Reckless expansion and heightened competition for natural and organic foods were factors behind the recent bankruptcies of Fairway, Earth Fare and Lucky’s Market, but each chain faced unique challenges.
Fairway, a New York institution known for its wide selection of cheeses and cheap produce, filed for Chapter 11 on Jan. 23. The bankruptcy was attributed to debt taken on from a leveraged buyout (LBO) in 2007, an ensuing aggressive and unsuccessful expansion into the suburbs, and newer competition ranging from Costco to Whole Foods.
Lucky’s, a Colorado-based chain with an ambition to make organic foods affordable, filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 27. In 2016, Kroger became Lucky’s majority shareholder and its store count more than doubled. The collapse was blamed on an aggressive expansion into Florida, where it faced Publix and other newcomers such as Sprouts, Fresh Thyme and Earth Fare. A greater focus on natural and organic foods by Walmart, Aldi and others further reduced differentiation.
Earth Fare, a North Carolina-based chain known for its commitment to clean eating, filed for bankruptcy on Feb. 4, a day after announcing plans to close all its 50 stores. Earth Fare also faced increasing competition against organic and conventional chains, and with aggressive expansion, the chain opened locations in overly-competitive markets.
The filings come as Sprouts is slowing growth to focus on profitability. Whole Foods, meanwhile, has reduced produce prices since being acquired by Amazon.com to spur growth. Amazon recently reported a lack of sales growth at physical stores for its 2019 fourth quarter and full year.
Discussion Questions: What common themes do you see behind the bankruptcies of Fairway, Lucky’s Market and Earth Fare? Should the filings call attention to new pressures or growth concerns facing organic and natural food categories?
Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:
From a sales perspective (not a survey perspective) organics and naturals have not fared nearly as well as was predicted. We saw this as far back as the ’80s in Europe, where the whole green movement began – there were lots of people saying they would buy green, but few actually paid the upcharge. Tom’s writing says it best – reckless expansion based on hopes rather than solid data is behind the problems.
Dr. Stephen Needel, Managing Partner, Advanced Simulations
With crushing debt, it’s not enough to have a vision of making it easy to live a healthy lifestyle, be in a growing natural and organic segment, offer friendly, knowledgeable full-service in-store and a superior shopping experience or promote high food quality standards. Desire for rapid growth drove significant store count growth and the need to take on unsustainable debt with onerous terms. This was aggravated by increased competition which puts a lid on any ability to pass through higher prices to consumers. Bottom line, it’s just bad sector dynamics and company capitalization decisions.
Mohamed Amer, Independent Board Member, Investor and Startup Advisor
The most obvious thread is mismanagement. Over-expansion, pouring too much into decor, and trying to cut margins are hardly, independently or collectively, paths to corporate sustainability. And while mainstream retailers are now taking organics “more seriously” as opposed to actually seriously, I think the mass consumer market has yet to emerge outside of marketing surveys and tweets. So there is obviously not enough of a consumer sector in those markets to support them, let alone heady expansion plans. Ryan Mathews, Founder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting
Here’s the main reason – the mainstream retailers – Kroger, H-E-B, Wegmans and even Target have caught up. They have developed a wide private label portfolio and can procure organic and natural foods at a lower cost to the customer. The key now is what is the differentiation in shopping at a Whole Foods, etc. to make it a value-added proposition for the customers they want to service?
Richard Hernandez, Director, Affiliated Foods, Inc.
Headlines of the Week
L Brands will sell the majority stake of lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret to a private equity firm for $1.1 billion. The deal gives Sycamore Partners a majority 55% interest in Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Victoria’s Secret Beauty and the Pink brand, the company said in a statement Thursday. “We believe the separation of Victoria’s Secret Lingerie, Victoria’s Secret Beauty and PINK into a privately held company provides the best path to restoring these businesses to their historic levels of profitability and growth,” said Leslie Wexner, chairman and CEO of L Brands, in a statement. When the transaction closes, Wexner will step down as chairman and CEO to assume the title chairman emeritus. L Brands will control a 45% minority stake in Victoria’s Secret, with Bath & Body Works remaining a standalone public company.
