Towards destructive destruction

The U.S. has lost more than 56,000 stores, or 10.7%, of its discretionary retail footprint since 2008, despite healthy spending on discretionary consumer goods. Employment data depict a similarly gloomy picture, with 670,000 net job destructions since 2008 (-9.6%). For one job created in e-commerce, four and half jobs are lost in traditional discretionary retail. The segment breakdown shows a broad-based decline largely consistent with e-commerce penetration, which is the highest for hobby goods (toys, books, music and video content, etc.). Shoppers’ growing taste for online orders has also hurt shopping mall footfall and department stores, which reported the sharpest decline in employment (-24.5%).

We observe a clear surge in large retail insolvencies since 2015, involving more than USD45bn in liabilities. High-profile insolvencies are also telling of a broad erosion of profitability. Drawing on a panel of 127 U.S. corporates, we find that one in 10 listed retailers has gone bankrupt since 2008, and that another 41% have seen a decrease in profit margins, especially in the department store, discount store and clothing store sub-segments.

As a “winner-take-most” business, e-commerce revolves around a limited number of companies. Leaders have a commanding share of sales, and more importantly, of profits. The shift from offline to online has had a net negative impact on company count, retail employment and profit distribution. For all its top-line growth, e-commerce displays the lowest median profit margin of all segments. The adoption of new business models also carries inherent transition risks. Moreover, e-commerce has seen few successful new entrants: Between 2008 and 2019, e-commerce accounted for only eight out of 47 newly listed retailers. New entrants display the lowest profit margins and only three of them were cash-flow positive in fiscal year 2018.

 What does this negative-sum game mean for companies? We expect further e-commerce penetration and heightened competition to eliminate over 500,000 jobs and 30,000 establishments by 2025. All segments, except beauty and cosmetics, will see substantial cuts in physical retail capacities with apparel, electronics & appliances, as well as department stores, facing the biggest challenges. This would represent a significant acceleration from the pace of destruction observed over the past few years. Additional bankruptcies of large retail chains are inevitable and will be instrumental in reducing the U.S. retail footprint: We anticipate the highest default risks for large corporates in clothing, footwear & accessories stores, as well as department stores. Furniture and home furnishings stores are also likely to see a deterioration of credit metrics as competition heats up.

For consumer goods companies supplying discretionary retailers, growing e-commerce penetration will not only translate into heightened non-payment risks, but also a further concentration of their retail mix. Retail consolidation could in turn have an adverse impact on their bargaining power and profitability. Incumbent retailers also face the threat of growing competition from their own suppliers.


Aurelien Duthoit
Euler Hermes