MENOMONEE FALLS, Wisc. — Kohl’s Corp. may be talking up its “Greatness Agenda,” but Wall Street is skeptical it will boost results soon.
Shares of Kohl’s fell 13.3 percent to $64.62 on Thursday as shareholders digested some of the pressures ahead for the retailer. The steep drop in the share price came despite the retailer reporting a 1.6 percent increase in net income for the first quarter ended May 2 to $127 million, or 63 cents a diluted share, from $125 million, or 60 cents, a year ago. Sales rose 1.3 percent to $4.12 billion from $4.07 billion. Comparable-store sales were up 1.4 percent, compared with a 3.4 percent decline a year ago.
During a question-and-answer session with shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting here and then again during a press conference, Kohl’s chairman, president and chief executive officer Kevin Mansell responded to the double-digit percentage drop in share price.
Acknowledging that sales growth of 1.4 percent was below the estimated range of 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent the company had provided, Mansell told shareholders, “We feel we had a great quarter. We had the second quarter in a row of growth. It’s given us more confidence.” And he expressed confidence that the first-quarter figures provide “no reason to believe we won’t achieve or overachieve our annual [estimate].”
Talking later with reporters, Mansell professed bafflement at the market’s reaction. “Equity markets are hard to predict, to say the least,” he said. “We have to communicate our story effectively and succeed against that, and we’re doing that….In the long term, we will be rewarded.”
Asked if the below-predictions sales report had opened the door to the company’s doubters, Mansell shot back: “The only door that’s been opened is a door for a smart shareholder to buy.” He recalled that when Kohl’s unveiled its “Greatness Agenda” six months earlier, investors said it looked like a great plan, but told him, “I don’t see how you’re going to achieve those goals,” and Kohl’s has exceeded some of them. “You can’t worry about it — unless you’re buying and selling shares of stock, it doesn’t matter what today’s price is.” Mansell added that he expects Kohl’s will be buying back some shares of its stock at the lower prices. “I expect we’re aggressive buyers.”
During the shareholders’ meeting, Mansell revealed that after a period of emphasizing its private-label fashion lines, Kohl’s has been and will continue to shift back toward national brands.
“The growth of our proprietary portfolio caused a problem,” the ceo admitted. Consumers “saw us as less credible” as a retailer of national fashion brands. “We needed to recommit.”
That recommitment bolsters one of the five “pillars” of the “Greatness Agenda,” a “new strategic framework” aimed at making the chain “the most engaging retailer in America,” Mansell said.
Constructing the first of those pillars, “Amazing Product,” has included the introductions of fashion and beauty brands like Izod, Puma, Fitbit, Juicy Couture, Fruit of the Loom, Gaiam yoga apparel and Bliss. Kohl’s also has ramped up its activewear offerings with brands like Nike, Columbia and Champion.
“I’m sure our national brand penetration is going to grow,” Mansell said. “Since we’re launching so many new brands, by default it’s going to grow. And some of these brands are in pretty hot categories.” For example, he added, “We’re adding new brands in areas like active and wellness.”
Later in 2015, Kohl’s plans to roll out a new “sports environment” to help highlight some of those brands as well as merchandise tied to college and professional sports teams from the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the NCAA, Mansell said.
The overall goals of the Kohl’s “Greatness Agenda” include $21 billion in annual sales, “best in class” customer service and associate engagement in the 90th percentile, Mansell said. In addition to “Amazing Product,” the remaining four pillars of the agenda include:
“Incredible Savings”: This is centered around the new “Yes to You” loyalty program, which has enrolled 29 million customers in its first six months. About half of those customers have not been Kohl’s credit card holders in the past, which means their loyalty data is newly captured. The Kohl’s credit card program had been its only loyalty-oriented program previously, and the 25 million or so card holders have provided the company with about half its business.
“Easy Experience”: The chain last year began a 100-store test of an order-online-pickup-in-store system that “was so successful we rolled it out to all our stores,” Mansell said, a process that reached completion on May 7. Next, the company will move the system from computers to mobile devices like tablets and phones, which should happen by June 30. “The results early on have been spectacular,” Mansell said. Kohl’s also launched a ship-from-store initiative last holiday season, he said. The company’s online sales are slightly over 11 percent of the total, he said, although “that’s getting blurred” by initiatives like order-online/pickup-in-store.
“Personalized Connection”: Aimed at building a one-to-one relationship with every customer, this initiative is aimed to create 5 billion “personalized touches” through print, broadcast, e-mail or social media in 2015. Kohl’s also is working to fine-tune its in-store assortments of fashion and other brands based on each store’s customer base, Mansell said.
“Winning Teams”: The company remains committed to developing its 140,000 associates, he said, through everything from paying competitive wages to engaging employees in community service projects. “Our associates are on the front lines every day, putting customers first,” Mansell said. The company’s 930,000-square-foot campus includes a day care, wellness center and health clinic, he noted. “We want to be the best place to work,” he said.
Responding to a reporter’s question about the recent publicity provided to Kohl’s by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, Mansell gave a muted response. “I’m glad he’s a customer,” the ceo said. “He’s no different from any other customer. I’m glad he recognizes the value and recognizes the brand.”