Bed Bath & Beyond has begun to focus on its core assets — and streamline its portfolio — as the company moves to turnaround its ailing business. The struggling home goods retailer announced capital expenditures for fiscal 2020 of approximately $350 million to $400 million, primarily for investments in stores, IT and digital projects, and supply chain infrastructure. Bed Bath & Beyond also plans to spend about $600 million this fiscal year on share repurchases, dividends and debt reduction. The company also announced it has agreed to sell its PersonalizationMall.com business to 1-800-Flowers.com for $252 million. Bed Bath & Beyond said it would continue to review its other brands, which include Christmas Tree Shops, World Market and buybuy Baby, and real estate “to support the transformation and enhance shareholder value.”
Apparel & Footwear
Gap Inc. wants its customers to clean out their closets. The retailer is partnering with resale platform ThredUp to encourage customers to turn in their used clothes in exchange for credits that can be redeemed at Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta or Janie and Jack stores. With the collaboration, Gap Inc. will be the largest retailer to participate in ThredUp’s resale-as-a-service online platform, which partners with retailers to get customers to “clean out” their closets to support the circular fashion economy which helps divert waste from landfills. Customers who redeem their credits at any of the Gap Inc. brands will receive an additional 15% payout bonus. Starting in April, ThredUp “clean out” bags or labels will be available to customers at select Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta and Janie and Jack stores in the U.S.
Ascena Retail Group, Inc. announced that the Dressbarn brand has completed the orderly wind down of its business operations, closing over 650 stores and successfully eliminating over $300 million of lease liability. Favorable sales performance by Dressbarn since the announcement fully offset the costs incurred in the wind down of approximately $60 million. All Dressbarn stores have now been closed, and the Dressbarn intellectual property assets and its ecommerce business have been sold and transitioned to its new owner.
Struggling retailer Laura Ashley has secured a loan to fund its day-to-day operations following speculation about its survival. The fashion and home store had been in talks with US bank Wells Fargo about terms for drawing on a £20m loan facility. Shares in Laura Ashley surged 45% on the news, rebounding from falls earlier in the week. Last week, the firm said trading was “challenging”. Sales fell by nearly 11% in the second half of 2019. It said that its majority shareholder, the Malaysian group MUI, had been in talks with Wells Fargo about funds to allow it to continue trading.
Rodd & Gunn has its sights set on expanding in the U.S. The New Zealand-based menswear brand is on target to have 10 U.S. storefronts by year’s end. Upcoming locations include the newly expanded Westfield Valley Fair in Santa Clara, Calif., in March, followed by Broadway Plaza in Walnut Creek, Calif., in July. The additional Northern California locations will bring Rodd & Gunn’s total U.S. roster to 10 stores, following openings in key locations across the nation, including Newport Beach, Calif.; Los Angeles; San Diego; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Greenwich, Conn.; Dallas and Bellevue, Wash. Founded in New Zealand in 1946, Rodd & Gunn has evolved into a lifestyle brand with more than 100 stores and shop-in-shops in Australia and New Zealand, along with its eight U.S. stores. In addition to apparel and accessories, Rodd & Gunn also offers footwear, along with an array of bespoke leather luggage handcrafted in New Zealand.
Athletic & Sporting Goods
Nike’s German rivals Adidas and Puma warned the coronavirus epidemic is hurting their sales in China. Nike stock rose. After closing stores Jan. 25 for the Lunar New Year holiday, Adidas said China sales had plummeted 85% vs. the same period last year. The Chinese market accounts for roughly 12%-13% of its overall sales. Puma also warned investors Wednesday of the impact of coronavirus to China business. It said the outbreak had negatively impacted its business “since the beginning of February.”
Shares of Yeti Holdings Inc. sank in premarket trading after the drinkware and coolers maker announced a public offering of 15 million shares of common stock. All of the shares being offered are from selling stockholders, so Yeti will not receive any proceeds. With 86.8 million shares outstanding as of Feb. 7, the offering could represent 17% of the shares outstanding. If the underwriters exercise all the options to buy additional shares, Yeti could sell 17.25 million shares, representing 20% of the shares outstanding.
