Since the start of the pandemic, inventory management has been like riding a bucking bronco, with supply and demand mismatched and gripped by uncertainty. In 2021, retailers scrambled to acquire goods, especially ahead of the holidays, while last year many were slashing prices in order to work through a glut of merchandise.
In the last year or so, that has been an opportunity for off-price retailers. “Availability of quality branded merchandise is phenomenal,” TJX CEO Ernie Herrman told analysts in February. “We are in a great position to take advantage of the opportunities we are seeing in the marketplace.”
Around the same time, Barbara Rentler, CEO of rival Ross, noted that “the buying environment right now is very good.”
“I mean there’s a lot of merchandise,” she told analysts. “It’s very broad-based. It’s across all different classifications and types of products. So the buying environment is probably as good as it gets right now.”
That was then. Now, many retailers have worked through their inventory pileups, and that could rip that opportunity away, according to a client note from TD Cowen analysts Friday.
“With inventory levels in retail normalizing, it could slow merchandise closeout opportunities for off-price retailers,” they said.
Burlington CEO Michael O’Sullivan told analysts in March that’s unlikely, noting that off-pricer retailers often see periods of elevated supply.
“The real aberration is how constrained supply was between mid-2020 and early to mid 2022,” he said. “Those constraints during that two-year period were driven by global supply chain issues coming out of the pandemic — we really hadn’t seen those before.”
A return to normal still means opportunity. “The buying environment is likely to remain fairly strong well into 2023, especially if the economy slows down and demand continues to soften,” O’Sullivan said.
In fact, it’s probably more that supply and demand in the off-price channel is edging closer to a Goldilocks-style “just right,” according to William Blair analysts Dylan Carden and Uday Avula.
“The availability and buying environment is actually, broadly, not too far off from where it was pre-pandemic,” they wrote in emailed comments. “Looking back at pandemic-era trading across the broader market, we believe the worst-case scenario for the off-price channel would be if higher levels of branded goods drove exaggerated upside to sales and, in turn, margin, setting shares up for a more dramatic collapse in the back half or into next year. Instead, we believe that there is more of a Goldilocks scenario.”