Retailers are looking forward to the trends and technologies that the new year will bring, but it's also important to reflect on some of the most impactful events of 2017. Retail Dive put together a calendar of the most important news stories from each month this year.
"This isn’t goodbye…" The Limited promised its customers as it shuttered some 250 remaining stores in January, just a few weeks before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Jan. 17. But without a physical presence, it was essentially goodbye for the women’s apparel retailer. It had closed out 2016 as a shadow of its former self, beset by falling traffic and offering styles that can also be found at rivals like Loft and at department stores.
As the company publicly planned to restructure, the retailer was missing key top executives. CEO Diane Ellis left to become president of women’s apparel brand Chico's in October after less than two months in that position. John Buell, who was elevated from his CFO role to interim CEO, abandoned ship in late December. Ironically, The Limited ultimately fell victim to the fast fashion philosophies it helped pioneer. With a $26.8 million bid, private equity firm Sycamore Partners snapped up The Limited’s intellectual property, including its e-commerce business in late February. The iconic apparel retailer was just the first of over 20 major retailers to file for bankruptcy. Just a month later, Moody's Investors Service released an explosive report showing that the number of distressed retailers was nearing recession-era levels. That trend is expected to continue into 2018.
February: Hudson's Bay mulls a Macy's takeover
On the first of the month, Macy's stock jumped following a New York Post report stating the embattled retailer was in discussions to sell to a private equity firm in an effort to skirt a potential battle for control of its board of directors. Days later, The Wall Street Journal reported that Hudson’s Bay was in takeover talks with the beleaguered department store chain.
With a market value of $9.8 billion, Macy’s dwarfs Hudson’s Bay, which is valued at $1.8 billion and is the Canadian owner of retail brands including Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor. Macy’s is burdened with about $7.5 billion in debt, which further complicated a potential deal — which stalled in March. Around that time, anonymously-sourced reports indicated the department store conglomerate was interested in another debt-burdened department store chain — Neiman Marcus. Mid-March, the company announced it was exploring a sale, but by June, sources told the Journal that those talks had broken down too.
Amid retail's bloodbath, Hudson's Bay was hunting for a buy. Yet onlookers say the company may have been better off evaluating its own struggles. In October, it announced the abrupt departure of CEO Jerry Storch and in December, S&P Global issued a gloomy outlook for Hudson's Bay, citing deep challenges in the department store sector.
Target executives in March unveiled a series of initiatives designed to reverse the big-box retailer’s same-store sales declines. The mass merchant’s $7 billion investment in stores, revamped digital strategy and private label push have helped put it back in the game — and earned it the title of Retail Dive's Turnaround of the Year — after a string of disappointing quarterly earnings reports dating back to 2015. Amid what CEO Brian Cornell has described as a "seismic shift" in the retail industry, Target is redefining the brand.
In March, the company announced an investment of more than $2 billion of capital in 2017, and more than $7 billion over the next three years. Executives said it would use about $1 billion of operating profits this year to improve brick-and-mortar and digital operations. Cornell noted that much of the investment would go to adding more than 100 small format stores near urban, suburban and college campuses over the next three years, as well as overhauling 1,000 existing locations using aspects of the retailer’s LA25 concept store that have tested well. Stores are also being reconfigured to more efficiently serve as fulfillment hubs for online orders.
Thanks to these investments early in 2017, Target is beginning to see results and send a message that it won’t bow down to Walmart or Amazon any time soon.
Without notice, Crate & Barrel CEO Doug Diemoz, who arrived from Restoration Hardware in 2015, was dismissed from his position mid-month. The retailer's executive suite has been in turmoil since the 2012 retirement of longtime CEO Barbara Turf, and Diemoz was hired to give Crate & Barrel a new direction — but scandal followed.
Diemoz left his position as chief development officer at Restoration Hardware to become Crate & Barrel CEO in August 2015, recruiting Kimberly Ahlheim to join his team there last year. The suit filed by Restoration Hardware in early 2017 alleges that Diemoz and Ahlheim brought with them proprietary knowledge of the company's food and beverage operations, part of an experiment in Chicago to boost Restoration Hardware’s retail experience.
Less than a month later, the company announced the appointment of Neela Montgomery as CEO, beginning in August. Montgomery had most recently been an executive board member at Crate & Barrel’s parent, Hamburg-based Otto Group, where she led its multi-channel retail strategy.
In April, the teen apparel retailer began shuttering some 400 stores nationwide, about a third of its fleet, calling it a "difficult but necessary decision" that left Rue 21 with a slimmed down store fleet of 800 units. But downsizing wasn’t enough. Ultimately, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 15, entering into agreements with some lenders to reduce debt and provide additional capital in support of restructuring efforts, with an aim to keep the company alive.
Rue21 had been in the midst of a turnaround since an executive suite shake-up last October by private equity owner Apax Partners shortly after credit ratings firm Fitch Ratings warned Rue21 could slip down the slope to bankruptcy. The company replaced General Merchandise Manager Kim Reynolds as well as CEO Bob Fisch, who together had run the company for some 15 years. Rue21's situation mirrors the challenges that have plagued many mall-based junior apparel retailers — overexpansion, declining mall traffic and a lack of turnaround support from private equity ownership.
