The pandemic has forever changed the face of business and industry in America. Listen to our special podcast series to hear how three hard-hit areas are evolving as a result.

Are brick-and-mortar stores crumbling for good? Tony talks with Mark Mathews, Vice President of Research Development & Industry Analysis, National Retail Federation, on the future of the retail industry.


Mark Mathews, Vice President of Research Development & Industry Analysis, National Retail Federation

Please listen to important disclosures at the end of the podcast.

Wilmington WealthWise with Tony Roth

Episode 24: 2021 Capital Markets Forecast: Who will be left standing—The outlook for real estate

Tony Roth, Chief Investment Officer, Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors, Inc.
Mark Mathews, Vice President of Research Development & Industry Analysis, National Retail Federation

TONY ROTH: Welcome to Wilmington WealthWise, the podcast dedicated to financial literacy, where we take complex ideas from the investment world and make them accessible to everyone. I’m your host, Tony Roth, chief investment officer of Wilmington Trust. Today, we are exploring one of the key themes from our 2021 Capital Markets Forecast: Pivoting the Business: Who Will Be Left Standing, which focuses on the evolution and future outlook of industries in the wake of COVID-19.

Today, we are focusing on the impacts COVID has had on the retail industry, everything from big box retailers, mom and pop shops, malls, and online shopping. Joining me is Mark Matthews, the vice president of Research, Development, and Industry Analysis at the National Retail Federation. Mark joined the NFR in 2015 and has decades of experience in market-based research across public and private equity. Mark, thank you so much for being here today.

MARK MATTHEWS: It’s my pleasure, Tony. Thank you so much for having me.

TONY ROTH: I’m really excited for the topic, How The Retail Industry is Faring in Light of COVID. And before we jump in, I just want to remind everybody that Wilmington WealthWise is nonpartisan, and we take no political position. So, with that in mind, let’s get started.

Mark, when I think about retail, it’s hard for me to think about anything initially but the fact that when this whole pandemic started there were places that I could go like CVS or the drugstore, other drugstores or the grocery store. But most places I couldn’t go. And I had to learn that CVS actually had a very small hardware department where I could buy some basic things, like a hammer and a wrench that I couldn’t get at a hardware store. And I think that had had something to do with what the government considered to be essential to our lives versus non-essential.

So, when you think about how the retail space is doing is that distinction still an important one in how retail has fared? Because we had so many months where the nonessential was, in fact, shut down and if, in fact, this pandemic picks up again, which seems to be the case, we may end up back in that type of arena. So, maybe that’s the place to start.

MARK MATTHEWS: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think, you know, as the retail industry, we’re all hoping that we don’t go back to those days, because a large proportion of retailers were shut down and in many cases arbitrarily, because honestly it’s really a complex definition as to what’s essential and what isn’t essential and that varied by state to state.

But what it created was essentially an artificial distinction between two areas of retail. So, the essential businesses had a lot of success and the non-essential ones had to close their doors. And it’s important to remember that for retail, 85% of sales happen in-store. You know, digital is growing but stores still matter a lot for this industry.

So, the challenge for those retailers who had to close those doors for many months was profound. And, you know, when you look at the numbers, essential retailers were growing at, you know, low double-digit numbers, 10%, 11% year-over-year throughout this crisis. Nonessential retailers, you know, businesses like, apparel, they saw their sales drop 60% in April. And it’s getting better. They’re coming back. You know, now that we have stores open, we see those numbers getting stronger.

But still, they’ve got a long way to go to come back. So, overall, when you look at the retail industry, the numbers have been very, very strong this year versus last year. But that is driven in large part by the essential businesses and those sectors are bigger than the nonessential sectors.

TONY ROTH: And when you think about the impact that the different programs that the government had, the PPP and so on that I would imagine, so is it mainly the nonessential retail segments that were able to avail themselves of the PPP and is it them that maybe, even if they are back open now, may be hurting in the absence of the extension of the PPP? How does that factor in?

MARK MATTHEWS: Absolutely. It was essential businesses. And, you have to think that that’s good for everybody, right. If you are able to furlough your workers, and still be able to pay them while your doors are closed, that’s a great thing. But, it’s not just about the PPP. The stimulus was important, too.

