Retailers squeezed by new frugality
Consumers have taken a big chunk out of the retail economy, which accounts for two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
Think back, dear consumer, to your old life, and see how dramatically things have changed in a year: Must-have-it-now was your pre-meltdown mantra. Parsimony was for punks. And like many Americans, you acted as if you were competing to win the shopping version of Wing Bowl.
Those $1,500 handbags you used to buy because your 401(k) made you feel rich?
The shiny new car or SUV you just had to replace every three years?
Buh-bye showroom. Hello, old neighborhood mechanic.
You're not the only one in withdrawal. Your ways are causing pain in retail boardrooms and back shops far and wide, where business has gone from 60-to-0 in about 12 months flat.
A year ago, high gasoline prices shocked shoppers out of stores. But retail imploded last fall when the stock market crashed. Merchants have been in a skintight squeeze ever since.
By stashing money into mattresses for months, consumers have taken a mountain-size chunk out of the retail economy, which accounts for two-thirds of economic activity in this country.
The ripple effects of this new frugality are abundant, from rising vacancies in malls and shopping centers to turmoil at the biggest local retail outfits:
Privately owned Boscov's Department Store L.L.C., of Reading, declared bankruptcy in August. It reemerged around Christmas with fewer stores, fewer employees, and a return of retired leader Albert Boscov to the chief executive officer's job to keep the 39-store chain on course for survival.
Publicly traded Charming Shoppes Inc., of Bensalem, ousted its chief executive, closed stores, and is trying to maneuver out of the red zone (negative profits) with new managers and new fashions for its plus-size and discount women's apparel stores.
Destination Maternity Corp., of Philadelphia, is pruning its store network, has renamed some of its shops, and has laid off headquarters staff as part of a restructuring aimed at simplifying and cutting expenses at the publicly traded company.
Even Wall Street darling Urban Outfitters Inc., of Philadelphia, which seemed recession-proof just a year ago, has seen sales slide at its upscale Anthropologie and Free People stores, despite doing better overall than the competition.
This new, in-reverse world of retailing follows decades during which companies grew huge on Americans' insatiable buying. Shoppers gorged on credit - the same kind of easy borrowing that helped retailers get big loans to buy competitors and add stores.
"This whole recession has caused people to pause and reevaluate their values," said Natalie W. Nixon, professor of fashion-industry management at Philadelphia University.
And with far fewer customers now, many companies are shedding unprofitable stores, laying off employees, and selling assets to generate cash as profits and sales have plummeted.
"That kind of scaling back, that trimming down that individuals are having to do, is a microcosmic reflection of what these corporations are needing to do," Nixon said.
Companies have canceled new store openings, renegotiated rents, and slashed inventory.
The contraction could be prolonged if, as some analysts say they believe, consumers are shifting permanently toward higher saving rates.
"We're still going to see some stores going out of business," said Stephen J. Hoch, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "It's amazing that everybody just kept opening up more and more stores and more people didn't start having problems even when things were OK."
Things in retail were shaky even before a sledgehammer fell on the world's piggy banks. Bloomingdale's alumnus and longtime retail executive Glen T. Senk, now chief executive of Urban Outfitters, says as much.
"I feel like the industry was ill well before the current economic environment," said Senk, whose $1.8 billion company is based at Philadelphia's Navy Yard.
There had come to be too many stores, too many new shopping centers, and too many Internet venues, and retailers were fighting to hold on to their customers.
"Look at Talbots, Ann Taylor, Chico's, and Liz Claiborne," Senk said. "These brands have been struggling for years. The economy has just exacerbated their struggles."
Even department stores and malls had lost loads of shoppers to big-box retailers and huge, outdoor shopping centers.
And yet, Senk said, few could imagine the scope of the economic crisis that has unfolded.
"I don't think anyone understood the enormity of the situation or the confluence of events," he said.
