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The "Retail Apocalypse" Isn't as Widespread as You Might Think

By James Brumley - Oct 25, 2019 at 8:15AM

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The narrative seems grim lately, but consumers are clearly spending more of their disposable income somewhere.

Last week, in one fell swoop, Credit Suisse downgraded Macy's (M -2.71%), Gap (GPS -6.04%), and L Brands (BBWI 1.97%), the parent company to Victoria's Secret. The research arm of the investment bank is concerned that each company's sales trend could continue to deteriorate, particularly given this year's shortened holiday-shopping time frame.

It's yet another layer of evidence that the so-called "retail apocalypse" is still in full swing. And perhaps it is.

A closer look at the data, however, reveals the retailing world's current misery is actually fairly focused on one particular area. The common thread among the 16 retail bankruptcies already filed this year is ... thread. Of the 16 companies, 10 sold clothing. Of the 28 retailers that industry publication Retail Dive believes are at risk of filing for bankruptcy next year, half are apparel venues.

Investors should be careful not to draw sweeping conclusions from anecdotal evidence.

Key reasons for the apparel spending slump

Credit Suisse's Michael Binetti said he fears that Macy's earnings-per-share trend is in a "much more fragile state today vs. [the] pre-2008 recession." That's saying something, given the severity of that previous meltdown. Binetti comments on L Brands included: "In a tougher U.S. backdrop, we see risk to [second-half guidance] that assumes a fairly quick turn in Victoria's Secret trends with the multitude of challenges facing the company today making it difficult to support the stock on valuation alone."

A series of Everything Must Go and other store-closing sale signs

Image source: Getty Images.

It's difficult not to blame e-commerce giant (AMZN -2.49%) for at least part of the headwind. Through its private-label and third-party sales, Amazon, according to Coresight Research, is now the United States' most-shopped apparel retailer. With some help from club-based warehouse retailers, it's seemingly doing to the clothing market what it did to toys, electronics, and books, upending a segment of the brick-and-mortar industry in the process.

But the brunt of the clothing sector's woes may have less to do with Amazon, and more to do with demand for apparel in general.

Last year, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics compiled by Wells Fargo determined that spending on clothing as a percentage of income fell from 6.2% in 1977 to half that figure now. It's largely been displaced by ramped-up spending on technology, though even more so by changing lifestyles. Most workplaces require only casual dress, and more garments can be worn in a variety of settings. Both of these trends have lessened the need for a varied wardrobe.

Even on an absolute-dollar basis, though, the progressive decline in spending on clothing is an outlier, one primarily driven by the demise of department stores.

Consumer spending is actually quite healthy, except for...

The retail data these days is shocking, almost to the point of being unbelievable. Except investors have seen stalwarts like Sears Holdings and J.C. Penney unravel in real time over the course of just the past few years. The numbers are what they are. Spending at diversified department stores has now fallen to nearly half of its peak since early 2000.

The revenue collected by more focused apparel and accessories stores actually held up surprisingly well through last year, perhaps attracting consumers displaced by closures of their favorite mall anchors like Macy's. Even on that front, though, spending seems to be leveling off, perhaps poised to finally roll over as well:

Chart of retail sales trend by source, venue

Data source: Thomson Reuters. Chart by author.

It's the rest of the data on the chart that's so curious, however. It's a look at spending on non-store retailers (which encompasses online-only options), and a look at total retail spending by month, adjusted for seasonal fluctuations. Both are still on the rise. Indeed, both appear to be in very strong uptrends, despite grim headlines and economic turbulence.

Consumers are clearly spending their disposable income on something -- retail spending reached a record level in August. They're just not spending it on clothing, and certainly not spending it at traditional department stores.

Time to rethink the reckless use of "retail apocalypse"

The takeaway for investors is simple. The "retail apocalypse" is mostly (although not exclusively) an end to the way we buy and use clothing. Don't overlook a retail opportunity like Best Buy or Lowe's, both of which are growing, simply because of a well-circulated but incomplete narrative.

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Stocks Mentioned

Macy's, Inc. Stock Quote
Macy's, Inc.
$18.32 (-2.71%) $0.51, Inc. Stock Quote, Inc.
$106.21 (-2.49%) $-2.71
The Gap, Inc. Stock Quote
The Gap, Inc.
$8.24 (-6.04%) $0.53
Bath & Body Works, Inc. Stock Quote
Bath & Body Works, Inc.
$26.92 (1.97%) $0.52

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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