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U.S. Retail Stores’ Planned Closings Already Exceed 2018 Total

By Sapna Maheshwari

As an executive vice president at Great American Group, a firm that helps liquidate the merchandise, clothing racks and mannequins at stores that are closing, Ryan Mulcunry has been watching booms and busts in the retail industry for almost two decades.

Companies like his have been busy in recent years, but lately one thing has been missing.

“In all the other cycles, including 2008, a lot of people would come in and buy racking, circular racks and so on,” Mr. Mulcunry said. “They’d buy it all and warehouse it and wait until somebody wanted to reopen a store and sell it back to them. Those people have gone away.”

He added, “People don’t think retail is going to grow again from a bricks-and-mortar perspective.”

As the internet continues to change shopping habits, stores across the United States continue to close. Less than halfway through April, American retailers have announced plans this year to shut 5,994 stores, exceeding the 5,854 announced in all of 2018, according to data from Coresight Research.

Retailers in good financial shape are paring locations as their leases expire, while brands like Payless ShoeSource and Charlotte Russe are filing for bankruptcy and shutting hundreds of stores within months. Payless and Gymboree — which both filed for bankruptcy this year for a second time — account for almost half of the announced closings.

“For a long time, companies have talked about the squeeze in the middle of retail, but then you see the closure of a Payless,” said John Mercer, a senior analyst at Coresight, a research and advisory firm. “There’s just so much choice now that it’s not so much always the middle.”

Stores that are surviving tend to offer consumers more compelling experiences and better complement online shopping options, Mr. Mercer added.

The announced closings still have a ways to go before they reach the 2017 record of more than 8,000. And openings
and renovations are still taking place. Coresight has tracked announcements of 2,641 store openings by retailers in the United States this year, compared with 3,239 for all of 2018. Many of this year’s openings are dollar stores and other discount chains — areas that are less threatened by e-commerce right now. Online retailers like Warby Parker are also opening stores, though on a small scale.

Struggling stores can slog on for years, as shopper traffic declines and their 40-percent-off sales begin to feel permanent. But when companies file for bankruptcy, closings often move at lightning speed. In the past year, liquidation sales have happened at Bon-Ton, Toys “R” Us, Charlotte Russe, Gymboree and Payless, shaking up the lives of employees.

Great American Group and Tiger Capital Group are among a handful of businesses that have managed store liquidations for years, hired to wring as much value from them as they can. Both worked on the Bon-Ton and Toys “R” Us closings last year.

Usually, the money they extract will help pay creditors. Tiger Capital’s website said it had sold $5 billion in assets from chainwide liquidations and strategic retail closings in 2018.

“When we’re doing a liquidation sale, it’s all about recovery versus time — the longer you are open, the more expensive it is,” said Michael McGrail, chief operating officer of Tiger Capital. “It’s all about getting this thing moving, moving it fast, starting on a certain day and being out by a certain day.”

Mall-order clothing retailers can shut down in as little as five weeks, furniture stores may take 12 weeks, and jewelry stores can last 20 weeks, Mr. McGrail said. Tiger Capital uses different models to optimize sales, with the goal of leaving nothing in the store, including furniture, jewelry cases and shelves.

Mr. Mulcunry of Great American said it was “like we’re running a retailer for the short term.” The hardest part is keeping workers, he said, especially with low unemployment rates over all. The firm tries to maintain a sense of culture at stores, offer resources for new jobs and potentially pay bonuses to staff who stay roughly 60 days after the closing is announced, he said.

The firms also prepare staff for the “Christmas in July” effect of going-out-of-business sales, Mr. McGrail said. “You’re dealing with people ripping apart shelves, and employees are not used to that,” he said. “So we’re in there, we’re helping them, we’re coaching them and walking them through this process.”

Sydney Blair, 18, was excited to be working at a Charlotte Russe store in the Asheville Mall in North Carolina when the company filed for bankruptcy in February. In early March, she was told that the store would be liquidated, a process that was completed by the end of the month. Charlotte Russe, which was unable to find a buyer after its bankruptcy filing, announced closing sales at more than 400 locations.

“It happened very quickly,” Ms. Blair said, adding that the store was packed with customers in its final weeks. “I had a few customers complaining about my attitude not being 100 percent, and I was just kind of like: We’re all losing our jobs. I can’t help but walk in here and slowly see it being emptied out and just sort of feel sad.”

And even during the liquidation process, e-commerce looms large.

“The biggest thing we’ve had to do is figure out how to sell stuff online,” Mr. Mulcunry said. Great American has been exploring ways to maximize sales through company websites, ads on Facebook and Instagram, and by offers on Amazon.

“A going-out-of-business sale is exciting: People want to go, it’s fun and drives energy, and that’s what we made money on for a long period of time,” he said. “But if the customer changes, so must the liquidator.”

Mr. McGrail views the power shifts in retail as a “slow and steady” evolution. “Even though we’re seeing this bump of store closures now, it’ll slow down a bit and then we’ll see another wave,” he said. Still, he said that he expected retail square footage to continue to shrink and a widening of the gap between the best malls and more mediocre locations.

Many retailers have been exiting their least profitable mall locations. Gap recently said that it would close 230 stores in the next two years, mostly as leases expire, as it tries to balance its online, outlet and regular sales. Victoria’s Secret plans to close 53 stores in North America this year, up from its usual culling of about 15 stores annually. The chain will still have more than 900 stores.

Payless plans to close 2,300 stores in North America by the end of May, in what is expected to be the biggest liquidation of a retailer by store count. Gymboree started closing 749 Gymboree and Crazy 8 stores in the United States in January. The personalized engraving retailer Things Remembered, which filed for bankruptcy this year, has closed more than 200 stores.

“It’s not really a recession-driven or, even to an extent, management-driven change — it’s a change in the way people are buying,” Mr. Mulcunry said. “Retail is not dying. It’s just changing, so we’re a part of that change.”