From Family Dollar to Payless: Why It Seems Low-Price Stores Are Starting to Vanish

Just sell it cheap, they said.

For the past three years, amid retail turbulence spurred by digital disruption and other factors, low-price and discount retailers have consistently bucked industry-wide trends. As pricier competitors appeared to flounder — and off-price chains like TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Ross steadily gained — many experts posited that the way to consumers’ hearts (and pocketbooks) is through a good deal.

And the proposed strategy was backed by logical reason: A survey from the International Council of Shopping Centers in November found that 91 percent of adults shop in off-price stores — like TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Ross — and nearly 3 in 4 prefer these types of stores to other retailers.

“Consumers are looking for good deals and changing inventory,” said ICSC spokesperson Stephanie Cegielski at the time, adding that millennials are particularly price-conscious.

Now, a series of new store closures in the low-price sector appear to run counter to popular knowledge about consumers’ growing preference for cheaper wares.

After one failed bankruptcy in 2017, Payless ShoeSource last month announced a second Chapter 11 filing — but this time, the “everyday low price” (EDLP) retailer said it would shutter all 2,500 of its North American stores. That news was followed by inexpensive variety store Dollar Tree’s announcement today that it would shutter about 390 Family Dollar outposts as it seeks to evolve its business strategy. (Dollar Tree acquired its rival Family Dollar in 2015.)

Where Payless is concerned, experts have noted that cheap footwear alone is hardly the saving grace of a store in the current retail climate. In fact, there could be more differences than similarities between EDLP stores like Payless and off-price chains like TJ Maxx and Marshalls — which would explain one category’s success and the other’s failure.

“Some younger consumers actually like brick-and-mortar shopping and that speaks to where the future of [traditional] retail is headed. Moreover, they love value and low price,” explained B. Riley FBR analyst Jeff Van Sinderen. “The issue with some of the failed and struggling EDLP retailers is that they lack relevance, which partially stems from a lack of differentiation and an uninspiring shopping experience, including merchandise content.”

Conversely, the success and persistent relevance of off-price firms have hinged on their differentiated merchandise — whether it’s tough to find items or “like-for-like” wares — as well as their ability to offer a “thrill of the hunt shopping experience,” noted Van Sinderen. (Payless’ demise was also largely blamed on its heavy debt load stemming from a 2012 leveraged buyout by private equity firms Blum Capital and Golden Gate Capital that many experts believe left it too cash strapped to implement concepts such as in-store experience and omnichannel.)

“One never knows what they will find and the assortment is constantly changing,” he added. “Sometimes at off price, one can find great values in terrific merchandise that is really tough to find elsewhere.

For Family Dollar, its failure to tap into consumers’ growing desire for lower-price consumer goods during the post-recession period has been blamed on neglected stores and weak product selection.

During the firm’s fourth-quarter conference call today, Dollar Tree president and CEO Gary Philbin said age, layout, location, unfavorable lease terms and other factors contributed to the decision to shutter — and not renovate — the nearly 400 underperforming stores.

When Family Dollar — a chain with prices ranging from $1 to $10 — was snapped up by competitor Dollar Tree in 2015, part of the acquirer’s strategy was to gain knowledge around upping its own price cap of $1.

Now, Dollar Tree is now converting 200 of its Family Dollar locations to its lower-price Dollar Tree banner but will continue to consider and test the concept of introducing multiple price points.

But, as Philbin told investors today, the firm’s efforts will require that it delivers “the wow factor.”

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