Pandemic deals mightier blow to retail than Great Recession: First-quarter operating income down 58%

Key Points
  • The retail sector's first-quarter operating income fell 58% compared with last year, marking the worst quarter since Retail Metrics began tracking the data. 
  • Not including Walmart, first-quarter operating income fell 71%.
  • Many companies have taken cost-cutting measures and some have filled for bankruptcy.
Bankruptcies loom over the retail sector in the second half
Bankruptcies loom over the retail sector in the second half

Even when the Great Recession dampened consumer confidence and drove up unemployment things weren't as bad for retailers as they have been during the current Covid-19 crisis, according to a new analysis from Retail Metrics.

Days after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic in March, retailers across the U.S. were forced to shut their doors for many weeks to help stem the spread of the virus. The result: The retail sector's first-quarter operating income fell 57.7% compared with last year – and 71.1% when not including Walmart, which was allowed to keep operating to sell essential items like food, a new report said Friday.

This marks the worst retail earnings performance since the group began tracking retail earnings in the late 1990s.

According to Retail Metrics, the previous low for retail earnings came during the Great Recession, when earnings landed down 26.6% year over year in the fourth quarter of 2008. The largest quarterly decline that followed the dot-com bubble was a drop of 11.7% in the fourth quarter of 2000, Retail Metrics said.

While earnings gaps have been widening in previous years between mall and nonmall retail earnings, the difference grew significantly this quarter as mall-based retailers had to close in many places due to the pandemic. First-quarter earnings for mall chains plummeted 626%, but off-mall companies saw only a 26% income drop.

Given the mandated store closures and revenue drops, many businesses took cost-saving measures including furloughing workers, permanent store closures and expanded curbside pickup. But these cost-savings measures aren't going to be enough for some retailers. 

Before the pandemic, many companies were struggling to stay afloat and adapt to new consumer habits. But the current crisis has accelerated the pressure on the industry. 

Retail Metrics listed all the companies that have filed for bankruptcy or warned of the possibility since the pandemic began. 

Companies that have completed bankruptcy fillings, liquidation or going concern:

  • Modell's Sporting Goods
  • True Religion
  • Roots USA
  • J. Crew
  • Gold's Gym
  • Neiman-Marcus
  • Lord & Taylor
  • Stage Stores
  • J.C. Penney
  • Tuesday Morning
  • RTW Retailwinds
  • GNC Inc.
  • Chuck E. Cheese
  • Lucky Brands
  • Brooks Brothers
  • Sur La Table           

Reported as likely to file for bankruptcy:

Retailers issuing going concern notices:

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Bankruptcies loom over the retail sector in the second half
Bankruptcies loom over the retail sector in the second half