By Brad Tuttle
February 15, 2017

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that 13.5% of the retailers covered by Moody’s Investor’s Service currently have debt ratings characterized as “speculative, of poor standing and subject to very high credit risk.” In other words, they’re likely candidates to file for bankruptcy.

And their ranks are on the rise. In 2011, by contrast, only 5.6% of these retailers had such poor debt ratings, according to Moody’s. 2009 was the last time retailers were this troubled, when the figure hit 16% during the financial crisis.

Entering bankruptcy protection doesn’t necessarily mean a company will go out of business. The process allows a company to restructure debt, and can wind up helping the business stay alive. But look at companies like Sports Authority, Borders, Blockbuster and Circuit City — they’re essentially no longer in existence.

Here are some of the major retailers that could very well follow in their footsteps into bankruptcy or worse, based on Moody’s portrayal of their debts.

Bon-Ton: Observers have been predicting that clothing and accessory chain Bon-Ton was bound for bankruptcy at least since 2015. It has closed at least six stores over the past two years, and comparable store sales were down 3.1% during the recent holiday shopping season.

Claire’s Stores: Known mostly as an accessory and apparel store for tweens, struggling and closing stores for years, and engaged in debt restructuring talks over the course of several months last summer.

David’s Bridal: The company’s CEO resigned last summer, and Moody’s shifted David’s Bridal’s outlook from stable to negative in September.

Fairway: The supermarket chain went public in 2013 and has expanded rapidly in recent years. But it has also struggled with debt, and filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last spring. The company exited from bankruptcy a couple of months later, but apparently is not fully in the clear.

Gymboree: “The Gymboree Corporation’s high price perception has caused consumers to look elsewhere for children’s apparel,” a Fitch Ratings report declared a year ago. In November, the children’s apparel retailer was downgraded by Moody’s.

J. Crew: The preppy retailer has been in a slump for several years, and ended 2016 amid talks to restructure its $2 billion debt. The brand’s “high price perception, coupled with fashion misses, has created sharp traffic declines and aggressive markdowns necessary to clear excess inventory,” a Fitch Ratings report said of J. Crew.

Nine West: Moody’s analysts have described the debt level of this women’s shoes and handbags retailer as “unsustainable.”

Payless: The discount shoe seller engaged in negotiations recently to close 1,000 stores in a plan to restructure its enormous debt.

Sears: The department store company announced it would be closing over 100 Kmart and Sears stores in 2017, on top of 78 closures last summer.

TOMS Shoes: One of the first true socially conscious clothing lines to emerge last decade, Toms was downgraded by Moody’s last summer.

True Religion: The (once) trendy apparel retailer was forced to explore debt restructuring options last fall.

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