Retailers are scrambling to figure out how to survive as e-commerce and the global pandemic have upended their traditional business model. Can they reinvent themselves or will they go the way of so many past industries no longer with us?
Retailers across the United States are facing mass extinction as a fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic that’s raging across the country. Between 20,000 – 25,000 stores are projected to have closed in 2020, including the who’s who of American retailers (Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, etc.) shuttering their doors as a result of, or to stave off, bankruptcy. Over half of these closures will hit mall-based retailers, putting even greater pressure on many malls across the US. While the pandemic did not cause the decline of many US retailers, it clearly has accelerated the largest restructuring of the US retail landscape since the end of World War II.
Retailers, and especially mall-based landlords, have seen the warning signs that the consumer shopping behaviour was changing for the past 5-10 years. But a myriad of factors have hampered their ability to reinvent themselves.
- OVER-SUPPLY OF RETAIL: The US has the highest square footage of retail space per capita worldwide, 40% higher than Canada and two times the space of Australia. The post-WWII flight to the suburbs across the United States fuelled a massive expansion of retail stores, especially at malls where consumers could easily shop multiple stores in one easy location. The mall has been an icon of American culture, where teens would go to hang out with friends, young families would go for the indoor playground and retirees would go to socialize and exercise. The decline of the mall is tearing apart the fabric of many communities across the US.
- DECLINE IN APPAREL SPENDING: US consumers have been spending less on clothing, as a percentage of their disposable income. For the past 40 years society has become less formal, and younger generations have placed greater emphasis on experiences rather than material goods. The constant pressure to eke out positive comps has led many brands to focus on discounting to drive growth, rather than on differentiation. This shift in mindset opened the door for fast fashion brands like Zara or H&M to enter the market and leverage their supply chain expertise to shift the value equation.
APPAREL SPENDING, PERCENT OF DISPOSABLE INCOME 1928-2010 (SOURCE: US DEPT. OF LABOR, NPD)
- E-COMMERCE ACCELERATION: Much has been written about how Amazon has reshaped many different retail industries. E-commerce now represents 37% of all apparel and accessory revenue and, unsurprisingly, was the only bright spot for many retailers who pivoted their business model last spring as stores shut down.
As dire as the US retail marketplace may seem, there are a many brands and retail landlords who are experimenting with different business models to try to meet the changing needs of the US consumer. While it’s unknown if and when consumer shopping behaviour will return to normal, these business models are at least undertaking different strategies rather than embodying the definition of insanity; “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Landlords Buying Bankrupt Brands
Over 1,000 malls exist throughout the US, spread across major metropolitan areas to smaller rural towns. By some estimates, potentially a third of America’s malls will close their doors, fundamentally impacting numerous communities around the country.
To combat the decline, two leading mall owners, Simon Property Group and Brookfield Properties, have acquired a number of apparel retailers in partnership with Authentic Brands Group. The strategy behind buying fabled yet beleaguered brands like JC Penny, Brooks Brothers and Forever 21 is twofold. First, it enables them to cherry pick the best doors of these brands at a significantly reduced price, most of which will be located in one of their malls. For a mall to remain relevant, it’s needs enough appealing stores to attract consumers and drive foot traffic. If more of their tenants have to close, the mall begins to look and feel like a ghost town, making them even less welcoming for prospective shoppers. This strategy also helps landlords protect their downside risk by keeping occupancy levels (artificially?) high to not trigger an exit clause for existing tenants.
While clearly something was already broken for these brands to fall into Chapter 11, by reducing their debt, lowering fixed costs like rent and skimming off the best locations through the reorganisation process, these brands might just have enough runway to survive. Not every acquisition will be successful. But for a landlord, having a portfolio of brands that they are invested in to succeed will better align their incentives and possibly keep some of their malls from meeting their demise.
Brick & Mortar as an E-Commerce Hub
The onset of Covid-19 forced many retailers to accelerate plans towards a greater omni-channel shopping environment: curbside pick-up, contactless transactions, etc. This has helped to maintain some of their business during the pandemic. Leading retailers have further evolved their brick & mortar doors to serve their own e-commerce business.
Today, over 60% of households in the United States are Amazon Prime members, which gives them access to free shipping and in many locations, 2-day or faster shipping. What would have been considered outrageous just a few years ago has now become the norm for most US consumers. To fight back the Amazon onslaught, larger brick & mortar retailers, like Target, are making significant investments to allow customers to not only pick up same day orders in store but also to use their physical footprint as mini distribution centres. “Having all these nodes and physical retail stores has been their magic pill on how to compete with others like Amazon and pure e-commerce players,” says, Greg Conner, VP of Global Sales at Bastian Solutions. Using stores as their e-commerce hub, Target has been able to fulfil 80% of its total e-commerce volume while also saving money, since stores are 40% cheaper than shipping for a large warehouse. “We already own the building, the lights are on and we have a replenishment process … it’s allowing us to deliver faster for our guests than we could have before,” according to Target spokesperson Jill Lewis.
Repurpose Dead Malls to Address Homelessness
Homelessness has become a major issue facing most large cities across the United States. Over 500,000 people were homeless in 2018, a number that will have only climbed as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated joblessness and food insecurity.  A lack of affordable housing, particularly in major metropolitan areas on the East and West Coast, has forced many people to ‘camp’ on sidewalks or in tent cities.
A mall developer and non-profit in Washington, DC are partnering to repurpose the Alexandria Mall. “It’s a new way of thinking that is bringing together three economic phenomena: the collapse of the brick-and-mortar retail industry, the disappearance of affordable housing in America’s boom towns, and the struggle to reduce homelessness.” It’s too early to tell how successful this venture will be, but it’s a unique example of trying to use an underutilised asset for greater good in the community.
Each of these three new business models will likely not be the saviour for the post-covid retail marketplace in the United States. Yet, they offer a glimmer of hope that new and innovative ideas can help to repurpose many brick & mortar locations and ultimately spur the next generation of economic growth for the country.