Retail Bankruptcies Threaten To Wreck Economy, Empty Your Local Mall

As the cost of food and gas begin to crowd out other expenses, and access to credit is limited by the mortgage meltdown, a “widening wave of bankruptcies in American retailing” is threatening the economy, says the NYT.

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.

Beyond losing your favorite store, the bankruptcy tsunami has broader implications as troubled retailers leave unpaid bills in their wake:

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.

All this means that gift cards are an increasingly risky investment. Changes to the bankruptcy laws in 2005 may force retailers to pay suppliers before honoring gift cards or even paying employee salaries. Give cash!

Retailing Chains Caught in a Wave of Bankruptcies [NYT] (Thanks, Stephanie!)