Retail is off to a rough start this year, with more companies struggling to keep the lights on and the keep debtors at bay.
The first major industry bankruptcy filing of 2016 didn’t come until March, when Sports Authority went under. But the first five weeks of this year have already claimed The Limited, Wet Seal and Eastern Outfitters, with rumblings around BCBG Max Azria Group LLC growing louder. That has turned a general question of “What if?” into “Who’s next?”
“The weight of the trend combined with the reluctance of retailers to make big changes is creating an environment where the end of the road is near for many,” said Greg Portell, a partner in consulting firm A.T. Kearney’s retail practice. “In 2017, we’ll likely see an uptick [in bankruptcies] because [retailers] are just running out of runway.”
That runway includes the typical attempts to cut costs, through store closures and staff reductions. But Portell said a given retailer can only do that so many times before management is forced to either “go bold” and reinvent the business or “slowly enter the death cycle” of negative attention and lender pressure.
At least 17 large retailers, including Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., Aéropostale Inc., Nasty Gal and American Apparel, filed for bankruptcy protection last year, according to statistics from distressed debt research firm Reorg Research. Since November, fashion retailers have made up 50 percent of all new bankruptcy cases.
Portell pointed to indecisive management teams as at least partly to blame for a retailer moving from merely struggling to bankrupt. But Christa Hart, a managing director of FTI Consulting’s retail and consumer products practice, said “flattish” sales growth in the apparel sector is also cause for concern.
Women’s apparel sales fell 0.4 percent through November last year, trending toward the worst year for the category since 2010, FTI noted.
Hart attributed this dip in large part to declining mall traffic and more shoppers buying online, and not always from their once habitual stores.
“Stores are losing the sales of what people need, but also that impulse buy that used to come from mall traffic,” Hart added. “Overall for retailers, the situation is really problematic.”
Although more bankruptcy filings are likely this year, Hart said the rate could turn out to be roughly the same as 2016 and noted publicly traded companies will likely be able to “weather the storm.”
“No retailer wants to file because its really, really hard to reorganize,” said Jude Gorman, general counsel of Reorg Research. “If you look at the companies that have filed in the last year, most have ended up essentially liquidating.”
Gorman also highlighted the difference between a retailer like J. Crew, which still has has its fans but says it’s being held “hostage” by scheming lenders, and a store that’s struggling with a product that’s been made irrelevant or been left behind by shoppers.
“Retailers that are generally doing fine but have an unsustainable capital structure can figure things out,” Gorman said. “Others, it’s just a matter of not having a real business anymore. The trends have moved on from them. That’s a very different thing from being stuck with debt.”