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The worst of the retail apocalypse is on the way

(BUSINESS NEWS) We’ve long lamented the decline of big box retail, but one report says the “Retail Apocalypse” is just beginning and it’s about to get much worse.

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You have likely already noticed the impacts of what has been darkly dubbed America’s “Retail Apocalypse”: Half-empty strip malls, brightly-colored signs announcing closing sales, or maybe your once-favorite department store has declared bankruptcy.

Whatever you’ve seen, it’s only going to get worse, according to a comprehensive report from Bloomberg, implying certainty in the fall of the retail industry as more than just sensational news headlines.

U.S. retailers announced more than 3,000 store openings in the first three quarters of this year, but that’s coupled with 6,800 chain store closures. All while consumer confidence levels are high and unemployment is low, and the economy keeps growing – a mix you’d think would be conducive to retail growth and strength.

However, more and more retail chains are filing for bankruptcy and financially distressed. This has caused an increase in the number of delinquent loan payments from malls and shopping centers containing said retailers.

So what’s the deal?

No, it’s not because Amazon.com is taking over the world (yet) or because millennials would rather travel than buy more “stuff.”

The primary cause for the retail apocalypse is not buying habits, it is that many failing retail chains are overloaded with debt.

There are billions of dollars tied up in the borrowings of troubled stores, and that strain is going to become even harder for the market to handle.

The impact of retail’s crash and burn will be felt across the country and economy. Low-income workers will be displaced, local tax bases will shrink, and investor losses on stocks, bonds, and real estate will grow.

In a nutshell: It’s only going to get worse.

Until recently, retailers avoided bankruptcy by refinancing their debts. However, as the market has evolved, lenders have become less forgiving, according to the Bloomberg report.

Additionally, an overwhelming amount of risky retail debt is coming due within in the next five years. For example, teen costume jewelry chain Claire’s Stores, Inc. has $2 billion in borrowings that will start maturing in 2019 – and it still has 1,600 stores open in North America.

In fact, $100 million of high-yield retail borrowings are set to mature this year alone and that will jump to $1.9 billion in 2018, according to Fitch Ratings Inc. data cited by Bloomberg. Between 2019 and 2025, that figure will expand to an annual average of almost $5 billion.

And, while the demand for refinancing increases, credit markets are tightening. Thus far, retailers have delayed their doom thanks to the money the Federal Reserve has pushed back into the economy since the Great Recession. Low interest rates made the risker retail debt (and the higher return it brings) more appealing. But now as the Feds raise their benchmark interest rates, that demand will decrease.

Then there’s the matter of store credit cards. The largest private-label card issuer, Synchrony Financial, has already increased reserves in order to help cover loan losses this year. Citigroup, Inc. has reported declining rates on retail portfolios, too. Why? Because shoppers are more likely to stop paying back their retail card debt if the store they went to has closed.

As all this compounds, it could directly impact the industry that employs the largest number of Americans who are at the low end of the income scale. According to Bloomberg’s research, salespeople and cashiers in this industry totaled a whopping eight million. Since our last financial crisis, employment rates have been steadily increasing, even in the retail industry. Until this year, that is. Retail store jobs have decreased by 101,000 this year so far, no thanks to store closures.

Many of the largest U.S. retailers (think Target and Walmart) have decided to reduce their brick-and-mortar space. Sure, the e-commerce boom has taken a toll, but the U.S. has been considered “over-stored” ever since investors poured money into commercial real estate as the suburbs boomed decades ago, which began an era of big box stores.

It’s time for that boom to bust.

At the end of Q3, 6,752 U.S. retail locations were scheduled to close, excluding grocery stores and restaurants, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That’s more than double the 2016 total and inching close to the all-time annual high of 6,900 recorded in 2008, the midst of the recession.

Clothing stores have taken the hardest hit, as 2,500 locations are closing. Department stores aren’t faring well, either. Macy’s, Sears and J.C. Penney are all downsizing.

Overall, about 550 department stores plan to close their doors.

This really does sound apocalyptic, doesn’t it?

The consumer impacts of what’s to come will be widespread. Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and Illinois have been some of the hardest hit so far, but other states will feel the burn, too. Florida, for example, relies on retail salespeople more than any other state, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics cited by Bloomberg.

Insert a grimacing emoji face here.

I think Charlie O’Shea, a Moody’s retail analyst for Moody’s, summed up the retail industry’s prospects impeccably at the end of Bloomberg’s report: “A day of reckoning is coming,” he said.

