The truth about physical store closures in retail

We sit so high on the city walls
Our tears wash clean the cobblestones
It’s not so much that the thrill is gone
Just a cleaner, sweeter, brighter thrill has come along

– Bernard Fanning

To read the retail headlines, on occasion, in ours and in other countries, is to read the story of a retail Armageddon – the complete destruction and abject capitulation of physical retail to this omnipotent herculean labelled as online retail and digital transformation.

How real is this perception? It certainly has a powerful sentiment although what do the facts currently tell us? Let’s examine the facts available for markets such as the US and UK, which are remarkably absent in our home country of Australia.

In the US, major retailers closed 5524 shops and opened 3083 shops in 2018. By sector, apparel retail shops led the pack with 766 closures. Payless Shoe Source contributed 408 of these closures, while Toys ‘R’ Us closed the most shops of any retailer in the US in 2018.

In the UK, major retailers closed 1432 stores and opened 755 in 2018. General merchandise retailers closed the most shops in the UK, with Poundworld closing more stores than any other.

So we see that in 2018, broadly speaking, two shops closed for every one that opened in the US and UK. To put this in perspective, we’re talking about 5524 retail shops out of 3.8 million physical retail shops in the US.

We also see this trend flattening out when we look at 2017, when there were 8139 closures in the US. In some analyses that include hospitality and service retail, store numbers actually opened in greater numbers than they closed in 2018.

And by the way, total sales from the nearly 3.8 million retail establishments in the US reached about US$2.7 trillion in 2018. Retailers employed almost 29 million people and supported more than 42 million jobs in the US.

Let’s take a closer look at the retail store closures in the US last year.

Of the 5524 store closures in 2018:

  • Toys ‘R’ Us was the biggest contributor to store closures, shutting 735 shops
  • Mattress Firm closed 600 shops
  • Walgreens Boots Alliance closed 458 shops
  • National Stores (owner of a discount chain selling apparel, accessories, shoe and home furnishings) closed 258 shops
  • Bon Ton led closures in the department store sector, with 256 closures
  • K-Mart contributed to the closure number for mass merchandisers

So, just six channels were responsible for close to 45 per cent of total store closures. (All data is from Core Insights.)

In Australian retail, we appear to be in a similar pattern, with evidence that flattening of the store closure trend is occurring. Now the pessimist might say that if this trend generally continues , it bodes poorly for physical shops. My response to that is to see that the devil is in the detail.

Essentially, mid-market to lower-value retail (notably mid-market apparel) is bearing the brunt of the physical store closures globally. The other factor is not online per se, but rather simply the growth of competition from other physical retailers. Shops have been opening and closing since the first market day in Bethlehem, often as a consequence of sharper, ‘fitter’ competition.

Further, this in the context of Australia sitting third in the overall global retail space per capita, so we can see an adjustment in the numbers within an over shopped economy. (The US is first, Canada is second and, currently, Australia is third.)

This adjustment is being driven principally by the growth of the twin forces of online and competition and is being enabled by a very cautious economic cycle in the countries mentioned above.

That said, it is important to note that clearly differentiated smart, ‘fit’ retail shops are growing. The other factor of course is the well-known fact that omnichannel, or what I like to call a retail ecosystem, is only viable with physical shops as the centrepiece. This realisation is fuelling brand growth and extension.

A call-out to our retail associations if I may. Please make this type of data public and help physical shop retailers see the reality of the situation and the light at the end of the tunnel. Continue to assist, as you do, in focussing their energies to develop “fitter retail business”.

Brian Walker is founder and CEO of Retail Doctor Group, a retail advisory and consultancy group and the Australian elected member of the global retail expert’s alliance Ebeltoft Group.

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