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Retail liquidations to become more likely as COVID-19 drags on in US

Retailers aiming to restructure ailing businesses are driving most bankruptcies in the sector during the coronavirus era. That could change, though, as filings pile up, experts say.

As the U.S. economy remains sluggish and consumers remain hesitant to spend money, either because of lost income or the specter of it, the recovery period for mall-based retailers has gotten longer. As more at-risk retailers adapt to that reality, many are likely to look more seriously at liquidating operations instead of trying to survive.

"The pendulum will swing more toward liquidation" as the recovery drags on, especially among small- and mid-sized retailers, said David Berliner, head of BDO's restructuring and turnaround services practice. While lenders could be willing to extend additional credit to "good brands with a purpose," many retailers, particularly those focused on apparel, must now compete for a smaller share of in-store sales.

"The problem is that a lot of our shopping malls ... are so apparel focused, so duplicative," he said in an interview.

Some recent retail filings, while technically restructurings, have included significant liquidation components. Stein Mart Inc., which filed for bankruptcy Aug. 12, has decided to close its entire store network and signaled that it is willing to offload other elements of its business, including its e-commerce operations.

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While focused on selling off-price apparel and home goods — an area of retail that has been resilient in recent months despite the pandemic — Stein Mart did not stock as many name-brand items as rivals like The TJX Cos. Inc. Many of its locations were in middling mall locations, said Taleeb Noormohamed, CEO at online apparel and accessory marketplace Jane.

"We are going to see more of these types of filings," he said of both liquidations and efforts to right-size existing businesses.

Even retailers that have already gone through a restructuring this year, such as J.C. Penney Co. Inc., are not necessarily out of the woods yet. Recent Chapter 11 filers could see their turnaround efforts stall if consumers stay at home and online sales do not make up the difference, BDO's Berliner said.

"I think we run the risk that if these don't get fixed correctly," retailers could end up filing again, he said.

The number of retail bankruptcies for 2020 is already on track to match yearly totals after the last financial crisis. Forty-four S&P Global Market Intelligence-covered retail companies have filed so far, just shy of full-year totals for 2010 and 2011.

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Retail and consumer companies with the highest odds of default according to Market Intelligence data as of Aug. 17 included Destination XL Group Inc., which had a one-year probability of default of about 38% as of Aug. 17, and Sequential Brands Group Inc., which had a one-year default probability of about 32%. Neither company responded to requests for comment from Market Intelligence.

One-year probability of default represents the odds that a company will not be able to pay a debt within the next year and relies on fluctuations in the company's stock price as well as other country- and industry-related risks.

For department stores as a group, the one-year probability of default was 6%. For apparel retailers, the probability was 5.9%. Both figures represent a significant decline from April when department stores collectively had a one-year probability of default rate of 42.1% and apparel retailers stood at 28.7%.

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Already, the pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for retailers, with in-store purchases likely to remain below year-ago levels into the holiday season. How retailers handle the new environment will determine much about their future financial health, said Steven Dennis, president and founder at Sageberry Consulting and a former executive at Neiman Marcus and Sears Holdings Corp..

Many apparel retailers, including department stores, have made deep cuts to their orders for the holidays, with many reducing the range of products that they plan to carry in anticipation of lower consumer spending. "They were so aggressive about cutting orders, particularly private brand," he said, referring to the products that retailers whose supply chains and cost structures retailers can more directly control.

But those choices put some retailers at risk of "broken assortments," Dennis said, using a term for incomplete selections of items within a category, such as a lack of certain sizes or colors. If apparel retailers can't offer a complete selection of items this holiday season, he added, the effort to save money could come back to hurt top-line results.

"I don't see how it doesn't get worse before it gets better," Dennis said.