The coronavirus pandemic may have been the last straw for the struggling J.C. Penney company.
Companies are rushing to U.S. Bankruptcy Court during the coronavirus pandemic, seeking refuge from their creditors as they grapple with the fallout from temporary store closures and the travel industry shutdown.
Taken together, these cases illustrate how the nation’s weakest companies are desperately trying to avoid outright liquidation.
Coresight Research, which tracks retail openings and closings, has upped its projected store closures for 2020 from 8,000 at the beginning of the year to 15,000 at the beginning of March to about 25,000 now.
“That’s unlike anything the industry has ever seen,” Coresight CEO and founder Deborah Weinswig said. “It’s the speed with which it’s all happening which has been a little surprising.”
230 store closings planned: Tuesday Morning retailer files Chapter 11 bankruptcy
Permanent restaurant closings likely: Le Pain Quotidien files Chapter 11 bankruptcy
But there’s no stopping the bankruptcies now, she said. She predicted that retail the number of June bankruptcies will double May bankruptcies.
That doesn’t necessarily mean those companies will go out of business. Bankruptcy can serve as a place of refuge for struggling companies, offering the chance to shed unsustainable debt, close unprofitable stores and restructure operations.
In each case so far during the pandemic, the debtors have said they hope to use bankruptcy to preserve their businesses for the long haul.
But filing for bankruptcy in the midst of what may be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression poses the serious possibility of widespread going-out-of-business sales.
“I do think there is a genuine hope that the turnaround efforts will proceed, but it is kind of hard when people are prohibited from coming into your store and you can’t turn the lights on,” U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Jones, who is overseeing the J.C. Penney case, said during a court hearing May 16.
In some cases, companies were already headed toward bankruptcy before the pandemic became an issue. That was the case for Belgian restaurant chain Le Pain Quotidien, chief restructuring officer Steven Fleming said in a court filing. The company had been struggling with increased competition from nimbler competitors, including fast-casual companies, and had suffered from a lack of digital ordering until recently.
“If you were a retailer with a heavy debt load, a questionable brand position and you weren’t sprinting to digital … you were probably on your way” to Chapter 11, said Matthew Katz, managing partner and practice lead in the retail and consumer practice of strategic advisory SSA & Co. “The pandemic has certainly made the slope (more) slippery.”
For companies in the travel sector, it’s a different story. They’ve been knocked out by a force they could not have seen coming. But some of them were in rough shape already, as well.
For Advantage Rent A Car – which has been hit hard by a slowdown in travel, much like larger rival Hertz – bankruptcy is a familiar place. The company’s filing on Tuesday marks its third time in Chapter 11 since 2008, or what restructuring professionals dubiously call “Chapter 33.”
Regardless of their path to bankruptcy, companies that find themselves there in the midst of the pandemic face the double-barreled challenge of not being able to confidently project their future and grasping to secure fresh financing from lenders who may be extra hesitant to help out.
“We live in a world of no normal,” said Greg Portell, lead partner in the global consumer practice of Kearney, a strategy and management consulting firm. “We can’t plan what we’re going to do for July 4, so how is a retailer going to plan for the holiday season?”
For some, their best-laid plans have already gone awry.
Take Pier 1 Imports, for example. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection in February with plans to close up to 450 stores and keep several hundred alive. At the time, COVID-19 was not viewed as a major threat to the American economy. But Pier 1’s prospects grew increasingly grim with the onset of the pandemic, and the company announced last week that it will close all of its remaining stores.
Like Pier 1, Tuesday Morning was struggling when the coronavirus pandemic began. The off-price retailer – which sells a wide variety of merchandise including home decor, bath and body goods, crafts, food, and toys – hopes to stay in business while using the bankruptcy process to close about 230 of its 687 stores this summer.
Although about 80% of its stores have reopened after temporary closures, Tuesday Morning said in a statement that the “immense impact of COVID-19” created “an insurmountable financial hurdle” as it tried to reinvent itself without court protection from its creditors.
The store closings are expected to lead to a spike in vacancies. In the 54 largest markets, retail vacancies are expected to rise from 4.5% at the end of 2019 to 5.6% at the end of 2020, according to real estate tracker CoStar.
Retailers are paying the price for failing to invest in their in-store-and-online connections, often referred to as “omnichannel,” as well as their logistics and supply chain, analysts said.
But there may be hope on the horizon. Signs are emerging that private equity companies are looking to snap up struggling retailers at bargain prices, Katz said.
J.C. Penney announces new home brand: Still planning store closings in bankruptcy
Tens of thousands of jobs are at stake in the bankruptcy cases that have been filed since the pandemic began. J.C. Penney alone had 85,000 workers when the crisis erupted.
For J.C. Penney, which was synonymous with the American shopping mall experience for decades, the future may rest on how quickly the company can arrange a debt restructuring plan or a sale of its operations. The company plans to permanently close 242 of its about 846 stores in bankruptcy.
Jones, the bankruptcy judge overseeing the case, said he’s concerned that the retailer is not moving fast enough. But he signaled that he wants to help.
“I want to keep everybody’s eyes focused on saving the business,” he said at the hearing. “This is middle America, at least in my view.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.
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