We've all heard the horror stories: J.C. Penney (OTC:JCPN.Q) is circling the drain, Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) is among the walking wounded, and Macy's (NYSE:M) is barely limping along. The retail apocalypse is upon us!

Meanwhile, all of the superlatives describing the success of e-commerce over the five-day period between Thanksgiving Day and Cyber Monday show once again that it's only a matter of time before brick-and-mortar retail is completely overshadowed by its online rivals.

Yet even as Amazon says Cyber Monday was its biggest sales day ever, getting lost in the hoo-ha is just how well physical retailers are doing this year. 

Black Friday crowds at Target.

Image source: Target.

Causing a traffic jam

Don't write off the department store just yet. While many retailers are in decline and they're bringing down shopping malls with them, if Black Friday's results are any indication, the department store still has some life -- and some fight -- in it yet.

Data from geolocation analytics firm Advan shows physical retailers are seeing higher foot traffic this year. It may not be the kind of blowout numbers e-commerce retailers are reporting, but department stores, restaurants, and shopping malls are all actually seeing higher foot traffic this year, too. In fact, almost all segments of consumer-driven brick-and-mortar retail saw store traffic rise on Black Friday. 

Analyzing three trillion data observations across two million geofence locations representing some 1,400 companies, Advan found department stores were far and away the retail destination customers visited to kick off the holiday shopping season. Although the rate of growth was lower than last year -- but much better than the declines recorded in 2017 -- the ailing department store once again went higher with double-digit traffic gains. And it wasn't even close -- restaurants were in second place with growth rates below 5%, while shopping malls and supermarkets were nearly tied at about 3%.

And supermarkets don't even belong on the list, since the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is considered the Black Friday of grocery stores, but the rising tide is apparently lifting all boats.

The big get bigger

Even so, the geolocation analytics specialist points out it's really the biggest retailers that are seeing the most growth, while the smaller players are losing ground. "The little guy is hurting," Advan wrote, "whereas the high trafficked stores see their traffic growing each year."

That seems to jibe with what analysts are finding elsewhere. Walmart (NYSE:WMT), for example, is one retailer commonly mentioned as winning on Black Friday, not surprising considering its size and breadth of coverage. Target (NYSE:TGT) and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) have also been singled out, and it's not a coincidence that these are among the biggest and best retailers in their respective spaces.

But there are other contributing factors, too. Those retailers also tend to have stand-alone stores, so they're not as dependent upon mall traffic as smaller retailers might be. Because the anchor store no longer has the same kind of magnetism it once did, customers seem to primarily visit only the department stores, not the rest of the mall. This also partially explains why so many restaurants located near malls are now also ailing.

Results are also undoubtedly influenced by retailers starting the Christmas sales earlier than Black Friday. Particularly because of a shortened shopping season this year, many retailers began offering discounts days, weeks, even a month ahead of time, diminishing the influence of Black Friday itself.

Don't write the eulogy yet

Still, this survey could give hope to chains like J.C. Penney, where CEO Jill Soltau understands she has little time to make the changes needed to keep it from going bankrupt. A big Black Friday surge could give her a little more breathing room to salvage the sinking ship and could help other department stores step back from the brink.

With record numbers of retailers shutting down stores this year, a report that shows at least some segments of the physical retail space are seeing gains indicates reports of the death of the department store have been premature.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.