By  on January 7, 2002

NEW YORK -- Retail analysts on Friday primed investors for the release of same-store sales on Thursday with rating changes -- some good, some bad -- for Sears, Roebuck & Co., Kmart Corp., Ann Taylor Stores Corp. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc.

In a move that eluded analysts' scrutiny, Mothers Work Inc. said it eked out a 0.3 percent increase in comparable-store sales for December while managing to drive up its gross margin rate, despite the bearish retail climate. Shares of the firm were up 20 cents, or 2 percent, to close at $10 in Nasdaq trading.

For the day, the S&P Retail Index rose 8.68 points, or 0.9 percent, to 929.73. Kmart, reeling from downgrades and Chapter 11 speculation since the market rung in the New Year, was able to stem the bleeding and see its shares pick up 62 cents, or 15.2 percent, to close at $4.71 on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock lost just over a quarter of its value in the two preceding days of trading and had hit a new 52-week low, its third in as many days, of $3.89 in intraday trading Friday.

There was no respite from Kmart analyst reductions, though. Although UBS Warburg's Linda Kristiansen in a research note said a bankruptcy filing -- voluntary or otherwise -- was unlikely, she reduced her fourth-quarter profit estimates to 27 cents a share, down from both the 37 cents previously expected and year-ago earnings of 48 cents. The analyst also cut her 12-month target price to $5 from $11.

"Kmart has a lot of room to improve inventory control, processes, shrinkage, turnover and its payables ratios," she noted. Despite management's efforts to the contrary, she said, the firm's "performance in each of these categories continues to significantly underperform both Wal-Mart Stores and Target Corp., as well as Kmart's original performance targets for the year."

However, Kristiansen maintained her "hold" rating on the issue.

Cheerier news came from Prudential Financial analyst Wayne Hood on Sears, another national retailer undergoing major structural changes. As reported, the analyst downgraded Kmart to "sell" last Wednesday, kicking off the retailer's latest tug-of-war with Wall Street.Hood kept his "buy" rating on Sears's stock and noted that the firm's fourth-quarter earnings per share could exceed the current Wall Street consensus of $1.90. Furthermore, the analyst raised his 2002 EPS estimates by 40 cents, to $4.80.

"Women's ready-to-wear apparel was a leading category in the full-line stores" in December, he noted.

Shares of Sears rose $2.11, or 4.4 percent, to $49.65, on the NYSE.

Robert Ohmes, analyst at Morgan Stanley, bumped up his rating on American Eagle to "strong buy" from "outperform" and increased the issue's target price $3, to $38 a share.

Though he expected December same-store sales to fall 4 to 6 percent, Ohmes noted that "comps should get less negative against easier comparisons in January, February and March with the help of a fresh spring assortment."

Shares of American Eagle rose $2.77, or 10.3 percent, to end the day at $29.68 in Nasdaq trading.

Ohmes likewise ramped up his target price on Ann Taylor $10, to $42, and maintained the stock's outperform rating. December comps should also drop 4 to 6 percent, he said, with continued strength at the Ann Taylor Loft concept offset by negative same-store sales in Ann Taylor doors.

Barring any further terrorist attacks, the analyst expects comps to improve in January as tourism regains steam.

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