Providing the large groups of people that we saw, you know, become unemployed or at least temporarily unemployed as they were defined by the BLS, giving them some money that they could spend. And we say, lower income houses, households using that money, utilizing it and spending it. And that to an extent helped support the retail market during the early months of the pandemic.

TONY ROTH: One of the things that I find to be so interesting as a—although I’m not a trained economist. I like to consider myself to be a macroeconomic thinker to some degree, is that our economy is—we often talk about the fact that our economy is two-thirds consumer outlays, consumer spending. But of that two-thirds, 60% of it is services and only 40% of it are goods. When we talk about retail, it’s primarily goods we’re talking about and there’s actually been a really interesting effect that the pandemic has had, which is most services are by definition delivered in person. It could be getting your haircut. It could be many other things, obviously. And when those are shut down—travel, leisure, etcetera—there’s a lot of extra dollars in people’s wallets to go to retail.

And so, putting aside the distinction between essential and non-essential and unfortunately the non-essential haven’t done as well, overall there’s actually been a lot more money flowing into retail because we don’t know what else to do with ourselves than buy stuff because we can’t travel around and consume other kinds of services. Do I have it right?

MARK MATTHEWS: Yeah. That’s absolutely right on the money, Tony. If you look at the difference in personal consumption between February and August is the most recent data that we have. If you look at spending on services, that’s down 7.4%, whereas spending on durable goods was up 12% over the same period and spending on non-durable goods was up 2.3% over the same period. So, we’ve definitely seen a shift. The consumer has had more money in their pockets, and they’ve been spending that money on retail.

And, if we look at retail sales, for the first nine months of this year we are up 5.8% versus last year and that’s despite the pandemic, despite the big contractions we saw in April and May. So, that’s a really, really strong number. You, know, to contextualize it, over the last five years the average retail sales growth in what has been a really strong economy was 3.8%. We’re at 5.8% right now. So, there has been absolutely a transfer of spending from services into the goods economy.

TONY ROTH: And that’s continuing. So, when you think about, for example, what you expect for the holiday season, Santa Claus could be pretty busy this year.

MARK MATTHEWS: Yeah. We certainly hope so and we’ve seen a lot of people coming out with some really, really strong estimates. There was one released a couple of days ago calling for a 9% increase in holiday sales this year. That’s unheard of. And part of that is because of this shift. People aren’t going to be traveling as much this year. People haven’t been going on holidays and there is money being saved.

When you think about the deleveraging that the consumer is able, been able to do, the increased savings that they’ve been able to make by, you know, staying at home, not going out to movies, not going to theme parks, not going on vacations, they’re—particularly among high income households, they’ve been able to save a lot of money and some of that money is clearly being redirected at retail.

TONY ROTH: You know, another aspect of the savings that we’ve seen is that the augmentation of unemployment insurance due to the pandemic has enabled even lower-income households to save more than they historically have been able to. In many cases, they’ve received more in unemployment insurance than they would have if they were working. And now, because the fiscal support ended in the summer, some of those savings for the lower-ncome household has been depleted. But even there, we’re seeing higher savings levels than what we have seen historically as you go into the latter parts of the year.

MARK MATTHEWS: That’s right. Saving rates are way up. They’ve been falling a little bit. We’re still at 50-year highs in terms of saving. But you brought up an interesting point there, Tony. When you look at low-income versus high-income spending, so, overall , we’ve seen a decrease in consumer spending of about 7.3%. For low-income households that’s only down 4%. So, low-income households have continued to spend at close to pre-pandemic levels. The stimulus money that they’ve been receiving, the unemployment benefits, those are being spent.

It’s the high-income earners. They have decreased spending by 10.6% during the pandemic and the sense is that they’ve got a lot of dry powder heading into the holidays. So, I think some of the rationale that we see for, really, really positive holiday sales outlooks is the fact that, in high income households, there’s a lot of money that people have the ability to spend. Now, the question is are they going to come out and spend it?

