Retail shakeout starts with top bosses
Some long-suffering chains are finally cleaning up their executive lineup, starting with the CEO. But what happens after that?
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Note to retail CEOs: Shape up or you're getting shipped out.
It finally happened at two long-suffering retail chains - Pier 1 and Sharper Image.
And industry watchers warn that a few other retail chief executives could be walking the plank in the near future.
Home furnishings retailer Pier 1 Imports announced over the weekend that CEO Marvin Girouard, who's worked at the retailer for 32 years and was chief executive for more than eight years, will retire from the company and its board effective Feb. 28. Pier 1 (up $0.40 to $7.82, Charts)'s stock bounced higher on the news.
Girourad's announcement came less than two weeks after the company disclosed it was in discussions with a European firm regarding its business.
It's no secret that Pier 1, which once inspired the wicker furniture trend in homes across the nation, is now bogged down by numerous problems.
The retailer struggled to grow sales for close to two years amid increasing competition from value-priced discounters such as Wal-Mart (Charts) and Target (Charts), which have expanded their offerings in the home furnishings space and eaten into Pier 1's market share.
Gadgets seller Sharper Image, once a darling on Wall Street because of its innovative merchandise and double-digit percentage sales growth, quickly turned from a rising star to a shooting star as its monthly sales swung to double-digit declines in less than three years.
Investors have lost patience with both companies' protracted track record of declining sales and profits.
Pier 1's shares are down 34.2 percent over the past 12 months and the company has posted negative sales at its stores open at least a year - a key retail measure known as same-store sales - for most of this year.
Sharper Image's board last week ousted its long-standing CEO Richard Thalheimer - the guy holding the kid in those air purifier commercials - from the job.
Both Girouard and Thalheimer stayed committed to a dated gameplan that expired well past its lifespan, said Craig Johnson, president of retail consulting group Customer Growth Partners.
"Both companies relied too much on a one-trick pony business concept," Johnson said. "Sharper Image has a great run with its air purifiers. After that product ran its course with consumers, management couldn't come up with another hot concept to spur the next stage of growth."
Similarly, Johnson said Pier 1 stayed with its wicker and wood furniture offerings for too long. "This may have been a fresh concept 15 years ago but not any more. They didn't freshen up the concept."
The red flags were already showing for Johnson. Pacific Sunwear has posted six months of negative same-store sales this year.
The stock jumped 10 percent on the news of Johnson's departure. But the retailer's shares are still down 30 percent over the past 12 months.
Hanging onto to the same once-successful concept may be the reason for Seth Johnson's demise, according to Customer Growth Partners' Craig Johnson.
"Pacific Sunwear's one-trick pony was the surf and skate-type clothing," he said. "They rode the concept for a long time. However, teenagers are very fickle consumers. They're always looking for the next hot trend."
Fresh talent hard to find?
While investors are cheering the latest round of retail executive housecleaning, at least one industry expert believes these merchants' problems won't go away simply by sacking the boss.
Love Goel, CEO of retail investment firm Growth Ventures Group, has been studying retail's CEO shuffle for a while.
He singled out two challenges that could stymie any turnaround efforts at Pier 1, Sharper Image and other weak-performing retail chains.
"The old retail business model focused on business execution at the cost of innovation," Goel said. "This framework won't work in today's highly competitive retail market."
"Any new CEO has to recognize that he can't continue with the status quo of running a retail business," Goel said. "Consumers' behavior has evolved significantly over the last 15 years. Retail channels have changed with the advent of online shopping and retail formats have also changed."
Department stores dominated retailing 20 years ago, according to Goel. "Today this format has lost 30 percent market share," he said. "Big-box discounters like Wal-Mart and Target are the dominant formats today. If these guys enter any one product category, as Pier 1 has discovered, they can annihilate you."
Secondly, while recognizing the need for new leadership is key, finding new talent is becoming more challenging.
"Corporate headhunters are recycling old executives from one retail chain to another," Goel said, citing the example of former Kmart CEO Julian Day's recent appointment as CEO of electronics chain RadioShack (up $0.28 to $19.58, Charts).
"The retail industry needs leadership that possesses new skill sets as well as expertise in basic retail fundamentals," he said.
Who could be next?
Gap's same-store sales are down seven out of the past eight months, on top of nearly two years of mostly negative sales, as consumers either shun its merchandise or wait to shop at its namesake stores when items are put on sale.
However, Gap's stock is up more than 7 percent year-to-date.
Customer Growth Partners' Johnson said investors appear to be reacting positively to management's ongoing efforts to revamp Gap's merchandise and its advertising. Another factor boosting the stock may be recent speculation that a cash-rich private equity firm are eyeing the retail chain.
Blockbuster hasn't changed its business model for 20 years. Meanwhile newer players like Netflix are stealing its customers. Goel said.
"Blockbuster is consolidating its business to improve performance. But it's not enough today to just do better what you've been doing for a long time," Goel said. ""Retailers have to be ready to innovate in a changing marketplace."