When you watch investors in Macy's (M) - Get Report and Kohl's (KSS) - Get Report get their faces ripped off on Thursday because of terrifyingly bad holiday sales, keep this reality in mind as to the root cause of the problem: In the age of digital shopping, there are still too many damn retail stores in America.
"I have said this before, but America is still over-stored," Macy's long-time Chairman and CEO Terry Lundgren told TheStreet in an interview Wednesday evening. "My guess is that some rationalization of retail space needs to occur, and I think we were at the forefront of acknowledging that," Lundgren continued, adding that while the online business for Macy's is "booming" it hasn't been enough to offset weak traffic to physical stores.
The numbers support Lundgren's claims of the U.S. continuing to be over-stored.
There is 23.5 square feet of retail space per person in the U.S., drastically higher compared with the 16.4 square feet in Canada and 11.1 square feet in Australia, the next two highest -- according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. The abundance of stores has retailers battling each other with rampant discounts to try and drive business but with little to show for it.
Green Street Advisers recently estimated that the nation's department stores averaged a paltry $165 in sales per square foot last year, a 24% decline since 2006. For department stores to boost sales per square foot, which is vital in driving profits due to the high rents an anchor store such as Macy's pays, Green Street proposed a mind-blowing measure: The department store sector needs to slash about 800 locations in the U.S, or one-fifth of all anchor space in U.S. malls, in order to reach the productivity levels they had a decade ago.
Real estate information firm CoStar gives a more drastic assessment, noting that about 1 billion square feet of retail space will be "rationalized" in the coming years through store closures and conversions to other uses.
To be sure, Macy's and others are taking a sledgehammer to retail space in an attempt to rectify the issue.
Macy's said Wednesday that it will close 68 stores by early spring and dive into a deeper reorganization, which will lead to roughly 10,100 people being displaced. The company reiterated that it expects to close 100 stores over the next few years.
"We have tried to look at the entire landscape of the U.S. and said if we were starting a new company today, where must we have stores," Lundgren explained. "We have looked at where populations are growing, and where they are shrinking, and that's how we came up with our store closure plan," he added.
As for Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) , which unlike rival Macy's is in dire financial straits, it has also kicked off the new year with another major store closing campaign.
The company will shut down 108 Kmart stores and 42 Sears stores by April, or about 10% of its store base.
More announcements along these lines will likely surface as retailers release their fourth-quarter results and 2017 outlooks in February. In reading the tea leaves, struggling Gap (GPS) - Get Report could be poised to drop a store closure bombshell of its own.
In June 2015, the company detailed plans to close 175 Gap stores in North America over the next few years. Then last May, Gap said it would close its fleet of 53 Old Navy stores in Japan and close more Banana Republic locations, mostly overseas. It also promised to "streamline its operating model" to further cut costs.
Even so, Gap remains a sprawling global enterprise that has to be further corralled to survive the shifts in retail. At the end of the third quarter, Gap boasted a dizzying 3,742 store locations in 50 countries. Total square feet operated by Gap stood at a colossal 37.7 million.
Asked when things would get better in retail, Lundgren pulled no punches. "It's going to take seriously aggressive and different strategies this time that are going to entice the consumers to shop with us," he said.
In the meantime, brace for the next wave of retail store closures.
In more upbeat news ...
Car companies continue to steal the show at CES: BMW wowed the crowd with a concept car featuring its new HoloActive Touch technology (see picture below). It includes a free-floating virtual display projected just above the center console and is operated simply by finger movements, reported CarScoops.
Under Armour wants to boost your sleep: New England quarterback Tom Brady, an Under Armour spokesman, loves his sleep, seeing it as a means to recover from grueling games on the gridiron. So Under Armour will try to tap into that with a new line of clothing, reportedTime. The company unveiled "UA Athlete Recovery Sleepwear Powered by TB12" at CES, fitted pants and shirts equipped with soft bio-ceramic print that can produce infrared energy when combined with the body's natural heat. In short, the clothes are supposed to reduce inflammation and improve circulation, helping the body recover faster.
No word if the sleepwear will allow you to throw a tight, 50-yard spiral like Brady.
Gold prices continue to rock: So much for bullishness on the Trump administration causing investors to flee boring old gold for more exciting equities. SPDR Gold Trust (GLD) - Get Report has gained about 2.7% over the past seven days (hit tab below). If the strength continues, expect market pundits to start talking about a second-half 2017 recession thanks to a concoction of Federal Reserve rate increases and the wild card that could be President Trump.