The list of U.S. retailers that have filed for bankruptcy during 2020's sharp economic contraction is long and varied. The companies range from those selling inexpensive and off-brand goods to century-old name brands that have catered to the rich and famous.
Lord & Taylor was one of many businesses hit hard by stay-at-home orders spawned by the coronavirus pandemic. Launched in 1824, the department store found in dozens of American shopping malls recently filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company last year sold its 11-story flagship building on New York's Fifth Avenue, which it had owned for more than a century.
Industry experts say many were struggling before the emergence of the pandemic, which proved to be the final blow.
"It arguably was the last straw that broke the camel's back. Another way to look at this is the pandemic and the associated economic recession accelerated what was already occurring in the industry. We had several retail bankruptcies before the pandemic and others were teetering on the edge but were trying to forestall bankruptcy," said Brian Marks, a senior lecturer at the Department of Economics, College of Business Analytics at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
The pandemic caused merchandise sales from brick-and-mortar stores to fall precipitously. But Marks said this could present an opportunity for these large operations to transform.
"If we look at the major ones of J.C. Penney, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers and Lord and Taylor, these are all very strategic moves for this industry to right size and transform its cost structure. … All these operations had significant debt and significant lease liability on the real estate side, except for Lord and Taylor," he said to VOA.
Mary Epner, co-founder of Re/Agent NYC, a retail analysis group, says chapter 11 is not a corporate death sentence. To the contrary, it could be used as a tool to reorganize, restructure debt and embark on a new business strategy, she said.
"You can evaluate your management, your supply chain, your vendor mix or leases. And the leases become an important topic here," Epner told VOA.
With numerous locations, stores need revenue to pay their rent in order to stick to their lease contracts. That became hard with the prolonged public health crisis.
"Lord and Taylor maybe 45 locations. J. Crew close to 500 locations. J.C. Penney over 800 locations. They enter into leases for real estate to provide their bricks-and-mortar operations," Marks said.
J.C. Penney is another iconic department store chain that has sought chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The store that started over a hundred years ago had nearly 85,000 employees before a reorganization that will see it close up to a third of its nearly 850 stores nationwide.
"What's going to happen? I just did a quick count of how many stores J.C. Penney is planning to close," Epner said. "It's a pretty staggering amount."
Closing mall-based department stores affects every business that shares the mall space.
"It causes a ripple effect throughout the mall because insofar as customers are still shopping J.C. Penney, they're coming there and then they're possibly going to a Gap, Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works or whatever. So it really hurts," Epner said. "And think about it. If you have a J.C. Penney and a Lord and Taylor in a mall and they're both closing, it can be pretty shocking and devastating."
Both Epner and Marks say not all employees will lose their jobs. But there may be a transformation in the future with fewer in-person retail workers.
Meanwhile, for those who are laid off, Epner said it'll be hard for them to "find other jobs because many of these locations that are closing are in the smaller towns and the more rural areas. And so there aren't a lot of jobs available to begin with."
According to the Labor Department, the weekly unemployment claims dipped below 1 million last week for the first time since the pandemic intensified in March, yet still remain at a high level.
In July, employers brought back 1.8 million jobs, well below the 4.8 million in June.
Meanwhile, as the number of coronavirus cases surpasses 5.2 million and over 167,000 deaths, Marks said traditional retail operations will continue to face challenges.