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Party City Had Little to Celebrate Lately as Sales Falter

Lauren Coleman-Lochner

(Bloomberg) -- These should be celebratory times for Party City. The run-up to the trifecta of holidays -- Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s -- is the most important period for the retailer of all things festive.

But recent events have let the air out of the company’s balloon. The latest include a quarterly loss that punctured Party City Holdco Inc.’s stock and sent its bonds to deeply distressed levels. Then came downgrades from credit raters, who said online shopping, tariffs and high helium prices will make it tough to manage about $2.9 billion of debt and lease commitments.

While this makes it sound like Party City is next in line for the retail apocalypse, the chain hasn’t posted an annual loss since 2012 and analysts expect it will post a full-year profit next year.

“The issue is not whether they can survive tomorrow,” said Allen Adamson, co-founder of marketing consulting company Metaforce. “But whether they will thrive the day after tomorrow.”

Executives at the Elmsford, New York-based company declined to comment for this article.

The 33-year-old chain certainly found a niche when it opened, with its vast repositories of disco balls, streamers and Santa hats. Since then, Amazon.com Inc. and discount chains like Target Corp. have encroached. What’s more, customers no longer want to go to a store for a single category, said Adamson, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

“Efficiency and simplicity are driving everything,” he said, which favors online shopping. “You don’t have to spend an hour in a crowded mall lining up in Party City.”

Party City is still the leader in its category with about 900 stores as of its latest quarterly report, and it’s pledging to reduce debt while building out in-store pickup for online purchases under a new president of retail, said analyst Adam McLaren at Moody’s Investors Service.

Still Profitable

It’s also buoyed by its wholesale arm, which helps it mitigate tariff impacts and gives it more supplier flexibility, Adamson said.

“The vast majority of their stores are still profitable,” McLaren said, and the huge store count is “still key.” Liquidity is still good, too, he said, and no significant maturities loom until 2022.

Still, both Adamson and McLaren see worrisome trends. Sales during its key Halloween season faltered again this year amid growing competition, and its products are easily available elsewhere.

“You can pretty much get 80% of what they sell at another business,” Adamson said. “You’re not going in there to buy birthday gifts. You’re going in there to buy streamers.”

Party Products

The company’s debt and the low-margin items it sells hamper its ability to invest in services like party planning, entertainment and a better shopping experience, he said.

Earlier this month, Party City reported a $282 million third-quarter loss due to weak Halloween sales and a helium shortage, prompting it to cut its annual forecast. Its senior unsecured bonds maturing in 2023 and 2026 tipped into distress after the news, while the stock plunged 67% the day of the report.

The following week its largest shareholder, Thomas H. Lee Partners, disclosed that it distributed shares to limited partners and would no longer have the right to nominate board members, sending the shares down almost 10% more.

Last week, a Thomas H. Lee partner who’d earlier said he planned to remain on the board resigned, though he said he had no disagreement with management.

“The company’s competitive standing has weakened,” S&P Global Ratings analyst Cameron Bybee wrote in his downgrade, saying a default could be on the horizon for 2022 if consumers continue to move online as well as crimp spending in a slowing economy.

(Updates to include lease commitments in the second paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Lauren Coleman-Lochner in New York at llochner@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rick Green at rgreen18@bloomberg.net, Boris Korby

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