TONY ROTH: Right. Well, one of the dynamics that I think is really fascinating also to ask about is the supply side of things, because prior to the pandemic there was all of this focus in the previous year or so around the trade dispute with China and what impacts that might have on the supply side of things with tariffs and such. And then, when the pandemic first started, it’s sometimes even hard to remember this, but all the factories in China were shut down initially. Now those have, of course, largely reopened in full. And I wonder whether there is a risk that we’ll actually run out of, particularly in an economy that we think of as a just in time manufacturing economy, that we’ll run out of many of the things that—not just the toilet paper and the wipes, but maybe many of the durable goods or the bigger price tag items that people may want to consume for Christmas. What are your thoughts around that concern?

MARK MATTHEWS: I think that’s exactly right, One of the concerning things is that we’re seeing case levels rise dramatically now again. We all remember the runs that we had on these goods in the early part of the pandemic and how you couldn’t get toilet paper. And, to some extent you still struggle to get wipes.

But, yeah. You know, one of the things that we’ve seen happening during this pandemic, everybody’s staying at home, which means that they’re spending money, first of all, on beautifying their homes. But they’re also using things in the household much more. The dishwasher’s being run a lot more frequently. The oven’s on all the time. You know, people are cooking more at home because they haven’t been going out to the restaurants. And that’s some of the demand that you see in the grocery sector and that’s why they’re posting such good numbers.

But what it means is that a lot of people don’t have brand new appliances at home. So, a lot of those have been, you know, wearing out and there’s a lot of demand now and supply is an issue. As you stated, you know, there are supply chain issues. You know, your point in just-in-time manufacturing is just right. There is not a lot of flexibility in terms of manufacturers to up the supply of these goods. So, when demand spikes happen, there’s a challenge filling some of these gaps.

TONY ROTH: I read an article yesterday in The Washington Post about the Strand bookstore in New York, a very storied bookshop that I read in the article there used to be 40 bookshops like this in the area. Book Row, Bookstore Row it was called. And the Strand is the only one that survives today. What’s so interesting about it is that we all think about Amazon and e-commerce taking over and eating the lunch of all retail. Well, Amazon started as a bookseller really, right, just selling books.

MARK MATTHEWS: Yeah. It sure did.

TONY ROTH: So, the Strand still exists, and they were at a very precarious moment—no one was coming in and they didn’t want to lay off their workers. And they put out an appeal online and they had 25,000 orders came—come in over a weekend and they usually have 300 per weekend. And it’s saved them.

In thinking about our conversation today that we really need to focus on that dynamic between e-commerce and retail, because e-commerce seems to be really eating the lunch of most of retail and that whole trend seems to be just accelerating and accelerating with the pandemic. Why would you go into the store if you can get it shipped to you on UPS or FedEx? Would really be fascinated to hear how that dynamic fits in your mind or are we going to just buy everything online in another five or ten years?

MARK MATTHEWS: I think people have been predicting, you know, e-commerce taking over for some time now and we’re still nowhere near there yet. You know, e-commerce, you know, depending on how you measure it, you know, you can play with the numerator and you can play with the denominator, but somewhere between 15% to 20% of sales happen via digital transactions.

But I think we’re going to have to eventually start getting away from this notion that they’re two different things. When we call a digital transaction not retail, well, that’s retail. Honestly, if you close every store in America, people have to shift to online and the retailers would still be doing that business.

So, I think as we move more to fulfillment methodology such as, you know, buy online/pick up in-store and curbside pickup you know, it gets harder and harder to determine what is an online transaction versus an in-store transaction. So, you know, in a way the nature of the store is changing and our ability to determine what is a digital transaction versus an in-store transaction is just going away. I can tell you that retailers are happy to have your business irrespective of the channel.

TONY ROTH: So, when you think about this phenomenon of e-commerce and you just said that it’s hard to tell sometimes what a digital transaction is versus a bricks-and-mortar transaction, do you see the adoption of e-commerce by traditional bricks-and-mortar retail as part of their survival strategy?

MARK MATTHEWS: I think there almost is no sort of pureplay retailer out there anymore. Everybody is both. The former pureplay online retailer now have stores, the former bricks-and-mortar retailers sell online now. And some of the fastest-growing online businesses are from those traditional retailers. Those Targets and those Wal-Marts of the world, particularly through this pandemic, have been growing online sales by triple-digit numbers.

