FARGO - The retail landscape could change considerably in Fargo in the near future - particularly in the West Acres area - as a number of major retail chains weigh where they should continue to keep stores open.

Already, two longtime retailers are nearing their end here. Gordman’s is less than two weeks from ending its going-out-of-business sale and locking its doors, and Pier 1 will likely soon follow.

A smaller outlet, Justice, a clothing store for tweens, recently closed at West Acres mall. It was one of more than 600 Justice stores that Ascena Retail Group announced would close in its July bankruptcy filing. (Other Ascena stores, Loft and Lane Bryant, remain open at West Acres.)

Other retailers are either reorganizing on their own or have turned to bankruptcy to shed debt, lease obligations or underperforming stores, in the hope that leaner operations will survive. Count Macy’s and JCPenney, both West Acres anchors, among that bunch.

The JCPenney store in Fargo's West Acres mall.  (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
The JCPenney store in Fargo's West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

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The brick-and-mortar store closings are a continuation of the shift in the retail landscape to online shopping, but they're snowballing thanks to the economic hits tied to the coronavirus shutdowns.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 stores could close before 2020 ends, according to Coresight Research, a retail research and advisory firm. That would easily eclipse the more than 9,300 stores that closed in 2019. Coresight estimated that 55 to 60% of those closings would be in malls.

West Acres’ Chief Operating Officer Alissa Adams remains optimistic that the Fargo-Moorhead area's biggest mall will remain strong.

“Typically, what we see in these scenarios is that underperforming stores close as well as locations in oversaturated markets. Neither of those scenarios are in play here,” she told The Forum. (Please see the accompanying story.)

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Still, that will depend on many variables, such as the overall strength of particular retailers; the performance of the Fargo stores and attractiveness of the market; the willingness of mall landlords to renegotiate leases.

A few other retailers that could potentially close their outlets in Fargo include:

  • Victoria’s Secret and PINK at West Acres and Bath & Body Works. All three stores are owned by L Brands, which announced in May that it would close 250 Victoria’s Secret and PINK stores, and about 51 Bath & Body Works stores as part of its reorganization.
  • Tuesday Morning announced in May that it would close about 230 stores as part of it’s bankruptcy. The Fargo store on 13th Avenue South survived the first round of cuts.
  • Tailored Brands, which owns Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A Banks, recently declared bankruptcy. The Houston, Texas-based firm said it would continue with plans to close as many as 500 stores. The Fargo Men’s Wearhouse was not included in the first 100 closings.
  • Signet Jewelers, the parent company of Zales, Jared and Kay Jewelers, announced in June that it would close 380 stores. There been no indication yet if the West Acres Zales or Kay Jewelers will be among those closing.
  • GNC declared bankruptcy in June and announced that it will close up to 20% of its 5,800 stores in the U.S.

The Fargo Victoria's Secret store, pictured Wednesday, Aug. 12, in the West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
The Fargo Victoria's Secret store, pictured Wednesday, Aug. 12, in the West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

Retail expert Wooyang Kim, an associate professor of marketing at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said consumers worried about safety during the pandemic are migrating to ecommerce. Plus, economic conditions “are not great,” with the world economy expected to contract about 5% this year, he said.

Kim also sees a change in consumer buying habits. Baby Boomers may be fine spending a couple hundred dollars in each outing, but Generation X, Millennials and Gen Z buy in smaller amounts. That may lead to smaller stores, he said.

To their benefit, Fargo stores appear better stocked with essential and do-it-yourself products than elsewhere, helping them better meet the needs of consumers, Kim said Wednesday, Aug. 12.

But long term, malls like West Acres may want to consider changing their format, Kim said.

A move to smaller stores might mean downsizing malls, or adding hotels or grocery stores, so customers “can stop by one place … and they can do everything as a one time visit," Kim said.

Fargo's Zales jewelry store, pictured Wednesday, Aug. 12, at the West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
Fargo's Zales jewelry store, pictured Wednesday, Aug. 12, at the West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

Raymond March, an assistant professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University, says the onset of COVID-19 has created an inflection point toward online shopping.

“It’s definitely been a huge hit to some of the larger chains” on the national level, March said recently. “I think COVID-19 is just pushing them a little more over the edge.”

Larger retailers that bet heavily on brick-and-mortar stores and failed to invest in online options are being hardest hit, March said. He expects smaller retail operation to survive because they are often “more nimble and adaptable” in changing to serve customers, and perhaps, make them feel safer during the ongoing pandemic.

“I think we’re very fortunate, especially in the Fargo-Moorhead area, even in the West Acres area specifically, that the businesses are small enough and they serve a small enough community that they can be nimble like that,” March said.

March said he expects to see more empty storefronts in coming months and that they may stay empty for a while.

“It’s going to be a difficult business environment to come in and take up those spots and start a new store, just because there’s so much economic uncertainty,” March said.

But “retail doesn’t have to take a nosedive, it just means it has to adapt,” March said.

The Fargo Bath & Body Works store, pictured Wednesday, Aug. 12, at the West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)
The Fargo Bath & Body Works store, pictured Wednesday, Aug. 12, at the West Acres mall. (Helmut Schmidt / The Forum)

“The next couple of years are going to be tumultuous. Who is the business that’s best able to adjust? You might see more pop-up clinics, more pharmacies, more convenience stores, and it will just be because of convenience,” March said.

“From an economic standpoint, when things decline, consumers don’t suddenly stop wanting to buy food and goods and things like that. They just want to buy it in a different way," March said.

The current transition is a larger extension of that, he said.

“There’s a lot of change, but ultimately there’s gonna be a lot of opportunity. And I don’t think the Fargo-Moorhead area is going to be particularly hard hit” March said. “(Retailers are) pretty well poised to make this adjustment.”