2008-04-16 23:35:33 UTC
the economy. The cash-short chains are leaving behind tens of millions of dollars in unpaid
bills to shipping companies, furniture manufacturers, mall owners and advertising agencies. Many
are unlikely to be paid in full, spreading the economic pain.
Retailing Chains Caught in a Wave of Bankruptcies
By Michael Barbaro The New York Times Tuesday 15 April 2008
The consumer spending slump and tightening credit markets are unleashing a widening wave of
bankruptcies in American retailing, prompting thousands of store closings that are expected to
remake suburban malls and downtown shopping districts across the country.
Since last fall, eight mostly midsize chains — as diverse as the furniture store Levitz and
the electronics seller Sharper Image — have filed for bankruptcy protection as they staggered
under mounting debt and declining sales.
But the troubles are quickly spreading to bigger national companies, like Linens 'n Things,
the bedding and furniture retailer with 500 stores in 47 states. It may file for bankruptcy as
early as this week, according to people briefed on the matter.
Even retailers that can avoid bankruptcy are shutting down stores to preserve cash through
what could be a long economic downturn. Over the next year, Foot Locker said it would close 140
stores, Ann Taylor will start to shutter 117, and the jeweler Zales will close 100.
The surging cost of necessities has led to a national belt-tightening among consumers.
Figures released on Monday showed that spending on food and gasoline is crowding out other
purchases, leaving people with less to spend on furniture, clothing and electronics.
Consequently, chains specializing in those goods are proving vulnerable.
Retailing is a business with big ups and downs during the year, and retailers rely heavily
on borrowed money to finance their purchases of merchandise and even to meet payrolls during
slow periods. Yet the nation's banks, struggling with the growing mortgage crisis, have started
to balk at extending new loans, effectively cutting up the retail industry's collective credit
"You have the makings of a wave of significant bankruptcies," said Al Koch, who helped
bring Kmart out of bankruptcy in 2003 as the company's interim chief financial officer and works
at a corporate turnaround firm called AlixPartners.
"For years, no deal was too ugly to finance," he said. "But now, nobody will throw money at
Because retailers rely on a broad network of suppliers, their bankruptcies are rippling
across the economy. The cash-short chains are leaving behind tens of millions of dollars in
unpaid bills to shipping companies, furniture manufacturers, mall owners and advertising
agencies. Many are unlikely to be paid in full, spreading the economic pain.
When it filed for bankruptcy, Sharper Image owed $6.6 million to United Parcel Service. The
furniture chain Levitz owed Sealy $1.4 million.
And it is not just large companies that are absorbing the losses. When Domain, the
furniture retailer, filed for bankruptcy, it owed On Time Express, a 90-employee transportation
and logistics company in Tempe, Ariz., about $30,000.
"We'll be lucky to see pennies on the dollar, if we see anything," said Ross Musil, the
chief financial officer of On Time Express. "It's a big loss."
Most of the ailing companies have filed for reorganization, not liquidation, under the
bankruptcy laws, including the furniture chain Wickes, the housewares seller Fortunoff, Harvey
Electronics and the catalog retailer Lillian Vernon. But, in a contrast with previous
recessions, many are unlikely to emerge from bankruptcy, lawyers and industry experts said.
Changes in the federal bankruptcy code in 2005 significantly tightened deadlines for ailing
companies to restructure their businesses, offering them less leeway.
And the changes may force companies to pay suppliers before paying wages or honoring
obligations to customers, like redeeming gift cards, said Sally Henry, a partner in the
bankruptcy law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and the author of several books
As a result, she said, "it's no longer reorganization or even liquidation for these
companies. In many cases, it's evaporation."
Several of the retailers that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection over the last
eight months, like the furniture sellers Bombay, Levitz and Domain, have begun to wind down —
closing stores, laying off workers and liquidating merchandise.
In most cases, the collapses stemmed from a combination of factors: flawed business
strategies, a souring economy and banks' unwillingness to issue cheap loans.
Bombay, a chain with 360 stores, was considered a success in the furniture world, after its
sales surged from $393 million in 1999 to $596 million in 2003.