Cosmetics & Pharmacy
Coty, which has a market value of $9 billion and is majority-owned by German conglomerate JAB Holdings, kicked off the auction process for its Professional Beauty unit according to Bloomberg. Last October Coty announced its intentions to complete the sale by the middle of 2020, hiring Credit Suisse to handle discussions with prospective bidders. Bids are said to be due the first week of March. According to CNBC, bankers advising the prospective bidders estimate the Coty Professional portfolio could fetch 10 to 12 times its core earnings of roughly $600 million, putting a $6 to $7 billion valuation on the business. The consideration of the sale is part of Chief Executive Officer Pierre Laubies’ turnaround plan for the wider business by boosting margins and reducing leverage. The business took a $965 million write-down last year on the value of brands it purchased from Procter & Gamble Co. in 2015. Coty’s shares have fallen about 48% in the last five years.
In a highly competitive category, Starface raised $2 million in a seed round led by BBG Ventures to invest in product innovation, people, and Canadian and European expansion. Launched in September 2019, Starface was founded by former beauty editor Julie Schott and entrepreneur Brian Bordainick. The brand launched with one hero product, a hydrocolloid acne patch in the shape of a star and a mission to foster acne positivity.
Discounters & Department Stores
Walmart on Tuesday reported fiscal fourth-quarter earnings that fell short of analysts’ estimates, as the retailer saw weak demand for toys, apparel and video games during the holiday season. Its outlook for the upcoming year also came up short of expectations, as Walmart anticipates e-commerce growth will slow. Walmart said the forecast doesn’t include any impact from the deadly coronavirus outbreak, though it continues to monitor the situation, and said it could end up taking a hit in China in the first and second quarters.
In 2017, Minnesota-based retail giant Target bought Shipt, a grocery delivery company based in Alabama, for $550 million. Now, at 1,500 Targets in 47 states, a personal Shipt shopper will make your grocery run for you and deliver the goods to your home. Said personal shopper—like every Uber, Postmates, or DoorDash driver you’ve ever paid—is not an employee, but an independent contractor, a cog in the ever-expanding “gig economy.” But according to eight shoppers who spoke to Motherboard (some of them anonymously for fear of retaliation), working for Shipt has become more trouble than it’s worth.
Walmart Inc. is parting ways with grocery-delivery partner Skipcart, the latest defection from its network of logistics companies who often struggle to make ends meet schlepping cola and cantaloupes for the nation’s biggest food retailer. Skipcart notified Walmart on Jan. 31 that it was terminating their relationship effective April 30, according to a letter obtained by Bloomberg News. That end date has since been pushed up to March and Walmart has already reassigned stores covered by Skipcart to other providers. Boerne, Texas-based Skipcart handles deliveries from about 126 stores in 32 states, mostly in smaller markets, and began working with Walmart in late 2018.
Macy’s credit score was cut to junk by debt-ratings firm S&P Global, which said the department-store chain has too many stores amid a shift in consumer preferences away from mall-based locations. Shares fell on the news. The firm lowered its long-term credit rating on Macy’s by one notch to BB+, the highest level of junk. “The downgrade reflects our view that Macy’s improvement trajectory is weaker than our prior expectations,” New York-based S&P analysts said in a report. They believe Macy’s is facing elevated risks and that its operating performance will “deteriorate over the next several quarters, with declines in same-store sales.”
Emerging Consumer Companies
Showfields, the retail concept promising visitors the chance “to discover and engage with the brands of tomorrow,” will open a second location in May. The company hopes that its new store, in Miami, will see similar success as the company’s first location, which opened in New York a year ago. Showfields raised $9 million in funding last year, and targets online brands that seek to augment digital sales with some distribution at retail.
