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The troubles at the American mall are coming to a boil

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/7/2017 Sarah Halzack
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A fresh round of distress signals sounded in the retail industry this week, as another big-name chain announced hundreds of new store closings and still others moved aggressively to recalibrate their businesses for the online shopping stampede.

Payless ShoeSource filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and outlined plans to immediately close nearly 400 of its 4,400 stores globally. Ralph Lauren is shuttering its flagship Polo store, a foot-traffic magnet located on tony 5th Avenue in Manhattan, the latest step in a massive cost-cutting effort. Big-box office supplies stalwart Staples is reportedly considering putting itself up for sale.

The shake-out among retailers has been building for years, and it is now arriving in full force.

The retrenchment comes as shoppers move online and begin to embrace smaller, niche merchants. As a result, many major chains now find themselves victims of a problem of their own making, having elbowed their way into so many locations that the nation now has more retail square footage per capita than any other. To use the industry vernacular, they are simply “overstored.”

Many have begun cutting back, sending ripples through the economy. The wave of store closures by anchors such as Macy’s and Sears alone will empty 28 million square feet of retail real estate, according to an analysis by research firm CoStar. Often those vacancies are slow to fill, leaving shopping centers less hospitable to the chains that remain, feeding even more departures and job losses.

The malaise has spread even as the economy overall grows stronger and the stock market marches higher. Just this week, Urban Outfitters reported that in the current quarter to-date, its comparable sales are “mid single-digit negative.” Last week, yoga clothier Lululemon chief executive Laurent Potdevin acknowledged the chain had seen “a slow start to 2017.”

Few traditional retailers are immune: The Limited filed for bankruptcy and shuttered all 250 of its stores. Hudson’s Bay, the parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, announced a $75 million cost-cutting effort. Banana Republic and Abercrombie & Fitch each named a new chief executive, leadership changes that were precipitated by ongoing struggles to connect with customers.

In a report published in late February, Standard & Poor’s said it had already lowered ratings 20 times on various retailers in 2017. S&P analysts wrote that they expect to see “increased levels of stress for the sector in 2017.”

Retailers are deploying different kinds of firepower to try to regain some momentum. J. Crew announced this week it is parting ways with its longtime creative director, Jenna Lyons, a change that effectively concedes that it needs to fix its fashion if it wants to boost its sales. Still other companies are exploring branching into different kinds of retailing formats: Ralph Lauren, for example, said it is exploring ways to deploy its Ralph’s Coffee concept. Macy’s is selling off some of its lucrative real estate portfolio, hoping to strengthen its balance sheet.

Another chain, J.C. Penney, looks to be trying to position itself to take advantage of fallout from the turmoil: The retailer has started to carry large appliances again, a potentially shrewd move that could fill a void in the marketplace as Sears and HHGregg close stores.

It doesn’t help any of these legacy brick-and-mortar companies that customers are increasingly seeking out under-the-radar labels with a more specialized, boutique feel. The likes of Bonobos, Warby Parker, Shinola and Marine Layer are picking off shoppers that might once have filled their closets with goods from more ubiquitous chains.

Meanwhile, as worries mount for brick-and-mortar players, Amazon’s stock hit an all-time high on Wednesday. While others pare back, the Seattle company announced a deal to stream NFL games, a milestone that underscores the e-commerce giant’s growing muscle. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

According to research from Slice Intelligence, Amazon captured 38 percent of all dollars spent online during the holiday season. The next-closest retailer, Best Buy, had a mere 3.9 percent.

And now the old guard has to worry about Amazon encroaching in new ways: It is branching into physical retailing, including opening several bookstores. In Seattle, it is preparing to open a concept called Amazon Go, a technology-powered grocery store that would not require shoppers to go through a checkout line.

All of this change is not just pushing traditional retailers to reduce their overall numbers of stores — it is also forcing them to re-think what their stores should look like. Office Depot, for example, is converting some stores to a smaller footprint of just 15,000 square feet. Target recently announced it is testing a new store prototype in which there will be a separate entrance and dedicated parking for shoppers looking to retrieve a “buy online, pick up in store” order.

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