A friend of mine who runs a private equity shop in Toronto has a problem. His fund owns a medium-sized retail footwear chain that is making profits. He and his partners want to unload it but can't find any buyers willing to offer a non-giveaway price (he did not want the store's name publicized for fear of looking like a desperate seller). That's because traditional retailing is dying, he says, and the sell-off might just be getting started.
While it's fashionable—and not wrong—to blame Amazon for most of the retailers' woes, other factors, from stale retail formats to the new anti-stuff movement, are at play too. Put together, the financial and cultural forces battering the retailers seem relentless.
The outlook is so grim that Bespoke Investment Group of Harrison, New York, invented a "Death by Amazon" list of 54 retail stocks that it thought would get whacked by Amazon and other forces conspiring against the sector. By late August, the index had slumped more than 20% in just over a year, erasing some $70 billion (U.S.) in value. In the same period, Amazon was up more than 25%, taking its stock market worth to about $450 billion (U.S.).
Traditional retailing, of course, is not entirely doomed because only the brave or bone-headed would buy some expensive items—diamond earrings, high-end suits, musical instruments, mattresses, Persian carpets, prescription sunglasses—without hands-on examination. And some shoppers, me among them, like the pleasure of propping up independent stores that sell high-quality goods.
But I don't shop much for general merchandise any more, because I am sick of clutter and, with university fees for my kids, don't have the spending power for non-essential items.
Apparently, I am not alone. Writing on his blog early in July, Vitaliy Katsenelson, chief investment officer of Denver's Investment Management Associates, blamed shifting consumption patterns for much of the old-style retailers' distress. Take the rise of the smartphone. In 2006, smartphone sales were close to zero. By his calculations, consumers will spend some $340 billion (U.S.) this year on smartphones and wireless services. This is money, he says, that won't be spent on T-shirts and shoes. Meanwhile, middle-class incomes have stagnated, healthcare costs have climbed, and highly leveraged consumers are more interested in paying off debt than buying new TVs. Something had to give, and it was the department stores, whose shares are down by 40% or more in the last year or so (Macy's, J.C. Penney). Or their businesses are outright collapsing (Sears, Payless ShoeSource). Warren Buffett last year sold the bulk of his stake in Wal-Mart, whose shares have lost ground since 2014.
Consider Amazon the store with endless virtual aisles, where almost any product can be bought at a competitive price and delivered to your door. In Italy, you can buy a Fiat car on Amazon. In the United States, Amazon is now an official seller for Nike shoes and Sears' Kenmore appliances. Amazon recently bought Whole Foods and dropped its prices, which put the mainstream supermarkets into a panic.
Amazon's enormous stock market value belies its actual retail market share, which, at about 1.5% of total retail sales (online and in stores), is negligible. But the market valuation implies the sky is the limit and Amazon's sales continue to set records. In the second quarter of 2017, sales rose 25% to $38 billion (U.S.), putting it well on course this year to exceed its 2016 sales of $136 billion (U.S.). In Canada, Amazon's business is growing at about 50% a year.
According to Internet marketing service BloomReach, 55% of product searches start on Amazon, far more than the 28% that start on search engines. The popularity of Amazon Prime (which provides free, two-day delivery as well as TV and movie video streaming) and the construction of massive warehouses have accelerated its growth. Amazon captures an estimated 40% of every shopping dollar spent online and is already the second-biggest apparel seller in the U.S., behind Wal-Mart. No wonder the traditional retail sector is in free fall.
To be sure, some retailers occasionally post quarters of better-than-expected sales and profits, triggering a share-price bounce that has some value investors convinced the traditional retailing sector is bottoming out—time to buy, they say. But that's an exceedingly brave call. Amazon's phenomenal growth and the seismic shifts in spending habits suggest the value destruction among the traditional retailers has a long way to go even if some stores will survive and thrive. And here's another question: As traditional retailers weaken or go out of business, and anchor stores disappear from North America's crazily over-malled shopping geography, can the real estate investment trusts be far behind? Betting against Amazon seems a fool's game.