The retail industry is facing an existential crisis — and not while mired in the depths of recession, but as the economy notches its eighth year of expansion.
In March alone, Sears Holdings (SHLD), the parent of Sears and Kmart stores, said “substantial doubt” exists about its survival prospects after losing more than $10 billion over six years and watching sales fall for even longer. Urban Outfitters (URBN) likened the troubled industry to a housing bubble that has popped. And reports surfaced that women’s apparel chain Bebe Stores (BEBE) plans to close all its 168 stores and go online only. (On Wednesday, it said it will close 21 stores and explore options for the rest.)
As retailers take a hard look at the future in the age of Amazon.com (AMZN), investors face a big question of their own: Are retail stocks just flat-out doomed?
No analyst interviewed for this story was ready to declare the physical store dead. But retail’s wounds still run deep, and there are almost certainly too many stores in the U.S. Many stocks of top chains, while not as low as during the Great Recession, are rolling over into pronounced downtrends. The weak stock action creates short-selling opportunities for investors who believe the worst for retail is yet to come.
A Yardeni Research report estimated that online shopping has grown to 29.1% of retail sales of items like general merchandise, apparel and accessories, and furniture — but not autos and fuel. That’s up from less than 10% in the late 1990s. Over the same period, department stores’ share of sales withered to 12.6% from around 30%.
Still, companies that sell things within walls, floors and ceilings still have options in a $4 trillion market.
“There’s no way Amazon becomes a $4 trillion e-tailer in 10 years,” said Jeff Roster, vice president of retail strategy at IHL Group. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Analysts say physical stores can still be vital in a connected, buy-anywhere, retail-everywhere world, with chains experimenting with new uses for their locations and even e-commerce companies seeing the value of in-store experiences.
“There’s plenty they can do,” Roster said of retailers. “The question is: Will they do it?”
Looking For ‘A Little Easier Game’
Meanwhile, the weight has accumulated on retail stocks. Take Macy’s (M), which earlier had been praised for its aggressive efforts to integrate online and in-store operations. The department store’s shares have lost more than half their value since July 2015. Earnings and sales have fallen for eight consecutive quarters.
L Brands (LB), whose Victoria’s Secret brand ought to be more insulated from e-commerce, has seen its stock halved since late 2015. The SPDR Retail ETF (XRT) has fallen some 20% over the past two years.
IBD’S TAKE: Retail stocks trending below their declining 200-day moving averages offer shorting opportunities. For example, Macy’s is struggling to get back in the 30s, but that would set up yet another test of the 50-day average and a possible short entry. Dillard’s has stumbled this year, down as much as 25%, and just got turned away from its 50-day. See if it can hold support at 46.56.
As those trends have solidified, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKB) CEO Warren Buffett, who prides himself on being a long-term investor, divested almost all his stake in Wal-Mart (WMT) in Q4. He told CNBC in February that “the online thing is very hard to figure out, you know?”
Amazon, Buffett said, was a company “that’s gonna have everybody in their sights. And they’ve got delighted customers.”
“Now, Wal-Mart’s pushing forward online themselves and they’ve got all kinds of strengths,” he later added. “But I just decided that I’d look for a little easier game.”
For much of the past 60 years, retail was an easier game. The postwar population explosion held consumerism aloft for years, says Doug Stephens, founder and CEO of retail advisory service Retail Prophet. When baby boomers’ spending slowed as they reached their 50s, growth in personal credit — spurred by financial deregulation — helped pick up the slack, or at least masked weaker trends, he says.
“It allowed a lot of retailers to get away with being pretty average,” Stephens said. “The average American aspired to be average. They aspired to the middle-class average lifestyle, and retailers like JCPenney (JCP)…