Forever 21 seeks rent concessions as fast-fashion brand faces financial woes

Business

Forever 21 is asking landlords for a break on rent as the legacy fast-fashion player’s sales decline and it struggles to keep up with savvier competitors, CNBC has learned.

The retailer, which has more than 380 stores in the U.S., has asked some landlords to cut its rent by as much as 50%, people familiar with the matter told CNBC. 

While the company is facing financial difficulties, it has yet to hire advisors and isn’t considering a second bankruptcy protection filing, the people said. It’s working to restructure its many leases so it can cut costs, they said. 

Forever 21 faces a range of issues that have long plagued its business. It operates in the increasingly saturated fast-fashion market, the people said. They also added that the retailer struggles to manage inventory and understand and respond to its consumers.

The retailer’s struggles come after it filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 and was later bought by a consortium including brand management company Authentic Brands Group and landlords Simon Property Group and Brookfield Property Partners.

When the company sought bankruptcy protection, it had more than 800 locations globally.

Similar to many retailers, Forever 21’s massive store footprint weighed on its balance sheet when it first filed for bankruptcy protection. The retailer had expanded too quickly during its growth phase, leaving it unable to invest in its supply chain and rapidly respond to changing trends. 

Closing hundreds of stores after filing for bankruptcy protection has not resolved its issues.

Forever 21’s financial position has also hurt the performance of its operator Sparc Group — the joint venture that includes Authentic, Simon and as of last summer, Chinese-linked fast-fashion behemoth Shein. Sparc runs Forever 21’s operations, as well as several other formerly bankrupt retailers, including Aeropostale, Brooks Brothers and Lucky Brand. 

Sparc declined to comment to CNBC. Simon didn’t return a request for comment.

Forever weighs on Sparc 

Sparc has been scrutinizing its budgets and contending with its own financial struggles, people familiar with the matter said. 

Many of Sparc’s challenges come from the difficulty of merging numerous legacy brands and attempting to centralize their teams, technology, marketing, e-commerce, sourcing and supply chains, one of the people said. It’s also contended with the issue of running brands that have long operated primarily in malls.

Expensive leases for stores that perform poorly relative to their size can often weigh down retailers’ balance sheets and drain cash.

Forever 21 has consistently paid its vendors late over the last year, according to data from Creditsafe, a business intelligence platform that analyzes companies’ financial, legal and compliance risks. The data shows Forever 21’s payment patterns to vendors have fluctuated, with some bills going more than 70 days past due in late 2023, according to Creditsafe.

Plenty of companies, including many that are healthy, leave bills unpaid for weeks or months, but late payments can also signal larger financial troubles. The industry average hovered between 12 and 13 days past due for the last 12 months, said Creditsafe spokesperson Ragini Bhalla.

Racing to compete

In the past, Forever 21’s top rivals included H&M and Zara. These days, its biggest foes are ultra-fast-fashion retailers like Shein and Temu. 

“The speed is almost impossible to compete with. So if you juxtapose any brand that was around 20 years ago to these new, on-demand manufacturing fast-fashion companies … it’s like comparing a mobile phone from 2000 to the newest iPhone. The speed, the quality, everything is just different,” one of the people said. “As soon as someone goes viral in a new outfit on TikTok, Shein is immediately making it and no regular brand can keep up with that.” 

Shoppers walk past advertisements on the opening day of fast-fashion e-commerce giant Shein, which hosted a brick-and-mortar pop-up inside Forever 21 at the Ontario Mills Mall in Ontario on Oct. 19, 2023.
Allen J. Schaben | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

At the ICR conference in January, Authentic Brands CEO Jamie Salter said acquiring Forever 21 was “probably the biggest mistake” of his career, adding he also erred when he failed to recognize the competitive threat posed by Shein and Temu earlier. 

He recalled a conversation he had with Simon’s CEO David Simon, who asked Salter why he wanted to partner with Shein. 

“I said, ‘David, it’s the right decision, we cannot beat them. Their supply chain is too good. They know what’s going on. They’ve figured this out. We need to partner with them,'” Salter said. “So I was the brave one that said, ‘Let’s go partner with these guys.'”

As part of the two retailers’ partnership, Shein will design, manufacture and distribute a line of co-branded Forever 21 apparel and accessories that will be sold primarily on Shein’s website. Forever 21 has also hosted Shein pop-up stores and begun accepting Shein returns, both of which have driven positive foot traffic to Forever 21’s shops, one of the people said. 

The two originally linked up last August and under the terms of the agreement, Shein acquired about one-third of Sparc while Sparc took a minority stake in Shein. 

Given the concerns that Forever 21 is having with its leases, and the success of Shein’s pop-up shops, some industry observers questioned whether the digital giant could soon take over Forever 21’s stores. However, one of the people said that’s unlikely because the retailer lacks experience in physical retail and its business model involves small-batch production and an inventory that constantly shifts based on trends.

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