Tower Records Filed for Chapter 22 on August 20, 2006 (Long Disruption)
12 years ago today Tower Records Inc. filed for bankruptcy for the second time in 2.5 years, ending the company’s run in the United States (and most other places of the world).
The company first filed for bankruptcy in February 2004. The music retailer had approximately 90 stores and more than $110mm in debt that it owed to the likes of AIG Investment Group, Goldman Sachs & Co., JPMorgan Chase and…wait for it…Bear Stearns Securities Corp. The first bankruptcy was a short prepackaged bankruptcy that eliminated $80mm of debt in a debt-for-equity swap, leaving the company’s famous and eccentric owners with 15% of the company. The company attempted a sale process but had no takers. CIT Group provided the company with a $100mm DIP credit facility. O’Melveny & Myers LLP and Richards Layton & Finger PA represented the company (and both signatories to the petition actually still remain at those firms).
Interestingly, with some limited exception, the narrative explaining the company’s demise is not-all-too-different from what we see from retailers today. SFGate wrote at the time:
Tower's difficulties reflect those of the music industry during the past few years. Industry sales declined from $10.49 billion in 1999 to $8.93 billion in 2002, according to a report from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers, which attributed the swoon to digital downloading and copying. Retailers are also under pressure from online sales by firms such as Amazon.com, and from deep discounting by such rivals as Wal-Mart, and fierce competition from other chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble.
The filing is expected to help clear the way for selling the 93-store chain that suffered from rapid changes in the music business, especially the exploding popularity of downloading music for free from the Internet. Discounters such as Best Buy, Circuit City and Wal-Mart Stores also undercut Tower's prices and hurt the chain's earnings.
Those trends and a major slump in the music industry followed fast on the heels of the company's 1998 decision to expand using $110 million of borrowed money. The expansion drove Tower to a peak of more than $1 billion in annual revenue with nearly 200 stores in 21 states and numerous franchises internationally. But it has been rapidly downsizing since 2001.
A filing last April with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission revealed the retailer had lost money for 13 straight quarters.
Wait. Amazon ($AMZN)? Check. Deep discounting from the likes of Walmart ($WMT)? Check. Too much debt to fund an over-expansion? Check. Revenue declines on the basis of technological innovation? Check. We guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And stay the same they did. Even then. It took just 2.5 years for the company to wind its way back into bankruptcy court. And for all of the same reasons. Two months later, Great American Group, a firm that specializes in liquidations, emerged as the highest and best bidder in an auction for the company, winning with a bid of $134.5mm; it beat Trans World Entertainment Corporation ($TWMC), an entertainment media retail store operator that — shockingly — still exists. You may be familiar with it: it’s largest specialty retail brand is fye, which as of May 2018, still operated 253 stores. It is hanging by a thread, but it still exists — largely on the back of its etailz segment, which apparently thrives by doing omni-channel business with Amazon, Ebay, Jet.com/Walmart and Wish.
Anyway, Trans World had hoped to continue operating at least some of the Tower locations; it lost the bidding by $500k. And, accordingly, Tower Records liquidated. While there is such a thing as Tower Records in Asia, the name is all but a distant memory today.
The "Amazon Effect" Takes More Victims
Scott Galloway likes to say that mere announcements from Amazon Inc. ($AMZN) can result in billions of dollars of wiped-out market capitalization. Upon this week’s announcement that Amazon has purchased Boston-based online pharmacy startup Pillpack for $1 billion — beating out Walmart ($WMT) in the process — his statement proved correct. Check this out:
We like to make fun of the Amazon narrative because we’re of the view that it’s overplayed — particularly in restructuring circles — and reflects a failure to understand broader macro trends (like the direct-to-consumer invasion noted below). Still, the market reaction to this purchase reflects the undeniable power of the “Amazon Effect” and we’d be remiss not to acknowledge as much. This purchase will likely be a turning point for pharmacies for sure; perhaps also, farther down the line, for benefits managers and pharmaceutical manufacturers. It also may provide Amazon with meaningful cross-pollination opportunities with its payments business — a subject that nobody seems to be talking about (more on this below).