A local company that had feverishly expanded for years - Charming Shoppes - has undergone intense upheaval over the last year.
As many plus-size and value-oriented customers stopped shopping at its Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, and Catherine's stores, the $2.4 billion company's profits and stock price were tumbling in 2007-08. Activist investors pointed the finger at management.
Last spring, they won two seats on the board, and longtime chief executive Dorrit Bern was ousted soon after. The company has set about selling some unprofitable divisions that had been acquired under Bern, who had steered the company through exponential sales growth.
In recent months, new brand-division leaders have come on board, and in April the company hired a new chief executive, James P. Fogarty.
Fogarty is a turnaround veteran from Alvarez & Marsal Holdings L.L.C., where for years he was dispatched to consumer companies either in bankruptcy or in distress and helped make them healthy again.
"The company has already done a lot of tough stuff," Fogarty said of Charming Shoppes. He left the New York turnaround firm to run the retailer.
Although the company has ample credit and cash to fund its operations, Fogarty said it had a way to go in restoring profitability.
"We need to sell more per square foot, and we need to continue to work on our operating margins in the business," he said.
The new leaders are making changes to the company's stores, he said, hoping to attract shoppers by offering more focused assortments.
The company has halted many new-store openings and shuttered existing stores. It is also aggressively negotiating rent breaks from mall and shopping center owners.
"We've done a lot of work on rent reductions," Fogarty said, "like every other retailer in America."
In March 2008, the same hedge fund that rattled cages at Charming Shoppes gained a board seat at Destination Maternity, which is headquartered at Fifth and Spring Garden Streets in Philadelphia.
Several months later, in July 2008, the $548 million maternity-apparel retailer announced a restructuring plan that included headquarters layoffs and the renaming of a number of its stores.
The company now operates stores under the names Pea in the Pod, Motherhood Maternity, and Destination Maternity, and also produces clothing lines for all three.
Former chief operating officer Edward Krell, who in September was promoted to chief executive and in December announced a corporate name change away from Mothers Work Inc., said the plan to "tighten up the belt" and simplify the company had been in the works for a while.
But officials put it into play as the retail market began to deteriorate acutely last summer.
"When there's a tough economy, it makes it easier for you to say, 'Hey, now is the time,' " Krell said. "Necessity is the mother of invention a little bit, and sometimes that's what kind of pushes you over."
"We're not where we want to be in terms of profitability," Krell said. The company recently launched an expansion into India and the Middle East. "But we think we've put the things in place to have nice growth long term."
At Boscov's, the goal in recent months has been repair and reconstruction of the region's only remaining family-owned department store chain.
After having taken on big loans to open nearly a dozen new stores, the nearly century-old retailer declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August. A drop in customer sales, partly caused by the economy, had left the debt-soaked company in the danger zone with its lenders.
Drained of cash, Boscov's had stopped paying its suppliers, and store shelves were going empty as vendors suspended merchandise shipments.
In December, the $1 billion company came out of bankruptcy thanks to its 79-year-old former leader. Albert Boscov assembled financing from private investors, state officials, and a number of towns in Pennsylvania and South Jersey that wanted to keep Boscov's alive.
The chain shed 10 stores during bankruptcy. And Boscov and his team have spent the last six months scavenging for merchandise at discounts and passing it along to customers. That has required mending fences with vendors who lost money in the bankruptcy. "We had to convince a lot of people that we were really sorry," Boscov said during a March interview at Deptford Mall. "In the 45, 50 years I ran it, we never hurt anyone."
In recent weeks, consumer confidence has shown signs of rising, and the latest job-loss figures were less steep than they had been earlier, although still high, suggesting an easing of the recession.
But retailers remain cautious and conservative.
"I know that a year from now we'll be looking at a much better economy than we are now," Krell said. "What I'm not sure is how will it look three months from now and six months from now. And we're hopeful. But at the same time, we're managing ourselves very tightly."
Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or email@example.com.