and December comparable sales fell 2.7 percent. But it wasn’t alone as peers Kohl’s saw a 2.1 percent drop and J.C. Penney was down 0.8 percent.
The situation is more dire at Sears, which is closing 150 doors, selling its Craftsman brand and borrowing yet more money from hedge fund guru and ceo Edward S. Lampert to keep the lights on.
Lampert has been selling off pieces of the company while trying to reset the game — through his Shop Your Way membership model and a strategy that, according to critics, has the company not investing enough in its stores to keep them viable.
Others have tried to avoid such drastic moves, but are becoming more bold and looking bigger as they seek to retool more dramatically for the future, whatever that brings.