Sienna is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and has a bachelor's degree in journalism with an emphasis in writing and editing from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. She is currently a freelance writer with an affinity for topics that help others better themselves. Sienna loves French-pressed coffee and long walks at the dog park.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Paul O'Brien

    December 4, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    As is what’s happening with many other industries, retail’s reckoning will come and through it retailers will wake up to the fact that what people are willing to pay for is experiences.

    What the heck does that mean in this context??

    I’m not going to drive and shop at a local retailer to get the exact same plastic junk or $5 shirt that I can get Amazon to send to me in an hour.

    But let’s not neglect that people like to shop – as an activity or social experience. Shopping isn’t just about consuming the things we want or need – it’s a matter of what it has always been in certain contexts: an experience to see products, hang out with friends, or just spend some time doing something you enjoy.

    The reckoning is in the price competitive stores pushing commodities, aggressive Sales pressure (autos), and regularly purchased products. There is no market for a store front for those things.

    But what we might be excited about that could thrive are the experiences we enjoy: Local artists and products, food & beverage, specializations in innovative goods (tech, apparel, autos), etc.

    “Clothing stores have taken the hardest hit, as 2,500 locations are closing. Department stores aren’t faring well, either. Macy’s, Sears and J.C. Penney are all downsizing.”
    — Yeah… because I don’t need to drive, park, and deal with the awful layout of a big box store just to get the same pair of jeans I’ve been buying for the last 20 years.

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Business News

Plant-based milk company Oatly is going public in the U.S.

(BUSINESS NEWS) With the growing popularity of plant-based goods, it is unsurprising to see Oatly going to market, but how much the investment pays off remains to be seen.

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Plant-based milk Oatly on store shelves, two different varieties.

On Tuesday, the plant-based milk company, Oatly, filed for an initial public offering (IPO) in the U.S., which could value the company between $5 billion and $10 billion.

The IPO will take place after the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) completes its review process and is subject to market conditions. Additional details of the planned sale were not offered in the confidential filing. The price and number of shares available to purchase are yet to be determined.

The Sweden-based vegan food and drink maker was founded in the 1990s by brothers Rickard and Björn Öste. The company sells its products online and in more than 50,000 retail stores in 20 countries across Europe and Asia. The company entered the U.S. in 2017 and has also partnered with cafes, such as Starbucks.

Last July, Oatly raised $200 million in investment equity. The company is backed by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and celebrity investors like Oprah Winfrey, Natalie Portman, and Jay-Z. According to PitchBook, the company was valued at around $2 billion at that time.

In 2019, the company generated about $200 million in revenue, which is almost double the year before. Figures for 2020 haven’t been released yet, but the company planned on doubling them again.

Although the numbers haven’t been made public, it isn’t a far-off stretch to say the company could have done just that. Demand for plant-based products has been high. In just the first week of March last year, Nielsen statistics showed the sales of oat milk were up 347.3%.

This rise is due to consumers seeking alternatives to animal products and healthier food options. Already, fast-food chains, casual, and upscale restaurants have entered the plant-based food sector by adding new plant-based items to their menus.

Burger King has its Impossible Whopper with a plant-based patty. Baskin-Robbins offers three vegan ice cream flavors. Starbucks also announced in December that it would now serve oat milk at all its locations nationwide starting in the spring.

Oatly already has a large following. As more health and environment-conscious consumers are willing to seek and pay for these types of products, it seems like their following will only continue to grow.

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Business News

Fake news? Well, what about fake reviews?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Amazon is swamped with fake reviews, making it harder than ever to trust whether or not a product is legit. How can you spot them and avoid falling victim to this shady practice?

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Person shopping online with credit card, but are they reading fake reviews?

These days, most of us have turned to online shopping in lieu of brick-and-mortar establishments to get our favorite items shipped directly to our front door. With many retailers still closed, and many more of us understandably wary of exposing ourselves to the risk of COVID-19, it’s easier to just click “buy” and then spend the next two days with our noses pressed to our windows in anticipation of the arrival of our new toy or garment. But are we at risk of being tricked by fake reviews?

If you’re like most people, you probably depend on product reviews to make a purchasing decision. Honestly, it’s perfectly reasonable to see what others thought of the item before you buy it. These online reviews are almost like your neighbor, who whipped out his lawnmower and bragged how it goes from 0 to 4 mph in less than thirty seconds. Obviously — obviously — you had to run out to your nearest garden center to pick up one of your own after his glowing review of it, right?

