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  • Writer's pictureSkyhawk Investment Group

Retail in 2020 & COVID-19's Impact

by: Daniel Sammarco, ENGAGE Research Assistant

February 18, 2020

It seemed like American retailers could not catch a break as they headed into the new decade this January. Well-known names like Macy’s, and J.C. Penny started off the year by announcing higher than expected store closures, the news even coming after a shortened holiday season that saw retail sales grow by 3.4% according to Mastercard. Unfortunately for brick and mortar stores, online retailers fueled that growth with their sales jumping 18.8% compared to 2019. The surging prominence of online retailers has contributed to the headlines that have become common over the past few years such as wide-spread store closures, bankruptcies, and the dawn of the ‘retail apocalypse.’ In total, store closures for 2017-2019 were as follows: 8,139 stores, 5,864, and most recently, 9,200 (Coresight Research). Just some of the stores expected to close locations in 2020 are Payless (2,500 stores), GAP (230), Macy’s (125 through 2023), Pier 1 Imports (57), and Dress Barn (650).

A vacant Macy's in Northland Mall, Detroit

As a result, retail investors have felt the struggles of the industry. The SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT) which tracks the performance of retail companies in the S&P 500, and Pacer Benchmark Retail Real Estate SCTR ETF (RTL) which is a collection of REITs that own mall and department store real estate both greatly underperformed the market with 14% gains in 2019 while the S&P finished up 30%. Though many retail stocks struggled in 2019 like Nordstrom (-14%), Gap (-29%), Macy’s (-46%), and Pier 1 Imports (+3%), there are a couple of stocks that contributed significantly to the 14% growth the industry saw last year. TJ Maxx and Marshalls (TJX), Burlington, Ulta Beauty, and Dollar General all pulled their weight by posting over 20% gains each. TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Burlington represent low-price retailers who specialize in buying random closeout and leftover inventory from suppliers and other stores. At their stores, the retailers give customers a ‘treasure-hunt’ experience where they can search the store floor for marked down, yet often high quality, inventory. This style of shopping not only gets customers items that they want at great prices, but also provides a unique shopping experience that is often described by customers as exciting, rewarding and addictive (

Rows of shirts by different brands at TJ Maxx creating a "treasure hunt"

One key to gaining back traction in brick and mortar stores will be incorporating ‘experiences’ into the shopping trip. Retailers can pull customers away from online shopping and into stores by giving them a reason to want to go. At their flagship store in Herald Square, Macy’s has introduced a new area called ‘Story’ where shoppers can enter a vibrantly colored display of products from emerging brands that focus on health and wellness. Macy’s CEO Jeffrey Gennette sees stores transforming from a place of transaction to a place of experience as the evolution of brick and mortar (CNBC). In addition, Macy’s looks to strengthen its presences in the constant online retail fight against Amazon, Kohl’s, Walmart, and Target to name a few. Besides clothing stores, Sonos, a speaker producer, has invested into giving customers a secluded auditory experience at their first-ever store in Manhattan. There, customers can listen to Sonos speakers in private rooms that allow true immersion into the sound and provide an uninterrupted period of relaxation. As Sonos just begins to enter the brick and mortar space, their competitor, Bose, is closing nearly half (100) of their stores. For Bose, internet sales are far outperforming their stores and the company no longer sees brick and mortar locations as an essential part of their business model (CNN Business). Maintaining volume in stores and increasing it online will continue to be a challenge for retail giants who expanded rapidly in the ‘80s and ‘90s to sizes they no longer can sustain.

Sonos' living room styled listening pod

As store closures are announced every week and more companies file for bankruptcy, it is hard not to agree that we are witnessing a ‘retail apocalypse’ in the works. However, it is important to remember the benefits of being able to touch the products and interact on a personal level with a brand (even Amazon is now building their own brick and mortar stores). In 2020, we should keep an eye out for more store consolidation within overgrown brands, a rethinking of what the retail shopping experience is, and more omnichannel integration between retailers’ online and brick and mortar stores.

This article has been updated by the author as of March 29, 2020 to shed light on the COVID-19 outbreak’s effect on the retail industry.

Only a month ago, this article sought to highlight what retailers were starting off 2020 on the wrong foot, which ones were not, and what companies were doing to adapt to a changing customer landscape. With only three months completed in 2020, the global COVID-19 outbreak has derailed any plans that retailers were hoping could turn their disappointing 2019 numbers around. Concern and response regarding America’s vulnerability to the virus began picking up after the first week of March as universities moved classes online and governors declared states of emergency. The under-performers mentioned earlier like Macy’s, Gap, and J.C. Penny have been the center of attention for many retail investors as all fashion and beauty retailers have followed emergency guidance and closed their stores. Without any in-store revenue to add in the coming months, Moody’s has downgraded both Macy’s and Gap debt to junk, citing weak credit profiles which will only be strained by the COVID-19 shutdowns (TheStreet). Cowen analysts highlighted that Macy’s and Kohl’s are at risk from extended store closures since they have about five months remaining of cash, while Nordstrom and J.C. Penny have about eight (MarketWatch).

For a quick overview, the S&P 500 has returned -25% since February 1, 2020. The stocks previously mentioned have performed as follows: Walmart (-4.29%), Dollar General (-4.75%), TJX (-20.7%), Ulta (-34.8%), Gap (-55.3%), Nordstrom (-56.3%), Macy’s (-65.3%), Pier 1 Imports (-92.8%). As news develops daily on the Coronavirus outbreak, the likelihood of closures extending into the summer seem more likely and the future effects of containment efforts and policy decisions from Washington remain to be seen.

Food retailers like Walmart, Target, Dollar General and Dollar Tree remain open and are experiencing increased demand as shoppers change their habits towards buying in bulk at big name supermarkets and stores. Though this time may seem opportunistic for food retailers, stores like Target and Walmart that feature large food sections in stores alongside clothing, electronics, beauty products, and toys are mainly seeing demand only increase in their food and household departments. Results for these types of retailers may be disappointing if their sales are anything like Target’s, who has seen surging food and beverage sales, but decreased spending on high margin products like clothing and accessories. CEO Brian Cornell warned that gross profit margin could be lower than expected this quarter. (Wall Street Journal).

Panic buying during the outbreak leaves store shelves temporarily empty.

In a time when most physical retail locations are closed, online stores have become the primary option available for companies and consumers to continue doing business with each other. Amazon is seeing such an influx of orders that it plans to hire an additional 100,000 warehouse workers to meet demand as they begin to delay shipments of non-prioritized goods until late April (ArsTechnica). Walmart is benefitting from having both their physical and online stores open and higher demand for their online grocery and store pickup services. Except for TJX brands, clothing retailers hope to see more traffic to their sites while people enjoy more downtime for online shopping, but it is yet to be seen whether or not consumers are interested in buying new clothes while they are stuck inside for the foreseeable future and may be experiencing decreased wages or layoffs. TJX announced on March 19th that in addition to closing their physical locations, they would also close their online stores to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

It will be interesting to see how the retail industry emerges from the pandemic, and even more relevant, how they will respond to changing guidelines from health officials regarding social distancing and store closures. Many retailers started 2020 with a sense of urgency to adapt to changing consumer trends. Now, their focus must turn towards financial survival in the face of an unprecedented period of zero in-store operations. Here’s to hoping this challenge the entire world faces passes soon and that we can eventually return to a form of normalcy that seems more distant in the past than it really is.


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