Like just about every other business sector on the planet, retailers continued to be affected by global economic turmoil during 2009. Companies previously intent on expansion and growth turned to cost-cutting, making swingeing redundancies and shuttering loss-making stores.

In such an environment, "losers" are not hard to find, although some companies have been especially vulnerable to the "new retail normal" of markdowns and lean inventories.

Meanwhile, the winners have been those who acted swiftly to respond to the changing economic circumstances, who offered real value to their customers and who - perhaps most importantly - maintained a proactive and dynamic approach, despite enduring the worst retail environment in generations.


1: Uniqlo
In a grim year for recession-battered Japan, Uniqlo emerged bigger and stronger than its rivals, helping parent company Fast Retailing to a full-year profit of JPY49.7bn, up 14%, with sales soaring 17% to JPY685bn.

Uniqlo's stores in Japan remained the powerhouse of the brand, with same-store sales up 11.3% on the year, but it was the company's expansion into other Asian markets which caught the eye.

China, Hong Kong and South Korea are all on Uniqlo's radar, the company opened its first stores in Singapore this year - and it will hit Russia in 2010.

Besides its strong value proposition, Uniqlo offered product innovations such as its Heattech heat-trapping shirts, and a tie-in with high-profile designer Jil Sander - which has already spawned two +J collections to date.

2: Primark
Primark continued to benefit from the support of cost-conscious consumers during the UK recession in 2009. Full-year operating profit lifted 8% to GBP252m, while revenues increased 19.7% to GBP2.3bn, with same store sales up 7%.

As Arthur Ryan steps into the chairman's role after 40 years with the company, ex-New Look COO Paul Marchant takes over as chief executive in January 2010. Whether that heralds a new era remains to be seen, but further expansion into continental Europe appears to be assured, with a focus on Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium.

The only blemish was persistent criticism of Primark's product sourcing, with charity War on Want accusing it of using sweatshop labour via a third party supplier in Bangladesh. Primark pledged action and said it had tightened up its ethical trading policies.

3: Zara/Inditex
Keeping your strategic vision intact in the midst of a global economic downturn is no easy task - but it's one that Inditex and its Zara chain in particular has accomplished in 2009.

Despite feeling the pinch in core markets like Spain and the UK, the company has continued to expand the international presence of Zara and stablemates Pull & Bear and Bershka - with about 95% of this year's new store openings outside Spain.

France, Italy, Eastern Europe and, in particular, Asia were all on Inditex's hit list during 2009, leaving it at the end of October with 4,530 stores in well over 70 countries.

With like-for-like sales in the first half down 2%, challenges remain - but the company should receive a boost from an imminent move into online sales for Zara in its major markets.

4: J Crew
The rollercoaster ride of upscale retailer J Crew in 2009 proved that you don't have to do "cheap and cheerful" to be successful in the current retail environment.

What you do have to do is trim your costs, keep your inventories lean and - crucially - give your customers what they want. J Crew achieved all of these, but not without an awkward beginning to the year.

A disastrous holiday period saw fourth quarter same store sales plummet 13%, but did at least help to clear out inventories. More strong medicine followed with 95 job cuts, plus the suspension of pension contributions - designed to save US$40m a year.

By May, the company was sounding more chipper, despite a 36% fall in first quarter profits - and by November, the transformation was complete, delivering third quarter profits of $43.9m - more than double last year.

5: The Buckle
A retailer that sells predominantly other people's brands, specialising in denim - at first glance, The Buckle might look a relatively old-fashioned player on the US retail scene.

Not a bit of it. The company's constant drive to refresh its merchandise offer put it at or near the top of the charts in just-style's monthly US retail sales round-ups - certainly among non-discounters.

Beyond expanding its bricks-and-mortar presence to beyond 400 stores, The Buckle has benefited from a boom in online sales, which rose 39% in the company's second quarter, helping overall revenues to jump 13.6%.

An impressive year, with only a little of the gloss taken off it by a relatively lacklustre November same store sales rise of 1.4%. 

1: Liz Claiborne
For battered women's wear group Liz Claiborne, 2009 brought only an intensification of earlier pain: the company has shed about 3,000 jobs since 2007, shuttering several distribution centres and closing, selling or licensing some 14 brands.

Liz is paying the price for years of aggressive expansion, built on a high-cost sourcing and distribution model.

Now this is being belatedly addressed through initiatives like the Li & Fung sourcing deal announced in February, and a new wholesaling agreement for the Liz Claiborne brand with JC Penney, exiting the department store channel.

But double-digit sales declines remain the norm, with core businesses like Mexx Europe and US distribution the worst affected parts of the company. CEO Bill McComb believes it could be another year before the company returns to the black after years of losses.

2: Abercrombie & Fitch
The teen-focused apparel retailer has a policy of eschewing markdowns and discounts, but that's a luxury few can afford in the current consumer climate.

After opening 2009 with a "nightmare" slump in fourth quarter profit, Abercrombie & Fitch's year was punctuated with setbacks: 170 jobs axed at its Ohio headquarters in May, the shuttering of its struggling Ruehl chain in June, and not one but two discrimination lawsuits focused on its "look policy" dress code for staff.

By November, the US company was stocking cheaper items in its stores and unveiling a new blueprint of international growth, but it's a strategic shift that has come late in the day, especially when compared to some of the retailer's big rivals.

3: Sears
The story of Sears in 2009 is a familiar one of retail gloom and adjusting to the new market reality.

Sears Holdings opened with a fourth quarter profit reduced by more than half in February, led by an 11% same store sales decline for Sears, while Kmart was less badly affected by the downturn.

That prompted renewed action to cut costs, as the company announced plans to shutter 24 Sears stores, on top of eight which closed in 2008. By August, the company had wiped US$1bn off its expenses within 12 months, but the losses and revenue declines kept on coming.

In November, the company announced a third quarter loss of $127m, but said there were "encouraging signs" of progress towards a turnaround. Much, in the short term, will depend on its Christmas trading figures.

4: Arcandor
The sorry saga of Arcandor could serve as a parable for companies which outgrow their original ambitions and become a flabby, sprawling conglomerate vulnerable to negative macroeconomic trends.

The seeds were sown late in 2008, when Germany's largest department store company posted a EUR745m full-year loss - and saw two-thirds of its share value wiped out within weeks.

Rumours of a Wal-Mart stake in the company proved groundless and, after the German government rejected a plea for state aid to repay loans of EUR710m, the inevitable insolvency ensued.

Six months on, no buyer has been found, the closure of dozens of stores has been announced and the Quelle mail order business has been shut down. For Arcandor, any significant recovery in 2010 will be positively Lazarus-like.

5: The Talbots
There's a whiff of a new beginning about troubled retailer The Talbots as we near the end of 2009, but whatever follows next year, this will be remembered as a grim 12 months for the company.

Haemorrhaging sales and incurring huge losses, the company cut several hundred jobs and shut dozens of stores in a bid to cut costs. It also sold the assets of its J Jill business for a paltry US$75m in June - just before announcing another loss and more redundancies.

By December, largest shareholder Aeon was no doubt relieved to exit the business, as BPW Acquisition Corp's arrival heralded a new dawn for the retailer. And there were faint glimmers of hope as the company's third quarter revenues showed some signs of recovery from their previous travails.