It’s still rough out there for specialty chains.
Ascena Retail Group Inc. is the latest to issue a holiday mea culpa — following in the footsteps of Macy’s Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Kohl’s Corp., J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and others — citing sales declines and cutting profit forecasts.
American Eagle Outfitters Inc. seems to have fared somewhat better than most in the holiday season, but executives at the annual ICR retail conference acknowledged they could be shrinking the company’s store base even as they hyped the Aerie brand as a growth vehicle.
Ascena said its combined November and December comparable sales fell 4.4 percent, with a slightly smaller 3.1 percent drop for the Nov. 19 to Jan. 2 holiday period. Investors sent shares of the company down 10 percent to $5.41.
The company, which is working to remake its operations, is assuming that sales trend continues and is focusing on expense management to help get through the lean days.
Holiday comps were hit hardest at the Ann Taylor division, which fell 8.2 percent, while its sister business, Loft, declined just 1.8 percent. The stronger performers in the company were plus-size chain Catherines, up 1.6 percent, and kids’ fashion, ahead 2.7 percent.
For the second fiscal quarter, ending Jan. 28, the company now expects adjusted losses per share of 8 cents to 11 cents, down from the 5 cent loss to break-even performance projected earlier.
“Outside of discrete peaks during the holiday season, we experienced stronger-than-expected store traffic headwinds,” said David Jaffe, president and chief executive officer. “As a result, we were forced into a more highly promotional stance in order to move through inventory in the face of softer overall consumer demand.”
Retailers across the spectrum have complained that shoppers simply weren’t coming out to stores.
“November started out somewhat slow,” said Bob Madore, chief financial officer and executive vice president of American Eagle Outfitters Inc. at ICR. “As you moved to the Thanksgiving, Black Friday periods, Cyber Monday period, we actually had strong performance, leading into the longer holiday period. We were up plus 5 percent comp over that period of time.
“But then what you saw immediately after that, turning to the beginning of December, is a real low in traffic, which really was more pronounced as you look towards weeks three and four of December where mall traffic was down anywhere from 18 percent to 20 percent, and we saw our bricks-and-mortar traffic roughly in line with that,” he said.
American Eagle said last week its fourth-quarter comps would be flat.
The company’s Aerie brand, which operates in 13 states and has seen its comp sales trend up 25 percent, is a bright spot with room to open more doors.
But in general, the retail impulse at American Eagle across the sector is to prune.
“We’ve got roughly 550 locations that come up for lease expiration over the course of the next three years, pretty evenly split, 160 or so in each of those years,” Madore said. “So as those decisions or those points in time come up, we’re looking at things like digital penetration to brick-and-mortar sales within that region.
“If a store’s in a C mall location, for instance, and although we’re still making money, we’re seeing digital having a much higher penetration we might decide to close that store,” he said. “We will definitely see a decrease in our U.S.-based real estate portfolio over the ongoing years, particularly, as traffic gets more challenged in some of the C locations where, for instance, Macy’s last week announced they’re going to get out of 68 locations.”
American Eagle has about 33 doors in locations that have a Macy’s closing and an opportunity to exit those stores in the near-term if necessary.
American Eagle, which has more than 1,000 stores, saw its stock inch up 1.8 percent to $15.24 on Tuesday.