12 news stories that shaped retail in 2018
From Sears and Mattress Firm's bankruptcies to Walmart's $16 billion Flipkart buy, here's a look back at the biggest news events from the last 12 months.
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 2018. Retail Dive put together a calendar of the most important news stories from each month this year.
January: The beginning of the end for Toys R Us
Toys R Us foreshadowed a tumultuous — and ultimately fatal — year with an announcement in January to hire a liquidator and shutter at least 180 stores in bankruptcy. At the time, the toy retailer, who filed for bankruptcy in September 2017, held optimistic plans to open new Babies R Us concepts and reengineer its loyalty and CRM program to improve the customer experience. Needless to say, the plans weren't enough to save Toys R Us.
The iconic toy retailer's hopes came crashing down in 2018, but its woes were the result of decades of neglect to stores, a leveraged private equity buyout and an inability to resonate with today's digitally inclined kids. Despite an impassioned GoFundMe campaign led by Isaac Larian to save Toys R Us, the billionaire toy mogul ultimately withdrew a $675 million bid for 274 stores. With no other buyers, the retailer ultimately in March moved to liquidate its U.S. business. An auction for its intellectual property assets was also canceled, leaving the assets to its Geoffrey Holdings subsidiary. In December, the company was approved to sell its Asian business for $760 million.
Meanwhile, affected employees, some of which worked at the retailer for decades, turned to activism to urge the company to pay severance. In the end, Bain Capital and KKR set up a $20 million fund to support laid-off workers, who are expected to receive a check by the end of the year.
February: Lululemon CEO ousted for misconduct
At the start of February, Lululemon ousted Laurent Potdevin as CEO and board member, following allegations of misconduct. Sources familiar with the situation told CNBC at the time that Potdevin had a multi-year relationship with a female designer at the company. In a statement, the company said of the situation, "Lululemon expects all employees to exemplify the highest levels of integrity and respect for one another, and Mr. Potdevin fell short of these standards of conduct." Potdevin was allegedly a central proponent of a toxic "boy's club" culture. This news kicked off a much larger conversation regarding corporate culture and sexual harassment issues in the retail industry, as similar situations played out at Nike and Under Armour.
In March, Nike brand chief Trevor Edwards stepped down amid misconduct allegations. Following a cultural review of the company, an executive exodus ensued with the departures of Jayme Martin, Antoine Andrews, Greg Thompson and five more executives. In December, Under Armour came under fire for a corporate culture that encouraged executives to charge adult entertainment and gambling to their corporate cards. After an internal review on the matter, two executives, who were a part of CEO Kevin Plank's inner circle, were fired as Plank called for a "meaningful culture transformation."
March: Kohl's sprouts Aldi partnership
At the beginning of March, Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell announced an unexpected partnership with discount grocer Aldi to boost store traffic. Through the deal, Kohl's said it would test selling groceries at five to 10 stores.
The move built on a partnership with Amazon to accept returns and carve out dedicated spaces for Amazon products. Retail Prophet CEO Doug Stephens and others have criticized the partnership as a deal with the devil. But Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, told Retail Dive he thought the move "shows that Kohl's understands the need to give customers reasons to visit stores and is not afraid to experiment to achieve this."
Kohl's is one of few department stores innovating to reduce its footprint in a way that gives shoppers new reasons to come into its stores without resorting to promotions. And the high-frequency purchases of groceries may be a way to boost sales in other categories, too.
April: Best Buy announces first store in 7 years
Over the years, Best Buy has struggled to stay relevant in the age of Amazon, which has spelled the demise of nearly all other electronics retailers. Having a brick-and-mortar store within 15 minutes of more than 70% of the U.S. population has been a fierce competitive advantage. While the big-box retailer has over 1,000 large format stores, it's taken a careful approach to their maintenance and it has stayed away from building new stores. In April, it announced its first new store in seven years, slated to open in Farmington, Utah.
The move came one month after Best Buy decided to close all of its nearly 260 stand-alone mobile stores due to "changing economics in the mobile industry." Big-box retailers have struggled to rightsize their brick and mortar footprints. Over the last several years, many have made announcements to shutter underperforming stores and move toward small-format stores.
May: Walmart buys Flipkart for $16B
In playing offense, Walmart made several major acquisitions this year, the biggest of them being its $16 billion blockbuster deal to take over Indian e-commerce juggernaut Flipkart. In a statement on the news, CEO Doug McMillon described India as "one of the most attractive retail markets in the world, given its size and growth rate." It's also a major geographical interest for rival Amazon, which also made a bid on the Indian retailer, according to Reuters.
The deal represented Walmart's largest to date but it wasn't the only acquisition for the year. Eloquii, Bare Necessities and Art.com all joined Walmart's portfolio of digital brands bolstering its e-commerce business.
Several other big-box retailers also made notable acquisitions throughout the year, including Macy's. Also in May, the department store retailer bought store concept Story and acqui-hired its founder Rachel Shechtman, who is now the brand experience officer at Macy's. She has been heralded for her expertise on innovative store concepts and is currently developing Story 2.0 as well as a new, undisclosed project, CEO Jeff Gennette told Retail Dive earlier this year.
June: Supreme Court rules on e-commerce sales tax debate
In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States on June 21 overturned a landmark precedent in the e-commerce sales tax debate, thereby striking down a law that previously only mandated that companies with a physical presence in a state must collect and remit sales tax. The court did not rule on the South Dakota law at hand, instead sending it back to the South Dakota court system to approve the threshold, which would only require tax collection if an online seller does more than $100,000 worth of business or processes more than 200 transactions in the state.