Putting aside the losers for now, there are a variety of winners. First, obviously, are Pillpack’s founders, TJ Parker and Elliot Cohen. They stand to make a ton of money. Also its investors — Accel Partners, Atlas Venture, CRV, Founder Collective, Menlo Ventures, Sherpa Ventures and Techstars — at an 8x return, at least. Oh, and Nas apparently. And then there is Amazon itself. Pillpack isn’t a massive revenue generator ($100mm in ‘17) and it isn’t a big company (1k employees) but it packs a big punch: licenses to ship drugs in 50 sates. With this purchase, Amazon just hurdled over a significant regulatory quagmire.
PillPack is trying to solve the problem of drug adherence by simplifying your medicine cabinet. Medication arrives in the mail presorted into clear plastic packets, each marked in a large font with vital information: day, time, pills inside, dosages. These are ordered chronologically in a roll that slots into the dispenser. Let’s say you need to take four different pills in the morning and two others in the afternoon every day: Those pills would be sorted into two tear-off packets: one marked 8am, followed immediately by the 2pm packet.
Put another way, Pillpack specializes in the convenience of getting you your medications directly with a design and user-experience focus to boot. The latter helps ensure that you’re taking the proper levels of medication at the right time.
Amazon will be limited in what it can do, especially to start. PillPack’s specialty—packaging a month’s supply of pills for chronic-disease patients—is a small part of the overall market. It has said it has tens of thousands of customers versus Amazon’s hundreds of millions.
Current limitations notwithstanding, Thompson notes how much Pillpack’s service aligns with Amazon:
Amazon, particularly for Prime customers, is seeking to be the retailer of habit. That is, just as a chronic condition patient may need to order drugs every month, Amazon wants to be the source of monthly purchases of household supplies, and anything else one might want to buy along the way.
Like all aggregators, Amazon wins by providing a superior user experience, particularly when it comes to delivering the efficient frontier of price and selection. To that end, moving into pharmaceuticals via a company predicated on delivering a superior user experience makes total sense.
Thompson notes further:
The benefit Amazon will provide to PillPack, on the other hand, is primarily about dramatically decreasing the customer acquisition costs for a solution that is far better for consumers; to put it another way, Amazon will make a whole lot more people aware of a much more customer-friendly solution. Frankly, I have a hard time seeing why that is problematic.
To be sure, Amazon will benefit beyond its unique ability to supercharge PillPack’s customer acquisition numbers: just as Walgreen and CVS’s pharmacies draw customers to their traditional retail stores, PillPack’s focus on regular ordering fits in well with Amazon’s desire to be at the center of its customers day-to-day lives. This works in two directions: first, that Amazon now has a direct connection to a an ongoing transaction, and second, that would-be Amazon customers are dissuaded from visiting a retail pharmacy and, inevitably, buying something else along the way. This was a point I made in Amazon’s New Customer:
This, though, is why groceries is a strategic hole: not only is it the largest retail category, it is the most persistent opportunity for other retailers to gain access to Prime members and remind them there are alternatives.
A similar argument could be made for prescription drugs: their acquisition is one of the most consistent and predictable ways by which potential customers exist outside of the Amazon ecosystem. It makes a lot of sense for Amazon to reduce the inclination to ever go elsewhere.
It seems that Amazon is doing that lately for virtually everything. Consistently, further expansion beyond just chronic-disease patients seems inevitable. Margin exists elsewhere in the medical chain too and, well, Jeff Bezos once famously said “Your margin is my opportunity.” David Frankel of Founder Collective writes:
The story of the last five years has been that of bricks and mortar retailers frantically trying to play catch-up with Amazon. By acquiring PillPack, Amazon is now firmly attacking another quarter trillion dollars of TAM. Bezos is a tenacious competitor and has just added the most compelling consumer pharmacy to enter the game since CVS was founded in 1963.