The company ultimately emerged from bankruptcy in September, shedding debt and stores as it embarked on a plan to tackle issues with merchandising strategy and e-commerce fulfillment.
The significance of the deal stretches far beyond what it means just for Amazon. By the end of the year, the e-commerce giant could account for nearly 45% of all U.S. e-commerce sales — and now it's hoping to take a bite out of brick-and-mortar, too.
In the aftermath of the deal, Whole Foods stores have become a "pricing lab" for Amazon to hone its merchandising of specialty products, private label brands and devices. Ahead of the holidays, over 100 Whole Foods stores carried the new Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, Fire TV, Kindle and Fire tablets, and in several markets Amazon will also host pop-up shops at Whole Foods stores. For Amazon, physical stores are in many ways the missing piece to its marketing efforts.
Amazon has also begun selling Whole Foods' private-label products, including 365 Everyday Value, on Amazon.com, AmazonFresh Prime Pantry and Prime Now. By October, Amazon had raked in $1.6 million worth of Whole Foods private label products on Amazon.com.
Overall, the deal shows the e-commerce giant is a serious threat not only online, but in the brick-and-mortar ecosystem, too. More acquisitions are likely to come as Amazon expands its offerings in apparel and consumer goods.
Prime Day 2017 — which lasted 30 hours this year compared to 24 hours for the two previous events — grew by more than 60% compared to the same 30 hours last year, and sales growth by small businesses and entrepreneurs was even higher, at least according to Amazon.
The Echo Dot was a big winner this year. The portable Alexa-enabled speaker was not only the best-selling Amazon device, but also the best-selling product from any manufacturer in any category across Amazon globally, according to the company. Prime members purchased seven times more Amazon Echo devices worldwide during this year's event, than on Prime Day 2016. That set the stage well for Amazon's unveiling of a slew of new devices in September, including the Echo Plus, Echo Spot and Echo Connect.
In late June, Staples was acquired by private equity firm Sycamore Partners for a whopping $6.9 billion, and just two months later it announced plans to split up the office supplies seller by spinning off its retail operations from the corporate sales unit. But Staples' B2B business is also facing heightened competition from Amazon, which has been building its own corporate office supplies sales operation thanks to the high-margins in that space.
More broadly for the industry, Sycamore’s acquisition of Staples shows the bind many publicly-traded retailers are in given the current investor climate. Staples executives have been trying for years to find a way to bring sales and profitability up to please investors, including an attempt to buy rival Office Depot, a deal blocked by federal antitrust enforcers. In lieu of a sharp turnaround or large acquisition, the company offered stockholders a buyout.
September: Amazon opens shop inside Kohl's
In early September, Kohl's announced it would open "Amazon smart home experiences" at 10 stores in the Los Angeles and Chicago areas in October. The spaces feature a hands-on, interactive array of smart home products and Alexa devices. Some called it a smart move, others called it a deal with the devil.
Some onlookers even speculated that Kohl's could be Amazon's next big takeover target since Whole Foods. The partnership was certainly a way for Amazon to showcase its devices to customers in a store setting, but it's also a chance for the e-commerce giant to explore customer acquisition from a set of consumers who aren't likely to be Prime members. Later that month, the department store retailer also announced it would accept free Amazon returns — a huge win for Amazon, but a potential logistical nightmare for Kohl's.
Despite all odds, some things never die.
RadioShack in October won court approval of its plan to reorganize and exit from its second trip to bankruptcy court since 2015. RadioShack’s operator, General Wireless Operations, plans to hold on to the company’s warehouse, e-commerce site and dealer network operations, and just a handful of stores — up to 28 — according to court documents.
The pared down RadioShack expects to generate gross revenue of $12 million in 2017, $15 million in 2018 and $17.5 million in 2020. On exit, RadioShack’s debtors — specifically, its second-lien lenders — will own the company in its entirety. RadioShack is one of just a few retailers with the dubious distinction of having made their second trip to bankruptcy court this year. The list also includes American Apparel, Wet Seal and Eastern Outfitters. As we’ve seen this year, retail bankruptcies can have a wide range of outcomes — but liquidation is historically the most common result.
In early November, Sears announced it would shutter another 63 Sears and Kmart stores mostly in the South and Midwest. Store closures, which reach near 400 for the year as a whole, are part of an ongoing effort to "transform our business model so that our physical store footprint and our digital capabilities match the needs and preferences of our members." In just a few years, the company’s footprint has shrunk to a fraction of what it was when the decade began.
The once-dominant retailer has also shed corporate staff and sold off brands and property. Yet, it continues to lose money. Up north, Sears Canada filed for bankruptcy in June and after a failed buyout attempt, the company announced in October it would shut down. Many analysts believed 2017 would be the year the iconic retailer would succumb to bankruptcy itself, however CEO Eddie Lambert has continued to funnel money into the ailing retailer from his private equity firm ESL Partners and punt loan deadlines to 2019.
Macy's announced early in the month that Executive Chairman Terry Lundgren will retire from the department store retailer's board of directors on Jan. 31 2018, ending his decades-long tenure there, notably as the CEO from 2004 to March of this year. Jeff Gennette, who has been CEO since March, will take his place as chairman.
The department store retailer is in the midst of a massive store count reduction, which has hit sales. Sales in the third quarter fell 6.1% to $5.28 billion, due in part to its large number of store closures.