By Phil Wahba
December 22, 2015

What a bruising year 2015 has been for traditional retailers.

Not only did the lowest gas prices in years not translate into a bonanza for many stores, but brick-and-mortar companies had to contend with (amzn) stealing their lunch in the e-commerce wars and painful shifts in consumer spending patterns.

Even though in-store spending still generates 90% of retailer’s revenues, 2015 was an inflection point: on Thanksgiving-Black Friday weekend, more people shopped online than in stores. And in a sign that investors have more faith in’s prospects (amzn) than they do in those of physical stores, the online retailer’s stock market value eclipsed Walmart’s (wmt) last summer and has left it in the dust since then.

Meanwhile, companies like Macy’s (m) continued to struggle against the emergence of discount fashion chains like TJX’s (tax) T.J. Maxx, as American fashion stalwarts like Gap Inc (gps) try desperately to stand out in a cluttered apparel landscape against tough rivals like H&M and Uniqlo.

Still, all is not lost for retailers. In a research note, Nomura Securities on Monday sounded an upbeat note, “the U.S. macro environment has shaped up quite favorably, with the consumer in a better position to spend relative to last year.”

Then again, many were expecting 2015 to be a great year. But it didn’t turn out that way.

Before we turn our attention to 2016, let’s have a look back at the year that is almost over, with 10 of our favorite stories. (Though honestly we could have gone on for longer, with all the drama in retail this year.)

1. Amazon's stock market value surpasses Walmart Inc. employees load boxes with orders at the company's fulfillment center.
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

In July, Walmart suffered the indignity of watching’s stock market value eclipse its own, with investors much more bullish about the e-tailer’s growth prospects. Walmart is doing its level best, pouring billions into its e-commerce efforts, including testing drive-up service for online grocery orders and recently introducing Walmart Pay, its own mobile wallet. But last quarter, Amazon’s sales rose more than twice as quickly as Walmart’s digital sales, and the gulf in online sales only seems to be growing. As of Dec. 21, the market valued Amazon at $310 billion, compared to Wal-Mart Stores’ $190 billion.

2. More Black Friday shoppers went online than to stores

Employees organize outbound packages at an Fulfillment Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Photograph by Ross D. Franklin — AP

Retail reached a milestone this holiday season: for the first time ever, more U.S. shoppers went online (103 million) than to stores (102 million) on the Thanksgiving and Black Friday weekend, signaling just how much shopping culture has changed. Of course, retailers themselves encouraged this, by trotting out their doorbuster deals online at the crack of dawn on Thanksgiving. The thinking seems to be, better to cannibalize yourself than have Amazon do it.

3. Walmart made its stores a little nicer

Walmart employees
Photo by Bob Chamberlin — LA Times via Getty Images

When Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran took the reins of the $290 billion division in 2014, he made it his top priority to improve stores’ appearance and customer service. He also brought a sense of urgency in his mandate to store managers to improve Walmart’s notorious out-of-stock problems. The retailer has made progress on that front, with customer satisfaction levels starting to rebound. But by Foran’s own admission, nearly one-third of Walmart’s U.S. stores still don’t get a passing grade.

4. Macy's loses its edge

Photograph by Peter Foley — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Macy’s came out of the recession swinging, outperforming rivals like J.C. Penney (jcp) and Kohl’s (kss) by catering to a more affluent clientele and benefiting from international tourism. But this fiscal year has been the department store chain’s annus horribilis. Comparable sales have fallen in each of the first three quarters of 2015, including a 4% drop last quarter, with more of the same expected in the holiday quarter.

Macy’s is having trouble fending off T.J. Maxx’s growth. It is also struggling to respond to a shift in spending away from clothing and toward home repairs, restaurants, and paying down debt. Macy’s will be under pressure in 2016 to show that efforts like launching its own discount chain (Backstage) and focusing on its 150 best stores will work.