TJ Parker understands the pharma business in his bones, has impeccable product sensibilities, and now has the backing of the most successful retail entrepreneur in history.
Expect some real healthcare reform ahead.
No wonder those stocks all sh*t the bed. That all sounds downright horrifying for those on the receiving end.
Recall weeks back when we noted this slide in Mary Meeker’s “Internet Trends” presentation:
Healthcare spending continues to rise which, no doubt, includes the cost of medication — a hot button issue of price that even Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have agreed on. This purchase dovetails nicely with Amazon’s overall health ambitions. Per the New York Times:
But Mr. Buck and others said Amazon might have a new opportunity. A growing number of Americans are without health insurance or have such high deductibles that they may be better off bargain shopping on their own. He estimated that 25 million Americans fell into that category.
Until now, he said, PillPack has not aggressively competed on price. With Amazon in charge, “how about they start posting prices that are really, really aggressive?” Mr. Buck said.
As Pillpack increases its scale, Amazon will be able to exert more leverage in the space. This could have the affect of compressing (certain) pharmaceutical prices. To get there, Amazon will undoubtedly seize the opportunity to subsume Pillpack/pharma into Amazon Prime, providing Members discounts on medicine much like it provides Whole Foods shoppers discounts on bananas.
There is other opportunity to expand the user base as well. People are looking to save money on healthcare as much as possible. With cash back rewards, Amazon can offer additional discounts if consumers were to carry and use the Amazon Prime Rewards Visa Signature Card — which already offers 5% back on Amazon.com and WholeFoods purchases (plus money back elsewhere too). Pillpack too? We could envision a scenario where people scrap their current plastic to ensure that they’re getting discounts off of one of the most rapidly rising expenditures out there. Said another way, as more and more consumer staples like food and medicine are offered by Amazon, Amazon will be able to entice Pillpack customers with further card-related discounts. And grow a significant amount of revenue by way of its card offering. No doubt this is part of the plan. And don’t forget the data that they would compile to boot.
Given that Amazon credit card holders spend the highest on its platform, the company is looking at ways to expand its credit card consumer base. CIRP estimates that approximately 15% of Amazon’s U.S. customers have any one of Amazon’s credit cards, representing approximately 21 million customers. However, growth of its card base has not kept pace with its growing Prime membership. In June 2016, it was estimated that Amazon has around 63 million Prime members. Assuming that only Prime members have an Amazon credit card, it would mean that only a third of its Prime customers have one of its credit cards. According to a survey by Morgan Stanley, Amazon Prime members spend about 4.6 times more money on its platform than non-prime members. Its credit card holders spend even greater amounts than what Prime members spend. By enticing its prime customers to own its credit cards, Amazon will be encouraging them to spend more on its platform. Its latest card is aimed at attracting Prime customers by offering deals not only on Amazon.com but on other shopping destinations as well. This can lead to higher spending by existing Prime customers and help convert the fence sitters into Prime memberships.
And those numbers are dated. Amazon Prime now has 100mm members. Imagine if they could all get discounts on their meds. 💰💥💰💥
All of which begs the question: who gets hurt and who benefits (other than Visa ($V)) from this potential secondary effect? 🤔
Petco: Outlook Negative
On Wednesday, we concluded the “DO. NOT. MESS. WITH. DAISY. CHAPTER 2 (Short Pet Retailers 2.0) 🔫🔫” about Petsmart Inc., with the following statement:
“With 1600 stores, the company isn’t light with its footprint and same store sales and pricing power are on the decline. Still, the company’s liquidity profile remains relatively intact and its services businesses apparently still drive foot traffic. Which is not to say that the situation doesn’t continue to bear watching — particularly if Chewy.com’s customer-acquisition-costs continue to skyrocket, overall brick-and-mortar trends continue to move downward, and the likes of Target ($T), Walmart ($WMT) and Amazon ($AMZN) continue to siphon off market share. A failure to stem the decline could add more stress to the situation.”
