AlixPartners, a turnaround firm, said at the beginning of the year that 10% to 26% of retailers were in financial distress and were in danger of filing for Chapter 11. It is worth considering how the researchers came up with that number, given that there are tens of thousands of retailers and hundreds of thousands of stores in America. Why wasn't the number 9% or 27%? The answer is that the forecast is virtually useless, something like counting the number of poisonous snakes in an Indiana Jones movie.
The only way to see what will happen in the retail industry in the next several quarters is to watch it like a hawk today. The first impression that many people get is that the retail business is OK because Wal-Mart is doing so well. But, Wal-Mart is the exception to the rule. Sam Walton's company continues do well because its tremendous buying power, distribution, and brand allows it to attract customers who get relatively high quality products for very little money. Its success removes a great deal of the foot traffic from the rest of the industry. (See pictures of TIME's Wall Street covers.)
For a more realistic view of how stores are fairing under the withering decrease in demand caused by the recession, Ann Taylor (ANN) is a good example for analysis. In the fourth quarter, its sales dropped 20% to $483 million. It will close 163 of its stores. That is from a total of 935. The company's stock now trades at $2.82, down from a 52-week high of $29.23. Most of that collapse occurred over the last six months.
Ann Taylor does not sell expensive clothes and accessories and it does not sell cheap ones. That puts it right in the center of the drop-off in middle class buying power. Firms including Liz Claiborne (LIZ) and Talbot's (TAL) are in about the same spot. Ann Taylor is probably much better off than genuinely failing retailers including Bon-Ton (BONT) and Gap (GPS). Ann Taylor, of course, is not Wal-Mart which will most likely stay in a world all its own for the duration of the downturn.
In the meantime, Ann Taylor will close nearly 20% of its stores. The company has 5,500 workers. A lot of those people will lose their jobs. Closing 20% of the Ann Taylor stores is probably about right. This forecast is as accurate as any available because it is based on real trends in the retail industry.
If large retailers close 20% or so of their stores, most of them will avoid becoming distressed or candidates for Chapter 11. The AjixPartner's estimate was too high and did not take into account the rate at which the industry could cut off limbs to save the body.
Is the fate of retailers likely to be better than some of the most pessimistic forecasts? Yes. But, for this to happen big retail operations will have to do the hard thing and lots of people will lose their jobs.
Douglas A. McIntyre
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