Coronavirus Has Shut Stores, and Retailers Are Running Out of Time

From The Wall Street Journal:

First, the store doors shut. Now, the walls are closing in.

Retailers have furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers, cut executive pay and stopped paying rent, all to conserve cash. For the most indebted retailers, particularly those already struggling before the crisis began, those measures may not be enough.

Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and J.C. Penney Co., both of which have looming debt payments, have been reaching out to creditors in the hopes of buying more time, according to people familiar with the situation. Representatives for Neiman Marcus and Penney declined to comment.

. . . .

The retail industry was going through a shakeout before the coronavirus pandemic hit. As shoppers migrated away from malls and bought more online, specialty-apparel retailers and department stores were among the hardest hit. A record number of chains have filed for bankruptcy protection in recent years, and others have closed hundreds of stores. As the virus keeps American businesses temporarily closed, the weak will only get weaker, analysts said.

“Companies we weren’t that concerned about a month ago, we are now concerned about,” said Mickey Chadha, a senior analyst with Moody’s Investors Service. Mr. Chadha estimated that operating income for department stores, which have been losing market share to fast-fashion retailers and discounters, will fall 20% this year. He predicted operating profit for the retail sector overall will fall by 2% to 5%, a drop not seen since the 2008 financial crisis.

. . . .

The National Retail Federation has been lobbying the government to ensure that companies with credit ratings that fall below investment grade have access to loans. “We want them to design these programs to be broad enough to tackle the significant problems of distressed industries such as retailing, which employs a large chunk of the population,” said David French, the trade group’s senior vice president of government relations.

. . . .

Retailers are cutting every cost they can, including delaying payments to suppliers and canceling orders. “In this environment in which 90% of our stores are closed to the public, we are forced to make difficult decisions,” wrote an executive of Harmon Stores Inc., a health and beauty-products chain that is owned by Bed Bath & Beyond Inc., in a letter viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The letter notified suppliers that payments would be delayed by an additional 60 days.

“Retailers have cut variable costs, but there are a lot of fixed costs that they can’t reduce,” said James Gellert, CEO of RapidRatings, which analyzes the financial health of companies.

. . . .

“Retail bankruptcies are coming, but not necessarily immediately,” said Deborah Newman, a lawyer in the bankruptcy and restructuring practice of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP. She said there are public-relations and economic ramifications when companies are forced into bankruptcy during the pandemic. “Now is not a good time to find buyers for assets,” she added. “It’s also hard to get a true sense of a company’s value.”

. . . .

Chains that survive will have to grapple with consumer demand that may not snap back quickly. Consumer spending had buoyed chains before the crisis, but now many shoppers are facing reduced income and they may be skittish about rushing back to public spaces.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG reluctantly suggests that a great many independent bookstores, often thinly capitalized, relying on the effective equivalent to no-interest loans from publishers in the form of books shipped to stores at no charge with payments for those books happening later as the books are sold.

If there are bookstore bankruptcies on a widespread basis, not only will traditional publishers lose a significant portion of their distribution systems, but their financials will be hit with a lot of debts that will never be paid.

For publishers which are public companies with publicly-traded stock, PG suggests that those stock prices will drop like a rock. If some Wall Street financial engineers leveraged the assets of the publishers to the hilt in some complex financing scheme, the survival of such publishers, even with radical downsizing of their staffs, will be in doubt.

Advertising and publicity budgets that support new releases by these publishers will see a very sharp knife.

For traditionally-published authors, PG is afraid that advances will be hit hard. Those who live from advance to advance will be particularly stressed. When five-figure advances become four-figure advances, maximal mental stress may not have a positive impact on artistic output.

New authors striving to get into traditional publishing will find rejection slips arriving in repeating waves may force those who would have managed to snag a first contract in earlier times into alternate employment.

PG suggests that a substantial portion of traditionally-published authors who desperately want to continue their careers will be sheepishly contacting the handful of indie authors that are casual acquaintances for tips on how to make money on Amazon.

Very few major companies will exit from the current world-wide panic without picking up some bruises. Amazon has become such a complex skein of businesses that what sort of company will come out the other side of the current maelstrom is difficult for experts (and impossible for PG) to predict.

However, in the face of closed stores, Amazon has gained a great many new customers. PG suggests a meaningful number of those who didn’t use Amazon in their past lives or used it on rare occasions will be more enthusiastic Amazon customers in the future, particularly if physical retail stores continue to be hit hard.

Lots of people who are self-isolating in their homes are doing a lot of reading these days. Care to guess where they’re buying their books of access to physical book outlets is prohibited by executive orders from various public officials?

And when you’re stuck in your home and need a good book quickly, where do you point your iPad? Kindle ebooks are always ready to serve.

2 thoughts on “Coronavirus Has Shut Stores, and Retailers Are Running Out of Time”

  1. PG writes:
    Lots of people who are self-isolating in their homes are doing a lot of reading these days. Care to guess where they’re buying their books of access to physical book outlets is prohibited by executive orders from various public officials?
    And when you’re stuck in your home and need a good book quickly, where do you point your iPad? Kindle ebooks are always ready to serve.

    Yep. Just glanced at my Amazon sales dashboard and my numbers, while modest, are definitely up during the last couple of weeks with “stay at home” orders in place. And virtually all are Kindle ebooks.

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