It's a make-or-break holiday season for these six retailers

Key Points
  • While the holiday season can be a relaxing time of year for many people, if you're a struggling retailer it's not .
  • For some companies, holiday sales can amount to upwards of 30% of annual sales.
Any mall-based department or apparel store is in trouble: Former Toys R Us CEO
Any mall-based department or apparel store is in trouble: Former Toys R Us CEO

For many, the holidays spark joy, and are a time to relax in the comfort of family and friends.

If you're in retail, however, it's a bit of a different story — especially if your business is struggling.

Some retail executives really feel the pressure this time of year, as the holiday season can make or break a business. For some companies, the holiday season can account for as much as 30% of annual sales. A company's performance during this time, good or bad, can set the tone for the new year. And the beginning of the year is often when announcements of store closures and layoffs in the industry will trickle out.

"There is something to be said about creating momentum and having a strong fourth quarter," said Rob Garf, vice president of strategy and insights for Salesforce with a focus on retail. "There are going to be some winners and losers this holiday season. The winners have made a ... focus on digital transformation, pervasive in their culture."

The losers, however, haven't invested enough to make their stores and websites worth visiting.

Here's a list of companies that have a lot to prove before the year is over.

J.C. Penney

Market cap: $374 million
Stock performance over the past 12 months:
down 19.4%

Shoppers sit outside of a J.C. Penney store at the Westfield Mall in Culver City, California.
Martina Albertazzi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Last year, it was disappointing holiday sales that sent J.C. Penney's stock below $1 for the first time. For much of 2019, the department store chain has struggled to boost investor confidence and push shares higher. Its new CEO, Jill Soltau, is rolling out her own strategies, in an attempt to turn around Penney's business. But the company is running out of time to show signs of progress. It is highly leveraged, with debt hanging over its head, as it works to stem sales losses.

Penney's latest quarter was encouraging, with it reporting a narrower-than-expected loss. But sales tumbled 10.1% from a year prior. Sales have fallen for the past seven quarters.

Penney's stores, meantime, have been criticized for being stale and lacking modern fixtures. The company has also struggled to bring in new and relevant merchandise, especially for younger shoppers. Soltau says, among other things, the company is trying to display inventory more prominently in stores, by using mannequins and other visual set-ups. But Target and Walmart are simultaneously investing in their own apparel and home goods brands, while remodeling their stores. If Penney wants to keep its stock above $1, and avoid being delisted from the NYSE, it needs to win sales this holiday season to give investors hope.

Bed Bath & Beyond

Market cap: $1.83 billion
Stock performance over the past 12 months:
up 16.6%

Getty Images

Bed Bath & Beyond has a new chief this holiday season. Target's former executive vice president and chief merchandising officer, Mark Tritton, took over on Nov. 4. Tritton helped develop many of Target's newer in-house brands and has been credited with getting the big-box retailer back to being known as "cheap chic." His arrival at Bed Bath & Beyond is being monitored closely. But for this holiday, he will be executing someone else's plans.

Bed Bath & Beyond has reported same-store sales declines for the past 10 quarters, and for the past two quarters they've been down around 6%. Part of its strategy to get back to growth has included pruning its real estate. The company, which also owns Buybuy Baby and World Market, has said it plans to shutter about 60 stores this fiscal year, which ends in March 2020. About 20 of those are expected to be under the Bed Bath & Beyond banner. It had more than 1,500 locations in its fiscal second quarter ended Aug. 31.

Though Bed Bath & Beyond might not be a top shopping destination during the holiday season, the company needs to find ways to drive shoppers to stores to find the same knickknacks they could get on Amazon. Or more store closures might be needed in 2020.


Market cap: $7.65 billion
Stock performance over the past 12 months:
down 29.4%

A shopper browses clothing at a Kohl's Corp. department store in Peru, Illinois
Daniel Acker| Bloomberg | Getty Images

Kohl's isn't in as poor a shape as some of its peers in the industry. It's not on any bankruptcy watch lists. But this holiday season is arguably an important one for the company and CEO Michelle Gass to prove her plans to drive traffic and sales are working.

During the third quarter, Kohl's really disappointed Wall Street. It slashed its profit outlook for the full year, saying it expects the retail industry to be highly promotional during the holidays. Kohl's said its women's apparel business has been struggling more than other categories. It said rival retailers are also getting more competitive in the home furnishings department.

However, Gass said she was confident that Kohl's had a strong plan in place to bounce back during the fourth quarter, thanks to a handful of brand launches, heightened marketing and an expanded partnership with Amazon to accept returns. Kohl's results from this holiday season will say a lot about how those efforts are being received by consumers.

In many ways, though its stores aren't normally found at shopping malls, Kohl's shares the same struggles as Macy's and Nordstrom in the department store space. Nordstrom heads into this holiday season with a massive new flagship shop in Manhattan that is expected to bring in big sales. While Macy's, after a dismal quarter, is trying to prove to Wall Street its turnaround plans have legs.

L Brands

Market cap: $5.3 billion
Stock performance over the past 12 months:
down 42.5%

A customer carries a shopping bag while exiting a Victoria's Secret Stores LLC store, a subsidiary of L Brands Inc., in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

L Brands' sales have fallen for the past two quarters. And much of that is due to weakness at its Victoria's Secret brand, which has reported six consecutive quarters of same-store sales declines.

When it reported earnings last week, L Brands confirmed it would be canceling its 2019 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, as it tries to pivot marketing away from the overly sexy images it has become known for. Female teens used to flock to L Brands' PINK stores around the holidays for branded pajama sets and sweat suits. But the company has struggled as American Eagle's Aerie division and online companies such as Adore Me and Third Love have surged in popularity.

L Brands' Bath & Body Works division, which sells holiday-scented hand soaps and candles, tends to have a stronger holiday season. But the worry has been that Bath & Body Works' sales growth has been stalling, too.


Market cap: $6.39 billion
Stock performance over the past 12 months: down 36.3%

People carry shopping bags in New York City.
Stephanie Keith | Getty Images

Gap just had a really bad quarter. And it isn't predicting the fourth one will be that much better. It also slashed its full-year profit outlook, when it announced CEO Art Peck was stepping down, effective immediately, in early November. Gap's total sales have fallen for the past four quarters.

Now, with an interim CEO and an ongoing search for a new chief, Gap is hitting reset. But one thing it says it won't change are its plans to spin off its Old Navy brand into its own publicly traded company. Some investors are relieved the company is pushing forward with the split. But others worry about its rationale if growth slows at Old Navy, which was once the star of Gap's multibrand portfolio. More recently, it has been caught in its own sales slump, along with Gap's namesake brand and Banana Republic.

Meantime, Gap is known for being heavily promotional. But too many deals in stores this holiday season could end up weighing further on profitability. Gap needs to find a balance during the holidays, between exciting shoppers with deals and keeping its profit margins in check.

Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Barnes & Noble has been struggling for years now to pull itself out of a sales slump. Previously, it was doing so under public scrutiny. But in July, activist firm Elliott Management announced it would be acquiring the bookseller for roughly $683 million, including debt.

Still, Barnes & Noble faces a tough battle each holiday season. It has been ceding market share to Amazon. And pressure has mounted as more consumers turn to their smartphones, instead of books, to pass time. Barnes & Noble has been shutting some of its larger locations in favor of opening up smaller-format shops with cafes and, in some instances, eateries. This holiday season will give the company, under new private management, a chance to prove its turnaround plans are working.

Officials at these six retailers weren't immediately available to comment.

Toys R Us opens first store since going bankrupt in 2017—Here's what it looks like
Toys R Us opens first store since going bankrupt in 2017—Here's what it looks like