This year’s ICR Retail and Consumer conference laid bare the growing divide in fashion retailing with presenters at the event, held this week in Orlando, Fla., falling into two camps.
Several retailers started their presentations almost identically by saying what a challenging environment retail was facing. They cited shrinking mall traffic, a warm winter and an unmotivated shopper.
Then there was another set that seemed to be existing in a parallel retail universe. Lululemon Athletica Inc. was selling 90 percent of its product at full price, Tommy Bahama parent Oxford Industries also had full-price selling and L Brands Inc. said it saw no problem with mall traffic.
Overall, the group was optimistic and put on a sunshine-y face for the bankers in the audience, trying to convince them that, even if they did not have a good holiday, things were looking up. They said they were tackling the problems head-on and made the investment case for their companies.
Slow traffic was a nearly universal theme for mall-based retailers. L Brands was the only company that said it had no problems with mall traffic, although the company did note that its leases provided significant protection based on occupancy and co-tenancy provisions. American Eagle Outfitters Inc. pointed out that it was signing more short-term leases and that if traffic continued to decline in some malls, it would be able to get out cheaper than if it had signed a more traditional long-term lease.
Many retailers, however, pointed out that traffic has grown online. Companies that have already invested significantly in e-commerce are now reaping the benefits. American Eagle Outfitters spoke of the benefits of its online reserve policy and how 40 percent of the reserved items were picked up in physical stores, where those shoppers tended to buy even more items. American Eagle also noted that 20 to 23 percent of its sales were on the digital side. Ascena Retail Group Inc. has invested its efforts into its mobile e-commerce site.
More traditional retailers like Gordman’s, which was late to the e-commerce world, are only now getting the benefits of online shopping. The company noted that just 1 percent of its holiday sales came from e-commerce and it had only launched the site in August. Stage Stores Inc. had a similar story. It was slow to build its online shopping business and while it had 4 percent of its business through e-commerce, that doesn’t compare favorably to the double-digit share seen at other companies.
The unusually warm weather was another common bugbear. Some retailers like Burlington Stores Inc. tried to point out that its sales excluding outerwear were up 4 percent. Unfortunately, that isn’t how they will be measured. G-III Apparel Group also spoke of moves to reduce its dependency on the coat business and shift more to dresses. That was a good move this year and looks to be paying off. Most just said it was bad and are already looking at the results of the transition to spring clothes. New York & Co. and American Eagle both said spring was looking strong.
With revenues harder to come by, many retailers at the conference were emphasizing how they keep costs down. Ascena talked about supply-chain improvements as it splits the country in half for shipping. It will no longer ship from the West Coast to Chicago, then back to the West Coast again. Francesca’s Holdings Corp. is closing six stores and American Eagle talked about lower cotton prices bringing costs down. New York & Co. also talked of lower material costs.
Analysts are able to see the glass as half full, at least in some cases. With stock prices sliding, valuations are looking attractive. Eric Beder of Wunderlich wrote, “There remain potential upside drivers in 2016 from anniversarying the impact of the West Coast dockworker slowdown and being able to drive lower costs with a weaker yuan and lower commodity prices. When we factor in low valuations, the risk/reward in the apparel, licensing and specialty retailing space appears to be more appealing and we are increasingly favorable to the risk/reward in the space.”
Wells Fargo analysts also picked up on the positive vibes in Orlando. They wrote, “We had six companies at the event and we emerged incrementally positive on Burlington and Lululemon, while also gaining more confidence in Signet Jewelers.” They remain skeptical of Urban Outfitters Inc. and are cautious on Boot Barn. “It appears that the companies with a recent history of solid operating performance and differentiated business models were able to carry their momentum through holiday and into 2016, whereas the more challenged retailers continue to experience pressure.”