J.C. Penney recently announced its fourth quarter earnings as well as plans to shutter as many as 140 stores. To say the least, the announcement was a decidedly mixed bag.
On the good–or at least improving–side, earnings were a bit better than anticipated. Moreover, Penney’s comparable stores sales fell “only” 0.7%, materially better than their direct competitors, indicating some growth in relative market share. The company also continues to experience double-digit e-commerce growth with some 75% of online orders “touching” a physical store. While the picture is incomplete, this at least suggests that they are gaining much needed traction on their omnichannel initiatives. The retailer will continue to roll-out appliances, positioning them well for growth as Sears implodes and HHGregg appears headed for bankruptcy. And Penney’s should gain share in other key categories as Sears, Macy’s and others close stores and continue to struggle.
Given the huge revenue drop during the Ron Johnson era, the bad news continues to be that despite all the merchandising and operating improvements during the past three years, regaining material market share is proving nearly impossible. Moreover, the small amount of share that has been clawed back has come at high rates of couponing and promotional activity. Penney’s can never become a profitable retailer merely by closing a bunch of stores and maintaining an unprofitable level of discounting. Until Penney’s proves it can drive positive same store sales and a sustainable margin rate the turnaround remains teetering on the brink of life support.
The ugly centers on the increasingly dire picture these announcements paint for “traditional” department stores. Everything we have seen of late from the moderate department store players indicates that the sector’s decades long decline is not only accelerating but is reaching the tipping point where consolidation, store rationalization and fundamental business model restructuring must occur at a much faster and more dramatic pace. There is no scenario in which the available market these retailers compete for does not continue to shrink, thereby eviscerating the underlying economics of hundreds of physical locations. Pruning costs, rolling-out new merchandising strategies, offering “buy-on-line, pick-up-in-store”–and all the other turn-out plans outlined in the press releases–are all likely worthwhile. But they are not remotely close to sufficient.
With all the store closings already in the works–and more certain to follow–it will take some time for the dust to settle. The potential for a major acquisition or two may further cloud the picture this year. The only thing we know for sure is that the “profit pool” for the sector continues to contract and it’s very likely that one or more players won’t be around by this time next year. Until one or more of the remaining brands can demonstrate both improving margins and sustained comparable stores sales the sector starts to look one where no one can earn a decent return.
And maybe no one gets out of here alive.
A version of this story appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts here.