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High stakes for these retailers this holiday season

For the retailers that have been knocking on death's door, this holiday shopping season has taken on an added sense of urgency.

Teen retailer Aéropostale, for example, is operating under threat of having its shares delisted from the New York Stock Exchange — the result of deteriorating sales that ate away at its market capitalization. Shares recently traded below 65 cents.

Sears, the department store that retail investors love to ridicule, entered the holiday season having reported only one period of positive comparable sales in more than five years.

And American Apparel, which filed Chapter 11 in October, is desperately trying to reconfigure its business under new leadership, in a last-ditch effort to get customers back into its stores.

People walk past an American Apparel store in New York City.
Getty Images
People walk past an American Apparel store in New York City.

These are just a few of the retailers clinging to life support, after a slew of bankruptcy filings and store closings dramatically changed the tenant list at shopping centers across the U.S.

From Frederick's of Hollywood to RadioShack, and C. Wonder to Wet Seal, it would appear at first glance that the surviving retailers are competing against a smaller group of adversaries this holiday season, as thousands of stores have turned off their lights over the past year.

A closer look, however, shows that these weaker links are being replaced by more formidable competitors, causing this season to be even more cutthroat than the last.

"We will always see bankruptcies. We will always see a change in the environment because of that," said Ron Friedman, leader of the national retail and consumer products group at Marcum, an advisory firm. "[But] there's always going to be someone new."

Several of these new competitors include spinoff concepts from department stores, which are turning to the burgeoning off-price sector as a means for growth. Earlier this week, Lord & Taylor opened its first discount store, Find @ Lord & Taylor, in Paramus. And on Saturday, Bloomingdale's will cut the ribbon on its latest outlet store, in Manhattan.

Along with these concepts, both Macy's and Kohl's entered into the space this year, as mainstays Nordstrom Rack and TJ Maxx continue to expand their square footage.

In addition to growth in off-price, several international players are taking a bigger stake in the U.S. market. European retailer H&M has grown its footprint in North America over the past year, including the expansion of its & Other Stories and COS labels.

What's more, up-and-coming retailers including Charming Charlie are expanding their store count, while companies like Restoration Hardware and Whole Foods are opening new concepts.

"You get pummeled by all the competition that starts coming your way," said Farla Efros, president of HRC Advisory.

Because of these and other fresh ideas — along with the fact that very little new retail construction is underway — shopping center occupancy rates reached 93.5 percent in the third quarter, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's up from 92.7 percent in the year-ago period.

Somewhat surprisingly, malls — where a number of stores have been squeezed or shut down — have an even higher occupancy rate, at 94 percent. That's flat with the third quarter of last year, according to ICSC.

While some companies have no doubt benefited from their competitors' woes — Best Buy, for example, is commonly listed as a beneficiary of RadioShack's struggles — a changing of the retail guard is unlikely to help the players who have been struggling, analysts said.

"We expect post holiday there'll be further bankruptcies," said Steve Barr, U.S. retail and consumer leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "The most challenging spot today is those retailers in the middle. The value channel is doing very well and the premium channel is doing very well."

Ken Rosen, who leads the bankruptcy, financial reorganization and creditors' rights department at Lowenstein Sandler law firm, echoed that opinion. In contrast to 2014, however, he expects the next round of Chapter 11 filings to come after the fourth quarter has passed.

He added that investors should keep an eye on retailers when the pending rise interest rates come to fruition, as they will likely show whose businesses are barely scraping by.

"Interest rates are so low that companies that should be out of business are alive," he said.