In the face of an economy on a slow rebound and shifts in consumer behaviors, the winners among retailers since the Great Recession are those that are adapting their business models and keeping their brands relevant and their value proposition appealing to consumers. These are some of the views expressed by Burt Feinberg, President of CIT Corporate Finance, Commercial & Industrial, a division of CIT Group Inc. (NYSE:CIT) cit.com, a leading provider of commercial lending, leasing and advisory services, in “ Retail's Changing Landscape” ( cit.com/feinberg), the latest piece of market intelligence in the CIT Executive Spotlight ( cit.com/executivespotlight) series of in-depth executive Q&As. “While e-commerce and digital strategies are the major overriding themes in retail today, competition from challengers still causes retailers to rethink their business, merchandising and inventory models to maintain market share,” said Feinberg. Companies were met with tight competition during the Great Recession, including big box discounters, traditional supermarkets and young adult/teen/specialty apparel stores. Dollar stores took market share away from the big box discounters. Traditional supermarkets came under attack from both high-end groceries for more affluent customers and big box players at the lower price end for bargain hunters. In the apparel world, fast fashion players like Zara and H&M took significant market share away from well-known branded national retailers in recent years. According to Feinberg, many retailers have adjusted appropriately, making changes to their business models to put them back on track. Big box discounters have reacted and created some smaller footprint prototypes. Traditional grocers are now focusing on fresh and organic produce and prepared foods and meats; improving store appearance to attract high-end customers; focusing on better, localized assortments; and investing in pricing on certain products so that the experience is more personalized for traditional middle to lower income customers. Fashion retailers are rethinking their business and inventory models by taking shallower positions on styles so they take less inventory risk.
The retail sector is in the midst of more changes. Feinberg indicates some trends to watch for in the near term:
- Consumer Confidence Is on the Rise: Consumer spending is at pre-recession levels, and disposable personal income on a per capita basis is up as well. Additionally, consumer debt is gradually increasing.
- Upswing in Housing Market Will Play a Role: Big box home hard goods players and home furnishings are doing well as the real estate market has improved. New households being created has also helped home furnishing stores.
- Retail Is Still Appealing to Private Equity: Private equity (PE) firms still like retail because it’s scalable and has quick growth potential. If a PE firm can identify a new retail concept that has been developed by a family or a privately held group of original owners, it can bring its resources and experience to the business. PE firms can help identify new locations, professionalize sourcing, product and inventory management, and can help implement multi-channel delivery and customer mining on the ecommerce side.
- M&A Activity for Retailers Slowly Picking Up: M&A activity in the first quarter was down relative to last year. However, there’s a reasonable amount of activity right now in the marketplace that should continue to pick up.
- Private Equity Selling to Other Private Equity Firms: The market may begin seeing some sales of private equity-owned companies to other PE firms as they look to cash out for their investors. This is a lingering result of the recession, when many PE firms bought companies and were forced to hold onto them a little longer than they would have otherwise liked to.
- Potential Increase in Activist Investing in Public Retailers: We have seen private equity and other funds take material positions in public held retailers that may have lost their way, which may lead to imposing their influence and/or taking these entities private.
- Post-Great Recession Deal Structures Emphasize Liquidity: Companies want to make sure that they have a lot of availability on their revolving credit facilities so they do not get caught in a liquidity crunch. Many companies found themselves in trouble when the recession hit, and were holding too much debt and had limited liquidity. Nonetheless, leverage multiples are creeping up on better retailers.
- Emphasis on Staying Relevant to the Consumer: Retailers want to make sure the customer keeps coming through the door and are utilizing digital, ecommerce and social media strategies to do so. These strategies help companies stay relevant and stay in front of their customer.