Retail · Store closings · The Amazon Effect

Department store quarterly performance: Better isn’t the same as good

Last week we had five major department stores report their quarterly earnings: Macy’sKohl’sNordstromDillard’s and JCPenney. It was a decidedly mixed bag relative to both expectations and absolute performance. Yet many observers seemed encouraged by the overall improvement in sales trend. Yet the overall sector is still losing market share, just not at quite as fast a rate. Which begs the question, is less bad somehow good?

It’s clear that one must pull out of a dive before an ascent can begin. It’s also obvious that reducing the rate of descent is no guarantee of a resurrection. Better is simply not the same as good. So to understand whether recent results provide a dose of optimism or are merely noise, it’s worth looking more closely at a few key considerations.

More rationalization must occur. The sector has been in decline for two decades–and not because of Amazon or e-commerce. The main reason is that department stores failed to innovate. They focused on expense reduction and excessive promotions, instead of being more remarkable and relevant. That won’t be fixed easily or quickly. So, in the meantime, there is simply too much supply chasing contracting consumer demand. Sector profitability isn’t going to improve much until Sears goes away and additional location pruning on the part of remaining players occurs.

Yet physical retail is not going away. Brick & mortar retail is becoming very different, but it’s far from dead. There is no fundamental reason why any given department store cannot not have a viable operation with hundreds of physical locations, particularly when we realize that some 80% of all products in core department store categories are purchased offline.

You can’t shrink to prosperity. Wall Street seems to think that store closings are a panacea. They’re wrong. It’s one thing to right-size both store counts and individual store sizes in response to overbuilding and shifting consumer preferences. It’s another thing to make a brand’s value proposition fundamentally more relevant and remarkable. Department stores must spend more time working on giving consumers reasons to shop in the channels they have (note: excessive discounting doesn’t count) and abandon the idea that shuttering scores of locations is a silver bullet.

Same-store sales are an increasingly irrelevant metric. Wall Street needs to let go of its obsession with same-store performance as the be-all-end-all performance indicator. Any decent “omni-channel” retailer should be on its way to–or as is already true with Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus well past–more than 20% of its overall sales coming from e-commerce. So unless a retailer is gobbling up market share most of that business is coming from existing stores. The reality is that shifting consumer preferences are going to make it nearly impossible for many retailers (of any kind) to run positive store comps. That does not mean a brand cannot grow trade area market share and profits. And it doesn’t mean that a given store is not productive even if sales keep trending down. Stores drive online, and vice versa. Smart retailers understand this and focus on customer segment and trade area dynamics, not merely individual store performance in isolation.

It is going to take more than a couple of quarters to fully understand whether the department store sector has stabilized, much less turned the corner. As we look ahead, of the five that reported, Nordstrom is clearly the best positioned, both from the standpoint of having relevant and differentiated formats and possessing physical and digital assets that are the closest to being “right-sized” for the future. And call me crazy, but I sense that JC Penney is actually starting to gain some meaningful traction. Dillard’s is a mess and Macy’s and Kohl’s remain very much works in progress.

Regardless, with tepid consumer demand and over-capacity, no department store brand (and I’d include Neiman Marcus and Saks in the mix as well) does especially well until we see further consolidation. And even when that occurs, if department stores keep swimming in a sea of sameness and engaging in a promotional race to the bottom, they have zero chance of getting back to a sustainable, much less interesting, level of performance. Better is nice. Encouraging even. But it is simply not the same as good.

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.

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