Well, guess what: industry trends are continuing to decline. Last week Petco Holdings announced dogsh*t earnings (oh man, we’ve been waiting all week for that…SO GOOD) and, suffice it to say, its (and Petsmart’s) bonds made fresh lows on the news.
To read this rest of this a$$-kicking commentary, you must be a Member...
🐶 Petsmart Inc.: "Outlook Negative" 🐶
On this day exactly one year ago, Recode first reported that Petsmart acquired Chewy.com for $3.35 billion — the “largest e-commerce acquisition ever.” Venture capitalists — and the founders — of course, rejoiced. This was an a$$-kicking exit — particularly for a company that, at the time, was only six years old. The reported amount of venture funding topped out at $451 million, a massive sum, but sufficiently low enough for the VCs to make a substantial return. Recode wrote,
“The deal is a huge one by any standard — bigger than Walmart’s $3.3 billion deal for Jet.com last year — and especially for a retail company like PetSmart, which was itself valued at only $8.7 billion when private equity investors took it over in 2015.
But Chewy.com has been one of the fastest-growing e-commerce sites on the planet, registering nearly $900 million in revenue last year, in what was only its fifth year in operation. The company had been a potential IPO candidate for this year or next, but was taken out by its brick-and-mortar competitor before that. It was not profitable last year.”
“The deal seems like the type of bet-the-company acquisition by a traditional retailer that commerce-focused venture capitalists have been betting on for some time. While Walmart’s acquisition of Jet.com was a huge deal by e-commerce standards, it represented just a fraction of Walmart’s market value.”
Toss of the dice notwithstanding, most talking heads seemed to think that the acquisition made “strategic sense.” Nevertheless, Recode’s sentiment was more prescient than they likely suspected — mostly due to the havoc it has wreaked to Petsmart’s cap stack.
The company financed the purchase with a two-part debt offering of (a) $1.35 billion of ‘25 8.875% senior secured notes and (b) $650 million of ‘25 5.875% unsecured notes. Rounding out the capital structure is a $750 million ABL, a $4.3 billion cov-lite first-lien term loan and $1.9 billion cov-lite ‘23 senior unsecured notes. Let us help you out here: 1+2+3+4 = $8.2 billion in debt. The equity sponsors, BC Partners, GIC, Longview Asset Management, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec and StepStone Group, helped by writing a $1.35 billion new equity check. So, what did all of this financing lead to?
One year later, CEO Michael Massey is gone and hasn’t been replaced. More recently, Ryan Cohen, the CEO and co-founder of Chewy.com has departed. Blue Buffalo Pet Products Inc., which reportedly accounted for 11-12% of PetSmart’s sales, opted to supply its food products to mass-market retailers like Target ($T) and Kroger ($KR). The notes backing the Chewy.com deal are trading (and have basically, since issuance, traded) at distressed levels. Petsmart’s EBITDA showed a 34% YOY decline in Q3. And, worse even (for investors anyway), the bondholders are increasingly concerned about asset stripping to the benefit of the company’s private equity sponsors. S&P Global Ratings downgraded the company in December. It stated,
“The downgrade reflects our view that the capital structure is unsustainable at current levels of EBITDA, although we do not see a default scenario over the next year given liquidity and cash generation. Such underperformance came from the company's rapid e-commerce growth that generated higher losses, and unanticipated negative same-store sales at its physical stores. As Chewy aggressively expands its customer base, we believe operating losses will widen because the company has not yet garnered the size and scale to offset the unprofitable business volume from new customers.”
Financial performance and ratios were a big consideration: margin is compressed, in turn negatively affecting the company’s interest coverage ratio and leverage ratio (approximately 8.5x).
