Amazon vs. Wal-Mart: Who's Winning Retail's Title Fight?

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Online retail sales continue to skyrocket. Meanwhile, many brick-and-mortar retailer stores are laying off employees.

Like other traditional brick-and-mortar retailers,Wal-Mart Stores ( WMT ) competes with the shop-from-anywhere convenience thatAmazon.com ( AMZN ) and other online retailers offer, as well as perks like free two-day shipping on nearly all products plus free streaming of music and tens of thousands of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime.

On the surface, it appears that online retailers have traditional retailers on the ropes. But the fight is entering a new round, analysts say, as both online and brick-and-mortar retailers embrace new technology that's erasing boundaries between them.

In some ways, the effect that online stores are having on traditional retailers is similar to the offshoring drive that gained momentum several decades ago as U.S. manufacturers went to China for low wage costs. That trend reduced the number of manufacturing jobs in America.

Likewise, the trend to online retail is having a major impact on the U.S. economy by cutting jobs. Retail Metrics President Ken Perkins says that it's hard to come by accurate hard data on exactly how many jobs are lost as a result of retail store layoffs and store closings, but more jobs are being lost than gained.

"I don't think many traditional retail CEOs would say publicly, 'Amazon is eating our lunch,' " Perkins told IBD. "But they (traditional retailers) are not hiring anywhere near the number of people needed to offset the store closings we've seen."

Among stores that had net fewer stores at the end of 2015 vs. the end of 2014, auto parts chainAdvance Auto Parts ( AAP ) reported a net change of 160 fewer stores, according to Retail Metrics data compiled from company reports.

Office Depot ( ODP ) shed 181 stores.Walgreens Boots Alliance ( WBA ), which completed the Walgreen and Boots Alliance merger at the end of 2014, had a net loss of 57 stores in 2015 as it merged the companies. Leather goods retailerCoach (COH) lost 45 stores, and struggling women's apparel retailerBebe Stores (BEBE) was down net 60 stores, among others.

The outlook for retail employment is cloudy. Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen said that total U.S. retail sales, both online and in-store, currently are good but not great.

"Retail sales aren't getting exuberant type of growth," Chen said. The outlook is better for spending by middle to lower-end consumers, who benefit more from lower unemployment and cheap gas, he said. But high earners saw their stock portfolios plunge in early 2016, which could curb their retail spending for awhile.

"There is disruption happening. The power has shifted to consumers," as online and old-line retailers battle for consumers' dollars, Chen said.

Malls Are Much Emptier

Wal-Mart, with more than $482 billion in revenue last year, said on Jan. 15 that it was closing 269 stores globally. But the retail giant said in the same report that it "will continue to invest in its future," including opening roughly 154 new stores in the U.S. and 200 to 240 internationally in 2016, likely giving it a net gain in stores this year.

Wal-Mart President and CEO C. Douglas McMillon told analysts on the company's fourth-quarter earnings call on Feb. 18, "We're improving our stores, adding critical capabilities and deepening our digital relationships with customers as we work to become the first to deliver a seamless shopping experience at scale."

Meanwhile, online retail pioneers such aseBay (EBAY) and Amazon are expanding into adjacent markets that often overlap traditional stores. Amazon has been expanding home grocery delivery via its AmazonFresh service, competing with No. 1 U.S. supermarket chainKroger (KR) as well as Wal-Mart andTarget (TGT), which have expanded grocery offerings in recent years.

In February of this year, Amazon reportedly quietly rolled out its own private label fashion apparel. It ramps up competition with highly rated apparel retailers likeMichael Kors (KORS),Francesca's (FRAN) andRoss Stores (ROST), whose stock is on the IBD Leaderboard list of top-rated stocks. Women's Wear Daily has cited KeyBanc Capital data in saying that Amazon has introduced at least seven private label fashion brands with about 1,800 items.

Technology is driving the integration of online and brick-and-mortar retail, according to John Challenger, president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"Malls today are much emptier," Challenger said in an IBD interview. "There is no question (traditional) retailers are trying hard to figure out how to draw people to stores. Just like movie theaters are trying to figure out how to bring people in rather than watch movies on TV," with offerings like dinner-and-a-meal theaters.

Among the trends at work are mobile shopping via smartphones and tablets, and the rise of "destination" malls that feature spa services, movie theaters, fine restaurants and kiosks that sell autos, he said.

More people are shopping with smartphone apps, both in stores and online. They shop and buy goods at home or on the road with their phone. They search for prices and coupons while in stores, including checking competitors' prices for items they want.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that total retail employment (online and in-store) in 2015 for the first time rose above the pre-recession high-water mark of 15.57 million set in 2007, climbing to 15.75 million.

But the National Retail Federation in its annual forecast released on Feb. 10 said that it expects retail sales employment gains of about 190,000 on a monthly average this year, down from 2015's high point.

A Feb. 12 Commerce Department retail sales report highlights the dilemma that traditional retailers face. Total retail sales grew 3.4% in 2015 to $449.9 billion. But the bulk of growth was in the "nonstore retailers" category -- mainly online shopping, which jumped 10.5% for the year to $36.2 billion.

The U.S. retail market is attracting global competition, too. "The transition to online shopping and globalization together are changing how our workforce operates and the skills needed. New technology sets the foundation for new jobs," Challenger said.

A recent retail immigrant is Dublin-based fashion retailer Primark, which opened its first U.S. store in Boston in September. It recently added another store in New York City and plans to expand in other cities in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey.

But the mature and competitive U.S. retail market is a tough nut to crack. China-basedAlibaba Group Holdings (BABA) launched 11Main.com, a retail site for U.S. markets, in June 2014. After making little headway, it sold the site to privately-held online marketplace operator OpenSky a year later (but also took a 37.5% stake in OpenSky). Alibaba has since said little about approaching U.S. markets, but in February it announced that it had taken a 5.6% stake (33 million shares) in online deals websiteGroupon (GRPN).

Some U.S. traditional retailers are expanding their stores. Decorative hardware, bathware, furniture and lighting retailerRestoration Hardware (RH), for example, has traditionally operated stores of 6,000 to 8,000 square feet. Now it's in the process of opening superstores with up to 50,000 square feet of space in major markets, which will boost its hiring.

U.S. Retail In 2020

PricewaterhouseCoopers recently released "Total Retail 2016," a study identifying economic drivers that could reshape the U.S. retail landscape. The market tracker surveyed consumers, who said that ease of checkout and informed store associates were the top things they want in brick-and-mortar retailers.

Steve Barr, PricewaterhouseCoopers' U.S. retail and consumer sector analyst, told IBD that thanks to recent developments, "The retail store is not dead. There is a unique opportunity for leading retailers to engage with consumers whenever and wherever they like to shop."

"As stores transform into enhanced experiences, there is a real need for employees to take care of customers. There will be a meaningful shift in jobs," Barr said.

Retail Metrics' Perkins said that the overall picture for retailers this year looks good. "Certainly there are some underlying developments that should boost solid spending this year. Jobs are good, and gas is selling as low as $1.75 a gallon. Who would have thought that several years ago?"

Still, Cowen & Co.'s Chen said that for online and brick-and-mortar retailers, "There are lots of battles to be fought. And they are happening now."

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Investing
Referenced Symbols: WMT , AMZN , AAP , ODP , WBA

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