By  on January 29, 2002

NEW YORK -- The credit watchers are turning their attention to Arkansas, and rest assured it's not Bentonville they're keeping an eye on.

Whether it's simply a computer glitch, a markdown-related tug-of-war with its suppliers or perhaps something more ominous that couldn't immediately be ascertained, shares of Little Rock, Ark.-based Dillard's Inc. slipped for the second trading day in a row on concerns regarding the retailer's ability to pay for goods shipped.

The stock closed on Monday at $13.90, down 40 cents, or 2.8 percent, in trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The trading volume was 2.5 million shares, more than five times the average daily volume of 471,590 shares. On Friday, the stock dropped 7.3 percent, or $1.05, to close at $14.35 on volume of 2 million shares.

"Factors were told Monday that they weren't paid because of a [computer] system crash, resulting in the accounts payable system not matching up with the accounts receivable [counterpart]," noted one credit source. "Every factor held their approval of orders by the end of Friday night, but at least one has started approving orders again."

Executives at Dillard's declined comment.

The ratings of Dillard's debt were put on review on Jan. 14 for possible downgrade by ratings agency Moody's Investors Service. Moody's said the placement was based on "continuing softness in the company's profitability and comparable-store sales, as well as the challenges Dillard's management faces in significantly improving operating performance."

David Lamer, analyst at Ferris Baker Watts, observed: "From what I've heard from vendors and the market community, someone had [apparently] exaggerated the efforts that Dillard's is making in the process of collecting markdown money from vendors."

According to the analyst, the markdown amount negotiated between the vendor and retailer is usually deducted from a current invoice. "What happens is that someone can easily misconstrue an invoice that the person thinks is not fully paid, not realizing that a deduction was in order for the negotiated markdown money. What we're talking here is a game of cat and mouse."

Lamer pointed out that what Dillard's has been dealing with on the markdown front is no different from what other retailers are doing. "This process is what all the retailers have been doing for many, many years. What is different is that someone blew it out of proportion for Dillard's. I would caution investors to be careful and not to misinterpret these negotiations or some of the maneuvers that the various parties are partaking in as unusual or a sign that the company is in peril," he said.Lamer added that Dillard's balance sheet is in good condition, and that he expects the retailer to end the year with at least $100 million in free cash flow.

One credit source said: "Everybody is more paranoid now because of Kmart, but Dillard's goes through this every year, just as all retailers are pushing their vendors for more markdown money and chargebacks."

Another said that Dillard's had been holding back on payments to vendors, and finally began making payments again on Friday.

To be sure, the problem of markdown money and chargebacks is a recurring one that was exacerbated this year by the events of Sept. 11.

Some analysts see a positive side to the tough quarter: Change in the practice between vendors and retailers, with vendors showing more muscle than in the past.

Ellen Schlossberg, analyst at William Blair & Co., said: "Generally, I think that markdown money and chargebacks are going to be heavier this quarter than they have been in the past. The situation is such that vendors are going to have to do their share to help retailers clear out the inventory. It is in the best interests of vendors to do so because they want to keep shipping to the department stores."

She said that many of the larger vendors have been more stringent about how much markdown money they are willing to give retailers and that the power balance has become a little more balanced.

"In the past, the balance was more in favor of the department store. The power has shifted somewhat, and many vendors are in more control of the situation. That might not be as evident this quarter, given the current environment. We are really in exception mode. However, what you are likely to see going forward are vendors coming up with a variety of initiatives to minimize [their exposure] to retailer demands for markdown money and chargebacks," she said.

Walter Loeb of Loeb Associates, a retail consultant, observed: "It is getting to the point that many vendors can't afford to pay the guaranteed markdowns and are becoming reluctant to pay for all of the markdowns they are being asked to give. Many retailers are also relying on chargebacks to bail them out. It is all part of the negotiations between vendors and retailers."After this particularly tough quarter," he continued, "we may see a completely different environment next year, with many vendors deciding not to enter into whatever arrangement -- whether up-front discounts or prenegotiated markdowns early in the season -- that they have had with retailers in the past.

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