Feather, a New York -based furniture rental service, has raised $30 million in an investment round led by Cobalt Capital, with participation from Spark Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Bain Capital Ventures, and Y Combinator. Feather launched in 2017 and currently operates in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Orange County. The investment comes less than a year after the company’s $12 million Series A and brings its total equity funding to $46 million.
Dropps, a Philadelphia-based environmentally friendly household cleaning products company, raised $16 million from investment firm The Craftory. The investment will allow Dropps to scale up its subscription business, and to expand its team and product development capabilities. Dropps claims to have invented the original liquid laundry detergent pod in 2008.
M.M.LaFleur notified some customers last week that the company is pulling back on plus options, according to an email sent to those who previously purchased apparel in those sizes. “We have scaled back on developing entirely new styles in plus sizes,” M.M.LaFleur founder and CEO Sarah LaFleur said in the email sent to customers. The apparel retailer will continue to “refresh our best-selling plus-size pieces in new colors and fabrics,” and has 14 new styles within its current spring collection, according to LaFleur. “[T]he truth is that we’ve been struggling to sell enough of our plus-size clothing to offset the cost of producing it,” LaFleur wrote in the email to customers. “Rather than sacrifice quality to develop new styles, we’ve chosen to focus on releasing tried-and-true silhouettes in new colors and fabrics for now.”
Grocery & Restaurants
B&G Foods, Inc. has acquired Farmwise L.L.C., a Wellesley, Mass.-based maker of frozen veggie fries, veggie tots and veggie rings. Terms of the transaction were not disclosed. “We are excited to increase our great tasting, plant-based product offerings with the acquisition of Farmwise,” said Jordan Greenberg, executive vice-president and chief commercial officer of B&G Foods. “Dave and Cristina Peters, the founders of Farmwise, have done a tremendous job developing delicious, plant-based products … that both parents and children love. We look forward to further supporting the Farmwise brand in the natural channel while also introducing items that Farmwise has developed into new, innovative product offerings for our Green Giant brand.”
Dairy cooperative Dairy Farmers of America (D.F.A.) has offered $425 million and the assumption of liabilities to acquire some of Dean Foods Co.’s assets. Dean Foods filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Nov. 12, 2019, and the offer, if accepted, will designate D.F.A. as the stalking horse bidder in the sale of Dean Foods. The offer is for 44 of Dean’s 57 fluid and frozen facilities, its direct-store delivery system and certain corporate and other assets. Other interested parties have until March 31 to submit information to be considered a potential bidder.
Less than a week after announcing the end of its exclusive agreement with airport foodservice company HMSHost — part of travel foodservice company Autogrill Group — Starbucks is already expanding its airport presence with the announcement of two major partnerships: airport retailer and restaurateur Paradies Lagardère and airport hospitality group OTG Management. Starbucks is entering a licensing agreement with both major airports concessions companies and promises to introduce a “re-imagined customer experience,” with new stores opening later this year at Paradies Lagardère and OTG airport partners around the country. Starbucks said it plans to use these two new partnerships as a jumping-off point to expand its footprint in airports across North America.
Home & Road
Sleep Number Corp. said net sales for its 2019 year were up 11% to a record $1.7 billion. Net sales in the fourth quarter were up 7%. “Consumer response to our revolutionary 360 smart beds has been exceptional, driving six consecutive quarters of double-digit demand growth, including acceleration in the fourth quarter,” said Shelly Ibach, president and CEO. For the full year, the net sales gain included a 6% comparable sales gain and 5 percentage points of growth from new stores. The gross profit rate increased 130 basis points to 61.9% of net sales. And operating income increased 21% to $112 million, or 6.6% of net sales, up 60 basis points versus the prior year, the company said. In the fourth quarter, net sales increased 7% (up 14% vs. prior year adjusted) to $441.2 million.
Pier 1 Imports aimed low when it should’ve been moving up in the quality and curation spectrum. That’s the key takeaway in a bankruptcy court declaration by CEO Robert Riesbeck. “A confluence of operational and strategic factors” contributed to the Top 100 company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, he said, but most significant among them “was a strategy launched under past management to turn to a mass-market merchandising strategy based on high-volume, low-price, lower-margin commodity items.” Riesbeck called this a “misguided effort.” In the declaration, Riesbeck, who came in as chief financial officer in July 2019 and added the CEO post in November, indicates Pier 1 has corrected its merchandising strategy mistake and already is seeing improvements.
