Before releasing second-quarter earnings this week, the retailers had raised Wall Street’s hopes that the industry was showing signs of a comeback.
“The expectations were getting higher that maybe things were starting to improve,’’ said Paul Lejuez, a retail analyst at Citigroup. “But the results didn’t meet those expectations.”
When J. C. Penney announced on July 10 that its chief financial officer was leaving, the company said that it expected to report “significantly improved top line results this quarter versus the first quarter.”
Other glimmers of improvement appeared across the department store industry. Foot traffic in malls was still down, but not as much as in previous quarters. Credit card data, which investors scour for clues about the retail sector, showed more people shopping in big department stores.
That brightening outlook put pressure on a group of investors — mostly hedge funds — that have been shorting retail stocks, or betting that the share prices will fall.
The retail sector is the second most actively shorted industry in the stock market behind the software and internet sector, according to S3 Partners, a financial analytics firm. And short bets on retailers have increased 18 percent since Jan. 1.
Other investors and industry specialists have dismissed such apocalyptic warnings as overblown. While some of the weaker companies with large debt loads may collapse, stronger brick-and-mortar retailers — not just Amazon — will take market share, these people say.
“This is going to be the best of times for retailers that are well capitalized,’’ said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.
Then came the actual second-quarter results this week. J. C. Penney said its sales rose in the quarter, but its gross profit margins were far lower than what analysts had predicted.
The company was hit particularly hard because it is more indebted than many retailers and has been losing money.
Like Macy’s, J. C. Penney has been selling many of its stores. But analysts say the quality of its real estate is not as high as that of Macy’s, which has prime locations in New York and San Francisco.
The results announced by Macy’s were slightly better than expected, but analysts noted that challenges in the company’s fundamental retail business of selling clothing and home goods were being masked by profits it was generating through the sale of stores and from the income it collects on Macy’s credit cards.
Morgan Stanley’s retail analyst described the Macy’s results in a research note Friday as “less bad, but not enough.”
Nordstrom’s, which also reported results this week, has been able to win over more investors to its strategies for integrating its stores and e-commerce sites.
Nordstrom’s, which is based in Seattle, said on Thursday that it was expanding the number of cities where shoppers can reserve clothing item online and try it on in a store — a service that few other retailers offer.
On Wall Street, the reality is setting in that reinventing a business model that dates back generations will be time-consuming and expensive at best, and may not work.
Retailers are gaining from finding new uses for unprofitable stores. But the costs of creating a network of e-commerce warehouses and top-flight digital capabilities are eating into precious profit margins.
“A big challenge changing from one channel to another,” said Christian Buss, a retail analyst at Credit Suisse, “is the expense.”