An unprecedented crisis has created a whole new set of challenges for struggling retailers, likely setting the stage for a large wave of consolidation.
Very few retailers are going to walk away from 2020 unscathed.
Retail as an industry entered the year with a strong consumer, low unemployment and a general good feeling in the economy. Of course there were concerns and spots of pain. Even Walmart and Target posted lackluster fourth quarter numbers. Others had a much worse Q4 or stumbled into the year already surrounded by bankruptcy speculation.
Now the world is upside down, with tens of thousands of stores temporarily shut across the country, a pandemic keeping everybody in their homes and the possibility of deep recession looming.
In that environment, retailers that were already struggling with heavy debt, tight liquidity and/or negative profits face a potential financial crisis. Others that might have had downward trending numbers but some room to breathe could be forced to the edge faster than nearly anyone thought possible.
Observers expect bankruptcies in retail to rise; it’s just a question of how much, when the wave(s) will hit and what will become of the companies that file. Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney and Guitar Center have or are said to have missed interest payments recently, setting the stage for restructurings, very possibly in court.
|FRISK score||Probability of bankruptcy within 12 months|
|Best||0.00% – 0.12%|
|0.12% – 0.27%|
|0.27% – 0.34%|
|0.34% – 0.55%|
|0.55% – 0.87%|
|0.87% – 1.40%|
|1.40% – 2.10%|
|2.10% – 4.00%|
|4.00% – 9.99%|
|Worst||9.99% – 50.00%|
According to data provided by CreditRiskMonitor, risk scores for 10 retailers have fallen since March 1 to levels indicating high bankruptcy risk. The scores, dubbed FRISK, calculate the chances of a company filing for bankruptcy within 12 months. They are based on credit ratings, stock volatility, financial metrics and proprietary data around the use of CreditRiskMonitor’s platform.
As of May 1, 11 retail companies had a FRISK score of 1, indicating the highest risk, with an estimated 10% to 50% chance of filing for bankruptcy. J. Crew was removed from our count Monday, after filing for Chapter 11. Another 16 retailers had FRISK scores of 2, with a 4% to 10% chance of bankruptcy. (In counting, Retail Dive focuses on companies relevant to our audience, typically consumer-facing retailers with a significant U.S. presence, excluding grocers.)
L Brands, Children’s Place and Caleres, which owns Famous Footwear, had the largest drops in their FRISK scores since March 1. (None of those names appeared on Retail Dive’s previous watch list.)
FRISK scores are generated only for retailers with publicly traded stock or debt, and so they don’t capture the full universe of financially vulnerable retailers. Looking at credit ratings generates more names of those in distress.
C-level ratings indicate the highest risk of default, which for the ratings agencies can include everything from bankruptcy to exchanges (such as equity or new debt for existing debt) to a company buying back its own debt at prices below their face value.
There again, the COVID-19 crisis has significantly changed the risk calculus around retail. Since the pandemic took hold in the U.S., S&P Global has downgraded about a third of the retail companies it covers, according to a recent report.
Here is a look at some of the retailers most at risk:
GameStop had a miserable 2019. The gaming retailer knew it would be bad, given that it was at the tail end of a generation of consoles, with gamers likely to slow their purchases of software until new hardware came out. But it was even worse than expected, with sales dropping off 28%.
That may be a temporary blip, but GameStop also faces long-term competitive and existential problems. The digitization of games draws an uncomfortable parallel with the likes of Blockbuster and other retailers that have disappeared as their business models lost relevance.
Moody’s and S&P both downgraded the retailer before the pandemic hit. Moody’s Vice President Adam McLaren cited weak sales and performance as well as “sustained competitive threats from downloadable, streaming, and subscription gaming services.” Along with its other challenges, the retailer is dealing with a proxy fight by activist investors who want to oust some board members.
GameStop has the benefit of a strong balance sheet (something Blockbuster didn’t have in the years leading up to its bankruptcy and eventual liquidation) and flexible leases. It also has a turnaround plan based on boosting vendor relationships, shaking up product mix and transforming itself into a gaming hub. Also, the pandemic has actually given the retailer a modest sales boost, with people stuck, bored, inside their houses under government orders.
Not that long ago, Party City looked like an exception to the retail doldrums knocking others into bankruptcy in 2017, a year of record filings. The retailer makes many of its own products, giving it a wholesale channel for sales, boosting its margins and allowing it to compete on price with dollar stores and mass merchants. But Party City still carries significant debt from a leveraged buyout, was hurt from a helium shortage last year that cut into its balloon sales, and had a frightfully bad Halloween period at its costume stores.
And then the pandemic hit, with its stay-at-home orders, cancelled graduations and prohibitions against large gatherings. The sad truth is hardly anybody is partying right now. S&P downgraded the retailer in March citing the pandemic and economic challenges on the horizon.
As recently as March, Ascena executives have said publicly that bankruptcy is not on the table. And the company has done much to avoid a court restructuring process in recent years, after sales declines have widened its losses and exacerbated the problems of its debt, a legacy of Ascena’s binge on acquisitions of mall-based apparel retailers in the years leading up to a crash in mall sales.
The company has changed out executives, closed stores, sold a majority stake in Maurices, moved to shutter Dressbarn, moved to sell its offices, reportedly mulled the sale of Lane Bryant and Catherines, and bought back its own debt on the cheap. But with the retailer’s stores closed, it has been leaning on its credit line.
Victoria’s Secret has been a drag on L Brands sales as the lingerie brand loses relevance with consumers. The brand still looms large in the market for all its troubles, yet many analysts saw it as more of an albatross than an asset. Last year saw profits turn negative as executives unveiled a plan to revive Victoria’s Secret. And then L Brands turned over the keys, selling a majority stake in the lingerie giant to private equity firm Sycamore Partners as CEO Lex Wexner announced he would step down.
In March — as the retailer announced it would temporarily shutter its Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and Pink stores — L Brands disclosed that it had drawn nearly $1 billion from its secured revolver, giving it $2 billion in cash as it prepared to endure the closures.
The pandemic has also put its deal with Sycamore — which would have brought in new cash — in jeopardy. The firm has sued L Brands over the closures, saying the company violated its merger agreement. L Brands balked, alleging in court papers that Sycamore was well aware of the growing risks from COVID-19 and agreed to shoulder them.
J.C. Penney has been inching toward bankruptcy for a year, a decade or several decades, depending on how you look at it. The department store retailer’s fate is irrevocably tied to the enclosed mall, which has been in decline since the rise of power strips and big-box stores. That trend could accelerate with the pandemic.
Under Jill Soltau, the retailer has managed to shrink its inventory and make some merchandising changes. But its sales declines and profit losses have continued unabated. And now, with COVID-19 shuttering its stores, it is putting all its resources toward staying alive. And this was a year when Penney badly needed to make progress on its turnaround — freshening its stores, services and products with whatever capital available.
The permanent closing of a large number of Penney stores could further the decline of malls, as they lose yet another anchor after the liquidation of Bon-Ton and partial liquidation of Sears.