Moody’s Investor Service also issued a downgrade in January. It wrote,
“We still believe the acquisition of Chewy has the potential of being transformative for PetSmart as it will exponentially increase its online penetration which was previously very modest. However, as Chewy continues to grow its topline aggressively and incur increasing customer acquisition costs we expect its operating losses to increase. More importantly, the increasingly competitive business environment particularly from e-commerce and mass retailers has led to increased promotional activity which has negatively impacted PetSmart's top line and margins. We expect this trend to continue in 2018.”
“Buying Chewy.com was supposed to be a coup for PetSmart Inc. For debt investors who funded the deal, it’s been more like a dog.”
See what they did there?
With 1600 stores, the company isn’t light with its footprint and same store sales and pricing power are on the decline. Still, the company’s liquidity profile remains relatively intact and its services businesses apparently still drive foot traffic. Which is not to say that the situation doesn’t continue to bear watching — particularly if Chewy.com’s customer-acquisition-costs continue to skyrocket, overall brick-and-mortar trends continue to move downward, and the likes of Target ($T), Walmart ($WMT) and Amazon ($AMZN) continue to siphon off market share. A failure to stem the decline could add more stress to the situation.
💥We’ll discuss Petco Holdings in “DO. NOT. MESS. WITH. DAISY. CHAPTER 3 of 3 (Short Pet Retailers 2.0) 🔫🔫🔫” in our Members’-only briefing on Sunday.💥
Another day, another bankrupt grocer.
Yesterday, March 27 2018, Southeastern Grocers LLC, the Jacksonville Florida-based parent company of grocery chains like Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie, filed a prepackaged bankruptcy in the District of Delaware. This filing comes mere weeks after Tops Holding II Corporation, another grocer, filed for bankruptcy in the Southern District of New York. Brutal.
In its filing papers, Southeastern noted that, as part of the chapter 11 filing, it intends to "close 94 underperforming stores," "emerge from this process likely within the next 90 days," and "continue to thrive with 582 successful stores in operation." Just goes to show what you can do when you aren’t burdened by collective bargaining agreements. In contrast to Tops.
Also unlike Tops, this case appears to be fully consensual. It appears that all relevant parties in interest have agreed that the company will (i) de-lever its balance sheet by nearly $600 million in funded liability (subject to increase to a committed $1.125 billion and exclusive of the junior secured debt described below), (ii) cut its annual interest expense by approximately $40 million, and (iii) swap the unsecured noteholders' debt for equity. The private equity sponsor, Lone Star Funds, will see its existing equity interests cancelled but will maintain upside in the form of five-year warrants that, upon exercise, would amount to 5% of the company.
Financially, the company wasn’t a total hot mess. For the year ended December 2017, the company reflected total revenues of approximately $9,875 million and a net loss of $139 million. Presumably the $40 million cut in interest expense and the shedding of the 94 underperforming stores will help the company return to break-even, if not profitability. If not - and, frankly, in this environment, it very well may be a big "if" - we may be seeing this trifecta of professionals (Weil, Evercore, FTI Consulting) administering another Chapter 22. You know: just like A&P. To help avoid this fate, the company has secured favorable in-bankruptcy terms from its largest creditor, C&S Wholesale Grocers, which obviates the need for a DIP credit facility. C&S has also committed to provide post-chapter 11 credit up to $125 million on a junior secured basis.
Other large creditors include Coca-Cola ($KO) and Pepsi-Cola ($PEP). Given, however, that this is a prepackaged chapter 11, they are likely to paid in full. Indeed, a letter sent to suppliers indicates exactly that:
In addition to its over-levered capital structure, the company has a curious explanation for why it ended up in bankruptcy:
"The food retail industry, including within the Company’s market areas in the southeastern United States, is highly competitive. The Company faces stiff competition across multiple market segments, including from local, regional, national, and international supermarket retailers, convenience stores, retail drug chains, national general merchandisers and discount retailers, membership clubs, warehouse stores and “big box” retailers, and independent and specialty grocers. The Company’s in-store delicatessens and prepared food offerings face competition from restaurants and fast food chains. The Company’s primary competitors include Publix Supermarkets, Inc., Walmart, Inc., Food Lion, LLC, Ingles Markets Inc., Kroger Co., and Amazon."
