The strangest retail news of the summer has been Le Tote’s “purchase” of the storied (but tired) department store Lord & Taylor. The acquisition bucks the trend of offline brands buying digitally native companies (think PetSmart buying Chewy), but there are a number of other puzzling elements about this deal. For starters, Le Tote is a little-known rental company that’s raised less than $100M in venture capital. The purchase price of the deal was supposedly $100M in cash. Perhaps Le Tote is wildly profitable. Maybe it raised additional money from investors for this. The press release said that Le Tote is in the process of “securing financing.” But where the money comes from is question #1.
Question 2: How does Le Tote plan to continue operating Lord & Taylor stores? One of the oddities of the deal is that Hudson’s Bay (the parent company) will pay rent on the stores, but Le Tote appears to be on the hook for payroll and any new inventory. Le Tote has 250 employees, while Lord & Taylor has several thousand. It seems like a money pit for Le Tote.
Question 3: Why did Le Tote agree to this deal? The CEO of Le Tote claims that it will add inventory, but fashion changes every few months. Any inventory purchases are a short-term burst in selection. Personalization was another opportunity cited. Some incremental sales are likely from better personalization, but I’ve never in the last decade seen a retail business transformed by personalization alone. To hinge the future of Lord & Taylor on personalization seems lofty.
So what does this mean for retail? For customers and brands selling to department stores, consolidation is never a good thing, simply because there are fewer places to buy or to be bought. For some retailers, it could be inspiration. There is no shortage of desperate retailers like Lord & Taylor — some of which may want to name a price and offer themselves as an attractive deal to their competitors. But they’ll need to move fast: When it becomes clear that there was little upside (and a lot of headache) to buying Lord & Taylor, similar exit strategies will lose momentum.