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Should Nordstrom Go Private?

By Rich Duprey – Updated Jun 22, 2017 at 9:15PM

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There's not much for the upscale retailer to gain from being out of the public spotlight.

Retail's wreckage has gotten to such a point that Nordstrom (JWN -0.99%) no longer wants to be in the public spotlight. The upscale department store caused quite a stir when it announced it was considering going private.

While such a move would allow it to ignore the pressures from Wall Street of having to report ever-increasing sales and profits, just because it wouldn't have to think about the impact next quarter's earnings report would have on its stock doesn't mean it would be able to escape the maelstrom overtaking the industry.

The outside of a Nordstrom's store.

Image source: Nordstrom, Inc.

A matter of time

The retail landscape may have reached a tipping point where, despite brick-and-mortar stores still generating vastly more sales than e-commerce, the ability to effectively compete with their online rivals has been greatly diminished. It may be more a case of what consumers are willing to shop for in stores and what they will buy online.

The U.S. Department of Commerce says non-store sales represent only about 8% of total retail sales made, but it is growing at a robust double-digit rate, whereas in-store sales are falling.

First-quarter retail sales rose 5% to $1.25 trillion, but e-commerce only accounted for $105 billion of the total. However, non-store sales surged 14.7% from last year, meaning e-commerce was carrying the full weight of industry growth while brick-and-mortar sales contracted. It's been like that for years.

Yet that's obviously not a blanket statement because some retailers are doing quite good. Where department stores like J.C. Penney, Macy's, and Sears are closing hundreds of stores in a bid to right size their footprint before it's too late, competitors like TJX Companies (TJX -0.36%) and Burlington Stores are still in expansion mode.

Recently TJX, which owns T.J. Maxx, Marshall's, and Home Goods brands, says it believes it can grow from 3,800 stores today to some 5,600 stores in the next few years. Ross Stores anticipates opening 100 stores just this year alone. The common denominator seems to be these are all off-price chains, and it's evident even in Nordstrom's own results.

Off the rack

First-quarter net sales rose 2.7% to $3.3 billion, but that was the result of its off-price Nordstrom Rack chain growing sales 8.7% on a 2.3% rise in same-store sales; its full-price stores saw sales decrease 1.7% and comps fall 2.8%. Nordstrom now has almost as many Rack stores (220) as it does full-price stores in the U.S. and Canada (222).

A woman looking at her computer with a credit card in hand who appears to be shopping online.

Image source: Getty Images.

Further reflecting the state of retail, Nordstrom's online sales grew 11% year over year, and now comprise 24% of total sales.

So Nordstrom going private won't change any of those dynamics. Its customers will continue migrating to its online website or shopping its off-price stores, while the full-price stores continue to diminish in importance and value. Considering the retailer opened six Rack stores in the first quarter and closed one full-price store, the discount chain will likely eclipse the namesake stores this quarter or next, and it's previously said it wants to have as many as 300 Rack stores by 2020.

A future spinoff

What some analysts speculate is Nordstrom is looking for the necessary time and space to restructure its business to reflect the industry's new realities. What they're talking about is potentially spinning off the Rack stores as a separate entity, and possibly returning to the public sphere again as a slimmed down retailer. By being private, Nordstrom can implement the change without the publicity that would surround to the move as a publicly traded company.

That's certainly possible, though shedding your best performing assets and leaving behind an ailing, shrinking business doesn't always work -- just ask Sears. Still, despite its troubles, Nordstrom does have some intensely loyal customers and possesses a valuable, well-recognized brand name.

There is also the possibility another company steps forward to buy Nordstrom. (AMZN -0.07%), the cause of most of retail's turmoil and fresh off buying Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion, has analysts further speculating Nordstrom would be a perfect fit for it. Amazon is already scheduled to pass Macy's this year as the largest apparel retailer as it reportedly had some $22 billion in apparel sales in 2016.

More of the same

The controlling Nordstrom family may want to sell -- either part of their business or the entire chain -- and they might also conclude going private is too expensive. They would, after all, have to take on substantial debt to buy back all the public shares out there.

There are some very good reasons for Nordstrom to go private, yet they still don't seem to change the situation that full-price chains will be at a distinct competitive disadvantage to their off-price rivals.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool recommends Nordstrom and The TJX Companies. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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