"Adding to this pressure is the recent growth in consumer demand for a “gourmet” shopping experience, complete with offerings of natural, organic, and gluten-free foods. Some of the Debtors’ competitors have expanded aggressively in marketing a range of natural and organic foods, prepared foods, and quality specialty grocery items. The Debtors have been at a disadvantage to companies that have the financial flexibility to devote greater resources to sourcing, promoting, and selling the most in-demand products."
Sound familiar? Here is what Tops said when it filed for bankruptcy:
"The supermarket industry, including within the Company’s market areas in Upstate New York, Northern Pennsylvania, and Vermont, is highly competitive. The Company faces stiff competition across multiple market segments, including from local, regional, national and international supermarket retailers, convenience stores, retail drug chains, national general merchandisers and discount retailers, membership clubs, warehouse stores and “big box” retailers, and independent and specialty grocers. The Company’s in-store delicatessens and prepared food offerings face competition from restaurants and fast food chains. The Company also faces intense competition from online retail giants such as Amazon."
"Adding to this competitive pressure is the recent growth in consumer demand for a “gourmet” shopping experience, complete with offerings of natural, organic, and gluten-free foods. Some of the Debtors’ competitors have expanded aggressively in marketing a range of natural and organic foods, prepared foods, and quality specialty grocery items. The Debtors have been at a competitive disadvantage to companies that have the financial flexibility to devote greater resources to sourcing, promoting, and selling the most in-demand products."
At least Weil is consistent: we wonder whether they pitch clients now on cost efficiencies they derive from just copying and pasting verbiage from one company's papers into another...? We also wonder whether the billable hours spent drafting the First Day Declaration here are less than they were in Tops. What's your guess?
Anyway, there's more. No "First Day Declaration" is complete without a reference to Amazon ($AMZN). Here, though, the company also notes other competitive threats — including Walmart ($WMT). In "Tops, Toys, Amazon & Owning the Robots," we said the following,
In Bentonville, Arkansas some Walmart Inc. ($WMT) employee is sitting there thinking, “Why does Amazon always get the credit and free publicity? WTF.”
Looks like Weil and the company noticed. And Walmart got their (destructive) credit. Go $WMT!
Other causes for the company's chapter 11 include food deflation of approximately 1.3% ("a drastic difference from the twenty-year average of 2.2% inflation"), and reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps). And Trump wasn’t even in office yet.
Finally, in addition to the store closures, the company proposes to sell 33 stores pursuant to certain lease sale agreements it executed prior to the bankruptcy filing.
Will this mark the end of grocery bankruptcies for the near term or are there others laying in wait? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Digitally-Native Vertical Brands Strike Again
The Walking Company. Payless Shoesource. Aerosoles. The bankruptcy court dockets have been replete with third-party sellers of footwear with bursting brick-and-mortar footprints, high leverage, scant consumer data, old stodgy reputations and, realistically speaking, limited brand value. Mere days away from a Nine West bankruptcy filing, we can’t help but to think about how quickly the retail landscape is changing and the impact of brands. Why? Presumably, Nine West will file, close the majority of - if not all of - its brick-and-mortar stores and transfer its brand IP to its creditors (or a new buyer). For whatever its brand is worth. We suppose the company’s lenders - likely to receive the company’s IP in a debt-for-equity swap, will soon find out. We suspect “not a hell of a whole lot”.
Back in December, we snarked about Proctor & Gamble’s efforts to innovate around cheaper razors in the face of competition from digitally-native vertical brands like (now Unilever-owned) Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s. The struggle is real. Per the Financial Times,
In 2016, revenues of the large consumer good companies — from beer to soft drinks, food and household products — grew at their slowest rate since 2009, when the recession took hold. The 207 results for many of those companies that have reported remain weak.
