The COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind to brick-and-mortar retail stores. Just ask Clarks Americas president Gary Champion.
The footwear executive said it’s possible as many as one-quarter of the company’s stores could be shuttered within the next year or so as Clarks puts a greater emphasis on selling shoes online.
Of the nearly 200-year-old British shoe company’s 214 stores in the United States, 210 have reopened since the pandemic hit in March, with three in New York opening last week. (The company said four in California and Hawaii remain closed due to COVID-19-related regulations.)
But this total number isn’t expected to last. Champion said he expects that the Waltham-based division of the footwear designer will have stores numbering “somewhere in the mid-100s,” with most closings taking place by the end of next year. A spokeswoman for the company later clarified that this number reflects Champion’s personal speculation, and not a confirmed corporate plan.
Clarks, a.k.a. C&J Clark International Ltd., sells its shoes — Wallabees, Bostonians, and Desert Boots, among many others — at its own stores as well as through wholesale channels. Champion said customers have been slow to return to indoor shopping malls, but Clarks stores in outdoor lifestyle and outlet centers tend to be performing better than those in malls. Still, it still has been a tough slog. (The company’s US portfolio is roughly split in half: 115 shops in outdoor centers, and 99 indoors.)
“We overextended our brick-and-mortar portfolio,” Champion said.
Clarks is privately held and doesn’t disclose profits or revenue totals, but Champion said he expects overall revenue to be down by about 25 percent this year, compared to the prior year. The outcome would likely be worse if not for a double-digit increase in online sales at Clarks Americas for the year to date — well ahead of the company’s initial projections before the pandemic.
The store closings will naturally lead to more job cuts, although it’s not clear how many. The company has already begun reorganizing its corporate roles: About 900 office jobs, in Waltham and around the world, will be trimmed by the end of 2021 through a restructuring announced in May, though that will be partially offset by the creation of about 200 new roles, for a net reduction of 700 jobs. (Nearly 325 people are in Waltham now, though most are still working remotely.)
Of course, few retail chains will emerge unscathed from the pandemic: Widespread store closings in the spring ate into cash flow, and many consumers are making more of their purchases online.
Some retailers won’t make it out at all, at least not with their physical locations still intact. Among those that have announced plans to wind down brick-and-mortar operations: Pier 1 Imports, New York & Co., Papyrus, and Modell’s. The list of chains paring back their retail footprints is much longer. Locally, the Quincy-based J.Jill apparel chain on Friday averted a bankruptcy filing, while Canton’s Destination XL is in danger of being delisted from the Nasdaq Global Market.
Champion sees an upside to the painful disruption caused by the pandemic. It has prompted the company to further concentrate its efforts to reach its customers directly, through social media and other digital channels. And the pandemic has forced Clarks to adopt an entirely new outlook on remote work, a shift that will provide additional flexibility to employees in the long term while enabling the company to use its office space more efficiently.
“COVID is showing us some ways to fine-tune our business," Champion said, “to better cope when we come out of this."