That’s kinda like online reviews, too. You can’t just knock on the purchaser’s door and ask them what they thought of it, which is why you carefully peruse those reviews and weigh those pros and cons. Okay, this shirt fits loose. Fine, these kitchen shears broke after three uses. Whoa, this brand of potato chips puts hair on your chest…? Sweet! And you also probably looked at those 3-star reviews, too, to see what was merely “meh” about the product. With this assortment of mixed reviews, you can be confident that you’re making a rock-solid choice.

Uh, sadly, nope.

Unfortunately, Amazon (as well as other major retailers, such as Walmart) are often fraught with a glut of fake reviews. In fact, there are numerous Facebook pages dedicated to the purchase of these reviews, and many of the reviewers are compensated with a monetary reward (usually the cost of the item, plus a few extra dollars for their work) for posting the glowing 5-star rave.

So what can you do to help protect yourself for falling for these seemingly harmless lies?

Well, first and foremost — a fake review isn’t necessarily harmless. If a defective or dangerous product is boosted by a false review, it can seriously harm you. Sure, there’s a good chance the fake reviews are benign, and the worst you’ll be in for it is losing a few bucks on a crap item. But if something is using counterfeit or unsafe ingredients (such as minoxidil in potato chips because, real talk, chips aren’t supposed to put hair on your chest), then yes, you need to be informed of it so you can make an educated decision about whether or not that item is coming home with you.

So, the question remains: How can you, intrepid shopper extraordinaire, avoid purchasing a lemon? (Unless, of course, your goal was to buy an actual lemon in the first place. Margaritas, anyone?) The good news is that there are a couple things you can do. For starters, common sense goes a long way. Do the reviews offer any context, or is it just line after line of, “Loved it!” without any actual feedback on the item? That’s why those 3-star reviews are so priceless. Usually the reviewer actually used the item and had a valid reason for their tepid review, allowing you to make an educated decision about it.

Finally, there are a couple of websites you can use to help you out. First, there’s Fakespot. This web extension will cull out all the fake reviews, allowing you to see at-a-glance the remaining genuine reviews. It then reviews the item for its credibility, letting you know if the seller was trying to pull a fast one on you. Then there’s ReviewMeta. Unlike Fakespot, this website goes through the views and instead of grading the seller, it actually grades the item based on the average score of the remaining real reviews. And by using both of these websites together to check those reviews? You’ve now got yourself a pretty decent idea if the product is actually worth your hard-earned dollars.

It’s far too easy to get scammed these days. However, by staying alert and remaining mindful about your online purchases (and avoiding the temptation to give into those stress-motivated impulse buys), you can avoid being bilked, too. And hey, instead of looking at online reviews, maybe you should go back to the old-fashioned way of doing it: By asking your neighbor for their opinions of items. Just, y’know, do it from at least six feet away, while wearing a face mask.

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Business News

Manufacturing is bouncing back, but supply of materials is struggling

(BUSINESS NEWS) As manufacturing demands surge, so do material costs. The pandemic has shifted where we’re putting our money, but supply is struggling to keep up.

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Manufacturing worker sealing a large pipe together.

As the United States’ manufacturing process comes back up to speed, a surge in demand is creating a shortage of the one thing manufacturers need in order to do their jobs: Supply.

Fox Business reports that, due to a much quicker return to normalcy for manufacturing than some expected, a price hike for materials is affecting everyone from the bottom up: “Prices for steel, aluminum, lumber and other materials are rising in response to higher order volumes. Commodity supply chains are now clogged with orders, causing some producers to add weekend hours and overtime for employees.”

The fast manufacturing rebound seems to be a harbinger of better days ahead, but this supply bottleneck could dampen producers’ resolve.

It should be noted that the spike in demand for goods which use the materials in question isn’t an entire surprise. As Fox notes, much less of consumer money has been going toward travel and dining out. This has resulted in more money flowing into things like appliances, vehicles, and entertainment commodities.

But the toll is hitting producers coming and going as things like depressed oil and the paper used in packaging undergo substantial price hikes, leading some companies to stockpile resources in hopes of having an edge in the future.

Others find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between lower profit margins or higher prices on manufactured productsa choice that is sure to impact consumers, if not the rate of consumption.

Indeed, some companies, such as Northwest Hardwoods, have an upper limit on the price they can charge on a finished product regardless of rising material costs.

It’s not all bad, of course. Global prices for materials like aluminum and scrap steel have gone up, which means people like Brad Serlinthe president of United Scrap Metalcan make a killing. “We can sell everything we have,” says Serlin, referencing “big orders” from recently busy steel mills.

As the pandemic wears on, though, one thing is crystal clear: The high demand for domestic goods coupled with rising global prices for materials is going to make for some severe price hikes in the coming months.

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