"There is an increasing polarization in retail," said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. "It's a vicious cycle, and it's difficult to pull out of the tail spin." In fact, for the first two fiscal quarters of this year, earnings at off-mall retailers rose 3%, compared with a drop of 29% for mall-based retailers, according to Retail Metrics, a retail research firm, which analyzed results at 105 retailers.
On Wednesday, Target raised its annual earnings guidance after reporting strong sales and traffic. It was helped by its same-day delivery services, as well as a strong lineup of homegrown brands. Lowe's, the nation's second largest home improvement retailer behind Home Depot, blew past Wall Street's second-quarter earnings expectations, buoyed by strong demand for spring goods and sales to contractors.
Both companies' stocks soared. Earlier this week, Home Depot handily beat second-quarter profit expectations, while Walmart raised its outlook for the year last week and off price chains like T.J. Maxx are also faring well, resonating with shoppers who love to treasure hunt.
But many clothing chains and department stores haven't differentiated their merchandise enough, and now discounters are further squeezing them by pushing into more affordable trendy fashions, retail industry analysts say.
Last week, Macy's lowered its annual earnings guidance after its earnings suffered in the second quarter as it slashed prices on unsold merchandise. J.C. Penney's is in worst shape. It posted another quarter of sales declines. Kohl's shares, meanwhile, fell Tuesday after posting a sales decline though business improved later in the quarter.
Upscale department store Nordstrom trimmed its earnings and sales outlook for the current fiscal year late Wednesday after it reported profit and sales declines in the second quarter. Sales at its full-priced stores dropped 6.5%. The results show that it hasn't been able to escape the woes of traditional malls, even as it has been testing small stores that don't stock any clothes and expanding its online services.
Saunders and other analysts say that they started to see a clear divide between retail's winners and losers four or five years ago, but that gap has gotten more pronounced because of a combination of factors. For several years, a strong economy provided tail winds to retailers of all stripes, and last year's tax cuts gave merchants a nice sugar high. But as the economy starts developing some cracks, vulnerable retailers will become even more exposed.
Analysts also say that the shift to online shopping keeps accelerating, giving a big advantage to retailers like Target and Walmart who've been able to invest billions of dollars in online deliveries and in their stores. Some mall-based retailers are now looking at other ways to bring in shoppers, including subscription rental services and carving out areas to sell second-hand clothes.
But for some, it may be a case of too little, too late. "In a world where consumers have more choices than ever, inferior brick-and-mortar experiences will go away," said John Mulligan, Target's chief operating officer Wednesday.
Target's comparable store sales, which include online sales, rose 3.4 % as customer traffic jumped 2.4%. Online sales soared 34%. The Minneapolis company raised profit expectations for the year, sending its shares up $17.47, or 20.4%, to close at $103.
Shares in Lowe's Co., which is based in Mooresville, North Carolina, ended up $10.13, or 10.4%, at $108. Still, it is an uncertain time for even surging retailers like Target. The Trump administration has imposed a 25% tariff on $250 billion in Chinese imports. A pending 10% tariff on another $300 billion in goods would hit everything from toys to clothing and shoes that China ships to the United States.
And it appears the retailers that have been winning all along will be the ones to better navigate the tariff storms. Target's CEO Brian Cornell told analysts that while the trade wars present an additional layer of uncertainty and complexity, he pointed to the company's diverse assortment, deep expertise in global sourcing and sophisticated set of manufacturing partners around the world.
Meanwhile, Macy's said last week that its shoppers don't have an appetite for higher prices in a ballooning U.S. trade war with China. The department store was forced to raise prices on some luggage, housewares and furniture to offset the costs of a 25% tariff implemented in May. Macy's vowed not to increase prices as a result of the 10% tariff, but CEO Jeff Gennette said the company will be speaking with vendors about ways to offset rising costs if the trade war escalates.
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This story has been updated to correctly identify the Target executive quoted in reference to brick-and-mortar stores. It is Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan, not CEO Brian Cornell.