Dead companies: the ghostly data trails left behind

1 month ago by Joshua Fruhlinger in Features

"A ghost cannot hurt anyone; only the fear of ghosts can be dangerous."

These are the words of Dr. Montague, the paranormal investigator at the center of Shirley Jackson's 1959 horror classic The Haunting of Hill House. It's a prophetic statement: that regardless of what those who entered Hill House may have seen or experienced, the only danger lied in how they reacted to those things they saw.

In some cases, ghosts may cause people weigh their own mortality. In others, they make make people murderous. In yet others, they may put people into a state of paralyzing fear, unable to move forward.

And then there are the enlightened few: those who learn from ghosts and their lessons of the past can plod forward and become better individuals.

Like people, companies die. As economies move forward, some corporations don't have the ability to keep up, and their mortalities show their finite ends.

In 2018, we saw several companies end their time on earth, on the stock exchanges, and in the shopping centers of the world.

Here are three of them along with the ghostly data trails they leave behind as a reminder. But fear not: they cannot hurt you. Ignoring their fates, however, just might.

Toys R Us

This chart depicts "Were here" counts for all Toys "R" Us locations. As you can see, in July 2018, close to 2 million people had passed through the doors of the beloved toy store. Fast forward to September of this year, and, well, there's nothing there.

Toys "R" Us shut all of its doors in 2018, leaving behind an average 46,000 square feet of retail space per store. This hurt not only children hoping for the latest toys this holiday season, but it also pierced the hearts of REITs - real-estate investment trusts - the landlords of retail. Hurt the most is Simon Property Group ($NYSE:SPG) who was exposed to 56 Toys "R" Us closings.

If there's any lesson to be learned here, it's that retail is (and always was) a volatile business. The overhead is massive, leveraging against inventory is always a risk, and consumers are fickle. Those who survive the mean streets of retail are always ahead of the curve. In this case, Toys "R" Us was caught on its heels.

Theranos

This graph shows the steadily sinking employee count for Theranos on LinkedIn. Once a thriving company full of optimistic professionals, Theranos is now nothing more than a reminder that all corporations eventually come to their corporeal conclusions.

Once the future of pharma tech, Theranos ($THERANOS) gasped its last breath in 2018. "We ran out of time," said its CEO David Taylor on the company's final day of operations. The company never recovered after Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos' once-upon-a-time leader and media darling, was indicted on fraud charges after a Wall Street Journal report uncovered the fact that Theranos' product, a DIY blood-testing device, was nothing but vaporware. And, like vapor, both Holmes and Theranos ultimately became specters of the past.

Theranos reminds us that if a company makes bold claims about a product or service, it had best be able to produce results before investors get cold and, in the case of Theranos, wily reporters find the skeleton in its basement closet. 

Bon-Ton

There was a time when working in retail was a laudable vocation. The graph above shows a time when Bon-Ton was hiring more than 1,000 people for its operations. Today, that number has sunk below 300 after a near-fatal cliff dive last spring.

The Bon-Ton ($NASDAQ:BONT) was founded in 1898 as S. Grumbacher & Son as a one-room dry goods shop on Market Street in York, Pennsylvania. The store became a chain 1902 when it added two locations under the names "Bon-Ton Millnery" in Trenton, New Jersey. Expansion continued through two world wars and accelerated in the retail-friendly mall salad days of the 1970s.

But Bon-Ton couldn't keep up after it over-expanded into the 1990s and 2000s: it didn't predict retail's changing texture. The company failed to post a profit after 2011 and, despite several attempts to change it image and inventory, eventually sunk under a mountain of debt. It filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in February 2018 and announced a chain-wide liquidation in April.

The company continues to breathe, if only as an e-commerce shell of itself. Its bits and parts, including its customer database and insights, have been sold off to the highest bidders like the final strings of flesh to a hungry mob of vultures.

Joshua Fruhlinger

Joshua has been writing about technology, lifestyle, and business for over 20 years. He's one of the original writers and editors for Engadget, and still writes a...

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