So, there is some pretty profound growth there. Like I said, I spend a lot of time looking at the data and talking to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau who collect a lot of this data. And, honestly, it would not surprise me if 10 years from now people have just got away from distinguishing between the two, because, if I’m Wal-Mart, a transaction is a transaction is a transaction. I care less and less as time moves on as to whether it was purchased online/picked up in-store, bought in-store.

It is mattering less and less and, you know, the important thing here is the consumer has the power, right. It used to be that your shopping universe was, you know, the footprint where you could drive within 20 to 30 minutes. Now, you know, your shopping universe is essentially the world and retailers have to accept that that’s the reality moving forward and begin to cater to consumers and offer transaction methodologies that meet the way that we live our lives nowadays.

I think it’s important to recognize that small businesses today don’t have to build their own e-commerce platform. If you look at Wal-Mart, if you look at Amazon, they’re marketplaces. They have many, many small retailers selling their goods through those platforms. Then you have platforms like Etsy and eBay that allow really, really small businesses to go out and reach an incredibly broad audience. And they don’t have to do a lot of the work there. They have to pay some of their profits there. But it gives them, you know, a global footprint in many cases rather than just a local one.

TONY ROTH: Yeah. The benefit is not just to the local consumer. The benefit is to the global consumer, especially when local mom and pop shops tend to have more unique or specialized or stylized kinds of goods to sell in many cases.

Well, it sounds like there’s more competition at every level, right, online, in-person, better pricing, better products, better transparency. Certainly, one of the phenomenon of retail that I find most fascinating is the ability through the Internet and Google to be able to compare shop, if you will, not just for price but for also competitive products at any moment by pulling out your phone. And I think that in and of itself makes retail in any channel a more satisfying experience.

MARK MATTHEWS: Yeah. One of the things that modern retailers have to deal with is if you go into a store and they don’t have what you’re looking for, one of the first reactions is to reach for that phone and see if you can find it on Amazon or see if you can find it somewhere else. The ability for retailers to be able to tell consumers what’s in stock and have an accurate picture of what’s in stock so the consumer is able to go in there knowing that the store is going to have what they need. There’s also a employee aspect to this. Retailers are focusing on training their employees so you don’t lose that sale, because if somebody can’t find what they want in your particular store but you’ve got a store two miles away that has inventory, the first thing you need to do is make sure you don’t lose that customer. Retailers are getting better and better at being able to tell that customer, well look, you know, we don’t have it right now. But, you know, we can get it for you tomorrow and you can come pick it up. Or, you can go to our sister store two miles away and they’ve got it in stock. So, the last thing you want to do is have that customer jump on their smartphone and buy it through another vendor.

TONY ROTH: What I want to do is focus the conversation a bit in on the different kinds of retail within the physical or bricks and mortar, because it’s not monolithic, right. You have the big, huge Home Depots and Lowes, Wal-Marts, and Targets. But then, you have the mom-and-pop stores that seem to be a endangered species. Are they at risk because they don’t have the capital to build their own website or to build a competitive website or to be able to stock the kind of choice that the consumer wants to see when they walk into a store? It sounds like a lot of what you’re describing is that some of these big multinational corporations like a Wal-Mart and a Target, they may be able to compete with Amazon, but where does that leave the, again, the Main Street store in the equation?

MARK MATTHEWS: It’s a great point. It’s definitely a challenge and you do see the big, big retailers that are able to make those technological investments are the ones that are, you know, garnering market share in the digital space. I think the thing to remember is that the fundamentals of retail haven’t really changed over the years. If you have the right product at the right price and you give the consumer the experience that they want, then you’re probably going to do okay.

I think we have to recognize that consumers don’t all buy for exactly the same reason. Consumers buy for many, many different reasons. We see a lot of mom and pop shops that are growing up that have an ethos attached to their brand where they are supporting causes that may resonate with a consumer. We also see consumers recognizing how valuable it is to have a thriving retail community in their area.

I think there is a recognition that small business is incredibly important and we want to support those businesses and we’ve seen, you know, a growing number of sales each year on Small Business Saturday. So, I think, there is a recognition amongst the consumer that this is something that they want to support. But also, we have to understand that sometimes we don’t just want an impersonal transaction online. Sometimes, retail shopping is about the experience. You know, it’s about going out with your family. It’s about going into a store that has something different, something unique and not necessarily going into a big store that has the same format across 500 locations across the U.S.

