Macy's Flagship Store in Midtown Manhattan
Photograph by Richard Cummins — Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images
By Phil Wahba
December 26, 2016

For all the factors in their favor in 2016—falling unemployment, a recovering housing market, low gas prices and (slowly) rising wages—many large U.S. retailers had a pretty crummy year.

Companies like Target (tgt), Kohl’s (kss) and J.C. Penney (jcp) suddenly found their turnarounds in question after comparable sales unexpectedly started to decline again. Others, like long-time winners Nordstrom (jwn) and Neiman Marcus were suddenly confronting a so-far unstoppable drop in business at their luxury department stores. This in a year that saw Wall Street bonuses soar and the stock market hit records, factors that typically help upscale stores.

And Macy’s (m) continued to lose market share to more nimble rivals like TJX’s (tjx) T.J Maxx and Ulta Beauty, (ulta) and is expected to slip behind as the top seller of apparel in the country next year.

The retail pain was particularly acute for smaller, specialty chains. Aéropostale filed for bankruptcy protection, at least emerging as a much smaller chain, while American Apparel filed for Chapter 11 for the second time. Comparable sales continued to skid at Gap Inc (gps) and Abercrombie & Fitch (anf) as their attempts to push back at Zara, H&M and Forever 21 largely failed.

What’s more, most stores failed to find much solace online, with big strides in e-commerce insufficient to make up for sharply declining store sales. Some like Barnes & Noble (bks) even managed to see online sales fall. Nordstrom took a nearly $200 million write down on its purchase of Trunk Club. And Neiman’s online sales growth stalled. Amazon, which alone commands about 30% of U.S. online sales, seems to be running away with the prize, despite its brick and mortar rivals’ best efforts.

Still, there were some bright spots: Walmart (wmt) continued its comeback, using its stores as an advantage over for things like grocery pickup and seeing online growth resume after adding millions of items to its marketplaces. Home Depot continued to ride the housing recovery. And off price chains like T.J. Maxx and Ross Stores’ (rost) continued to boom.

Here’s a look back at 2016, the year in retail.

1) Walmart’s Turnaround Continued Apace

Thanks to a tripling of its online assortment, Walmart got back to growth online. It also bought for a pricey $3 billion in a deal many analysts said would give Walmart access to state of the art e-commerce capability. Walmart also expanded the number of stores where shoppers can pick up online orders. In its stores, its investment in nicer looking fresh food areas and raises started to pay off, helping it outperform rivals like Target.

2) More Retail Bankruptcies

The industry’s shakeout continued as different chains sought to slim down bloated store fleets and lower debt. Aéropostale and American Apparel filed for bankrupcty but Aéropostale was at least rescued by a consortium that included the top two mall developers, Simon Property Group (spg) and General Growth Properties (ggp). American Apparel’s prospects are dimmer after its second Chapter 11 filing in as many years. The Sports Authority, Vestis Retail (parent of Eastern Mountain Sports) and Pacific Sunwear were others to file for bankruptcy protection.

3) Macy’s, Barnes & Noble CEOs Out

The buck stops, or at least should, with the CEO. At Macy’s, (m) long-time and well-regarded CEO Terry Lundgren, who oversaw the worst slump in the department store’s business since the Great Recession, signaled it was time for a change after 13 years. Macy’s lost ground to J.C. Penney (jcp) among others, and announced the closure of 140 stores, or about 20% of its fleet.

As for Barnes & Noble, (bks), the revolving door known as the corner office continued to swing as the bookseller fired its CEO after barely more than a year, adding to the sense of crisis surrounding the retailer.

Other 2016 CEO departures included: Staples’ (spells) Ron Sargent who stepped down after the company failed to win government approval for its takeover of smaller rival Office Depot. (op). Lands’ End (le) pulled the plug on Federica Marchionni’s ill-advised attempt to go upscale. L Brands’ Les Wexner decided Victoria’s Secret needed a refresh and ousted longtime CEO Sharen Jester Turney. Whole Foods (wfm) announced one of its co-CEOs, Walter Robb, was stepping down as did The Container Store. And The North Face parent VF Corp (vcc) said its longtime CEO Eric Wiseman would be replaced by operations chief Steve Rendle on Jan. 1.

4) Where Are the Department Store Shoppers?

Sears, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Dillard’s all grappled with declining comparable sales. But even high-end department stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and HBC’s Saks Fifth Avenue are seeing drops in their business. Neiman’s CEO recently said luxury shoppers are less loyal today, but also want to “buy now, wear now,” a behavior that is upending the business model of retailers that only sell items nine months after they are seen on a runway. Meanwhile, off-price stores like T.J. Maxx are stealing department stores’ apparel business, and off-mall chains like Ulta Beauty (ulta) are taking their shopper traffic away.

5) Old Retail Meets New Retail

Traditional retailers got bolder this year about taking on their online-only rivals. And Walmart’s $3 billion purchase of was not the only notable move.

Neiman Marcus recently opened its first space for luxury gown rental service Rent the Runway in its San Francisco store. And earlier in the year, HBC bought flash site Gilt and merged it into its Saks Off Fifth’s discount business, looking for the same success Nordstrom has had with HauteLook.

Then again, these pairings are not necessarily slam dunks: Nordstrom recently wrote down more than half its investment in Trunk Club. Bed Bath & Beyond bought One Kings Lane for a fraction of the $1 billion evaluation the home goods site had at its peak. As for Gilt, HBC got it for a song, shelling out $250 million, or one quarter of what it was once worth.

It’s all good to buy online growth, but perhaps retailers need to get in on the action before these start-ups start shriveling.


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