Pick a number.
Last year, major U.S. retailers revealed more than 7,000 department and specialty store closings. How many will occur this year is anybody’s guess, though it’s a certainty a comparable degree of downsizing looms, even if there’s less noise about it.
“Frankly, the 7,000 stores closed last year is just the beginning of what we are going to see. Yes, there will be as many if not more in 2018,” Mark Cohen, director of retail studies, adjunct professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, told WWD. “The grotesque excess in retail square footage is reconciling itself through these massive number of closures.”
Macy’s Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., the Bon-Ton Stores Inc., Lord & Taylor, Ascena Retail Group, Claire’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Toys ‘R’ Us, Gap Inc. and Chico’s FAS Inc. are among the retailers likely to close more doors.
According to Cohen, apparel and accessories brands and chains that don’t successfully differentiate or are housed in B and C malls are at risk. “Either their own businesses are weak or the malls they’re in are drawing much less traffic. This is a tale of two cities. Triple-A malls are fully tenanted and full of traffic.”
The Internet will also continue to sap business and traffic from malls and stores. “The e-commerce business could approach 50 percent [of total retail sales] in the next five to 10 years,” Cohen predicted.
“I wish I had a crystal ball,” said Mark Matthews, vice president of research for the National Retail Federation, when asked if he thinks 2018 will see more or fewer store closings than in 2017. “I don’t have an answer to that. But from most of the macro data I look at, things look positive from a retail perspective. There is a transformation going on. We are in a rapidly evolving industry. People talk about the U.S. being overstored. I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that, but the industry on a macro level is healthy. There was 6 percent growth in November retail sales and we are forecasting 4 percent growth for the holidays. I haven’t seen anything on a macro industry level that shows a continued big drop-off of stores.”
“More stores have to be closed as companies rationalize their base and review the profitability of their stores. But I don’t think there will be as many as there were in 2017,” said retail analyst Walter Loeb.
Regardless of how many stores actually close this year, there will be less of a cacophony partly because some closings were revealed in 2017. If fourth-quarter reports are generally good, and momentum continues into spring, that would further silence some of the noise about closings. In addition, certain retailers and brands, including Dollar General, Target, T.J. Maxx, Madewell, Athleta and Lululemon, as well as some e-commerce businesses like Amazon and Warby Parker, are making commitments to build more brick-and-mortar stores, and pop-ups will continue to proliferate.
“There’s an enormous amount of space available. Landlords haven’t started cutting rent yet,” said Cohen.
The numbers on store closings last year were big: Macy’s shuttered around 70 units and has set about 30 more for a few years out. Sears and Kmart set 476 closures through 2017 into January, and J.C. Penney revealed 138 closings, which occurred last year. Payless ShoeSource dropped to roughly 3,500 stores from 4,400 worldwide, and Bon-Ton said it would shutter at least 40 units through 2018. Rue21, Guess, Charming Charlie, BCBG Max Azria Global Holdings and J. Crew each disclosed scores of closings.
Sears Canada liquidated all of its 82 stores, while Bebe Stores Inc. shuttered its 170 doors; American Apparel’s 104 stores were all closed; The Limited exited its 250 locations, and boho retailer Calypso revealed plans to liquidate.
But according to the IHL Group, retail is growing, not declining, with 4,080 net store openings in 2017 based on 14,248 store openings, versus 10,168 closures, as reported by major companies. The figures include 2,026 fast food openings and 728 restaurant and bar ones, as well as 1,905 openings by mass merchants and 1,700 by convenience stores. Supermarkets are seen opening 674 units; drugstores, 345.
On the other hand, department stores are dropping 400 locations and specialty soft goods are closing 3,133 units.
“After a year punctuated by a record-breaking number of bankruptcies and store closures, selling products is no longer good enough,” said Katie Smith, retail analysis and insights director at Edited, a retail technology company providing real-time data to clients. “In 2018, the onus on retailers is to educate shoppers on the value they deliver beyond their wares, helping to build an emotional connection and sense of community.”
According to Smith, in the aftermath of store closings, retailers can adapt their workforce to focus more on convenience and deliveries. “As demand dwindles for in-store retail staff, the demand is shifting from the shop floor to delivery,” she said. “Consumers will expect quicker, even same-day delivery, the convenience of scheduling a time, and easy return policies, which retailers will need to support without sacrificing margins.”
In any case, retailers will be looking more critically at store performances and setting higher bars and breaking points for closing or retaining stores.
“It was a huge year for store closings,” John Berg, chief executive officer of Financo LLC, said of 2017. “I still think there will be closures [this year], but I don’t think it will be at the same pace. You may see some troubled companies look to restructure. But I am actually pleased by an accelerating pace of change on the part of traditional players. They’re getting better at omnichannel and servicing customers through the e-commerce channel.”
“The great bulk of closings is behind us,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners. “Those closures are restoring a supply-demand balance. Astute retailers will always close a few underperformers. That’s a healthy pruning. But even if stores are capacity-correct, the continued expansion of the online channel could lead to more store closings.”