Empty stores are turning into fulfillment centers and the market for warehouse space is booming, as the pandemic rockets the retail industry into its e-commerce future.
The holidays will look different at Macy’s this year. The Thanksgiving Day parade will proceed without spectators, and Santa Claus will not be reviewing Christmas wish lists from his usual perch on 34th Street.
But while many of those traditions are likely to return once the threat of the coronavirus passes, other changes at Macy’s this holiday shopping season — which traditionally begins with Thanksgiving — signal how the company’s business, and that of the entire retail industry, may be altered forever by the pandemic.
Early last month, two Macy’s stores, in Delaware and Colorado, went “dark,” meaning employees are primarily using the spaces as fulfillment centers where they process online orders and returns rather than a place for customers to browse and shop.
Jeff Gennette, Macy’s chief executive, said the dark stores are part of an experiment as the company responds to customers buying more online and demanding ever-faster shipping for free. But the conversion of a department store into a fulfillment center, even temporarily, reflects how retailers are succumbing to the dominance of e-commerce and scrambling to salvage increasingly irrelevant physical shopping space.
Walmart’s e-commerce sales increased 79 percent in the last quarter, as retailers see a permanent shift in the way people shop.Credit…Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
The forces propelling online shopping were set in motion long before the pandemic. But charting the decline of many brick-and-mortar stores and the simultaneous growth of e-commerce in the past seven months is like watching the industry’s evolution, and its impact on the broader economy, on fast forward. In the future, 2020 will be seen as a major inflection point for retail.
“Covid has pulled forward five years of fallout into an 18-month period,” said Vince Tibone, a senior analyst covering retail for Green Street.
Last week, Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, reported that e-commerce sales increased 79 percent in the third quarter, while its rival Target said its e-commerce business was up 155 percent. Amazon’s sales increased 37 percent and its profit was up nearly 200 percent in the most recent quarter.
Retail executives said that staggering growth was not a fluke of the pandemic lockdowns, but the result of a permanent shift in how people shop.
“We think these new customer behaviors will largely persist,” Walmart’s chief executive, Doug McMillon, said in a statement last week as the company released its most recent sales and profit numbers.
Across the industry, online sales are expected to increase at their fastest rate in 12 years, accounting for 20 percent of all retail purchases this year. That’s up from 16 percent in 2019, according to Forrester Research.
Amazon, which saw its sales boom 200 percent in the most recent quarter, recently expanded into 1.4 million square feet of additional space in Staten Island.
While a portion of those sales are store pickups, many are not and the impact on brick-and-mortar is undeniable. Earlier this month, the number of stores announced for closure in 2020 climbed to a high of 10,991, according to the CoStar Group, a data provider for the real estate industry. Many malls are teetering as tenants reduce the number of stores, fail to pay rent or exit through bankruptcies. Retailers that filed for bankruptcy this year include J.C. Penney, J.Crew, Brooks Brothers and Neiman Marcus.
“Retail has changed; it just has,” said Daniel Horrigan, the mayor of Akron, Ohio, where Amazon opened a fulfillment center this month, creating 1,500 jobs. “You can’t stand in front of that wave.”
The new Amazon center replaces a once-beloved shopping mall from a bygone era that featured a Sears, RadioShack and York steakhouse.
But the 54-acre site sat vacant for a decade, a glaring reminder of the Rust Belt city’s broader struggles:the body of a murder victim was discovered at the mall site and another man was electrocuted trying to steal copper from the empty building. “It looked like a giant haunted house inside,” Mr. Horrigan said.
A few years ago, Mr. Horrigan attended the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and pitched Amazon on the idea of redeveloping the mall property.
City and state officials agreed to upgrade the roadways and interchanges to make it easier for Amazon trucks to reach the building, which is near a major highway. Amazon also scored tax incentives in the deal.
“The mall used to be teeming with so much life, with kids and popcorn and concerts,” said Mr. Horrigan, who has spent most of his life in Akron. “Every Christmas it would be full of people. But we have to be realistic.”
Neiman Marcus, which filed for bankruptcy this year, is leaving its 188,000 square-foot space in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards complex.
That realism is settling over other cities, too. Even before the pandemic, some of New York’s most famous retail corridors were emptying. Long stretches of storefront along Madison Avenue and in Soho have struggled with vacant storefronts, taking some of the shine off those luxury neighborhoods. Macy’s, which has posted sales declines of more than 20 percent in the past three quarters, has been hit especially hard at its iconic flagship store and at Bloomingdale’s with the temporary loss of tourists and office workers.
Workers say that since the retailer reopened in June, there have been more employees than customers in the stores on some days. At Bloomingdale’s, some workers are filling the time by packing online orders to ship from the store.
“There are people in the stores, but they don’t have the numbers,” in terms of sales, said Brenda Moses, who started working at Bloomingdale’s during the Christmas season more than 30 years ago.
Across Manhattan, the number of retail leases signed or renewed dropped 31 percent in the third quarter from a year ago and rents fell 13 percent in the major shopping corridors, according to CBRE, a real estate services company. It was the 12th consecutive quarter of rent declines. At Hudson Yards, the long-touted development on the west side of Manhattan, Neiman Marcus said it would exit its 188,000 square-foot space a little more than a year after opening.
“Some retailers will return when the prices come down,” said Santiago Gallino, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has studied retail. “But their stores are not going to come back in the same format. They will have to be more integrated with their online business.”
Long stretches of storefront along Madison Avenue and in Soho are vacant, taking some of the shine off these luxury neighborhoods.
Long stretches of storefront along Madison Avenue and in Soho are vacant, taking some of the shine off these luxury neighborhoods.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Inevitably, though, retailers will need less physical space. And it’s not clear what type of business will fill the increasing void, raising the prospect that Manhattan storefronts could stay vacant for the foreseeable future.
“For the economy and for the retail industry, this transition is exciting and good,” Mr. Gallino said. “But it is also true, it is not going to come without pain.”
The retail industry’s rapid transformation is equally vivid in the boroughs outside of Manhattan. Rising from the sites of long idled factories, more than a dozen e-commerce warehouses are being built to feed New York’s insatiable need for same-day deliveries. Warehouse leases were up 70 percent in the third quarter from the previous quarter.
In Red Hook, on the Brooklyn waterfront, work crews are building what will become one of the tallest warehouses on the East Coast: a three-story building with parking spaces trucks and “sprinter vans” to deliver goods across New York in less than a day.
In June, Amazon signed a lease on a 285,000-square foot “delivery station” in the Maspeth section of Queens. Amazon has also vastly expanded the space it is leasing in a string of giant warehouses on Staten Island. In addition to the 855,000-square foot fulfillment center that the company opened in 2018, Amazon this fall expanded into 1.4 million additional square feet of space on the Staten Island site. In the Bronx, the company is taking over a building recently vacated by its rival Walmart.
“I have been doing this for 30 years, and it is the best year we’ve ever had,” said Robert Kossar, head of industrial real estate for the Northeast at JLL, a real estate services company. “We certainly don’t see any signs of it slowing down.”
In Brooklyn’s waterfront Red Hook neighborhood, work crews are building what will be one of the tallest warehouses on the East Coast.
Michael Corkery is a business reporter who covers the retail industry and its impact on consumers, workers and the economy. He joined The Times in 2014 and was previously a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and the Providence Journal. @mcorkery5
Sapna Maheshwari covers retail. She has won reporting awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers and the Newswomen’s Club of New York and was on Time’s list of “140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2014.”