How Kohl became such a mess

Not anymore. Kohl’s is in turmoil today.

The chain’s sales are lower than before the pandemic, despite strong consumer spending and as rivals enjoy strong gains. Activist investors surround Kohl’s and demand leadership changes. A sale of the business could be on the horizon.

“We see a company that has gone astray,” said Jonathan Duskin, managing partner at Macellum Advisors, an activist investment firm that became Kohl’s third largest shareholder.

Macellum and a group of activist investors took a stake in Kohl’s last year. The group reached a settlement with Kohl’s in April, but Macellum recently revived its efforts to overhaul Kohl’s due to continued weak stock prices and market share losses.

Kohl’s “should do better than Macy’s, not worse,” Duskin said. “We see a lot of initiatives that seem fine, but never really translate to growth.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Kohl blasted Macellum, saying the company was “using an ill-informed, shifting and hollow narrative” to push for changes that would not improve Kohl and result in “unreliable” directors. skilled and inexperienced”.

The spokesperson said Kohl’s has made “substantial progress in transforming our business and positioning the company for long-term success.”

“We are already delivering results,” the spokesperson added, noting the company’s record earnings in 2021, operating profit margins achieved two years ahead of schedule and an increase in the company’s quarterly dividend.

Kohl’s is trying another makeover to turn things around, but its success is far from guaranteed.

fight the tide

With more than 1,100 stores in the United States and approximately $19 billion in annual sales, Kohl’s is the largest department store chain in the United States.

The department store industry has been in structural decline for years in the face of pressure from Amazon, growing big box chains including walmart (WMT) and Target (TGT), and discount clothing stores like TJMaxx. Companies such as Sears, JCPenney, Neiman Marcus, Barney’s and others have filed for bankruptcy in recent years.

Department stores, including Kohl’s, have been underpriced by discount players at the bottom and prestige by luxury stores at the top, said John Fisher, a senior lecturer at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. and former CEO of Saucony running shoes.

“It’s hard to be unique,” Fisher said. “I think Kohl is caught in the act right now by death in the middle.”

Kohl's CEO, Michelle Gass, is considered one of retail's most innovative executives.
Kohl’s has lost approximately 17% of its market share since 2011, mainly to low-cost retailers such as TJMaxx (TJX)as well as Amazon, according to UBS.

“[F]Factors such as consumer migration to the internet and preference for value have contributed to this erosion,” UBS analyst Jay Sole said in a recent report. “This will likely continue after the pandemic.”

Since Gass, a former senior assistant to Howard Schultz at Starbucks (SBUX)took over leadership of Kohl in 2018, the company has tried several approaches to attract customers and ward off competitors.
In addition to the return partnership with Amazon, Kohl’s has expanded its activewear business with brands such as Nike (NKE) and under protection (AU). Kohl’s has also downsized a handful of stores and leased the extra space to Aldi and Planet Fitness, made a bigger play for millennials with new brands such as PopSugar, and more recently opened stores. Sephora beauty stores inside Kohl’s.

These strategies did not lead to major improvements. Kohl’s improved its athleisure business and other areas, but its women’s clothing business slumped.

In 2018, sales increased slightly by 0.7% compared to the previous year. In 2019, they fell 1.2% before plunging 20% ​​in 2020 due to store closures and Covid-19 restrictions.

Last year, after stores reopened and shoppers refreshed their wardrobes, sales rebounded 23%, but that was still below pre-pandemic levels.

Competition has grown fiercer in the four years since the Gass takeover, and “many Kohl stores are feeling weary,” said Neil Saunders, general manager of retail at GlobalData. “It’s been very easy for customers to switch from Kohl’s to others offering something better.”

And brand partnerships with Amazon and Sephora don’t solve the fundamental problems, he added. “Kohl’s should look to improve its own brand rather than relying on others to lift it.”

A sale in sight?

In recent months, activist investors have been pushing for Kohl’s to change.

One company, Engine Capital, has urged Kohl’s to separate its e-commerce business from its stores or find a buyer to take the company private. “Even the most patient long-term shareholders cannot be expected to endure the punitive underperformance and perpetual value disconnect seen at Kohl’s,” Engine Capital noted in December.
A month later, Macellum Advisors noted he would appoint a slate of new members to Kohl’s board of directors because Kohl’s board and management “spent another year mismanaging the company”. Private equity firms have also made takeover bids for Kohl’s, which the company rejected.

To combat the pressure, last week Kohl outlined plans for a “complete reinvention of our business model and brand” at an investor day.

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Kohl’s said it will add Sephora mini-stores to about 75% of its 1,100 U.S. stores, open 100 new locations at half the size of its traditional outlets over the next four years, and expand its popular program. 7.5% Kohl’s Cash rewards on purchases, from 5%. Kohl’s also unveiled new strategies to grow online, including self-service for pick-up orders and returns.

“We are evolving our position from a department store to a more focused lifestyle concept centered around the active, casual lifestyle,” Gass said in a presentation.

But for Duskin at Macellum Advisors, the plan was “disappointing”.

He thinks the strategy won’t significantly change the way consumers view Kohl’s — and he says it’s time for a new board and, possibly, a new CEO. Kohl’s hasn’t taken full advantage of the fact that its stores are located away from traditional malls, which lose foot traffic, he said, and he wonders if the investment in Sephora is worth it. .

Kohl’s said last week it had engaged with more than 20 potential buyers for the business, a sign of widespread interest. Hudson’s Bay Company, owner of Saks Fifth Avenue, is also considering an offer, Axios reported Wednesday.

Kohl’s board is in “ongoing dialogue with potential bidders” and will measure any bid against its own “compelling stand-alone plan,” a spokesperson said.

Duskin expects Kohl’s to accept a takeover offer, he said. “This company can easily be turned around.”

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