JC Penney Could Face Another Bankruptcy

The restructuring of failed retailer J.C. Penney is over, for now. Heading out of Chapter 11, and into the holidays, it remains among the most damaged retail brands in America. As store foot traffic across the entire brick-and-mortar industry declines, while e-commerce surges, many shoppers who abandoned J.C. Penney may never return. J.C. Penney is on route to another Chapter 11, unless holiday sales are strong and sales remain strong into 2021.

Sensormatic Solutions, part of Johnson Controls, has released data on Black Friday store activity. “Findings indicate that shopper visits resulted in a 52.1% decline in traffic on Black Friday, November 27, compared to 2019.” The figure was a drop from the November 22 to November 27 period, when traffic fell 45.2%. It is highly unlikely any of America’s larger department store chains dodged the trend.

J.C. Penney was in freefall the last time it reported earnings. Revenue dropped to $1.46 billion in the period that ended August 1, compared to $2.62 billion in the same period the year before. The company lost $398 million, compared with $48 million. J.C. Penney did not release comparable-store data, but in its last full year reported they had dropped 7.7%, on top of 3.1% in 2018.

J.C. Penney’s new owners have chopped the number of stores, likely on the theory that eliminating underperforming locations will save money. In effect, it also lowers the retailer’s national footprint in a crowded field. More Americans will not be near a J.C. Penney location as it cuts its store total to about 700. By way of contrast, Walmart has 4,756 stores in the United States.

Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia University, had an excellent forecast of J.C. Penney’s prospects. He told CNBC, “They’re not going to have a great Christmas. They’re going to have a less grim Christmas, but it’s nothing more than an extended going out of business sale.”

Among the largest threats to recovery is the tremendous surge of COVID-19. If the first wave showed anything about the brick-and-mortar industry, it is that government-mandated shutdowns are a brutal challenge to revenue.

Does J.C. Penney make it through the holidays? Of course. It was given the lifeline to do so. Yet, as the calendar turns to 2021, its chances will slip away.