A few weeks ago the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a new study entitled, “The Rise of the 21st Century Brand Economy.” It is well-worth perusing. In fact, we’re a bit late to the game here because we wanted to give it an earnest review. The upshot? Consumption habits are rapidly shifting away from third-party wholesalers like Nine West towards direct-to-consumer relationships. With nimble, oft-outsourced supply chains, DTC e-comm brands are stealing market share from consumer products manufacturers and distributors. In the aggregate, it’s creating real shocks. Some significant themes:
Economic benefits are accruing to firms that create value by tapping into low-barrier-to-entry, capital-flexible, leased or rented supply chains. These include thousands of small firms in all major consumer-facing categories that sell their own branded goods entirely or primarily through their owned-and-operated digital channels.
First-party data relationships are important not for their marketing value independent of other functions, but because they fuel all significant functions of the enterprise, including product development, customer value analysis, and pricing.
An arms race for first-party data is influencing strategy, investment, and marketing strategies among major incumbent brands across all categories.
The significance of these themes cannot be overstated. Putting some numbers around them:
In the razor category, Gillette’s share of the U.S. men's-razors business fell to 54% in 2016, from 70% in 2010. Almost all of that share has shifted to Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s, and several other digital primary sellers.
In pet food, subscription service The Farmers Dog is averaging 40-50% revenue growth monthly, in a U.S. pet food market projected up 4.4% in 2018.
Grocery store revenue growth is projected to be about 1 percent annually through 2022. Over that same period, the market for Meal Kits is expected to grow by a factor of 10x.
Saving the most relevant to Nine West for last,
Sales at U.S. shoe stores in February 2017 fell 5.2%, the biggest year-over-year tumble since 2009. Online-only players like Allbirds, Jack Erwin, and M.Gemi have gained nearly 15 percentage points of share over five years.
Yes, the very same Allbirds that is so popular that it is apparently creating wool shortages. Query whether this factor will be featured in Nine West’s First Day Declaration with such specificity. Likely not.
THE LAW IS ALWAYS ONE STEP BEHIND
Since 2008 Walmart ($WMT) has paid 46x more in income tax than Amazon ($AMZN). That is a crazy stat and the link (source: Axios) is worth a read. But there's more to the Amazon tax story than that: it seems that the United States Supreme Court has contributed to the rise of Amazon and the rise of the "Amazon Effect."
Here's the condensed version:
- In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a mail-order vendor over the state of North Dakota in a dispute over the collection of sales taxes. The case was Quill Corp. v. North Dakota. Why? Taxing the vendor would "unduly burden interstate commerce." The Court ruled that taxation would only apply to retailers with a "physical presence" in states.
- There's a ton of discussion about the "last mile" now - a reflection of just how much retail continues to evolve - but this ruling impacted corporate decisions in a big way for a long time: why locate a warehouse in the same state as the lion-share of customers and suffer a higher tax burden?
- Amazon avoided having any fulfillment center in California FOR 17 YEARS to avoid sales taxes. Overstock ($OSTK) and Wayfair ($W) STILL limit their distribution centers for this reason. (Now Amazon collects in all 50 states.)
- The decision looks headed for re-evaluation. In what looks like a purposeful strategy to test the precedent, South Dakota lawmakers passed a law requiring businesses to collect state sales taxes on sales of goods over $100k - even if those businesses have no presence in SD. South Dakota's highest court held that the law violates Quill.
- So what's next? Looks like the lawyers are primed to petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court with the hope of a reversal of Quill. A reversal could help take some cash off of corporate balance sheets (see chart below) and fill state coffers. This could help counter-balance state budget ills, including underfunded pensions (see below). On the flip side, it may stifle e-commerce startup growth which, in a stroke of irony, may actually benefit Amazon further. Don't hate the player, hate the game...or something.
