Target and Best Buy have pulled themselves onto the winning side of a growing divide in the retail industry — a stark reversal from earlier this decade when many questioned whether Minnesota’s two big-box chains would even be able to withstand Amazon.
“People thought Best Buy was going to die,” said Scott Mushkin, an analyst with R5 Capital who has closely followed the two companies for years. “With Target, there were so many doubters about if it would survive in the Amazon world. People thought it would wither away.”
Neither prediction came true, of course. Instead, the two companies are heading into Black Friday week as two of the standouts in retail that have differentiated themselves from competitors and emphasized their stores as the center of their strategies.
Target’s shares, which have nearly doubled in price this year, reached an all-time high last week after the Minneapolis-based retailer reported impressive sales and profits in its most recent quarter. And on the heels of two strong years of robust sales, Richfield-based Best Buy — which reports its quarterly earnings on Tuesday — continues to grow as the only remaining national player left in consumer electronics.
“They’re just doing it better than almost anybody else,” said Charlie O’Shea, an analyst with Moody’s, adding the two had to forgo short-term profits at some point in order to invest to win in the longer run. “They’ve got good strategies that have been executed and boards that have been supportive.”
In the past several years, both have spruced up their stores, overhauled their supply chains, upgraded their websites and rolled out faster delivery. Some customers prefer to pick up online orders from stores, but if they want them shipped to their homes, both Target and Best Buy say they will be able to get many items to customers’ doorsteps this holiday by the next day, matching Amazon’s investment earlier this year to do the same for members of its Prime program.
And they’ve leaned into what sets them apart from their competitors — in Best Buy’s case, offering expert advice and service by its blue-shirted employees and Geek Squad agents, and for Target, its cheap-chic clothes, home goods and other brands that are exclusive to the retailer.
They’re not the only ones replacing the kings of holidays past. Walmart, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, Costco, Dollar General and, of course, Amazon also are in the winner’s circle of retail these days.
Meanwhile, the department stores and specialty mall chains — from Macy’s and J.C. Penney to the Gap and Victoria’s Secret — continue to struggle through the retail evolution.
Target CEO Brian Cornell calls the divide a “bifurcation” in the market — one he expects to continue to play out during the holidays as consumers vote with their wallets. Retailers that are doing well, he told reporters last week, are those with strong balance sheets that have allowed them to invest in refreshing their stores and adapting to how consumers shop today. Those that are barely treading water have not done enough to stay relevant and have become some of the “share donors” to Target and other retailers.
“Clearly, there’s a market share shift,” he said. “The overall retail market is very healthy right now.”
Many forecasts are calling for 3 to 4% growth in holiday retail sales despite concerns about tariffs and the economy possibly souring next year.
Some of those biggest share donors for Target in the last year have been Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us, which closed last year after declaring bankruptcy. Target has also siphoned business from the department and mall stores. For Best Buy, the sputtering Sears and demise of regional retailers like HHGregg have helped boost its fortunes.
There have been at least 7,600 store closures announced so far this year in the U.S., according to a report last month by analysts at Credit Suisse, who noted 2019 was panning out to be a record year for store closures in more than two decades. They added they “wouldn’t be surprised to see another large-scale round of closure announcements in early 2020.”
Many retailers that have closed stores this year have declared bankruptcy, including Sears, Payless ShoeSource, Gymboree and Charlotte Russe.
“A lot more stores are going to close yet,” said Gerald Storch, former CEO of Toys ‘R’ Us and Hudson’s Bay. “We’ve just started to see that shift.”
The rash of store closures has led to some calling the current environment a “retail apocalypse.” But many who track the retail industry reject that idea because retail sales are still growing.
“What we’re seeing is a changing of the guard,” said Storch, who was once an executive at Target.
Consumers have been gravitating to value-focused retailers where they feel they can get a good price or deal, he said. Retailers that are winning also tend to have some kind of product differentiation. This is an area where Target has excelled, especially in the past few years with the introduction of new in-house brands from sleepwear to swimsuits and from home decor to cleaning supplies.
But many department store brands and offerings can be found elsewhere. Being located in malls hasn’t helped them, either. Department stores’ woes were punctuated in the most recent wave of quarterly earnings reports. Macy’s posted a 3.9% drop in comparable sales. J.C. Penney’s was even steeper with a 6.6% decline. And Kohl’s stock plunged 19% after reporting anemic sales and lowering its annual profit forecast.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever that the traffic is moving out of the malls and into power centers and onto the internet,” said Storch. “The double whammy is they’re not just in a mall, but they’re apparel dependent” at a time when clothing sales have been slowing as consumers make room in their budgets for other items such as smartphones.
Many of the successful retailers today, including Target and Best Buy, tend to be located in strip centers closer to where people live and are easier for people to quickly get in and out of.
But Sucharita Kodali, an analyst with Forrester Research, said malls should not be used as the only scapegoat because some malls are doing just fine.
“The mall merchants are struggling because they’re operating with models that are 40 years old,” she said.
While electronics was one of the first categories to shift online, it’s proving to have staying power in stores, which has helped Best Buy’s resurgence, she added.
“People like to touch and feel the merchandise, especially when you’re buying big-ticket items like TVs,” Kodali said. “People are still reticent to buy that online and deal with some of the delivery and setup challenges.”
That has helped Best Buy, which is among the few electronics chains left, said Mushkin of R5 Capital.
“There’s not another national chain for electronics anymore,” he said. “What people underestimated is that manufacturers need a place to showcase their goods.”
So brands from Sony to Samsung — even Amazon — have set up mini-shops inside of Best Buy’s stores, helping to stabilize and boost its business.
And with 85% of shopping still done in physical stores, retail experts say the in-store experience still matters, another place where both Best Buy and Target outshine others, especially as Target continues to remodel hundreds of stores.
“Both of them have given shoppers a reason to go to their stores,” said Moody’s O’Shea.