Can mall-based retailers survive economic headwinds?

2019/08/29 Innoverview Read

With the possibility of another recession on the horizon, it's uncertain whether retailers already suffering will make it out alive. Eight experts weigh in.

Threats of the next economic recession in the near future are only getting louder. Upon seeing the inverted yield curve a couple weeks ago, several analysts speculated economic headwinds could be approaching sooner rather than later. Those speculations intensified Tuesday evening when the U.S. yield curve inverted to levels last seen in 2007, according to a Reuters report.

According to a recently released survey conducted by the National Association for Business Economics, 74% of the business analysts surveyed believe an economic recession will occur by 2021. Of those, 38% believe one will occur next year, down slightly from 42% of analysts that thought the same back in February. Additionally, since February, more analysts expect a recession to be delayed, with 34% saying it will occur sometime in 2021, up from 25%.


Credit: Caroline Jansen for Retail Dive; Source: National Association for Business Economics


Dollar stores and discount retailers have prevailed in the decade since the last major economic recession. However, department stores and other mall-based retailers continue to feel the pain from the crash. 

Mall vacancies are coming off the seven-year high they reached last October, and while they've recovered slightly, it doesn't necessarily indicate good news for mall-based retailers. 

J.C. Penney, Sears and Macy's closures opened up mall anchors for grocery stores, gyms and even trampoline parks. But the stores occupying the high-rent anchor stores aren't the only ones to suffer.

Supplements retailer GNC announced in July it was in the process of shuttering 900 stores, most of which are located in malls. Charlotte Russe, which filed for Chapter 11 in February, was granted approval in March to begin the liquidation process and shutter all of its stores. While the company was purchased by YM Inc. in June and opened five stores, that count pales in comparison to the amount it operated when it initially filed. Additionally, Francesca's and Forever 21, retailers that both largely operate within malls, have faced their own financial troubles lately.

Looking at the first two quarters of the fiscal year, earnings rose 3% for retailers outside of malls, while they dropped 29% for mall-based retailers, according to data from Retail Metrics cited by the Associated Press. Consumer sentiment this month was 92.1, down 6.4% from last month when it was 98.4, according to a preliminary reading from the University of Michigan. If sentiment drops further in the face of economic headwinds, will mall-based retailers become obsolete?

The discussion forum on RetailWire asked its BrainTrust panel of retail experts the following questions:

  • How does the current health of retail in the U.S. compare to where the industry was before the start of the Great Recession? 

  • Do you think the fallout from the next recession to hit the U.S. will be more devastating to retail businesses than those that came before it?

Here are eight of the most insightful comments from the discussion. Comments have been edited by Retail Dive for length and clarity.

1. There will be more failures, and that's not necessarily a bad thing

Neil Saunders, Managing Director, GlobalData Retail: Most retailers are now much leaner than they were going into the last downturn. That's a good thing, but it means those that are struggling will have very little room to maneuver should another recession strike. Basically, there's not much fat to cut.

In my view, a recession will accelerate current trends and those retailers currently posting bad results will see even more attrition. That's certainly going to produce more failures. Harsh as it may sound, I am not entirely sure that's a bad thing. Clearing out the weak so that stronger and newer alternatives have more room to grow is kind of evolutionary.

2. Mall developers should worry in the face of a recession

Lee Peterson, EVP Thought Leadership and Marketing, WD Partners: There are so many retailers teetering on the brink that even a minor consumer-driven recession will see them falling into the abyss. Think of specialty retail alone and all the marginal middle players like J.C. Penney and department stores. The players that should be sweating, though, are mall developers and real estate crunchers. The time to re-think all that empty space is now, before the inevitable.

3. Easy to believe another recession could shutter already suffering malls

Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates: The last recession had several lasting impacts, including a turn away from designer labels and toward the treasure hunt. The mall that is closest to my home in Florida is only one third full; it's easy to imagine that a significant economic downturn could shutter it.

4. 'The meteor is coming'

David Katz, EVP & CMO, Randa Accessories: Never waste a good recession. For industry leaders and disrupters, a recession provides an opportunity for growth in market share… for those less fit to survive, recessions are extinction events. The meteor is coming; no one is sure where or when it will hit.

5. All of retail is at risk, not just malls

Paula Rosenblum, Managing Partner, RSR Research: We have had a generational shift in the past decade, and retailers still haven't quite figured out how to attract these new entrants. We've seen the emergence of fast fashion, and now its market saturation. And the recognition of its bad impact on the environment.

I think retail has been healthy but shaky since the recession and between tariffs and other potential recessionary trends, the industry is at serious risk. Not just malls. The whole shebang.

6. Lessons learned from recessions past influence consumer behavior

Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC: While it's important to understand the health of retail prior to the past recession, I believe it's the consumer impact over the "recovery" that sets the stage for the next recession. Consumers learned how to constrict spending and that included going to malls less often, as well as cutting back on gas to get there. Online sales have benefited from that learning. Of course, there is more to the success of online, but lessons learned in the past recession impacted consumer behavior then and continue to influence shopping today. Anticipation of a new recession will reflect lessons learned and new shopping patterns.

7. Planning ahead will be critical

Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC: Retail overall is good today. Any loss in confidence and the impact of a recession will impact sales. It always does. But consider this… Noah didn't build the Ark after it rained. We know a recession is looming ahead. We also know that digital/online sales are playing a factor in traditional brick-and-mortar and mall sales (and traffic). It's time to plan, and if done well, will help minimize economic impact. It will be there, but it will be the retailers that can adjust that will survive.

8. Retailers are working to adapt

Jeff Sward, Founding Partner, Merchandising Metrics: Recessions are tipping points, filters if you will. It's not apocalyptic and it's not Armageddon. Resilient businesses that have demonstrated adaptability will do ok. Will Target survive? Of course. Will J.C. Penney survive? Doubtful. Theoretically, every retailer is doing their best right now to adapt and create some new kind of model. Theoretically. So it might come down to balance sheets. Good ideas with strong balance sheets — no problem. Weak ideas with weak balance sheets, nice knowing you. In between is a coin toss.

(Copyright:Retail Dive