Brick-and-mortar apparel-retail giants had a disappointing holiday season, and there could be worse yet to come.

Share story

So far, so bad. Early indications of how retailers performed over the holiday period are anything but encouraging.

Macy’s and Kohl’s posted disappointing November and December sales on Wednesday and cut their outlook for full-year earnings. In Britain, clothing chain Next reported Christmas sales that fell short of analyst expectations and forecast another tough year ahead. Shares of all three companies slumped.

What links these retailers? They’re all being hurt by two key shifts in buying habits that are gathering pace.

Consumer appetite for clothing is dwindling as people spend more on their homes, consumer electronics, beauty and experiences like days away and meals out.

Revenue at U.S. home-improvement and beauty stores rose in 2016. By contrast, demand for women’s clothing shrank, as did department-store sales, according to First Data, a payment-processing company.

A worry for Macy’s is that demand for accessories such as handbags and watches is deteriorating. At a time of year when people look for gifts, this category should have performed well. That it didn’t worsened the pain from the apparel slump.

Demand at brick-and-mortar stores has also fallen as more customers go online. Footfall at U.S. stores in December was down 7 percent from the year-earlier period, according to Prodco, which tracks shopper traffic.

Next said physical stores underperformed its online operation. CEO Simon Wolfson says he expects those retailers without store estates will have done better over the holidays.

There could be worse to come. Amazon.com has quietly been building its clothing business, and its perseverance could start to pay off in 2017.

According to a June survey by UBS, a third of British consumers had shopped for clothing at Amazon the previous six months. The online giant will become the biggest apparel retailer in the U.S. this year, according to Cowen and Co. analysts.

This growth could be expedited if Amazon succeeds in acquiring bankrupt retailer American Apparel

For brick-and-mortar retailers, all this adds up to more store closings.

Stores are already being shuttered — Macy’s plans to eliminate 100, and Marks and Spencer Group, the stalwart of the British high street, is shutting 30 outlets and converting a similar number to supermarkets.

But if the pattern we saw over the holiday period continues, these plans may not go far enough. Expect many more to shut in 2017.

With sales slipping, traditional retailers will have to develop their online offerings — something that will put pressure on already thin margins. Macy’s will pump some of the savings from its cost-cutting plan into its e-commerce business. Next will inject 10 million pounds into its online arm this year.

But online will be no panacea either. These operations bring their own additional costs — customers are often offered free delivery, while processing returned goods is costly. 

The year 2017 is shaping up to be brutal for retailers — and that’s before worries about Brexit or Donald Trump prompt consumers to start closing their wallets.