NEW YORK – The fallout from the horrific holiday season for retailers has begun, with the operator of an online toy seller filing for bankruptcy protection and more stores are expected to do the same — meaning more empty storefronts and fewer brands on store shelves.
A rash of store closings, which some experts predict will be the most in 35 years, is likely to come across areas from electronics to apparel, shrinking the industry and leading to fewer niche players and suppliers.
The most dramatic pullback in consumer spending in decades could transform the retail landscape, as thousands of stores and whole malls close down. And analysts expect prolonged woes in the industry as the dramatic changes in shopping behavior could linger for another two or three years amid worries about the deteriorating economy and rising layoffs.
"You are going to see a substantial retrenchment in the retail industry," said Rick Chesley, partner in the global bankruptcy and restructuring group at international law firm Paul Hastings. "The downturn has been catastrophic."
A number of stores couldn't even make it to Christmas. Circuit City Stores Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection last month. It plans to keep operating, but toy seller KB Toys, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, is liquidating its stores and will shut down.
The survival prospects for many more stores are dimming as more sales data comes in about the crucial holiday shopping season, which can account for up to 40 percent of a retailer's annual profit.
Holiday sales fell from 2 percent to 4 percent compared to a year ago, according to SpendingPulse, a division of MasterCard Advisors. Excluding gas and car sales, they dropped between 5.5 percent and 8 percent from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, as key categories from luxury to electronics posted double-digit sales declines. Sales of electronics and appliances fell almost 27 percent, for example.
The retail casualties, which were first among home furnishing stores and then many apparel stores over the past year or so, are expected to cut across all sectors as shoppers have slashed their spending on non-essentials, from TVs to jewelry.
About 160,000 stores will have closed this year and 200,000 more could shutter next year, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of consulting firm Strategic Resource Group. That would be the industry's biggest contraction in 35 years. In March and April of next year, Flickinger expects 2,000 to 3,000 malls to shutter.
AlixPartners LLP, a turnaround consulting firm, predicts that 25.8 percent of 182 major retailers it tracks are either facing major financial distress or will face a significant risk of filing for bankruptcy in either next year or 2010 — the highest level in the 10 years that the firm has been compiling the figures. That compares with the 4 percent to 7 percent that it predicted would face financial woes in the previous two years.
Among the most vulnerable are retailers that have debt coming due soon and had relied on solid holiday sales to generate cash, said Matthew Katz, managing director in the firm's retail performance improvement practice. But he said he's also watching merchants whose debt is not due until later in 2009 or 2010, but are paying big interest payments as they struggle with high debt loads and shrinking revenues.
Some of the retailers that analysts say they are watching carefully are struggling regional department store Bon-Ton Stores Inc., of York, Pa. and apparel retailer Goody's Family Clothing Inc., which filed for bankruptcy protection in June but emerged from Chapter 11 in October. Officials from Bon-Ton and Goody's did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
This week Parent Co., the operator of etoys.com, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and said it will consider selling some or all of its operations. Chris Byrne, a New York-based toy consultant, said that etoys.com couldn't compete with the aggressive tactics embraced by Toys R Us and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's top two toy sellers.
Retailers who do file for bankruptcy are also under more pressure now than in the past because of 2005 changes to the code that cut down the amount of time they have to file a complete reorganization plan, said Ken Simon, managing partner at Loughlin Meghji + Co., a restructuring advisory firm.
Another big problem for them, Simon said, will be securing additional financing to keep operating because of the tight credit markets.
The dire problems facing retailers also spell bigger problems for suppliers, which have already been seeing merchants cut or cancel orders.
Allan Ellinger, senior managing partner at New York-based MMG, an investment banking and strategic advisory practice, foresees a shakeout in the apparel industry and said those who survive are going to have a hard time meeting the financial needs of stores.
He estimated that apparel companies have slashed their 2009 spring inventory by 20 percent to 25 percent from a year ago, because they would rather be reacting to hot sellers than be stuck with too much merchandise.
"You have to go into deep survival mode," Ellinger added.