Then the chain decided to move most of its stores out of enclosed malls into open-air
shopping centers. It started a children's furniture business, called BombayKids. And it started
carrying bigger items, like beds and upholstered couches, with higher prices than its regular
Consumers balked at the changes, hurting Bombay's sales and profits at the same time that
its expenses for the ambitious new strategies began to grow. The timing was unenviable: By early
2007, the housing market began to falter, so purchases of furniture slowed to a trickle.
The company was running out of money, but banks refused to lend more. "They did not want to
take the chance that we might not repay the loans," Elaine D. Crowley, the chief financial
officer, said in an interview.
In September 2007, Bombay filed for bankruptcy protection. The highest bid for the company
came from liquidation firms, who quickly dismembered the 33-year-old chain. Bombay, which once
employed 3,608, now has 20 employees left. "It is very difficult and sad," Ms. Crowley said.
The bankruptcies are putting a spotlight on a little-discussed facet of retailing: heavy debt.
Stores may appear to mint money by paying $2 for a T-shirt and charging $10 for it. But
because shopping is based on weather patterns and fashion trends, retailers must pay for
merchandise that may sit, unsold, on shelves for long periods.
So chains regularly borrow large sums to cover routine expenses, like wages and electricity
bills. When sales are strong, as they typically are during the holiday season, the debts are repaid.
Fortunoff, a jewelry and home furnishing chain in the Northeast, relied on $90 million in
loans to help operate its 23 stores, using merchandise as collateral.
But by early 2008, as the housing market struggled, the chain's profits dropped, meaning
its collateral was losing value and the amount it could borrow fell.
In better economic times, the banks might have granted Fortunoff a reprieve. But with a
recession looming, they refused, forcing it to file for bankruptcy in February. In filings, the
chain said it was "facing a liquidity crisis." (Fortunoff was later sold to the owner of Lord &
Plenty of retailers remain on strong footing. Arnold H. Aronson, the former chief executive
of Saks Fifth Avenue and a managing director at Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting
firm, said the credit tightness and consumer spending slowdown have only wiped out the "bottom
tier" companies in retailing.
"This recession dealt the final blow to these chains," he said. But several big-name chains
are looking vulnerable. Linens 'n Things, which is owned by Apollo Management, a private equity
firm, is considering a bankruptcy filing after years of poor performance and mounting debts,
though it has additional options, people involved in the discussions said Monday.
Whether more chains file for bankruptcy or not, it will be hard to miss the impact of the
industry's troubles in the nation's malls.
J. C. Penney, Lowe's and Office Depot are scaling back or delaying expansion. Office Depot
had planned to open 150 stores this year; now it will open 75.
The International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group, estimates there will be 5,770
store closings in 2008, up 25 percent from 2007, when there were 4,603.
Charming Shoppes, which owns the women's clothing retailers Lane Bryant and Fashion Bug, is
closing at least 150 stores. Wilsons the Leather Experts will close 158. And Pacific Sunwear is
shutting a 153-store chain called Demo.
Those decisions were made months ago, when it was unclear how long the downturn in consumer
spending might last. If March was any indication, it is nowhere near over. Sales at stores open
at least a year fell 0.5 percent, the worst performance in 13 years, according to the shopping
A reasonably just and well-ordered democratic society might be possible, and . . . justice as
fairness should have a special place among the political conceptions in its political and social
world. . . [M]any are prepared to accept the conclusion that a just and well-ordered democratic
society is not possible, and even regard it as obvious. Isn't admitting it part of growing up,
part of the inevitable loss of innocence? But is this conclusion one we can so easily accept?
The answer we give to the question of whether a just democratic society is possible and
can be stable for the right reasons affects our background thoughts and attitudes about the
world as a whole. And it affects these thoughts and attitudes before we come to actual politics,
and limits or inspires how we take part in it. . .
If we take for granted as common knowledge that a just and well-ordered democratic society
is impossible, then the quality and tone of those attitudes will reflect that knowledge. A cause
of the fall of Wiemar's constitutional regime was that none of the traditional elites of Germany
supported its constitution or were willing to cooperate to make it work. They no longer
believed a decent liberal parliamentary regime was possible. Its time had past.