Private Equity Backed Retail is in the Dumps
"No Reason to Exist" - Restructuring Banker
Big news this week was CNBC's report that Toys R' Us hired Kirkland & Ellis LLP to complement Lazard ($LAZ) in a potential restructuring transaction.* This was followed by an S&P downgrade (firewall). This is "Death by self-commoditization," someone said. Sure, that's part of it but the more obvious and immediate explanation is the $5+ billion of debt the company is carrying on its balance sheet (and the millions of dollars of annual interest payments). Which, naturally, quickly gets us to private equity: KKR ($KKR), Bain and Vornado Realty Trust ($VNO) own Toys R' Us and so some are quick to blame those PRIVATE EQUITY shops for YET ANOTHER retailer hitting the skids. Post-LBO, this company simply never could grow into its capital structure given (i) the power of the big box retailers (e.g., Walmart ($WMT) & Target ($TGT)) and (ii) headwinds confronting specialty brick-and-mortar retail today (yeah, yeah, blah, blah, Amazon). That said, the gravity of the near-term maturity, the company's current cash position, and the bond trading levels don't necessarily scream imminent bankruptcy. There must be more to this. Speculating here, but this could just be an international value grab. Alternatively, given the tremendous amount of blood in the (retail) waters, we're betting that suppliers are squeezing the company. Badly. Like very badly. And/or maybe the company is trying to scare its landlords into concessions. We mean, seriously, we're in September. And the company is talking about bankruptcy NOW? Mere months from peak (holiday) toy shopping? Strikes us as odd. Someone has an agenda here.
On a positive note, we want to give the company some credit: it tried its best to control the narrative by releasing its list of must-have toys for the holidays on the same day the Kirkland news "leaked."
*For anyone taking notes, this is a genius stroke of business development by Lazard: pinpoint a potential distressed corporate candidate and then poach that company's Vice President of Corporate Finance. Power. Move. We dig it.
Grocery (Short EVERYTHING). So much to unpack in grocery world this past week so here is a brief summary for you: WholeFoods ($WFN) CEO John Mackey called Jana Partners greedy bastards; food deflation trends continued albeit at a markedly slower rate which means that someone wickedly smart may just be timing grocery at a time when it starts benefiting from inflation (imagine that); a Nomura Instinet analyst said - on Thursday - that Amazon ($AMZN) will next disrupt the grocery space (weeks after Scott Galloway predicted something big in grocery); Wegman's announced same day delivery via partnership with Instacart; Kroger ($KR) announced its numbers won't meet guidance and the stock, already down 14% on the year, dipped another 20% (only to fall more a day later on this...); Amazon dropped an atomic bomb on everyone and initiated a $13.7b play for Wholefoods making those greedy bastards pretty damn happy bastards (and sending stocks of everyone else - including Kroger - into even more of a tailspin); people then got busy questioning the viability of Instacart (the goodwill from the Wegman's news instantly evaporated) and BlueApron and Hello Fresh and Costco ($COST) and, well, we could go on and on but suffice it to say that if the food-oriented company was private it will likely stay private longer and if its public then its stock got decimated (including big boxes like Target ($TGT) and Walmart ($WMT)). And we were really beginning to warm to the "How to Beat Amazon" think pieces that have been making the rounds. The real question is: how many bankruptcies in 2018 will mention Amazon as one of the reasons why...?
With Walmart's rumored acquisition of Bonobos, perhaps we can finally do away with the narrative that these fashion startups will alleviate some of the brick-and-mortar vacancy. Walmart isn't buying Bonobos for its 31 "guideshops"; it is buying Bonobos because it needs to increase its e-commerce skillset and acquire a different demographic of shopper than the typical Walmart shopper. Or, we could be wrong: perhaps with Walmart's resources behind it, Bonobos will, in fact, be able to open more guideshops. But will they be independent of Walmart, or within Walmart? So many questions. And here's another one: if brick-and-mortar retailers continue to go the way of the showroom, which suppliers get hammered? Paper (shopping bag) producers? Meanwhile, speaking of bargain shopping at places like Walmart, it appears that Neiman Marcus shoppers are now getting price conscious too: it's amazing what comparative information at your fingertips can do.