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Retailers Wish You'd Be Back Shopping By Easter

Andrea Felsted
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Retailers Wish You'd Be Back Shopping By Easter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Donald Trump wasn’t alone in hoping everyone’s lives could get back to normal by Easter weekend.

Retailers’ decisions to furlough hundreds of thousands of U.S. retail workers this week underscore that store closures are set to go on for much longer than initially anticipated. Closings in many major markets around the world will remain in place through next weekend and beyond, wreaking havoc with the prime spring shopping season.

Hennes & Mauritz AB said on Friday that net sales fell by 46% in March from the year earlier. It expects a loss in its second quarter. 

The extended closures will now affect crucial pre-Easter shopping period, worth about $25 billion to U.S. retailers, according to GlobalData. While people may still indulge in filling their children’s baskets with chocolate eggs to create some holiday cheer in this difficult time, crackdowns on even the smallest of gatherings mean they won’t be planning big fancy meals, nor refreshing their bunny-and-chick-themed decorations. 

 

What’s more, consumers can’t take advantage of the long holiday weekend in much of Europe to start shopping for the latest trends for summer. That’s a blow because it typically kicks off the period when consumers refresh their wardrobes, home decorations and gardens for the warmer months. If temperatures soar, that can normally set non-food retailers fair for the coming quarter.  

From there, people’s diaries would typically be chock full with weddings, graduations and parties, plenty of reasons to update one’s wardrobe. But the novel coronavirus has radically changed all of that, eliminating pretty much any reason to dress for success. It’s estimated that half of couples planning weddings in the U.S. this year are looking to postpone them, according to data from the Wedding Report. The graduation season has been thrown into question. More than 80 U.S. colleges and universities have either canceled, postponed or been turned their 2020 commencement ceremonies into virtual gatherings. 

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That means everything from floral dresses to pastel hued shoes may have to be offloaded. Discounting to clear unwanted stock means the crisis is likely to last well into the second quarter, and possibly beyond.

There’s another reason why the impact on may be bigger than initially feared: Some online demand has evaporated. Retailers have to ensure workers processing internet orders observe strict social distancing rules. So far British online fashion group Asos Plc, which generated 13% of its sales from the U.S., has kept its warehouses in Atlanta, Berlin and the U.K. open, albeit with longer delivery times. But rival fashion chain Next Plc has stopped taking online orders while it reconfigures its distribution centers. This would be in line with its worst case scenario of the business being closed for four weeks, cutting full-year sales by 1 billion pounds ($1.2 billion).

No wonder store chains have shifted to cash preservation mode. H&M said it was taking a number of initiatives, from cutting working hours to seeking rent reductions, to try to cope. In the U.S., hundreds of thousands of staff are being temporarily laid off, with chains such as Macy’s Inc., J.C. Penney Co., Kohl’s Corp. and Gap Inc. halting pay for much of their workforce while preserving some benefits. 

The longer the hiatus in consumer spending, the more likely that some retailers and restaurants just won’t open their doors again. Others may decide to radically cut down on their brick-and-mortar locations. U.S. department stores, already grappling with the shift to online and mostly lackluster product selections, look particularly challenged.

But even companies that do emerge relatively unscathed could find recovery just as demanding. Consumers who have kept their jobs will likely be eager to splash out on holiday and work attire when they’re finally able to move about freely and go back to the office, purchases they can fund with money saved during lockdown on everything from gym memberships and dining out.

The question is whether any pent up demand will be enough to alleviate lost sales from those who have been temporarily laid off, or worse, made redundant. Individuals in fear of losing their jobs, or being forced to take pay cuts, are likely to save more. So consumer-facing companies need to brace themselves for a long haul.  It’s going to be some time before stores reopen, and even longer before they get back to any semblance of normality.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

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