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May 13, 1:47 PM EDT

As online shopping intensifies, outlook dims for mall stores


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Online shopping is reaching such a critical mass with American households that many of the icons of the traditional mall -from Macy's to The Gap and J.C. Penney - face an increasingly uncertain future.

A government report Friday suggested a modestly healthy consumer, with retail sales up 1.3 percent in April. Americans are eating out more at restaurants. They're buying more cars. But the main beneficiaries of spending in the past year have been Amazon, eBay and other internet behemoths.

Spending at these non-store retailers shot up 10.7 percent from a year ago, the government said in a week when earnings reports showed disturbing drop-offs at Macy's, Kohl's, Nordstrom and J.C. Penney.

Shoppers who once crowded malls are now ordering on phones, computers and tablets, siphoning sales from physical stores, which face growing pressure to reinvent their businesses.

"Online is cannibalizing the store business," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group.

The magnitude of the change may be just beginning to intensify. Online shopping has attuned customers to focusing on price and hunting for the best bargains, thereby shrinking profit margins at many stores.

Retailers have responded by shuttering stores to cut costs, leaving more shopping malls and plazas empty. The result has been a painful upheaval in an industry that employs 15.9 million people.

Online, in the meantime, has been catching up to the general merchandise stores that range from Wal-Mart to Nieman Marcus.

Back in 2000, for every dollar spent at physical stores, just 30 cents were spent online and at mail-order houses, according to government figures. Now, the online category makes up nearly 70 cents for every dollar spent at general merchandise stores.

"We have yet to learn the ramifications of just how paramount these shifts in consumer behavior are," Cohen said. "This is a cultural shift from the younger generation that is only going to carry forward."

The April retail sales report from the Commerce Department showed uniformly solid growth. It assuaged concerns that an economic slowdown in the first three months of 2016 might have significantly disrupted consumer spending.

The gains weren't just online. Though internet purchases rose 2.1 percent from March, auto sales jumped 3.2 percent. Clothiers, restaurants, sporting goods stores, grocers and gas stations also posted gains.

Only building materials stores suffered a monthly drop, but their annual sales growth was solid.

Though sales at department stores edged up slightly, they've sunk 1.7 percent over the past 12 months. The shift online points to more disciplined consumers whose collective habits can reshape sales. Impulse buys make up 45 percent of store purchases, for example, but only 23 percent online, according to research at the NPD Group.

At the same time, the improving economy has yet to fully relieve the financial pressures on many Americans. Across the country, households are more reluctant to spend than they were before Great Recession struck in late 2007.

Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics, a research firm, notes that incomes have been rising only tepidly despite a stronger job market. A result is that women may be less likely to step up spending on clothing at a time when Amazon has intensified price competition.

"My gut says that women don't have the money outside replenishing items," Perkins says. "And the Amazon effect is gaining momentum."

Shoppers such as Morgan Province of Herndon, Virginia, say they're tightening spending for a variety of reasons.

Province says that she's saving for a move and that when she does buy, she's spending more online. She's going to Amazon.com every two weeks, compared with every six or eight weeks a year ago.

"It's more convenient," Province says. "It's more affordable, and there are more options."

John Blackledge, an analyst at Cowen & Co., says he expects Amazon.com to replace Macy's Inc. as the No. 1 apparel retailer by next year.

Macy's dropped its report with a clunk on Wednesday. It slashed its profits and sales outlook, and other major outlets, including Nordstrom and Kohl's, also reported dismal figures.

In response to their falling revenue, some stores have announced plans to try to boost profitability. Nordstrom said it's cutting back on inventory and reducing expenses.

In February, Kohl's said it would be shutting 18 stores, marking the first time in its history that it was closing multiple stores.

J.C. Penney's chief executive, Marvin Ellison, told investors Friday that Penney's will be reducing its dependency on the clothing business. In its place, it intends to expand services like beauty salons and sell major appliances - a business it had exited three decades ago. It's rolling out major appliances in nearly half of its stores by this summer.

"We look at what customers are spending," Ellison said. It's "entertainment, it's experiences, it's home beautification."

Macy's plans to speed up launches for exclusive fashions while cutting expenses and plowing the savings into sales help online and in stores.

"Our industry is in something of a rough patch," says Karen Hoguet, chief financial officer at Macy's.

Hoguet calls the declines puzzling given a hiring streak that has held the national unemployment rate to a healthy 5 percent.

Analysts tend to point to a confluence of factors that aren't new but may be accelerating.

Shoppers are spending less on clothing and devoting more their income to experiences like dining out. And when they do buy clothing, they're more likely to spend at T.J. Maxx and other off-price chains that compete by offering discounts.

"The big companies are suffering not necessarily from weak demand but weak pricing," says Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. "We've been in a deflationary mode, so consumers are getting great deals when they are spending."

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D'Innocenzio reported from New York.

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