Thinning Profits (and the Herd!)

The following are photos from my monthly walk along Michigan Avenue, Rush and Oak Streets. This two mile stretch has every store, covering every niche, in the entirety of the retail marketplace. What I decided to do is document what I saw, where I saw it and, just to get 2009 on everyone's mind, share what I think the fate of the particular retailer holds in the near future.

Before we start, please understand this very important fact:

With VERY few exceptions, when a store sells something for 50% off, they are losing money on the item. Yes, I know all about margin builders and the like, but those are a very rare exception in the overall assortment.

The reason for the loss is simple, here is an example:

Store A buys a dress for $40
Store A decides to sell the dress for $100 (a 55-60 mark being about industry norm).
If they sell the $100 dress for 50% off at $50 it would seem they made $10 profit, right?


Store a had to pay for the trip to New York for it's buying teams.
Pay for the paper to write the order on.
Pay the salary of the buyer that makes such decisions.
Pay for advertising, in-store signing and and the like.
Pay for medical, dental, 401k and other retirement benefits for their employees.
Pay for the real estate costs, insurance, design and fixture costs for their stores.

There is more: loan repayments, legal fees and market research, but you get the idea.

Such costs cannot be covered from that $10 profit, unless you sell hundreds of millions of those dresses (which is what Walmart is so good at).

That being said, the signs you see below should read as something out of SAW IV, not Happyland.

While this will bode very well for the consumer, it, quite literally, means the end for more than a few of these stores.

As always, all images can be clicked to get a larger, more detailed view.

Let's get it started:

This is Aldo, the shoe store that competes against 9 West when their goods are full price and Payless once they put their goods on sale. They are over saturated and overly dependent on mall traffic to drive sales. When was the last time you heard a friend say, "Hey, let's go to Aldo." I thought not. I see this chain closing 50% of it's locations, and/or seeking bankruptcy protection by May 2009.

Brooks Brothers will be fine. When the economy goes sour, people dress better. Even during the Great Depression this was the case. People without jobs wore suit and tie, just to feel a part of society. Brooks Brothers is an iconic brand that more than a few people will discover a other options from overseas start to disappear. Don't look for expansion, just look for them to make it through the economic downturn in one piece, which is sort of an A- or B+.

Walt Disney stores. During the Great Depression this company was hit so hard it had to do something radical just to remain relevant. What they did was start doing live action films, s Snow White and the like were not really meaningful after the war. This time, Disney is better suited for the though economic climate ahead. The acquisition of Pixar Studios two years ago gives Disney a foothold on smart, cutting edge filmmaking that not only deals with tough issues and ideas, but seeks them out. That being said, they SHOULD close their stores, but won't. Tourism to the Disney family of theme parks will plummet, so giving your child a little piece of Disney, if even in the form of a Happy Meal, may become all the more important. We'll see, but Toys, as a category, took a bath this holiday.

Sak's Fifth Avenue is going away. If not altogether, much like the sign below, 75% of it will. Someone has to convince me why not. See, you can't, can you? Saks has long thought itself Neiman's and run itself like Enron. If someone peeped behind the curtain, OOPS! you got us. This holiday season should pretty much end what has been a 6-7 year flirtation with a $5 stock price. Credit is tightening, so look for investors to pull of their roots and  go elsewhere. Sak's is nice, but not necessary. This will be one of the biggest, in name, casualties of this economic downturn. Obama Stimulus, or not.

Neiman Marcus is really in a class by itself. The brand represents the pinnacle of the American retail marketplace. They will benefit more from Saks' demise than anyone beside, perhaps, Nordstrom. Without the presence of Sak's, Neimans should see better gross margins due to not having to price match/ compete in many of their markets, which will lead to more profitability. Neiman's would be one of my real winners for 2009, save for one mistake...and it ain't small.

Why they decided to open up so many of these CUSP boutiques is beyond me. They are aimed at just the market niche that is most impacted by, first the housing collapse and now, the Great Recession. The combination of $600 blue jeans, $1800 driving jackets and long-term mall leases does not make for a good recipe for the future we face. This ultimately will be a VERY costly drag on the company and expect them to exit the idea entirely by the beginning of 2010.

BCBG, the retailer that never really was, will go back to selling it's goods in stores exclusively. For the life of me I cannot think of a more gracious thing to say, other than the sooner the better. 50% reduction by the beginning of 2010, perhaps entirely. They still have a strong, desirable brand for young adults, though.

Juicy Couture, in short will be in big trouble. Rapid expansion, usually means rapid reduction. Juicy has a great brand, but they are waaaaay overextended as far as different balls in the air. Look for them to rapidly shift to licensing, if that is an available option. Store closings and a return to being a vendor, not a retailer.

Yves Saint Laurent will be fine. I just wanted to illustrate the point that EVERYONE is on sale.

Children's clothing boutiques will be one of the first to get wiped out. Over the last decade no category has had faster growth and prices within this category have not been tied to anything sane. $100 shirts, $125 jeans and $70 t-shirts have become the norm from NEW DESIGNERS, not even luxury brands.

All things related to children will see growth, as people will think of their kids before themselves, but most Childrens boutiques will take a back seat to the Target's and Kohls's of the world. This has actually already started, evidence being the bath toy's took this December.

