Activist investor wants Macy’s to split it stores and e-commerce

Macy’s disappointing financial and stock performance in recent years has prompted all sorts of suggestions from activist investors on how to reverse that. The latest could be a huge risk: spinning off e-commerce from its stores.

Jana Partners said in an investor presentation Wednesday covered by Bloomberg News that the department store chain’s online business could be worth $14 billion as a stand-alone business, roughly twice what the whole company was valued at at the close of trading. In formulating its recommendation, Jana pointed to the $2 billion valuation got when parent company HBC hived it off from Saks Fifth Avenue earlier this year.

It is easy to see the appeal of the idea when considering the valuations fast growing e-commerce or digital-first players like Wayfair, Chewy, or Warby Parker garner despite chronic losses. And indeed, Macy’s brick-and-mortar business, marred by stores that are still too often cluttered and unpleasant to shop, is languishing compared to its thriving e-commerce business. Macy’s in February said it expects the online business grow from $7.6 billion last year to $10 billion in a few years. (While pummeled by the pandemic, Macy’s overall business has begun to recover, and after a strong second quarter, the retailer raised its 2021 sales outlook by $1 billion.)

But Macy’s e-commerce success is very much fueled by its stores, which provide it with a network of additional points of distribution and customer service, not to mention serving as a key instrument for brand building. Macy’s declined to comment directly on Jana’s suggestion, but on its most recent earnings conference call, executives pointed out that customers who shop at both its website and stores spend about three times more than those who only shop on one or the other. Jana has not disclosed whether it has taken a stake in Macy’s.

Macy’s has also made efforts to close many underperforming physical stores, primarily at dying malls, to better focus on its stores at attractive shopping centers.

Global Data managing director Neil Saunders, a frequent critic of Macy’s physical stores, said in a research note that the separation of the businesses would be ill-advised. “An online only Macy’s would need to work incredibly hard to differentiate itself against Amazon and many other players. And if it were not able to rely so much on stores for visibility and customer connection it would need to spend an enormous amount on customer acquisition and retention.”

It’s not the first time Macy’s has attracted the attention of activists. A few years ago, Macy’s was pressured by Starboard Value to considering hiving off its Herald Square flagship into a separate entity and pursue other real estate deals. But Macy’s shares have fallen by nearly half since November 2016, making it unsurprising that it would get some more unsolicited advice on bolstering its stock.

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Candice Cearley

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