The regime fell first to a series of authoritarian cabinet governments from 1930 to 1932. When
these were increasingly weakened by their lack of popular support, President Hindenburg was
finally persuaded to turn to Hitler, who had such support and whom conservatives thought they
~ John Rawls "Political Liberalism" pg. lx
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Finally, the campaigns of 1793 and 1794 set Clausewitz on the path of recognizing war as a
political phenomenon. Wars, as everyone knew, were fought for a purpose that was political, or
at least always had political consequences. Not as readily apparent was the implication that
followed. If war was meant to achieve a political purpose, everything that entered into war —
social and economic preparation, strategic planning, the conduct of operations, the use of
violence on all levels — should be determined by this purpose, or at least accord with it. Even
though soldiers had to acquire special expertise, and function in what in some respects was a
separate world, it would be a denial of reality to allow them to carry on their bloody work
undisturbed until an armistice brought their political employer back into the equation. Just as
war and its institutions reflected their social environment, so every aspect of fighting should
be suffused by its political impulse, whether this impulse was intense or moderate. The
appropriate relationship between politics and war occupied Clausewitz throughout his life, but
even his earliest manuscripts and letters show his awareness of their interaction.
The ease with which this link — always acknowledged in the abstract — can be forgotten in
specific cases, and Clausewitz’s insistence that it must never be overlooked, are illustrated by
his polite rejection toward the end of his life of a strategic problem set by the chief of the
Prussian General Staff, in which every military detail of the opposing sides was spelled out,
but no mention made of their political purpose. To a friend who had sent him the problem for
comment, Clausewitz replied that it was not possible to draft a sensible plan of operations
without indicating the political condition of the states involved, and their relationship to
each other: ‘War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different
means. Consequently, the main lines of every major strategic plan are largely political in
nature, and their political character increases the more the plan applies to the entire campaign
and to the whole state. A war plan results directly from the political conditions of the two
warring states, as well as from their relations to third powers. A plan of campaign results from
the war plan, and frequently - if there is only one theater of operations - may even be
identical with it. But the political element even enters the separate components of a campaign;
rarely will it be without influence on such major episodes of warfare as a battle, etc.
According to this point of view, there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a
great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve it.’
Everyman’s Library, 1993 ISBN: 0679420436 On war /by Clausewitz, Carl von, 1780-1831.
Knopf, 1993. From the introduction by Peter Paret, Pg7
The U-2 is a jet-powered reconnaissance aircraft specially designed to fly at high altitudes
(i.e., above 70,000 ft [21 km]). It was used during the late 1950s to overfly the Soviet Union,
China, the Middle East, and Cuba; flights over the Soviet Union, the primary mission for which
the plane was designed, ended in 1960 when a U-2 flown by CIA pilot Gary Powers was shot down
over the Soviet Union. This event was a major political embarrassment for the U.S.
Soviet Prime Minister Khrushchev's reaction to the overflights which were discovered
just before a summit conference in Paris with President Eisenhower: "It was as though the
Americans had deliberately tried to place a time bomb under the meeting" . . ."How could they
count on us to give them a helping hand if we allowed ourselves to be spat upon without so much
as a murmur of protest?" The only solution was to demand a formal public apology from Eisenhower
and a guarantee that no more overflights would take place . . .
But the apology Khrushchev was looking for would not come. Despite having trespassed on
the Soviet Union for the past four years with scores of flights by both U-2's and heavy bombers,
the old general still could not say the words, it was just not in him. . . A time bomb had
exploded, prematurely ending the summit conference. . .
Back in Washington, the mood was glum. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee was leaning
toward holding a closed door investigation into the U-2 incident . . . In public, Eisenhower
maintained a brave face. He "heartily approved" of the congressional probe and would 'of course
fully cooperate,' he quickly told anyone who asked. But in private he was very troubled. For
weeks he had tried to head off the investigation. His major concern was that his own personal
involvement in the overflights would surface, especially the May Day disaster. Equally, he was
very worried that details of the dangerous bomber overflights would leak out. The massed
overflight may in fact, have been one of the most dangerous actions ever approved by a president.
pg. 51-55 ~Body of Secrets; Anatomy of the Ultra Secret National Security Agency
"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human
liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest
struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being,
putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no
struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation,
are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and
lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."
"This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and
physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and
it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the
exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue
till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are
prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes
will be hunted at the North, and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those
devilish outrages, and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they
pay for in this world; but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from
the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by
labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others."
Frederick Douglass, 1857
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