So, I think there’s a multiplicity of ways to appeal to the consumer and, like I said at the outset, if the retailer gets that right, I don’t think it matters so much if you’re a mom-and-pop shop. As long as you resonate with the clientele, those people who are in your area, you know, you should do okay.

TONY ROTH: Well, one of the things also that I think about is, being very introspective here. Personally, I’m a very impulsive person but I’m also even more so impatient. And so, I can be impulsive and buy something on Amazon or on the web. But then, I have to wait. I can go out and jump in my car and drive five minutes, as long as that retail outlet is in a good location, the mom-and-pop store, I can just pull right into the parking lot and go run in and buy whatever I want. And I can’t get that same immediate gratification online. And I don’t know if that makes a difference for a lot of people, but it certainly does for me.

MARK MATTHEWS: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, we see that when we poll consumers. We see a recognition that, you know, small businesses in your area are part of the fabric of your community and in many cases, these are your neighbors that are running these businesses.

So, I think there’s absolutely a tendency to support these businesses. But also, there are trust levels. And again, when we ask consumers about it, they are more trusting of the smaller businesses to be looking after their health concerns in a pandemic like this. Many of these businesses are being run by the owner themselves. They trust that they’re taking the proper precautions to look after their health. So I think there are a lot of different factors that come into play when we make those decisions to go out and buy something.

TONY ROTH: So, Mark, one area within retail that we have to touch on. We’ve got to talk about the American mall. When I was a kid, I went to the mall to go to the arcade and I have a daughter now that’s very aggrieved that she can’t go to the mall because she’s 14 and that’s where her friends hang out.
I wonder about the—truly an endangered species, because not only do you have the problems with COVID in the malls, but you also have sort of the anchor tenants are all going – not all going. I exaggerate. But so many of them are going bankrupt because they’re department stores, etcetera. What is the future, what is the outlook for the mall?

MARK MATTHEWS: I think it’s certainly a challenging position to be in. I think when you look at the numbers, many of the mall closures that we heard about aren’t the bigger, newer malls. Many of them are, you know, the what we call the B and C malls, the smaller malls. They were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s and they don’t necessarily have the amenities that a lot of people look for in a modern-day mall.

Most of the new malls that are being built now are open air and multiuse You have commercial mixed with retail. You have outdoor spaces that can be enjoyed.

I think maybe in some cases a little bit too much has been read into the demise of the mall, because, you know, in some cases many of these malls close because, frankly, demographics have shifted over the last 30 or 40 years. You can’t move the mall, but people move and job situations in those areas change. You may have had a big box store, you know, open nearby. There’s more competition.

There are still plenty of thriving malls out there. You know, I’ve got one near me that prior to this pandemic was busy all the time. Now, you know, the pandemic has certainly made things a little bit more challenging. But one of the trends we saw leading into this is that, you are seeing a shift in the type of tenant that you find in these places. So, it’s not just retail. Maybe it’s not just about that anchor tenant, you know, at each end of the mall.

You’re seeing more services being offered in these places. You’re seeing gyms. You’re seeing restaurants. I think that that’s appealing. Certainly, when we talk to Millennials, when they go to the mall, it’s not just about shopping. It’s about a lifestyle experience.

So, I think in the future, you know, more successful malls are going to have that format. It’s going to be much more of a mixed experience. It’s more likely to be outdoors and, it’s not going to be, you know, the mall that we knew from 40 or 50 years ago.

TONY ROTH: Let me ask you one final question, which is – sort of brings us full circle to where we started, Mark, around essential versus non-essential. And the reason that I feel the need to come back to that topic is that I feel like there’s a real risk that we’re going to see some closures in the U.S. on a decent scale. We, throughout this entire pandemic, have followed Europe by around 30 to 60 days and we’re now seeing serious closures around Europe again. And I’m wondering whether or not we go back to the same type of situation later this fall into the winter and whether that affects—whether a lot of these smaller places have the resilience to make it through. And is there any advice that you would give a retail owner as they sort of stare down the barrel of that gun again potentially?

MARK MATTHEWS: We’re certainly hopeful that we aren’t going to see the widespread closures that we experienced. But, I think, what we’ve learned during this pandemic is that it is possible to shop safely. You can go into stores and as long as, you know, both the store and the consumer is taking adequate precautions we can all make it work.

