There’s a big disconnect in the story Shopko told in a document this month as the retailer filed for bankruptcy protection.
The management team explained how it’s really hard to go up against the likes of Walmart and Target, much bigger companies with much more efficient supply networks and more powerful brands.
Of course more recently, as the disclosure statement explained, online competitors have taken away some customer traffic.
Pharmacy has also been increasingly rough for Shopko, a relatively small player in an industry where scale matters more than ever. It’s also been getting pushed around by its own drug wholesaler, the giant McKesson Corp.
That’s all pretty convincing. But then the document goes on to say that if the creditors play ball in the bankruptcy and the rest of its pharmacy assets get sold, Shopko intends to “emerge as a stronger, better capitalized business positioned to thrive for years to come.”
Well, there’s at least a chance that happens.
By now the story of traditional retailers finding themselves in trouble has gotten familiar, and the explanation often seems to be some version of a seismic shift in buying habits or consumer culture.
The reality isn’t nearly that complicated, as the Shopko story shows. Shopko stores are being put out of business by competitors who are simply better at delivering what more consumers want. It’s a process that’s been going on for years.
Shopko, based in greater Green Bay, Wis., operated more than 300 stores as of the bankruptcy and employed more than 14,000 people, with annual sales of about $3 billion. It got its start in 1962, the same year Walmart got going and the first Target store opened in Roseville.
In the early 1970s, Shopko was acquired by the Minnesota-based grocery wholesaling giant Supervalu and then later spun off as an independent, publicly held company.
The company then grew, with a big deal coming in 1999 when Shopko acquired Pamida Inc., another general merchandise retailer, with about 150 stores in small rural markets mostly in the Midwest.
As a publicly held company, Shopko had to repeatedly explain how it was holding up against Target, Kmart and Walmart.
Walmart got its start in the South but eventually moved into our region, opening its first store in Shopko’s home state of Wisconsin in 1985 and entering Minnesota with a store in Owatonna the following year. Walmart didn’t expand by one store here and one there, instead opening a slug of stores in a region right away to create efficiencies in its distribution system.
In an annual filing from 20 years ago, Shopko explained that two-thirds of its stores competed with Target, almost all competed with Kmart and nearly 90 percent of its stores were affected by the presence of a competitive Walmart store, which drew customers from a wide area.
Shopko’s store sales slumped for a year after a big competitor opened nearby, the company explained, and the price competition then never really let up.
About 15 years ago, after the Minneapolis private equity firm Goldner Hawn approached Shopko about a buyout, the board and its investment bankers realized just how few good options the company really had.
There was little chance any other retailer would want Shopko, the company explained in securities filings, given the dominance of Walmart and Target in its markets. Other potential private-equity buyers didn’t seem that eager, either, although there turned out to be one exception: Sun Capital Partners, which ended up with the deal and stayed in control all the way into bankruptcy.
After Sun Capital took over the company, Shopko talked again about growth, planning to make money in a narrow niche alongside Kohl’s, Target and Walmart.
Shopko obviously understood just how good Walmart was at running an efficient operation, but Shopko’s boss told the trade publication Chain Store Age that a lot of Shopko customers found Walmart stores too big and confusing. And Target may have been the best store operator in the business but too forward-thinking in its merchandising, so Shopko’s older and more conservative customers just found Shopko more comfortable.
Shopko also had a long history in pharmacy, making pharmacy and optical key parts of its plan. A more recent idea was emphasizing smaller stores, including converting Pamida stores to Shopko Hometown units, mostly in rural communities far too small for Target or Walmart to have a store.
But those consumers could still reach e-commerce sites online or drive a good distance for better deals and a broader selection, which has become just another part of rural life. Same-store sales since 2016 have slid, and it’s gotten a lot harder for Shopko to make money in pharmacy, too.
The pharmacy industry players that seem best-positioned now aren’t small retailers but the pharmacy middlemen, like Shopko’s wholesaler, McKesson. From what was described in the bankruptcy filing, McKesson didn’t seem all that concerned if Shopko didn’t survive.
Things weren’t going great for Shopko anyway, but when McKesson last month decided to change payment terms on shipments from 45 days to one, that meant Shopko had to come up with $70 million. So Shopko eventually stopped paying. McKesson then stopped shipping, and the parties headed to court.
The plan outlined in the bankruptcy court documents presented two options. One keeps the doors open as a private-equity firm hopefully injects fresh capital into the business, although the documents note that a search for a private equity investor or buyer in the recent past didn’t turn up any offers.
Plan B — literally what it’s labeled in the documents — is an orderly liquidation. That means a sale where everything must go. And that means everything.