American retailers are keeping mum about whether Puerto Rico’s financial crisis will hurt them.
Discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc., CVS and TJ Maxx all have significant presences in the U.S. territory, but none of the retailers would comment on whether Puerto Rico’s financial crisis might impact them.
Wal-Mart is Puerto Rico’s biggest retailer with an estimated $2.5 billion in total sales and 55 stores. The company employs 14,735 workers in the country, whose average wage is $11.03. The company also supports 41,676 supplier jobs. CVS has more than 20 locations and T.J. Maxx confirmed it has eight stores, but declined comment beyond that.
José Villamil, of economic planning and consulting firm Estudios Técnicos, said Puerto Rico has managed to rack up an astounding level of debt relative to the size of its economy. The average annual wage of the residents is $20,000 a year, but Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro Padilla has warned that the bond debt adds up to roughly $40,000 for every man, woman and child. There is only 40 percent workforce participation.
The problems didn’t happen overnight and even with a foreshadowing of the financial crisis it didn’t scare high-end retailers from setting up shop. The Mall of San Juan, a luxury mall owned by Taubman Properties, opened in March with stores like Louis Vuitton, Kate Spade and Jimmy Choo.
Even though there are reports of the mall being deserted during the week, Taubman Properties said it “remains bullish about the long-term viability of the market and success of the Mall of San Juan.” Lourdes Valls-Weissman, a native Puerto Rican who lives in New York, said the locals mostly go to the mall for air-conditioning and to visit the food court. She said she was surprised when she first heard about plans to open the mall.
The unknown is whether foreign tourists alone can support an entire mall and whether the remaining residents will pick up some of the slack. Taubman said the mix of the shoppers depends on the tourist season. Valls-Weissman said the poor economy is driving people away from the island. Whole families are leaving, so that adds to the lack of consumers not only for this new mall, but for other businesses on the island.
This presents a challenge to American businesses that have looked to Puerto Rico as an extension of their domestic businesses. Cate Long, founder of Multiple Markets, said, “The sales tax has jumped from 7 percent to 11.5 percent, which is expected to shrink sales near term.”
Long also noted that Puerto Rico is trying to address the way it taxes chain stores. Low tax collection has added to the territory’s economic woes and if the country begins targeting American chains, it may drive down the incentive to be in the market.
Island retailers have already reported that their inventories are down 15 to 25 percent, setting off what could be a retail death spiral. “The relative lack of productivity growth compared with the U.S. states combined with the fact that the population has U.S. citizenship and can leave at any time makes stabilizing Puerto Rico’s economy challenging,” said Chris Whalen, head of research at Kroll Bond rating agency.
Despite the financial crisis, a Taubman spokesperson said it has a robust schedule of store openings happening now through mid-2016. “We don’t make decisions based on current ups and downs of the economic cycle and believe in Puerto Rico’s long-term viability,” the spokesperson said.
Still, the fallout from the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico is only just beginning. The country is closing 100 schools and 20 public agencies. The governor is calling for $674 million in cuts in the budget. According to the Government Development Bank of Puerto Rico, apparel retail sales have dropped as much as 4 percent for some months in fiscal year 2015. American retailers may not want to talk about the pain they might experience in Puerto Rico, but not talking about doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.