So, I don’t know if there’s this need to shut down swaths of the economy, because that’s not going to be good for anybody, to be frank. Now, in terms of closures, you know, definitely, you know, concerns there. You know, at the larger end, you know, I’ve looked at the numbers. You know, we’re at about 40—and this is at a corporate level. You know, we’re about 47 bankruptcies this year versus about 32 last year. So, we’re higher than where we were.

But when you look at the companies that are struggling, there were some underlying issues. You know, they were suffering coming into the crisis. In many cases, they had too much debt on their books and just weren’t able to make it through. And in some way, I think this crisis has pulled future bankruptcies, you know, companies that were headed towards the cliff and essentially pushed them off the cliff and made it difficult for them to survive.

So, yeah. Absolutely. There are challenges for many retailers. But in terms of corporate bankruptcies, we’re at about 10% of the levels that we saw in 2008 and 2009. So, it’s well below that and the numbers are dropping. They’re slowing down. You know, we saw many more increases during March, April, May. Knock on wood here, but those numbers seem to be slowing. And if we are able to keep the economy up and running, we know the consumer has firepower. If the consumer is out there spending and the doors are open then, you know, I think it’s going to be positive.

TONY ROTH: Great. Well, it’s great to end on a positive note, Mark. As I always do for each of our episodes, let me just summarize what I think are the three key takeaways from our conversation today.

The first I would say is that while COVID has been a challenge for the entire global and American economy and while certainly we have to be a bit nuanced and not overly generalize when we think about the retail industry, because the non-essential retail shops and services have had a tougher time of it than the essential ones. Overall, it’s been really a very eye-opening and almost stunningly positive period for retail and that’s because of the high savings rate coupled with the fact that most of the folks that are out there in the economy haven’t been able to consume services, travel, leisure, other things the way that they would. And so, there’s been a tremendous transfer, if you will, of spending from services, which historically has been a larger portion of the economy than goods, into the retail and goods arena and that has benefited the retail space in a pretty unprecedented way.

Second thing I would say is that despite the shift that we’ve seen across the economy and the acceleration of that shift to e-commerce, there continues to be a pretty strong dominance in terms of the numbers for in person bricks-and-mortar retail locations in that we see them develop their own, if you will, omni-channel approach. But overall, many small stores and certainly the larger stores are really getting in the e-commerce game themselves. And when they have that and they also have the synergy of the in-person, they oftentimes find themselves to be in the best position of all, having both reinforce one another. And so, there’s still a lot of hope I think for the future of the local retail, whether it be the larger bricks and mortar, whether it be possibly a mall being reconfigured into a more modern type of set of amenities and experience, or whether it even be the mom and pop stores that we all continue to frequent and probably appreciate now more than ever, frankly.

And then the last thing I would say is that the pandemic is going to continue, unfortunately, for some time and certainly we don’t expect to see the kind of rebound in travel and leisure that we have already experienced in retail for at least another year or so. And over that period, we’re going to continue to see the significant transfer of focus on consumer outlays into the retail space. And in keeping with what Mark described for this Christmas holiday season, we’re going to see some pretty big numbers probably out of retail. And so, there continues to be some outsized investment opportunities for portfolios in the retail space, which we continue to focus on here at Wilmington Trust as investors.

So, Mark, I want to thank you again today for being here. You really bring a special set of experience and insights into the space.

MARK MATTHEWS: It’s my pleasure, Tony. Thank you so much for having me.

TONY ROTH: And I want to remind our listeners how important it is to have their portfolio and wealth plan stress tested to see how they stand up, especially during the times of unprecedented uncertainty that we’re experiencing now, whether it be an inflation shock, whether it be another GDP shock, if we have the closing of the economy. We have the ability to look at portfolios and see how they would stand up given past historic precedents in lots of different kinds of situations. And we think that’s increasingly important given the uncertainty that we continue to face for our clients to engage in.

And don’t forget to go to to see our entire forecast for 2021. Thank you all for joining today.


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Listen to other episodes from our 2021 Capital Markets Forecast series:

The outlook for real estate with Kelly Rush, CIO of Principal Real Estate Securities

The outlook for travel & tourism with Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago


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