A rocky road ahead for Macy's stores in Tampa Bay

Justine Griffin/The Tampa Bay Times - The going out of business banners are visible from Fowler Avenue as drivers pass by the ailing University Mall.

Soon, the mall's anchoring Macy's department store will close.

When Macy's announced it would close 68 stores nationwide this year amid slumping sales, the three stores from the Tampa Bay area that made the closure list seemed to make a lot of sense. University Mall near the University of South Florida campus has been struggling for a long time. Same with the Lakeland Mall. And clearly Sarasota didn't need three Macy's department stores in one market.

But the effects of Macy's recent decline can be felt at just about any department store in the Tampa Bay area.

I stopped by the Macy's store at the Shops at Wiregrass in Wesley Chapel after work on Monday evening. The mall was eerily quiet. But the Macy's store was a ghost town.

I picked out a few items to buy but I could not find any employees inside the store to check out. After wandering both floors of the expansive department store for more than 15 minutes, I found an associate in the men's shoe department.

I complained about the lack of service and he confirmed that their staffing is leaner than usual these days.

Store hours are shorter, too. At Westfield Countryside in Clearwater, the Macy's department store closes an hour early, at 8 p.m., on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, confirmed local employees. The shorter hours started with the new year and affects all department stores, local employees said. They weren't sure how long it would last.

A Macy's spokeswoman said that Tampa Bay area stores are operating under normal business hours, despite what local employees said.

"I think they are back to basics to try to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately it is a bit counterproductive as customers are shopping at stores that give better in-store experience because of the obvious web and mobile shopping options," said Faith Hope Consolo, the chairman of the Retail Group with Douglas Elliman Real Estate in New York City.

Clearly Macy's is trying to cut costs at every corner. But more store closures seem inevitable. Last year, the retailer said it would close 100 stores. With just 68 announced so far, there will be more to come this year, said retail analyst Jeff Green.

"They're positioning themselves more for price rather than service, seeing how they're cutting back on staff," Green said. "The question is, how deep can you cut?"

It's no question that brick and mortar retail in general is suffering. More people are shopping online than ever before, and Macy's, like its struggling competitors Sears and JC Penney, is trying to figure out where they fit in.

The need to have a half-dozen enormous department stores in one metro area just isn't paying off anymore, Green said.

"Macy's has too much space in most of their locations. You've seen Sears selling off their real estate and leasing it out to other tenants. Macy's is going to have to reinvent themselves," he said.

The Sears store at Westfield Countryside is leasing part of its space to Whole Foods Market, which opened at the mall in 2014.

Macy's launched a new line of discount stores aimed at millennials with its Backstage concept in 2015. There are only a handful of locations in the U.S. right now, but Green said the path ahead may be difficult because Backstage was late to the market and will have to compete with already established and popular discount brands like Nordstrom Rack, Zara and H&M.

Earlier this month a rumor surfaced that Hudson's Bay, the Canadian retailer which owns Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, has an interest in buying Macy's. The gossip was enough to send Macy's stock soaring. Analysts say the staff cutting measure could be a way Macy's is sprucing itself up in preparation for a sale.

"They are trying to make the stores they have look as prosperous as possible," said Steve Kirm, a lecturer on retail at the University of Florida. "The easiest way to do that is to cut staff."

But it's also too early to speculate about a sale, Green said.

"The times are changing. What's really unclear is if these big department stores will be able to stay in business long term," Green said. "I think Macy's still has a place. We've heard about the Sears demise for years and that still hasn't happened."