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2020’s retail wipeouts warn of permanent pain

IT’S BEEN A TOUGH YEAR for all sorts of businesses. For clothing stores, 2020 has been extraordinarily grim.

The lockdowns in the spring took a considerable toll, of course. But even in June, as nonessential retailers were beginning to reopen their doors and, in some cases, reported upbeat signals about returning foot traffic, the worst was not over for apparel chains. In fact, it was just getting started. July and August brought a raft of failures: Lucky Brand, Brooks Brothers, and Ann Taylor’s parent company filed for bankruptcy; so did New York & Co.’s corporate parent as well as the storied department store Lord & Taylor, which soon resulted in those two chains liquidating. The pain continues: Francesca’s, a women’s clothier with 558 stores, filed for bankruptcy this month.

The 10 largest public US companies that are either clothing retailers or department stores will collectively have $38 billion of revenue wiped out this year, a hole that amounts to 23% of their collective 2019 sales, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Commerce Department figures show clothing-store sales through November were down 28.5% from a year earlier, the worst decline of any retailing segment, including restaurants.

Consumers won’t be holed up at home in sweatpants forever. Whenever America is able to stop social distancing, demand for clothes will improve. Yet the effects of this damaging year will be long-lasting.

Old-school malls and clothing retailers are highly dependent on each other, and each has felt the other’s pain. The goods offered by apparel stores haven’t been in high demand amid stay-at-home living, which has hurt foot traffic to these centers. And the enclosed mall format does not, in a pandemic, hold the safety appeal of e-commerce or outdoor shopping centers, which has kept a lid on the number of people willing to stop in and browse.

The result is a shopping ecosystem that is becoming even more fragile after years of erosion amid the rise in online buying. On a single day in November, two large mall-owning real estate investment trusts — Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust and CBL & Associates Properties, Inc. — filed for bankruptcy. They were struggling after tenants such as J.C. Penney Co. themselves filed for protection from creditors and closed stores. While other mall operators with more upscale centers have some advantages in weathering the pandemic, they still face significant challenges. According to a recent report from S&P Global Intelligence, several other mall REITs have similar, and in some cases even worse, traffic declines than those that fell into bankruptcy. And they, too, have an unfavorable proportion of total tenants in bankruptcy.

Surviving mall-based retail chains might pick up some market share and have a stronger hand in lease negotiations with landlords. That said, it is undesirable to be a tenant in a space that is dotted with empty storefronts, and with more carnage likely on the way. Jay Sole, a UBS retail analyst, wrote in a December research note that poor holiday sales could lead to a wave of store closings and liquidations among apparel and accessories sellers in the first quarter of 2021.

Even for the clothing retailers that make it through the worst of the public-health crisis, I worry some will continue to have problems because of the ways American consumers have retrained themselves during the pandemic. Target Corp., for instance, recorded a 10% increase in comparable sales from a year earlier in its apparel business in the latest quarter. That almost certainly represents the big-box giant taking market share from the likes of Macy’s, Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. as customers aim to do one-stop shopping to reduce potential exposure to the coronavirus. I suspect some of the people that started buying clothes at Target — which has a reliably trendy lineup of private brands — are not going to go back to their old haunts.

While the distribution of a vaccine promises to bring back some normalcy, I predict some chains will continue to suffer because many shoppers’ wardrobe needs have changed permanently. Demand for sparkly dresses, leather pants, and beach caftans will return as soon as proms, first dates, and vacations do. But office attire probably won’t make much of a comeback. Working from home will be a more widespread practice among white-collar office workers, reducing demand for this type of attire. This change will clearly be painful for a chain such as Banana Republic, which had a 30% plunge in comparable sales in the latest quarter. The Gap, Inc.-owned chain is doing the right thing by shifting its assortment toward sweatshirts and jogger pants, but it will be difficult for it to compete with the likes of Nike, Inc. or Lululemon Athletica, Inc., who have years of brand loyalty built up in the categories.

When you look back on your sartorial choices in 2020, you’ll probably remember it as the Year of Sweatpants. When the retail industry looks back on this time, they’ll see a turning point for the clothing sector, a year when the unfortunate fates of troubled chains and malls were sealed, even if it wasn’t the year they actually fell.


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