The ruling has sparked a chain reaction of various tax legislation in the states. In December, California, for example, laid out new e-commerce tax requirements with the same threshold. Meanwhile, some trade organizations like the American Catalog Mailers Association and NetChoice have continued to push local and federal lawmakers to carve out protections for small businesses, which may be negatively affected by the burden of sales tax collection across the country. Retailers can expect the issue to continue into 2019.
July: Malls are the emptiest in 6 years
In July, real estate research firm Reis published a report claiming that malls are the emptiest they've been in six years. The mall vacancy rate hit 8.6% in the second quarter, up from 8.4% from the previous quarter, its highest since 2012. The highest rate post-recession was 9.4% in the third quarter of 2011, according to Reis.
Strip malls are feeling the biggest hit. With 3.8 million square feet of empty space, the second quarter vacancy rate reached 10.2%. Open-air markets are suffering too — during the last quarter, vacancies in these centers increased in 55 of the 77 metropolitan areas studied by Reis. The ultimate liquidation of Toys R Us stores impacted vacancy rates the most, although retailers like Sears, Bon Ton and Claire's also shuttered a number of stores in bankruptcy.
August: Mattress Firm mulls bankruptcy
Retailers filed for bankruptcy at a record rate last year, and many in the industry anticipated the pace could continue through 2018. As of mid-December, 13 major retailers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to Retail Dive's watch list. In August, anonymous sources told Reuters that Mattress Firm was mulling a move to file for Ch. 11 to get out from under expensive store leases and to shutter underperforming locations. The year prior, the retailer had announced a restructuring effort that included shuttering about 200 stores.
In October, the retailer officially filed for bankruptcy with a prepackaged reorganization plan backed by creditors that included shuttering 700 stores. Mattress Firm is one of many big-box retailers challenged by digital disruptors in its category.
September: Chanel shutters US headquarters
In a move that shocked the luxury sector in September, Chanel announced it would shutter its U.S. headquarters to consolidate its top offices in London. The decision follows a trend of other major players in the luxury sector streamlining operations.
Coach last year rebranded as Tapestry in an effort to return to its upscale branding and price points; Burberry announced a brand "sharpening"; LVMH has shaken its leadership suite and is amplifying Dior to fortify its own luxury position; and in January, Kering shed sneaker label Puma to focus on luxury sales. Michael Kors most recently announced a rebrand after striking a $2.12 billion deal to buy Versace.
October: Sears files for bankruptcy
A long anticipated bankruptcy filing from Sears in October came with little surprise for those who have been tracking the iconic retailer's slow decline over the last decade. While the 125-year-old department store filed for Ch. 11 with a plan to reorganize and keep 500 stores open, its ultimate fate still hangs in limbo.
In 2018 alone, Sears borrowed millions from former CEO Eddie Lampert's hedge fund, ESL Investments, closed more than 200 stores, laid off hundreds of corporate employees, refinanced debt, cut a deal over its private label credit card that brought in millions and contemplated a sale of the Kenmore appliance brand and home services unit to Lampert and ESL.
In December, Lampert made a $4.6 billion bid for Sears' real estate and brands like Kenmore and its Sears Auto Services. That bid is now further complicated by the fact that Sears Holdings (where Lampert is chairman) has hired a real estate firm to shop around its 500 remaining U.S. stores to interested retailers like Burlington Stores, At Home Group, Dick’s Sporting Goods and U-Haul.
November: J. Crew CEO out in just over a year
J. Crew has suffered through a tumultuous turnaround over the last two years, which notably involved the departures of longtime CEO Mickey Drexler and executive creative director Jenna Lyons last year.
In November, the iconic apparel retailer announced that CEO James Brett, who held the position for just over a year, would step down effective immediately. At issue for the former West Elm executive was his turnaround plan for the business. "[D]espite the recent brand relaunch already showing positive results, the Board and I were unable to bridge our beliefs on how to continue to evolve all aspects of the Company," Brett said in a statement at the time.
J. Crew is still working to remake itself in a new era of consumer behavior. That's so far involved expanding its sizes, thanks in part to a partnership with Universal Standard, and axing its lower-price Mercantile brand in favor of its new Nevereven brand.
December: Gymboree to shutter all Crazy 8 stores amid strategic review
The month of December hasn't been cheery for all retailers. Gymboree announced the launch of a comprehensive review of strategic options, which could include the sale of its Gymboree, Janie and Jack, and Crazy 8 brands. The company is also planning to close all of its Crazy 8 locations while "significantly reducing" the number of Gymboree locations in 2019. The announcement came one week after a Reuters report claimed the children's retailer could wind up back in bankruptcy court, shuttering 900 stores in the process.
Just over a year has passed since Gymboree exited bankruptcy for the first time, and its recently appointed CEO, Shaz Kahng, will lead the charge for a turnaround plan. Rival Children's Place, meanwhile saw its sales jump 20% in August. At the time, CEO Jane Elfers said on a conference call that the company would "aggressively pursue market share from Gymboree in the locations where we are co-located." The draw for shoppers to visit Gymboree has been further complicated by a push in recent months by mass merchandisers like Target, Walmart and Amazon to win in the kid's and toy categories.
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