La-Z-Boy reported fiscal 2020 third-quarter consolidated sales of $475.9 million, up 1.8% compared with the same prior-year period, with 5.1% retail-segment growth leading the way. Profitability rose dramatically for the three months ended Jan. 25, with net income up 20.1% from fiscal 2019’s third quarter to $34.5 million. Written same-store sales for the La-Z-Boy Furniture Galleries network increased 10.5%, the fourth consecutive quarterly increase. Consolidated GAAP operating margin increased to 11% vs. 8.7% in the prior-year quarter, reflecting improvement in the upholstery and retail segments.
A company that describes itself as the U.K.’s fastest-growing bricks-and-mortar retailer is expanding to the U.S. market. Founded in 2009, Wren Kitchens has 90 showrooms across the U.K., and will make its U.S. debut this summer, opening a location in Milford, Conn., on the site of a former Babies “R” Us site. Several more openings are planned throughout the year in the Northeast. At 31,465 sq. ft., the Milford store will feature more than 100 kitchen displays. It will include the use of 3D virtual reality to bring customers dream kitchens to life, kitchen design tools and an array of remodel options to create a tailored kitchen to suit every customer’s life.
The private equity owner of Art Van Furniture is exploring options including the sale and possible Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing for the Top 100 company, according to a report by Crain’s Detroit. While rumors about these potential moves have swirled around the industry for weeks, the retailer and its owner Thomas H. Lee Partners have declined to comment, reports HFN sister publication Furniture Today. Crain’s cited an unnamed source close to the negotiations and said the Van Elslander family — led by Art Van Chairman Gary Van Elslander — has prepared an offer as the stalking-horse bidder in a Chapter 11 reorganization. It said a decision on the Warren, Mich.-based retailer’s future could come next week.
Jewelry & Luxury
De Beers chief executive officer Bruce Cleaver talked with JCK Thursday, following the release of his company’s preliminary financial results for 2019. The results were, to no one’s surprise, not very good, with total revenue falling 24% and rough diamond sales falling 26%. But Cleaver feels the market has begun to turn the corner, and here he discusses his sense of the industry, possible changes in the sight holder system, and his reaction to the ruling in his company’s lab-grown patent lawsuit.
No doubt, the world’s pink diamond supply is dwindling drastically with the impending closure of the Rio Tinto Argyle mine later this year. But recently, some very special pink material has been unearthed by Russian diamond miner Alrosa, which is the world’s largest producer of rough diamonds in carats, accounting for more than a 26% share of the global market. Just this week, Larry J. West, the owner of New York’s prestigious L.J. West Diamonds, added a 6.21 ct. cushion-cut fancy intense pink-purple diamond to his world-class inventory of the highest-quality pink diamonds. The stone was discovered and polished by Alrosa and originates from Yakutia, a region in northeastern Siberia located partly within the Arctic Circle.
Ling Wan, a 44-year-old Beijing resident, had planned two trips for her extended family during the Lunar New Year holiday this year—one to Yunnan, China, and the other to Tokyo, Japan. A business owner, Wan normally spends US$2,000 to US$3,000 on luxury brands, such as Burberry, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, during her trips overseas. She says she might have spent even more during her planned trips during holiday travels. But that won’t happen this year.
Industry watchdog The Fashion Law reports that Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Loro Piana, Gucci, Prada, Brunello Cucinelli, and Saks Fifth Avenue are named in a proposed class-action lawsuit by three former Saks Fifth Avenue employees. The proposed lawsuit cites violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act, a federal statute from 1890 prohibiting activities that restrict interstate commerce and competition in the marketplace, and accuses the brands of engaging in an “illegal conspiracy to “suppress the total compensation of their employees.”
