Retail meetup reveals skepticism that tax changes will save the industry

Key Points
  • At the ICR conference in Orlando this week, the sentiment around the retail industry was that things were better, but not great
  • Investors were not convinced tax reform will have a long-term impact on the retail industry
  • Still, there was optimism around certain subsectors, such as home, services and auto
People carrying shopping bags walk along Fifth Avenue in New York.
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Walmart on Thursday announced it was raising its wages due to tax savings at the same time it shuttered store locations. The double-edged news embodied the increasingly evident reality of the tax bill for retail: More money doesn't change the situation of a store that isn't working.

Executives have been expressing optimism due to potential tax savings, but skepticism that the cash will save the industry was evident at the ICR retail conference in Orlando this week. The sentiment there about the retail industry could be summed up as: better, but not great.

Investors and advisors at ICR said they don't believe lower corporate taxes will have any long-term substantive impact on business models that are not working. They believe it may help the stronger transform faster, but they say it will not save those that are too far behind.

There are still too many stores and structural challenges in certain areas — apparel brands reliant on malls, department stores with more space than they need — that short-term windfalls are unlikely to address. Walmart closed Sam's Clubs locations Thursday because those stores were not making enough money and the retailer is investing in e-commerce.

Companies best positioned to take advantage of tax savings are those that have already invested in technology or transformation. Kroger and Walmart have both poured money into cashier-free capabilities. Additionally, Kohl's is considering introducing grocery stores into its retail locations as a way to drive traffic, CNBC reported this week.

For others, it may be too late.

Several retail advisors told CNBC they expect much of the money from tax reform to be given back to shareholders, who are eager to take their money out of the industry altogether.

There were bright spots at the conference, too. Investors were excited about industries they view as Amazon-resistant: auto, anything in services and home.

Flooring company Floor & Decor and home goods company At Home are both names identified as having performed strongly despite general retail challenges. Intriguingly, they are two of the few retail companies to go public over the last year, and both lack an e-commerce business.

Industry sources remained cautious about the number of retail IPOs that may be coming in the year ahead. The public market has been harsh on retail companies, and few want to take the risk of opening themselves up to that scrutiny.