NEW YORK — The real fun begins in July.

That was that day-after reaction on Friday to June comparable-store sales results. While analysts were pleased with June’s modest increases, the June comp numbers generally were viewed as a prelude to events this month, when fall and back-to-school merchandise begins hitting the floors and retailers wrap up their second quarters.

Having fought excessive inventories with aggressive promotions, stores are anxious to reinvent themselves this month with fall’s selection of denim, camouflage, velour sweats and vintage looks.

After a grueling first quarter dominated by talk of war and characterized by sluggish sales, weak earnings and heavy stock levels, sales have rebounded slightly and inventories have been worked down in most cases, albeit at the expense of margins. June’s comps strengthened the sense that second-quarter earnings will be healthier, with further improvement in the second half.

With that reinforcement, retail stocks resumed their upward trend Friday with the Standard & Poor’s Retail Index locking in a 2 percent gain to end the week at 339.59, less than 5 points off its 52-week high. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was unable to maintain its momentum from earlier in the day but finished up 0.9 percent at 9,119.59.

Even on the heels of a 2.4 percent June comp decline and a downward revision in its second-quarter earnings outlook, Kohl’s Corp. managed a $2.26, or 4.1 percent, gain, closing at $57.22 in New York Stock Exchange trading. Banc of America analyst Dana Cohen upgraded the stock to “buy” from “market perform” based on the apparent intensity of its commitment to inventory management.

“We think it suggests that management has learned some hard lessons over the last four quarters,” Cohen wrote. “Importantly, the company is also not relying on the vendors to reduce [inventories] this quarter and is willing to take the margin hit of nearly 200 basis points in order to move into fall with clean inventories.”

Some promising developments affecting consumer spending, such as tax breaks and the continuing low level of interest rates, are helping to beautify the retail landscape.

“Second-half expectations are for bigger increases in earnings,” Dana Telsey, a retail analyst with Bear, Stearns, said. “Some, like Wal-Mart, Gap and Limited Brands, could see earnings double.” Weak comparisons with the second half of 2002 should also make back-half comps look better, she noted, adding that inventory management will remain a “key factor” in the months ahead.Steven Skinner, a partner in the retail industry group at Accenture, said he is feeling more upbeat about retailers’ outlooks for the second half than he did in the first half and has been impressed by results at stores including Gap, Limited Brands and Neiman Marcus Group, which pulled off a 10.3 percent gain in June comps.

“If we can keep the momentum from the last half of June and if we can get a good b-t-s and if we can get the right product in the store, without any third party event happening, I think that would set up a good second half,” Skinner said.

Daniel Barry, a broadline analyst with Merrill Lynch, based much of his second-half optimism on sales comparisons versus last year that have become increasingly easier to match and surpass. He said while the sales gain in June was minimal, up 0.7 percent, according to his monthly index, versus a 0.4 percent average increase over the past 12 months, retailers in the second quarter did a much better job at hitting their lowered sales plans compared with the first quarter. Therefore, they’re more likely to have better earnings in the second quarter and, with a tight rein on inventories and easier comparisons, into the back half of the year.

UBS analyst Linda Kristiansen begged to differ and doesn’t expect a second-half recovery. Rather, she said, “our leading indicators are pointing to an improvement in industry sales momentum early in 2004. We continue to expect most department store stocks to underperform the market over the near term, as sales momentum remains generally sluggish and earnings are projected to underperform the S&P in the second half.”

Retail stock performance moved up along with rising temperatures in June, with many issues hitting new 52-week highs. While it may be too late for high-yield stock purchases, Goldman, Sachs & Co.’s George Strachan, writing in advance of the comp results, raised his earnings estimates an average of 4.4 percent for a broad range of department stores. Dillard’s, J.C. Penney and Saks maintained their “underperform” status and Federated Department Stores, Kohl’s and Target stayed at “outperform,” but May Department Stores Co. moved up to “in-line” from “underperform.” The overall outlook stayed at “neutral” based on the offsetting combination of the recent stock surges and the likelihood of accelerated growth in personal consumption later in the year.Neiman Marcus’s strength, and more modest comp increases at Nordstrom (1.9 percent) and Saks Fifth Avenue (1.1 percent) impressed Smith Barney broadlines analyst Deborah Weinswig. “The high-end consumer has returned to the stores as stock market gains and the resolution of world issues have given these consumers an emotional life,” she wrote in a research report.

Less affluent consumers, however, have done some trading down, buying not only closer to need but also making some purchases once reserved for department stores within the discount channel.

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