Retail Fails: How Big Chains Plan to go From Bad to Better

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Macy's, Rancho Cucamonga, CA
Macy's, Rancho Cucamonga, CA Credit: Macy's

The retail tailspin continued last week when big chains including Macy's, Kohl's and JC Penney reported first-quarter sales declines. On earnings calls, brands suggested better marketing would help reverse the slide. But analysts aren't so sure and predict more store closures than the hundreds already announced.

"The problem with some of these stores is too much sameness — the brands aren't special enough," said Oliver Chen, retail analyst at Cowen & Co. "These stores need to reinvent themselves." He noted more personalized marketing, better products and radical changes to the store experience could help the situation.

Here's what to expect later this year from America's biggest retailers:

Macy's: Less promotional marketing
The 728-unit chain, which missed analyst expectations by reporting a 4.6% drop in same-store sales, 7.5% drop in revenue and 39% drop in profit, has a new chief marketing officer. The company is planning to focus less on promotions in its messaging. That doesn't mean an end to sales, cautioned Karen Hoguet, chief financial officer. It just means an end to screaming about them. "In some cases, we over communicate a certain promotion," she said on a conference call. The retailer is also planning to focus more on products and fashion trends rather than on broadcasting its promotions.

Kohl's: More clarity
In 2016, Kohl's risked much of its marketing spend on an Oscar's sponsorship that ultimately didn't pay off. Though expenses were reduced this year by not returning to the event, Kohl's still saw same-store sales slip 2.7% for the quarter. Profit, however, was up thanks to tighter inventory. Like Macy's, the brand also has a new CMO. He'll focus on "personalization, simplification and clarity in our marketing strategy," according to CEO Kevin Mansell on a conference call.

JC Penney: New marketing mix
Without a CMO after the March departure of Mary Beth West to Hershey, JC Penney is planning a shift in marketing to more digital and social. The chain, which posted a same-store sales drop of 3.5%, "is also leveraging the much improved mobile app as a way to drive awareness and retention," said CEO Marvin Ellison on a conference call. Ellison said that apparel sales trailed company sales. To that end, the brand will focus on bright spots like Sephora and appliances in the future.

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