No bonuses for most retail executives as sales slump

Key Points
  • 73% of larger retailers in North America paid little or no bonuses to executives for last year's performance, according to a study by Korn Ferry.
  • 35% didn't paid any bonuses at all.
  • In 2013, only 10% of senior retail executives were left out of the bonus pool.
Joseph Clemson | Getty Images

Recent retail headlines have not inspired much confidence in the sector's future.

More than 5,400 retail store closures have been announced this year so far, up 165 percent from 2016, with 10 major retailers filing for bankruptcy, according to Fung Global Retail & Technology. There are certainly retailers opening stores — nearly 3,300 by Fung Global Retail & Technology's count — but the closures still far outpace openings.

While most retailers have yet to report second-quarter sales, many analysts expect revenues to remain restrained.

The dour retail trends are hitting the companies' CEOs right where it hurts, in their bank accounts. In a pay-for-performance industry, fewer and fewer retailers are rewarding their executives with bonuses.

According to new research from retail recruiting and organizational consulting firm Korn Ferry, 73 percent of North American of retailers with annual sales between $1 billion and $50 billion paid little to no bonuses to senior executives this year for last year's performance.

Thirty-five percent of the group paid no bonus at all, and that metric has progressively gotten larger over the past 5 years. In 2013, only 10 percent of senior retail executives were left out of the bonus pool, Korn Ferry said.

"What the trend reflects is that the business is getting tougher. Retailers are setting plans they aren't able to achieve" says Craig Rowley, senior partner at Korn Ferry in an interview with CNBC.

"They set their plans, and if they don't perform, they don't get paid," Rowley explains. "What's concerning is, I don't think they are setting wild and crazy plans. They are setting what they think to be achievable plans, and then they don't execute, which says they are having a tough time predicting the trends."

Korn Ferry data shows historically about half of retailers achieve their profit plans and subsequently pay executives normal bonuses. But this year, only 15 percent have met or beat their profit plans.

Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, GNC Holdings, Rite Aid, and Stage Stores are among the retailers that didn't pay their CEOs bonuses in 2017.

While Home Depot, Dick's Sporting Goods, and PVH Corp are among those retailers whose executives did get performance-based bonuses.

Rowley says his observation is that retailers are even making more measured, careful plans and conservative investments because the economic and political climate are making it hard to predict what's coming; challenges like potential import taxes or minimum wage changes. He also admits "must have" retail trends that spur consumer buying have been few and far between lately.

The shift to e-commerce is certainly another big piece of the problem, as the business model still remains unprofitable for many retailers "including Amazon, by the way," Rowley points out. "Even with e-commerce now making up some 12 percent of total U.S. retail sales, that isn't scale enough to make it profitable."

Forrester Research estimates 83 percent of U.S. adults that are online made a purchase from Amazon last year, with one third of all retail spending made through Amazon in some way, even if it's researching before buying elsewhere.

But Rowley doesn't think all retail is on downhill spiral, it's just changing rapidly. He acknowledges that there are traditional retail organizations that are doing well, but adds, "there are just fewer of them."

"It's my opinion that the marketplace will come out of this time, maybe in five years, in a better place, shaking out the players that can't make it financially," Rowley predicts.

It just may be with smaller paychecks.