Retailer shares have been unable to fully stabilize after sell-offs that accompanied their earnings for the 2016 holiday period. Some retailers shuttered stores. Others gave pessimistic guidance. The slide began in earnest again, as retail stocks got punished on Monday. Kohl's Corp. (KSS), Macy's Inc. (NYSE: M), Gap Inc. (GPS) and Nordstrom Inc. (NYSE:JWM) were among the largest losers in the S&P 500.
The drop came as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) announced it would open a retail operation in Silicon Valley to ponder its future. No other retailer has a project that rivals this in scope of ambition.
Additionally, the drops came just days after J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP) closed 138 stores. Shares in the ancient retailer dropped to a 52-week low of $5.77, down 30% so far this year.
The concern about these retailers has turned from store count and revenue attrition to balance sheets. J.C. Penney has $4.5 billion in long-term debt. Granted, some is not due for a decade, but the concern is that the retailer will not exist to make the principle payments. And several hundred million of the J.C. Penney obligations must be paid between now and the end of 2020. Next year, $265 million in senior notes come due, for example.
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As a description of what has gone wrong in the industry, Bespoke's experts wrote:
Finally, we would note that what is going on right now in retail is a fantastic example of Schumpeter's "creative destruction." In pursuit of profits, the new model of online commerce is winning because it's flat-out more efficient. As it succeeds, the older, less efficient ways of selling goods to consumers are losing market share and crumbling. Over time, it's this iterative process across industries that drives productivity, the ultimate source of higher standards of living. In a period when aggregate output per worker hour (labor productivity) has been cratering, we think the retail industry is a great example that there's more going on beneath the surface than the headline labor productivity stats alone.
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In other words, the industry is not only in great trouble, so are a number of people who work in it.