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The Real Retail Killer

How private equity is gouging some of the country’s best-known corporate brands

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We are in the midst of a mass extinction in retail. Over the past five years, dozens of retailers—once the bedrock of malls across the country—have shuttered. The most recent victim was Toys ‘R’ Us, which announced it was going out of business last week, a collapse that could cost as many as 33,000 jobs.

Many are blaming the stores themselves for failing to adapt to the rise of e-commerce and changing consumer habits. Others have pointed the finger at the rise of one-stop-shopping behemoths like Walmart and Target, both of which have made life hell for category killers like Toys ‘R’ Us. Some see the enduring impact of the Great Recession, while others still—including Toys ‘R’ Us—blame millennials for not having enough kids.

These explanations have some merit (with the exception of the millennials one). But the biggest ongoing threat to retail is debt. Over the past several years a number of major retailers have been saddled with billions of dollars in debt by private equity firms. Toys ‘R’ Us, for instance, was hit with over $5 billion in additional debt after it was acquired by private equity firms KKR and Bain Capital in 2006. With annual interest payments of over $400 million a year, Toys ‘R’ Us didn’t have a chance.

Private equity is remaking the retail environment, causing even successful companies like Toys ‘R’ Us to go out of business. And they’re fundamentally remaking American commerce in the process, with Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Dollar General set to benefit. Meanwhile, private equity is more or less getting off scot-free.

Retail is, of course, not the only target of private equity. Remington, the oldest manufacturer of firearms in the country, announced it was filing for bankruptcy on Monday. Remington faced specific challenges—most notably a nationwide decrease in gun sales following President Trump’s election—but private equity’s fingerprints were all over its collapse as well. The gun manufacturer was acquired by Cerberus Capital over a decade ago.

But it’s in retail that private equity’s malign influence has really been felt. Claire’s, Payless, Wet Seal, rue21, and dozens of other retail outlets have all filed for bankruptcy in recent years—and all had been acquired by private equity firms before ultimately throwing in the towel. For all of these companies, Toys ‘R’ Us very much included, private equity was supposed to be a savior, making the necessary cuts to compete in an increasingly fragmented and top-heavy marketplace. But instead, these companies have become burdened with debt that cannot be repaid, while revenue has (at best) stagnated.

This creates an impossible dynamic. In a fluid retail environment, legacy brands have to adapt to the rising threat of e-commerce. But they’re so burdened by debt they lack the capital and flexibility needed to change course.

Were it not for that crushing debt, many would still be in business. Yes, the continued threats from Walmart, Target, and e-commerce would still exist. But Toys ‘R’ Us was running a profitable business when it announced it would be liquidating its assets and closing its hundreds of stores—it just didn’t have the kind of revenue, let alone profits, to pay nearly half-a-billion dollars in interest a year. As Jeff Spross chronicled at The Week, “Just before the buyout, the company had $2.2 billion in cash and cash-equivalents. By 2017, its stockpile had shriveled to $301 million, even as its debt burden ballooned from $2.3 billion to $5.2 billion.” This story has played out time and time again, though not always at so dramatic a scale.

Why has private equity’s role in the retail apocalypse been obscured? One reason is that Amazon has fundamentally changed the way that the media discusses business. Even though e-commerce only has about 10 percent of market share in the United States, Amazon’s success is seen as an inevitability—so much so that the stocks of rival companies fall when it enters a new sector. When Amazon announced it was acquiring Whole Foods, for instance, other grocery giants shuddered, with the stocks of chains like Kroger dropping precipitously, even though Whole Foods itself had only 1 percent of marketshare.

The success of e-commerce is so baked in the cake that it’s become standard practice to blame brick-and-mortar retailers for their own demise. According to this line of thought, they should have done more to combat Amazon and adapted to online retailing. Never mind that Amazon’s dominance has resulted from its all-encompassing convenience and extreme cost-cutting, neither of which would be easy for a brick-and-mortar retailer to imitate. Blockbuster and Barnes & Noble’s money-losing attempts to compete with Netflix and Amazon, respectively, are cases in point.

There is also more than a whiff of consultant-class superiority behind all of this. Private equity firms, after all, are supposedly full of smart people who know what they’re doing—even better than the retailers themselves. Therefore, the entry of these forces into the retail sphere must have been necessary, while the demise of these companies must have been inevitable. The market, like God, does not make mistakes.

But private equity firms made a host of mistakes and compounded them by turning these retailers into debt vehicles, all the while maximizing dividend payments. As David Dayen reported in The New Republic last year, the two private equity firms that acquired Payless “paid themselves $700 million in dividends in 2012 and 2013.” Betting on low interest rates to persist was a mistake that has ultimately bankrupted dozens of retailers.

This is corporate raiding of the 1980s variety—but it’s being done more quietly now, with staid professionals overseeing the takeovers instead of the more flamboyant leveraged buyouts of the Reagan years. But the result has nevertheless been a catastrophe. Even though the economy is humming along, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs. These closures will only lead to further consolidation, with the Walmarts and Amazons of the world benefiting mightily—and, of course, the private equity titans who set all this into motion in the first place.