Home related stores are already in deep trouble (see Home Depot), though few really know by how much. To get a grasp of the outlook for this segment of retailing you need only one fact: January is the second most important month of the year for furniture-makers. So many home stores will go under within the first half of this year, survival will come down to how long you can hold on? If you can make it to July, and less than 50% will, you may have a chance at getting through the year flat. Habit will drive people to stores in the first quarter of the year, but I cannot think of a segment of retail so heavily dependent on credit, save automobiles. This obviously is a recipe for disaster.


Those in the know understand why I included this photo, as a "sale" sign at this company is virtually unheard of. The early part of this economic downturn will benefit "stay-at-home" stores which related to: cooking at home instead of going out, watching dvd's at home as opposed to going to movies and buying liquor for home gathering as opposed to going out to bars and clubs.

What happens after the summer within these categories is anyones guess at the moment. If things start to rebound (which I don't see) they will maintain their balance. Though should there be no clear vision of an end to the downturn, look for them to be hit hard by September, complete with lots of closings and bankruptcies.

Not enough stores at MaxMara to have mass closings, but they will feel the realities of the economy, hardcore. Light inventory and staff cuts are in their very near future.

When you sell everything in your store for $20, as H&M does, you cannot survive by selling everything for $10. Margins are too thin at this company to help pay for what has been a very rapid expansion. Look for LOTS of store closings for this European company, same goes for Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe. Bankruptcy is not out of the question for any of them.

Let's be real. Borders is in big trouble. Not liquidation trouble, but trouble nonetheless. Immediate store closings after the new year, staff reductions at other locations and possibly bankruptcy protection for reorganization purposes. The good news for them is they have been putting out fires for 6-8 months at the company, so they are a bit further along in their planning than other retailers.

Ralph Lauren is on SALE!!!!! Run, don't walk!!! Their strong department store business will carry them for the next few years, one of the few companies with such a luxury.

Banana Republic (Gap and Old Navy) are in some very big trouble. Over-saturation in every market, irrelevant fashion assortments and long-range turnaround plans aimed at fashion, not efficiency mean bad news. Look for lots of closings, lots and lots of corporate lay-offs and a possible split of the company, which might be best. Banana, however, will be hit the hardest. It participates in the niche with the most competition, 20-40 year-old new professionals. Zara is going to dominate this market once it gets set with it's expansion, Express has more money and focus (though they are already suffering) and their clientele is already starting to dip into the XXI's and Junior departments at larger retailers in search of discounted merchandise.

Bye-Bye Talbot's! I don't see how they will emerge from this in one piece. Immediate store closings, immediate mass lay-offs and perhaps even liquidation.

As I stated earlier, Limited Brands (Express, Limited, Express Men) is going to take a significant hit. They have too many stores to begin with, but the fact they control the entire process (from design, textiles, maufacture and shipping) of everything in their stores may save them in the long run. Wexler is smart and visionary, so we will see if he was able to make the necessary adjustments to his machine before September, if not....ouch!

Very hard to write these words, but Crate & Barrel may not make it. I am a Chicagoan, so I grew up alongside this company. Going to the first store with my mother when I was small boy. That aside, the company has become less relevant with each passing year due to more copycats, with lower prices. In the movie It's A Wonderful Life, Clarence the angel tells George Bailey, "every time a bell rings, an angel gets its' wings." Well in the non-celluliod world, every time an Ikea opens a Crate & Barrel loses it's wings, or appeal.

I am pulling for you C&B, I just don't see how you emerge from this unscathed.

Ann Taylor closing are a given. Too many stores, reduction in clientele (less job holders means less clothes needed), loads of competition at every conceivable price-point and bloated inventory levels all point to bad times ahead. Look for quick moves to bankruptcy protection and, ultimately, a BIG downsizing by the middle of next year.

These types of stores (H20 and Bath and Body) are basically gone. They can only operate profitably when selling goods at full price, which is no longer an option. So take this test, will you spend the $15 you have on a new shirt, sweater, groceries or six ounces of green-apple bubble bath. Thought so!

The question for retailers like Levi's becomes, will their customer base continue to buy jeans from their boutiques at $90-$145, or start buying the lesser-weight versions from Kohls for $19.99-$40.00? I think the latter is more probable, so that is not good news for the store side of Levi's.

Ditto for Kenneth Cole. This is value-brand that has never been priced at value. So as a retailer, good-bye! As a vendor, you have a bright future.

Ditto Emporio Armani. The good thing for this company is there are not many of their stores to close, but close they will.

Stores that are not on Michigan Ave. that face major problems:

Sears - Kohls is kicking their butt and will continue to do so. Tightening credit means far less major appliance sales, less home-building means fewer tool sales. How can they withstand a double-hit like that in their two main areas of strength?

Macy's - Contraction is inevitable. Look for closings of 75-200 stores rather quickly. Bankruptcy is not out of the question, as they have massive debt payments due in the first half of 2009. Swollen inventories and lease obligations spell bad news.

All Jewelers - Contraction in this market will be unrelenting. A bad 4th quarter (-35%) will only make the thinning less merciful. Look for the elimination of 25-50% of all mall-based jewelers by June.

No comments: