FINANCE

Charming Charlie to close some stores amid rumors it will file for bankruptcy

BY Marianne Wilson

The formerly high-flying Charming Charlie has come back down to earth.

The jewelry and accessories retailer announced it plans to shutter a number of underperforming stores along with its Los Angeles office, and also reduce headcount at its Houston headquarters and distribution center as part of an effort to simply business operations, improve liquidity and focus on its core strengths. The moves comes amid rumors that the chain is preparing to file for bankruptcy in the near future.

“By reducing the size and scale of our operations, we have the opportunity to stabilize the business,” said Lana Krauter, who recently was named interim CEO of Charming Charlie. “We also will be better equipped to read and react to trends and what our customers want, which had been the hallmark of our success. It’s what we are referring to as our back-to-basics strategy.”

In addition, the company said it is working with outside advisors to explore a range of alternatives “to help ensure the company has adequate sources of financing and the right capital structure to support the business on an ongoing basis.

Charming Charlie currently operates more than 375 stores in the United States and Canada. The company, which was founded in 2004 by entrepreneur Charlie Chanaratsopon, sells a wide assortment of jewelry, handbags, apparel, gifts and beauty products, with the merchandise organized by color.

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FINANCE

Toys “R” Us to close some stores in the U.K.

BY Marianne Wilson

Toys “R” wants to trim its store portfolio in Britain.

The retailer, as part of its ongoing financial restructuring efforts, is seeking approval to close at least 26 of its approximate 105 stores in the United Kingdom in 2018. Toys “R” Us, which filed for Chapter 11 in September, said its British arm has submitted a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) plan to its creditors and would seek their approval in the next 17 days. (Toys “R Us in the U.K. is owned by its U.S. namesake, but run as a separate financial entity.)

“As we continued to work through the financial restructuring process, we made the decision to take action to put our UK operation on stronger financial footing,” said chairman and CEO Dave Brandon. “Through the CVA process, we hope to receive authorization to restructure our U.K. lease obligations so that we will be better able to invest in our U.K. business and further improve the customer experience. Importantly, our stores and operations in our other global markets will not be impacted by this process.”

Toys “R” Us said all its U.K. stores would remain open as normal through Christmas and into the new year.

In a statement to Bloomberg, Toys “R” Us U.K. managing director Steve Knights said “the business has been loss-making in recent years and so we need to take strong and decisive action to accelerate the transformation.”

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2018 Economic Forecast: The outlook is mostly sunny, but some clouds loom

BY Phillip M. Perry

Fair weather ahead. That’s the economic forecast for 2018. Retailers should benefit from an improving employment picture, growing disposable consumer income, and an easy credit environment.

“We estimate core retail sales will increase by 4.7% in 2018,” said Scott Hoyt, senior director of consumer economics for Moody’s Analytics, a research firm based in West Chester, Pa. (economy.com). “That’s an improvement over the 3.8% increase of 2017, which was virtually flat with the previous year.” (Core retail sales exclude volatile auto and gasoline segments).

The retail outlook reflects robust growth in the overall economy. For 2018, Moody’s expects gross domestic product (GDP) to grow by 2.9%, thanks mostly to vigorous residential investment and government spending. That’s a healthy increase from the 2.19% expected to be recorded for 2017 when numbers are finally tallied, a figure up from the 1.49% of the previous year.

Brisk tail winds should keep the economy in full sail

“A revival in corporate profitability, record stock prices, and rock-bottom borrowing costs are buoying businesses,” said Sophia Koropeckyj, managing director of industry economics at Moody’s Analytics.

Even the global picture is brighter.

“All of the major economies are expanding in unison for the first time in a decade,” she said.

STRONG LABOR MARKET: Perhaps the most important factor is a strengthening labor market which should put more spendable cash in consumers’ pockets.

“We expect well over two million jobs to be created in 2017,” said Koropeckyj. “This is about the same growth experienced since the expansion

Strong job growth resulted in an unemployment rate of 4.4% by the end of 2017, and that’s expected to fall to 3.94% by the end of 2018.

As unemployment declines, employers have more difficulty finding sufficient workers. That bodes well for wage growth, and for a resultant increase in consumer income that can be spent at retailers. Moody’s expects average hourly earnings to grow by 3% in 2018, up from the 2.6% increase of 2017, which was little changed from the previous year.

LOOMING CLOUDS: While consumer and business confidence remains high, the road ahead is not entirely clear.

“Lack of retail pricing power remains a big issue, with competition from online sales a big contributor to that,” said Hoyt.

And while higher wages mean fatter shopper pocketbooks, they also have drawbacks.

“There is a challenge to finding and retaining the right workers, and working out what to pay them and still deal with downward pricing pressures,” he said.

Other potential problems include uncertainties in Washington legislation, especially for the corporate tax cuts that are built into Moody’s sunny forecast. Additionally, retailers may be harmed by protectionist measures promised during the campaign of Donald Trump, if instituted. On the positive side, there has been no recent talk about a border adjustment tax.

Finally, retailers need to keep a watchful eye on the health of the banking industry.

“I continue to worry about the strength of the financial system,” said Walter Simson, principal of Chatham, N.J., -based Ventor Consulting. “When the value of assets such as the stock market and real estate goes up so high, that usually means there is too much easy money around.”

Simson is also wary about the increase in debt for student loans, credit cards, and longer-term auto loans. Furthermore, he added, financial institutions are introducing more high-risk derivative-backed CDs, and engaging in more of the loan bundling that contributed to the Great Recession in 2008.

The end result?

“Some lenders might have too many high-risk loans on their books,” said Simson. “If they cannot collect, the whole banking system will again be at risk.”

Running Start: As retailers enter the first months of 2018, Hoyt suggests keeping a watchful eye on some key indicators for the year’s economic trajectory. The first is Washington legislation.

“Will there be a program of fiscal stimulus?” posed. Hoyt. “If so, that will bolster the economic environment.”

Hoyt also suggests staying alert to reports of wage increases which would stimulate consumer spending. Finally, he said that any increase in retail pricing power will bode well for the remainder of the year.

Philip M. Perry is a New York-based business writer.

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