The bankruptcy of Forever 21 marks the 35th major bankruptcy this year, and over two-thirds of them have been in the retail industry. Not every one of the businesses will close its doors and liquidate its inventory. Many -- like Forever 21, a fast-fashion icon -- will seek to restructure. 

It has over 800 stores worldwide and looks to close 350 of them, 178 in the U.S. But as the carnage builds -- and at least one analyst believes the "retail apocalypse" can drag on for another two years -- it calls attention to other retailers that find themselves at risk of going under.

A $100 bill on fire

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Below are three of the biggest retailers that sought bankruptcy protection in 2019, along with four more that may follow.

Gymboree (filed Jan. 16)

The children's retailer went through the wringer twice in as many years, winding down the operations of its namesake stores and the Crazy 8 chain, and eventually selling its high-end kids clothing store Janie and Jack to Gap for $35 million.

It was competition from Gap and The Children's Place in part -- along with major discount chains like Walmart -- that hurt Gymboree after it emerged from bankruptcy in 2017. The shift by consumers to buying clothes online also exacerbated the falling sales volumes at its stores. There were 380 retail stores at the end.

Payless Shoes (filed Feb. 18)

Coresight Research says retailers have announced 8,579 stores closures this year, and it expects as many as 12,000 will be shuttered by the end of the year. Payless Shoes alone is responsible for 30% of the closures -- its February bankruptcy filing led to the end of over 2,300 stores. It had been through the bankruptcy courts twice in two years.

An earlier effort closed only 700 stores, so that when it reemerged, it still had too many locations and too much debt. It was never able to reach profitability the second time around, and losses widened dramatically, going from $4 million in 2017 to $63 million last year. It had been in business for over 60 years.

Fred's (filed Sept. 9)

At its peak, discount chain Fred's operated almost 700 stores with nearly 350 pharmacies inside. The retail business struggled, though, and Fred's sought to plaster over the problems by becoming a national pharmacy player when Walgreens tried to merge with Rite-Aid (RAD 21.43%) last year. To satisfy potential antitrust concerns, Fred's agreed to purchase 865 Rite-Aid stores.

Unfortunately, the deal fell apart, and the wheels quickly came off the discounter's wagon. By the time it declared bankruptcy last month, it had fewer than 300 stores, which were to be closed down and liquidated.

The shadow grows

There were warnings signs the above retailers were spiraling down, so it wasn't a complete surprise when they finally did declare bankruptcy. It's why investors should probably heed the warning flags now waving for these four retailers as well.

Ascena Retail

The owner of Ann Taylor, Loft, Lane Bryant, and other retail brands has struggled for years, and it has had to close some of its properties, including Dressbarn, while divesting Maurices. With over 3,400 stores, Ascena Retail Group (ASNA) is a sprawling operation, but it suffers from falling sales, high debt, and excessive cash burn. In its just-reported fiscal fourth-quarter earnings, sales declined 4%, and it had $1.3 billion in long-term debt and just $328 million in cash. It reported a GAAP operating loss of $354 million versus a $32 million profit a year ago.

J.C. Penney

Department store chain J.C. Penney (JCPN.Q) has been on the precipice for years, but the risk is accelerating. It, too, doesn't have the necessary cash to make the deep structural changes that are needed. Its cash position, in fact, is worse than Ascena's, with just $175 million in the bank and nearly $3.6 billion in long-term debt and another $1 billion in operating-lease obligations. It has been negotiating with its creditors, but in the face of sustained, intense competition, it seems only a matter of when, not if, it goes under.

J. Crew

Privately held J. Crew has tried everything to remain relevant. It was a retail darling after consumers learned Michele Obama shopped there, but the chain struggled later to find its fashion niche, first going upscale, then introducing an athleisure line, then developing its own denim line. Its troubles are such that it's spinning off the Madewell denim brand even though there's risk that concept may have reached its peak and faces too much competition. With sustained losses of $120 million for the last two years and turmoil in the C-suite -- its CEO resigned after just 16 months and was replaced by a four-person "office of the CEO" -- the fashion retailer may not make it much longer.


Part of the reason Rite-Aid wanted to merge with Walgreens was the struggle it was having competing against that chain and CVS Health. While last quarter's earnings report was better than many expected -- beating on earnings but coming up short on revenue -- Rite-Aid remains challenged. Its new CEO said the pharmacy was "acting with urgency" to confront the problems and change its trajectory.

Look out below

The woes of these retailers are multiplied by the fact we may very well be heading into the "mother of all recessions" according to fellow Fool contributor Sean Williams. If so, it will be difficult enough for healthy retailers to survive.

There will be winners in such times, particularly if investors prepare themselves for the inevitable. But there's a very good chance that if the economy sours, the four retailers above won't be one of those crossing the finish line.