Is American Retail about to Collapse?

The United States is about to face a major economic, business, cultural, social and political upheaval because of the collapse of retail.

The number of stores scheduled for closure in the United States in 2017 is 2,880, Credit Suisse Group AG Analyst Christian Buss estimated. Disturbingly Buss thinks the situation will get worse; he predicted that up to 8,640 stores will close in 2017, a record that will exceed the number of closings in 2008, the year of the Great Economic Meltdown, Bloomberg reported.

News reports provide stark evidence for Buss’s prediction; nine large U.S. retailers have declared bankruptcy so far in 2017, The Atlantic noted. Four large retailers; Sears (NASDAQ: SHLD), Macy’s (NYSE: M), Payless Shoes and Radio Shack, have plans to close more than 100 stores each.

The effects of this retail apocalypse would be wide ranging because one out of 10 Americans is employed in retail, The New York Times Deal Book noted. Mass unemployment is already a growing problem; Deal Book noted that 89,000 retail jobs have disappeared in the United States since October 2016.

Mass Unemployment in Retail

Deal Book writer Michael Corkery believes that job losses in retail will create the kind of social and political upheaval caused by the disappearance of manufacturing positions. This might reshape the political landscape because manufacturing workers were a key part of the movement that helped elect President Trump.

Nor are all retail workers low paid or low-status as many observers believe. Deal Book interviewed former Saks Fifth Avenue employee Hilda Awuor who earned $16 (€15.08) an hour (more than twice of the U.S. minimum wage of $7.25 or €6.83 per hour) before being laid off. It also noted that some retail employees including clerks at Bloomingdales have union representation, something most American workers lack.

A major danger is that many retail workers will not be able to find new work. An e-commerce fulfillment centers like those run by Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) only employs a few hundred workers; but it can take the place of hundreds of stores that employ thousands of people, Columbia University Retail Studies Professor Mark Cohen told Deal Book.

Former retail workers often lack the kind of job skills that fulfillment centers seek such as experience with forklifts and machinery, Cohen noted. That means many of America’s unemployed factory workers will be able to find work in fulfillment while the retail clerks end up on the welfare rolls.

Loss of retail jobs is socially destabilizing because stores often provide work for less educated and experienced individuals. This includes minorities, the elderly, students, immigrants and inexperienced younger persons first entering the workforce.

A related problem is that the retail workforce is disproportionately female. Stores are often the only places where unskilled, or uneducated women can find work. Many working families depend upon the wife’s salary from a cashier’s position to meet the mortgage or pay the rent.

Yet another retail crisis is that it is the higher paying retail jobs that are most likely to disappear. Department store operators, such as JC Penney (NYSE: JCP) which pay fairly high commissions or wages are closing locations, while low paying discount stores like Dollar General (NYSE: DG) are expanding. JC Penney sells the kind of merchandise Amazon is likely to sell, Dollar General does not.

A similar situation occurred at discount giant Walmart (NYSE: WMT) which eliminated 7,000 accounting positions and replaced them with software and cash-counting machines, Market Mad House reported. Many of those workers were offered other jobs at Walmart in stocking or operating a cash register.

Real Estate Value Being Destroyed

One class of investment that will be devastated by the retail apocalypse is commercial real estate in the United States.

The sector is already overbuilt the U.S. currently has five times as much as store space per shopper as the United Kingdom, The Atlantic noted. The average shopping center in the United States is also more than 10 times the size of the typical center in Canada.

Deal Book reported that lender Terra Capital Partners refused to underwrite a 10 year loan on a shopping center because of uncertainty about the future. Terra’s chief executive Bruce Batkin explained that he declined the loan because he is not sure the center will have occupants 10 years from now.

Empty store space and falling rents are growing trends even in some of America’s toniest shopping areas such as Manhattan’s SoHo (South of Houston Neighborhood), Deal Book pointed out.

Things are about to Get Worse

Worse might be yet to come because of e-commerce growth and escalating technological change. Cohen is one of a number of observers who expect a “sea change” in retail and the statistics seem to prove him right.

Amazon’s revenues grew by $28.98 billion (€27.30 billion) in 2016, rising from $107.01 billion (€100.82 billion) to $135.99 billion (€128.13 billion) The amount of the Everything Store’s revenue growth exceeds the total revenue of Macy’s America’s largest department store operator.

Macy’s reported revenues of $25.78 billion (€24.29 billion) on January 31, 2017. Macy’s revenues fell by $1.3 billion (€1.22 billion) in 2016; the company reported a revenue number of $27.08 billion (€25.51 billion) in January 2016.

Nor was Macy’s alone, the discount store operator Target (NYSE: TGT) saw its revenues drop by $4.28 billion (€4.03 billion) in 2016, Target started the year with $73.78 billion (€69.52 billion) in revenue and finished with $69.5 billion (€65.48 billion). Unlike Macy’s Target has not announced a round of store closings – yet. Like Macy’s Target is heavily dependent on middle class shoppers who are most likely to buy from Amazon.

New Tech Might Make Retail Apocalypse Worse

There are also two new trends in ecommerce that present a major threat to department and discount stores. The first is same day delivery which enables a person to order online in the morning and have the merchandise delivered later in the day.

Walmart and the grocery giant Kroger (NYSE: KR); which operates some department stores, are experimenting with delivery services provided by Uber and Lyft. Such app-based services are a threat to traditional retailers because they can be scaled up fast, and rely on lower cost contractors who provide their own vans for labor.

The other threat is click and pull, in which a customer orders online, and store employees pull and pack the order for pickup. Click and pull, which Kroger pioneered and Walmart is betting heavily on, is a major threat to traditional retail because customers don’t go into the store. Instead they pick the order up from the curb or a drive through. That means there is no chance of additional purchases from spur of the minute buying.

The concept is spreading fast, and growing in popularity. Walmart has even built a drive through convenience store around this concept in Colorado, Geek Crunch Reviews reported.

These trends indicate that American retail is in a state of upheaval that will not end any time soon. Traditional retail might soon collapse in the United States, and destroy millions of jobs and untold billions of dollars’ worth of real estate value. The effects of that paradigm shift might be greater than the well-documented decline of American manufacturing.

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