(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Investors appear to be getting more upbeat about the post-pandemic fates of major clothing retailers. Shares of companies from Gap Inc. to Urban Outfitters Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. have shot up from April lows as shopping centers start to reopen after Covid-19-related closures.
Some chains have trumpeted eye-popping numbers about their re-openings, including T.J. Maxx’s parent, which said sales at reopened stores were higher than they were last year. Abercrombie & Fitch Co. has said sales productivity at reopened U.S. locations was at 80% of 2019 levels, while Guess Inc. said on Wednesday that reopened U.S. locations were at 75% productivity compared to last year. Those kinds of tidbits, along with a better-than-expected May jobs report and consumer surveys showing a willingness to spend, offer fresh hope that something close to normal shopping patterns might return sooner than anticipated.
Not so fast. Optimism about the clothing business seems misplaced, at least for now. This retailing category will likely end up more scarred by the pandemic and recession than any other, and the bankruptcies and store closures announced so far are just the beginning of the devastation.
In part, this is because many players in the segment didn’t enter this tumult in a position of strength. A long list of clothiers, including Victoria’s Secret, Banana Republic, Chico’s and Express have endured years of lackluster sales as they failed to deliver enticing fashions. And the likes of Macy’s Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. have been trying to reimagine the tired department store format with only limited success.
If they were already straining to attract shoppers before the Covid-19 crisis, good luck doing so when many are approaching store visits with caution. It also could prove tough for clothing stores to renegotiate with landlords for more favorable lease terms right now if they weren’t a powerful driver of traffic to shopping centers in the first place.
Apparel chains have other unique vulnerabilities in the current moment. Social distancing, of course, has turbocharged the shift toward online shopping. Plenty of clothing retailers have invested heavily in their digital experience and infrastructure in recent years and thus are decently positioned to handle the surge in orders. But return rates for online purchases of clothing are estimated to be far higher than for other types of items, and all that return shipping and restocking could crimp profits.
Meanwhile, stores are revamping their procedures around trying on clothes. Nordstrom is opening only a small number of fitting rooms and cleaning them between customers. Kohl’s is keeping them closed altogether. They are right to make adaptations in the interest of public health. But “try before you buy” is crucial to the brick-and-mortar clothing model, and these set-ups just make it that much harder to score a sale.
Plus, as Moody’s analyst Raya Sokolyanska pointed out to me, even if shoppers generally get more comfortable going to stores in a post-lockdown world, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have the patience for crowd-control measures. Just because someone is willing to wait in line to buy groceries doesn’t mean they’ll do so for swimsuits or sneakers.
Then there’s the merchandise itself. Instead of dressing up for vacations, weddings, church services and board meetings, many shoppers are going to spend the rest of 2020 in sweatpants or their comfy, sartorial cousins. Yes, retailers have spent years making their supply chains speedier and more flexible to react more nimbly to trends. But this situation requires a change in assortment far more profound than adding more off-the-shoulder tops or animal prints, and I fear many of them will end up with piles of blazers, dresses and glittery high heels that they can’t sell.
That’s all before you consider another particularly cruel reality that the entire retail industry is facing. For about a decade, stores have been obsessively focused on adapting themselves for the so-called “experience economy,” adding nail salons, personal styling services, coding classes, wine bars, Instagram-worthy photo-ops, or anything else that will convince people to linger and socialize. Those investments feel painfully useless at a moment when shopping safely means doing it in a solo, task-oriented way.
So forgive me for not feeling much assurance from the lines seen at T.J. Maxx re-openings or from comments from Macy’s that demand its reopened stores was “moderately” better than their expectations. Those store visits came when shoppers might have had stimulus checks in hand and were itching to get out of the house as states had just begun lifting lockdowns. But after that burst of activity, the unemployment rate will remain high and Covid-19 fears and precautions will remain in place; that will make for extremely tough circumstances for selling clothes.
Moody’s estimates that Ebitda will decline by at least 50% for most apparel retailers this year, and that even by 2021, earnings will be 15% to 35% below what they were in 2019. It seems inevitable that some chains won’t survive those conditions. Last month, J. Crew Group Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection, becoming the first major coronavirus casualty, and was followed soon after by Neiman Marcus Group Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. In the past week, Bloomberg News has reported that both Ascena Retail Group Inc., the corporate parent of Ann Taylor and other stores, and Tailored Brands Inc., parent of Men’s Wearhouse, are also considering bankruptcy.
The clothing business is just beginning to unravel. It may be nearly unrecognizable by the time this crisis fully takes its toll.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.
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