Last year, retailers announced plans to shutter a record 12,200 stores. But some are now reconsidering after larger holiday revenues and ready support from lenders gave them more breathing room.

A surge of expected store closings early this year hasn’t materialized after strong holiday sales prompted retailers to hold on to their leases in hopes of a shopping rebound.

“It wasn’t the wave everyone thought it would be,” said Ryan Mulcunry, a managing director at B. Riley Financial Inc. who advises retailers.

Last year, retailers announced plans to shutter a record 12,200 stores, according to CoStar Group. But some are now reconsidering after larger holiday revenues and ready support from lenders gave them more breathing room, Mulcunry said. Holiday sales jumped 8.3% in November and December compared with a year earlier, according to the National Retail Federation, easily beating an expected gain of 3.6% to 5.2%.

Online holiday sales still came out as the winner, reaching $201.32 billion, up an impressive 45.2% from $138.65 billion in 2019, Digital Commerce 360 estimates. Many consumers greatly shifted their behavior, including more online shopping, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19-related shifts in buying behavior translated into an additional $41.54 billion in digital revenue for November-December, according to Digital Commerce 360. If online holiday sales had accelerated at a more typical seasonal growth rate—a median 15.2% over the prior five years—revenue wouldn’t have reached 2020-estimated levels until 2022. A normal, pandemic-free holiday in 2020 likely would have resulted in consumers spending about $159.78 billion on the web.


In addition, 59% of consumers said they bought more gifts online during the 2020 holiday season and 45% said they bought most of their holiday gifts online, according to a Digital Commerce 360 and Bizrate Insights survey of 1,137 consumers about their shopping habits over the holiday season in January 2021.

A string of bankruptcies

Traditionally, troubled retailers have sought to restructure their debts—which can include filing for bankruptcy and closing locations—early in the year when they are flush with cash following the holiday season.

Even this year, not all retailers have been spared. Women’s clothing company Christopher & Banks Corp. (No. 535 in the 2020 Digital Commerce 360 Top 1000) filed for bankruptcy last month and is liquidating nearly 450 locations. Department store chain Belk Inc. (No. 63) also said it would seek court protection.

But it now makes more sense for some retailers to hold on to leases in preparation for easing pandemic restrictions, according to Mulcunry. Part of the hope is that consumers will return as they tire of online shopping and seek new outfits for when they return to their offices. Even if retailers do decide to shut some locations, “you’ll get more for your inventory in June,” he said. “A lot of people are betting on this summer having good store and mall traffic.”


COVID-19 may still keep shoppers away

But maybe not. 60% of shoppers said that new spikes in COVID-19 may keep them away from stores, according to research firm First Insight’s survey of 1,000 consumers conducted Jan. 13, 2021.

Plus, some shoppers are feeling more apprehensive about shopping in stores than before the holidays: 71% of respondents feel unsafe testing beauty products compared with 67% of respondents surveyed in November 2020. Additionally, 62% felt unsafe trying on products in a dressing room versus 55% in November, and 59% feel unsafe working with a sales associate, compared with 51% in November.

“It’s time for retailers to create better connections with consumers by targeting them with the right marketing messages, and bringing them the right product assortment, pricing and experiences that will entice them to spend both in-store as well as online,” said Greg Petro, CEO of First Insight.