Office & Leisure
The information of more than 10 million people who stayed at MGM Resorts, including data appearing to belong to government officials, was posted on a hacking forum this week. The posting of the hacked information was first reported Wednesday by the website ZDNet. No financial data were included in the dataset, which has been reviewed by NBC News. But it includes full names, birthdates, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers. The information was posted to the hacking forum Monday. Last summer, the company “discovered unauthorized access to a cloud server that contained a limited amount of information for certain previous guests of MGM Resorts,” MGM Resorts said in a statement. “We are confident that no financial, payment card or password data was involved in this matter,” a spokesperson for the company said.
The Federal Trade Commission said Thursday it is sending refund checks totaling more than $34 million to consumers who allegedly were tricked by Office Depot and a software provider into buying computer repair products and services. Office Depot paid $25 million while its software supplier, Support.com Inc., paid $10 million as part of 2019 settlements with the FTC, according to a statement. The FTC alleged that Office Depot and Support.com configured a virus scanning program to report that it found symptoms of malware or infections —even when that was not true — whenever consumers answered yes to at least one of four “diagnostic” questions. The false scan results were then used to persuade consumers to buy computer repair and technical services that could cost hundreds of dollars. The FTC is sending out 541,247 checks averaging $63.35 per check. Recipients should deposit or cash checks within 60 days, as indicated on the check. In 2019, FTC actions led to more than $232 million in refunds to consumers across the country, according to the FTC statement.
HQ Trivia’s appeal was simple and innovative enough. Participate in a game show, right at home or on the train, alongside millions of other users, with a charismatic host and often laggy stream. Nevermind that the prize pool could be pennies if enough people won — it was the communal experience that made it worth coming back to. For a few months in late 2017 and early 2018, it seemed like it was a harbinger for the future of media. But, like many startups before it, HQ lacked any plan for how to sustain itself. On Friday, HQ Trivia abruptly shuttered, signing off after one last show.
Technology & Internet
Blue Apron Holdings Inc. is exploring “a broad range of strategic alternatives” that include raising more money from investors or putting itself up for sale, the meal-kit retailer announced last week. Blue Apron also says it will close its Arlington, Texas, fulfillment center and consolidate its production volume into its New Jersey and California facilities. In a Feb. 18 conference call with analysts, Blue Apron CEO Linda Findley Kozlowski said alternatives “could include, among other things, a strategic business combination, a capital raise through the public or private markets, a transaction that results in private ownership or sale of the company, or some combination of these.”
Groupon Inc. announced with its disappointing year-end results that it plans to stop selling goods—a retreat for a company that once aspired to be a major shopping service. Groupon reported a revenue drop of 15.9% to $2.22 billion for the year ended Dec. 31 from $2.64 billion the prior year. Sales through its Goods platform declined 23.8% in 2019 to $1.09 billion from $1.43 billion the year before. Groupon Goods, an ecommerce site for products like phone chargers and coats, was an attempt to attract new customers and decrease the company’s reliance on its core business—selling daily deals and other discounts. But the business’s contribution to profit has been declining for four quarters, and consumers have lost interest, Groupon said. That’s why it plans to phase out the program this year. Groupon’s turnaround plan now hinges on relaunching the brand and kicking off a new marketing strategy. The hope is to shift away from offering deals and be known as a marketplace where consumers can find local experiences.
Finance & Economy
Small business sentiment is on the rise to kick off 2020, with confidence nearing all-time highs, according to data from CNBC and SurveyMonkey. The CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Confidence Index climbed two points in the first quarter, from 59 to 61, as concerns over trade policy impacts lessened, thanks to a trade deal with China and the signing of the USMCA. This is a sharp turnaround from the lows seen last summer as trade turmoil weighed on Main Street’s outlook.
The economy showed some more sizzle at the start of 2020, pointing to steady growth in the next several months, according to an index that measures the nation’s economic health. The leading index got the biggest boost from rising permits to build new homes. They hit a 13-year high last month as builders moved to step up construction as falling interest rates stoke more demand. Declining applications for unemployment benefits, higher consumer confidence, record stock prices and cheaper credit also added to the surge in the index.