July 15, 2020 / 1:00 PM / a month ago

ANALYSIS-As virus-wary shoppers opt for online purchases, retailers pay the price

LOS ANGELES, July 15(Reuters) - Online sales may be a saving grace for pandemic-battered retailers with fewer shoppers in their stores. But many retailers, from department store chain Macy's Inc to essential retailer Target Corp, are grappling with higher expenses related to e-commerce.

Retailers often use the more lucrative in-store sales to subsidize hefty e-commerce costs, ranging from marketing to fulfillment and shipping. Companies don't usually break out those expenses, which of late have been overshadowed by massive write-downs for unsold inventory and lower online profits.

Margins for the hardest-hit nonessential retailers - including mall-based clothing chains – on average are this year likely to be about half what they were in 2019, according to credit ratings agency S&P Global. The shift to e-commerce probably erased a couple of percentage points from company margins, Sarah Wyeth, senior director for retail and restaurants said.

When it comes to online sales, "retailers have always given away too much margin," said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. "Now that more stores are closed and online penetration is higher, losses have exploded."

Historically, sales in stores accounted for more than 80% of all retail sales in the United States, according to eMarketer. E-commerce as a percentage of retail sales, excluding gas and auto, zoomed to 22.9% in the second quarter after the pandemic accelerated the shift to online shopping, said Andrew Lipsman, principal analyst at that research firm.

As of mid-July, the spike of COVID-19 infections around the United States has spurred states such as California to shutter indoor shopping malls - further endangering in-person transactions, which are generally lower cost.

Almost 18% of Macy's stores are in California.

On July 1, the retail operator, which also owns Bloomingdale's store, said gross margin tumbled to 17.1%, down more than 21 percentage points from a year earlier.

Macy's CEO Jeff Gennette said the chain was seeing "a noticeably worse trend in brick-and-mortar" stores in Texas, Florida and Arizona, where infections are setting new records.

"Conversely, in those particular states, the dot-com business is improving," he said on the heels of posting a staggering $3.58 billion loss for the quarter that ended May 2.

FAST-FORWARD, TIGHTER SQUEEZE

RSR Research co-founder Paula Rosenblum estimated that typical online orders cost retailers roughly 10-15% more than purchases in stores, where shoppers do the work of selecting items and transporting them home. Her calculation does not include returns, which are more common with e-commerce purchases because shoppers don't see, touch or try on products beforehand.

While Amazon.com Inc, Walmart Inc and other deep-pocketed companies can spend heavily on projects like automation and inventory tracking to reduce e-commerce expenses "a lot of companies are on the ropes and can't afford to," said Hilding Anderson, senior director of strategy and consulting at Publicis Sapient.

Target stayed open throughout the early stages of the pandemic, but its gross margin fell 450 basis points in the first quarter, when digital sales surged 141%. The retailer blamed the deterioration on apparel write-downs, a shift to lower profit sales of food and essential items, and rising digital fulfillment and supply chain costs.

"Our first quarter digital volumes weren't anticipated for another three years ... It was an extreme test of our model and our team," Target Chief Operating Officer John Mulligan said on a May 20 conference call.

Meanwhile, FedEx Corp and United Parcel Service Inc have a lock on e-commerce delivery, but lost a significant amount of high-margin business when offices shuttered. Those carriers are raising their prices to offset the explosion in higher-cost home deliveries of everything from food to furniture and electronics and exercise equipment.

"The margin squeeze might go on for a while," said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail research firm A Line Partners. "It's going to be really hard to put the genie back in the bottle." (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, Melissa Fares in New York, Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

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