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Solid October Comps Spur Revision Tricks

NEW YORK — Robust same-store sales in October led many retailers to boost third-quarter earnings forecasts, but most were simply reversing the prior month’s lowered expectations.<br><br>Retailers last Thursday reported October same-store...

NEW YORK — Robust same-store sales in October led many retailers to boost third-quarter earnings forecasts, but most were simply reversing the prior month’s lowered expectations.

Retailers last Thursday reported October same-store sales were substantially higher than expected and, in most cases, above those of October 2001, as cold weather and pent-up demand lifted outerwear and sweater sales and pushed war fears and economic problems off many consumers’ radar screens.

While analysts see the strong comps as a positive sign for holiday, they caution that they don’t necessarily signal a recovery in apparel. Furthermore, upward revisions in earnings tended to reduce but not erase guidance reductions made during or since a balmy mid-September sales slump.

“The good news is the number of companies raising their earnings expectations,” said Marcia Aaron, an analyst with Pacific Growth Equities. “They are getting decent margins and are not having to give the store away, demonstrating that while consumers may not be out shopping aggressively, they will shop when given a reason. They are not waiting for rock-bottom prices.”

Richard Jaffe, a specialty retail analyst with UBS Warburg, said: “There was more traffic, more transactions. Business was materially better in October. The news is more good than bad.”

When companies tallied the dismal results for September, they also indicated the trends were so far continuing in October, and many of them, including Aeropostale, Hot Topic and Talbots, warned investors that profits would fall short of expectations. But when October turned much colder, consumers realized they needed a sweater or a jacket and sales picked up.

“When companies went through those tough two weeks in mid-September, many of them lowered guidance Oct. 10,” Brian Tunick, a specialty retail analyst with J.P. Morgan, said. “These upward guidances are sort of coming off of lowered guidance from last month so the net-net winds up closer to original guidance.”

Retailers early last month were left in the dark not only about the weather, but also about the impact of the West Coast dock lockout on deliveries and the lowest consumer confidence reading in nine years. Most observers applaud the retail community for its cautious view in lowering the bar and slashing inventories and expenses.

One of the more glaring examples was Aeropostale, which warned Oct. 1 that, due to the slowdown in mall traffic, it was expecting October’s comps to be down in the low- to mid-single digits and its third-quarter earnings per share would fall well short of the expected 50 to 52 cents, in a range of 31 to 33 cents. But, once October was concluded, the teen retailer reported that comps rose 11.7 percent for the month and it’s raised its EPS outlook to 37 to 39 cents.

In another instance, Kohl’s Corp. said its 18.3 percent comp run-up last month was strong enough for the firm to return its third-quarter earnings estimates to their previous level of 37 cents a share. After a weak showing in September, Kohl’s had pulled Wall Street’s projections down to 34 to 35 cents a share. J.C. Penney Co. Inc. also excelled with comps in its department stores surging 13.7 percent for the month. On a recorded call, a spokesman said third-quarter earnings now are slated to exceed Wall Street’s current projections of 23 cents a share. As reported, Penney’s last month pumped up its third-quarter EPS projections to above 21 cents a share. Analysts had expected 19 cents a share.

In reporting an 11 percent increase in its monthly comps, its first increase since April 2000, Gap Inc. said it was now forecasting third-quarter earnings of 12 to 14 cents, a whopping 50 percent higher than Wall Street’s best guess of 6 cents.

While American Eagle Outfitters said it is now anticipating profits to be at or slightly above the high end of the 31- to 34-cent range it gave in September, far lower than the 43 cents it originally planned for, Abercrombie & Fitch said it expects to beat its previous guidance of 41 to 45 cents, but is still below earlier forecasts of 48 cents and its original 49-cent plan.

Among West Coast teen chains, Pacific Sunwear expects to report earnings of 47 to 48 cents, exceeding consensus estimates of 40 cents, and Hot Topic pointed to 30 cents — up from 27 to 29 cents, but lower than its original guidance of 32 cents. Moving to the missy market, Talbots increased its outlook to 61 to 63 cents, versus recently lowered expectations of 59 to 61 cents; Ann Taylor aimed for 53 cents from 50 to 51 cents, and Chico’s FAS upped guidance to between 17 and 18 cents from 16 cents.

While May Department Stores Co. pulled expectations down at the start of last week, Federated Department Stores on Thursday said it is now looking for earnings of 36 to 38 cents a share, above previous guidance of 30 to 35 cents

Still, others were not as optimistic, saying the increases wouldn’t be sufficient to compensate for international tensions and domestic economic weakness.

“These numbers are still not as high as original expectations,” Dorothy Lakner, a specialty retail analyst with CIBC World Markets, said. “The weather provided some stimulus, but it does not offset the negatives of a difficult economic environment and weak stock market.”

Still, some say if the cold weather persists, the strong sweater and coat showing in October could only improve for the holidays, as those are key gift-giving items. “It allows people to think about apparel,” Tunick said.

Looking even further down the road, while solid sales in October, typically a clearance month, drove many to raise expectations, analysts said they would hold their breath until at least November to assess trends in consumer demand and the state of the industry.