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It May Already Be Too Late for Macy’s

Sarah Halzack
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It May Already Be Too Late for Macy’s

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It is hard to think of a retailer that is doing so much to save itself, and has so little to show for it, as Macy’s Inc.

The department store giant reported Thursday that comparable sales sank 3.9% from a year earlier in the quarter, or 3.5% including licensed departments, a sharp retreat from meager gains it had recorded on this measure in the first half of the year. It was such a weak showing that the company cut its profit forecast and now expects declining comparable sales for the full year.

Of course, department stores have been challenged for years because they rely on an older customer and are often tethered to the types of malls that are withering in the e-commerce era. These latest results from Macy’s, though, coupled with a disappointing earnings report from Kohl’s Corp. earlier this week, increase skepticism that the giants of the category can find a formula for success before it’s too late.

Macy’s has tried plenty of tactics to boost sales. It has an off-price segment. It is renovating its top-performing stores. It has dramatically expanded its selection online. But the steep decline in sales is a signal that it has not been enough.

The company’s press release points to several reasons for the dismal results, including the weather (a go-to excuse for apparel retailers when things go off track) and soft international tourism (which affects sales at its big-city flagships). It also called out “weaker than anticipated performance in lower tier malls.”

That third factor is noteworthy because it highlights the trouble with a major component of Macy’s turnaround strategy: The company is currently working to revamp about 150 stores while transforming its weaker locations into so-called “neighborhood stores” that are smaller in size and have fewer employees.

The results raise the question of why Macy’s is clinging to these stores in dumpy malls. Macy’s needs to give more serious consideration to closing some of these locations.

In other words: Macy’s may be doing a lot of things to salvage its business, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right things.

The company said Thursday it will hold an investor day in February to discuss its three-year growth strategy. Any presentation that does not include a roadmap for additional store closures — and a clear plan for improving its actual merchandise — should be dismissed as unlikely to restore Macy’s to health.

Kohl’s, a rival, is in a slightly better position than Macy’s, since its stores are typically not located in malls. But its third-quarter results also raised fresh doubts that it has carved a path to long-term relevance.

Its new partnership with Amazon appears to be going largely as planned, with executives saying on an analyst conference call that it was “meeting expectations” and that conversion rates were on par with what it saw in pilot markets.

But the Amazon arrangement is a creative move that should be providing new, young customers to Kohl’s. If all the retailer can deliver under those circumstances is a 0.4% increase in comparable sales, should that really excite investors about the program’s potential?

It’s also discouraging that Kohl’s women’s business is adrift, recording declining sales in the quarter that offset more upbeat sales in departments such as men’s and footwear.

Macy’s and Kohl’s shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking their would-be customers are simply sitting on the sidelines. TJX Cos., the corporate parent of Marshalls and TJ Maxx, recorded healthy comparable sales in the quarter. Target Corp. reported Wednesday that its apparel and accessories department saw a “double-digit” increase in sales in the period. It’s clear those better-run retailers are benefiting from Macy’s and Kohl’s stumbles.

Building a vibrant 21st-century department store was always going to be a tall order. But Macy’s and Kohl’s latest reports raise the question of whether, for them, that goal is now out of reach.

To contact the author of this story: Sarah Halzack at shalzack@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net

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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