5. Turnover, massive sales declines at Gap Inc

General view of atmosphere backstage at the Banana Republic Spring 2016 Presentation during New York Fashion Week on September 12, 2015 in New York City.
Photograph by Fernanda Calfat —Getty Images

There has been big change at the highest ranks of each of Gap Inc’s (gps) three major brands this year. First, Gap’s creative director Rebecca Bay left the namesake brand in January after failing to fix the struggling division. In fact, its problems only seemed to grow worse as the year wore on. Then, in September, news came that Stefan Larsson, the whiz who turned Old Navy into a juggernaut, left to be CEO of Ralph Lauren.

Banana Republic creative director Marissa Webb stepped down in October (though she’ll continue to advise the company). All the while, sales at Gap and Banana have continued to deteriorate.

Gap Inc CEO Art Peck has said that efforts to make those brands nimbler in the face of new fashion trends will start to pay off in early 2016. He must be hoping shoppers haven’t simply gotten into the habit of going elsewhere in the meantime.

6. Pressure to spin off property into REITs

An Olive Garden location in Reno, Nev., on Thursday, March 19, 2015.
Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images

Many activist investors have been pushing retailers and restaurants to leverage some of their biggest assets, their stores, to stoke share value by spinning them off into real estate investment trusts (REITs.) Sears (shld) successfully conducted a spinoff, giving it a much-needed injection of cash and attracting an investment from Warren Buffett.

But Macy’s said no, arguing that it wanted more control of its stores as it looks to turn things around.

On the restaurant side, Olive Garden parent Darden (dry) decided to go the REIT route, while McDonald’s (mcd) declined.

With investors looking to lift stocks at a time when sales and profits are under pressure, expect the REIT idea to continue to pop up.

7. Tons of prospective M&A deals

Photograph by George Rose — Getty Images

It has been a banner year for dealmaking in corporate America, and retail was no exception. Though there have not been $130 billion acquisitions of the kind we saw in the healthcare sector, there have been big deals. In February, Staples (spells) said it would buy Office Depot (odp) for $5.5 billion, though it has yet to convince the government to allow it. Then in October, Walgreens Boots Alliance (wha) said it would buy Rite Aid (rad) for $9.4 billion in a deal sure to also get a ton of Federal Trade Commission scrutiny.

And serial acquirer HBC (hbc), which already owns Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, turned its sights on Europe, buying German department store Kaufhof for $3.2 billion.

8. Pay raises for workers

Fast-food workers support an increase of the fast food workers minimum wage in New York in May 2014.

One retailer after another raised their minimum wages this year, notably Walmart, Target (tat), and TJX, forced by a tighter labor market that is making it harder to secure good retail talent.

Given the fight with Amazon, such stores can ill afford to have unhelpful or surly workers, or staff unwilling to learn how to help customers in an era of brick-and-mortar and e-commerce integration.

Walmart in October warned investors that this year’s pay increase, which will be followed by another next year, would hit profits more than expected. At the same time, working in a Walmart store is getting more complex, with stores being used to fulfill online orders and letting people pick up web purchases. What’s more, the higher wages offered by the retailers is still far from the $15 an hour level labor advocates are demanding.

9. McDonald's turned a corner

McDonald's Egg McMuffin and hash browns.
Photograph by Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

McDonald’s finally ended a long streak of declining comparable sales in its home market, the United States. Little things like going back to butter from margarine to make its Egg McMuffin sandwich, toasting its buns for longer, and changing how it sears and grills burger patties have helped. But the chain is banking on bigger changes like introducing all-day breakfast and mobile ordering to give its nascent turnaround staying power. One quarter of U.S. comparable sales growth, and a modest uptick of 0.9% in comparable sales, after eight straight quarters of decline does not a turnaround make.

10. Avon Ladies will get a new boss

The once unthinkable has happened: New York-based direct-selling beauty company Avon Products (avp) sold off its quickly deteriorating U.S. business to private equity firm Cerberus as it tries to fix its problems in more promising markets like Russia and Brazil. It’s hard to believe the Avon Ladies of “Ding Dong” fame will no longer be selling for the iconic company, but rather for a carve-out.


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