Idris Seghilani doesn’t mind the stuffed racks or long lines at Last Chance in Yorktown Center in Lombard, Ill.
He doesn’t even mind the 45-minute drive from Chicago to get to the Nordstrom-owned clearance store. In fact, he said he does it at least twice a week.
“I could spend three, four hours here,” he said during a recent visit, admiring a black velvet Ralph Lauren robe he found for $15, marked down from around $100.
The Last Chance at Yorktown — one of only two locations in the country — is a discount shopper’s mecca. The store and another in Phoenix are where most of Nordstrom’s inventory that’s outdated, returned after being worn once or even smells of someone else’s perfume is marked down nearly 70 percent.
As retailers scramble to find solutions to the e-commerce-fueled brick-and-mortar crisis, department-store chains such as Nordstrom and Macy’s are embracing off-price models. Last Chance, Nordstrom Rack and Macy’s Backstage — along with traditional discounters such as TJ Maxx — have continued attracting shoppers with the promise of a treasure hunt, something online merchants can’t quite replicate. Sears, Carson’s and other onetime retail giants are closing stores or going out of business, but off-price chains have plans to open hundreds of new stores in the coming years.
However, some industry experts caution that a lack of emphasis on online sales, coupled with problems obtaining enough high-quality merchandise to meet demand, could disrupt the discounters’ momentum, which may already be slowing down. At Nordstrom Rack, TJ Maxx, Ross Dress for Less and Burlington Coat Factory, for example, sales at existing stores have been growing at a slower pace over the past three quarters.
Moody’s Investors Service predicted in October that off-price retailers would remain the top performers in the U.S. retail industry over the subsequent 12 to 18 months while department stores would continue to struggle. Christina Boni, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s, said those predictions are on track.
“Off-price continues to do well, and I don’t think there’s anything that ultimately changes our view,” Boni said.
Although Last Chance is primarily a vehicle for Seattle-based Nordstrom to sell off excess merchandise, the retailer’s other off-price concept, Nordstrom Rack, now has twice as many locations as its traditional department stores. Nordstrom, which did not respond to requests for comment, plans to open 12 new Rack locations in 2018.
The Rack is the No. 1 source of new customers for Nordstrom, and it gained 6 million new customers in 2017, the company said in a March news release.
Rival Macy’s, meanwhile, announced in January that it’s closing seven more department stores this year. But rather than waiting for more of its stores to fall victim to consumers’ changing shopping habits, Cincinnati-based Macy’s is repurposing space in its stores for its “on-mall, off-price concept”: Macy’s Backstage.
Spokeswoman Andrea Schwartz said Backstage doesn’t sell overstock merchandise from its full-price stores but rather has its own buying team, similar to TJ Maxx.
“We always see an increase in traffic and sales overall when we open off-price in a department store,” Schwartz said. The company doesn’t break out sales from Backstage in its earnings reports, she said.
Macy’s has seven free-standing Backstage stores in the U.S. and plans to roll out the discount section in 100 Macy’s stores this year.
Framingham, Mass.-based TJX Cos., parent of TJ Maxx, HomeGoods and Marshalls, currently operates more than 4,000 stores in nine countries, and it wants to add another 2,000. This year, it expects to open about 65 additional TJ Maxx and Marshalls stores.
Ross Stores has announced plans to open approximately 100 new stores in 2018, 25 of which will be its dd’s Discount concept, offering even lower prices on apparel and home goods.
Discount fashion stores absorbed the most available commercial space in the Chicago area in the last year, and three discount fashion retailers signed leases at former Kmart stores closed by Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based parent Sears Holdings Corp., according to a report this past spring from real estate firm CBRE.
Ken Perkins, president of Boston-based Retail Metrics, said off-price retailers have largely benefited from the demise of traditional department stores by gaining more market share, but that can’t continue indefinitely.
In fact, sales at stores open at least a year have been slowing down at major off-price chains. In the first quarter of this year, Nordstrom reported an increase of 0.4 percent at its off-price stores compared with 0.7 percent growth at full-price stores and online. During that same period the year before, off-price sales increased 2.3 percent, while sales at full-price stores and online decreased 2.8 percent.
Perkins said the rise of e-commerce also poses a threat for the off-price sector because the internet offers price transparency on any product from hundreds of retailers, providing a different kind of treasure hunt.
Some off-price stores don’t even display their items for purchase online, likely because of how rapidly inventory changes.
In 2017, just 2 percent of TJX Cos.’ sales were made online.
“It’s been the one area they haven’t invested heavily in,” Perkins said. He added, “Off-price needs to have a more fluid, seamless experience for the consumer online that doesn’t feel like going into the store and going through racks.”
Nordstrom has found a way to somewhat replicate that experience through its off-price website, Hautelook.com, which hosts events when new merchandise from certain brands is released, selling out in seconds in some cases. Although they make up a much smaller share of Nordstrom’s revenue than its full-price website, the company saw a 25.5 percent increase in sales from Nordstromrack.com and Hautelook.com last fiscal year, according to its 2017 annual report.
Perkins said another concern among industry experts is that off-price retailers could face obstacles acquiring quality merchandise.
In an effort to protect their brands and profit margins, designers such as Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors have cut back on production, providing less of their highly sought-after merchandise for retailers such as TJ Maxx.
Nordstrom Rack and Last Chance are somewhat immune, given their parent company’s long-standing relationships with apparel brands and its need for that merchandise in department stores, wherever it eventually ends up.
As Nordstrom expands its Rack stores throughout the country, the company hasn’t announced plans for another Last Chance location, making the Yorktown Center store a novelty. People often line up outside before it opens, hoping to get their hands on that day’s inventory before anyone else.
Victoria Kostecki, 14, of Naperville, Ill., loves the store so much that she visits at least once a week. She even made a YouTube video showing off her greatest finds. Her favorite so far: a pair of Prada heels for $130.
The treasure hunt can be intense, she said.
“You have to keep your cart with you at all times,” Victoria said. “If you find something really good, people will steal it from you.”
While the ease of online shopping is rapidly changing consumer behavior, off-price stores will always have something to offer, even to younger demographics, Perkins said.
“Longer-term, that underlying demand for value from the consumer will always be there,” he said.