What a difference a month makes.
Most retailers posted positive same-store sales results that were better than the sector estimates for September, compared with August, when the majority of retailers posted results below estimates. The exceptions last month were The Gap Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp.
While the universe of retailers reporting monthly comps was too small to extrapolate the trend line heading into the fourth quarter’s holiday selling season, retailers that did well are likely to continue to grab market share.
Two reports out on Thursday were projecting an uptick in consumer spending for holiday, although, over the past few years, early holiday sales forecasts have always turned out to be rosier than the final result. After all, what consumers say they plan to do and what they will do next month are two different things. And the jury is probably still out regarding holiday sales, given that the equity markets are showing signs of volatility — this week saw three-digit swings following a relatively calm summer — and the International Monetary Fund cut its global economic outlook for this year and next, citing weakness in Europe, Japan and Latin America.
In Accenture’s annual holiday shopping survey, spending by U.S. consumers on holiday gifts is expected to average $718, with 25 percent of respondents stating they plan to spend more this year, up from 20 percent a year ago. Of those who plan to spend more, 28 percent said they have more discretionary income, while 22 percent said they have greater job security, up from 15 percent in 2013. Drilling down further into the consumer mind-set, 96 percent said discounts will play a key role in their purchasing decisions, with more than 29 percent noting it “would take a discount of 50 percent or more to persuade them to make a purchase.” As expected, mobile will take on a larger role this year, as 63 percent said they will use a laptop or computer to make purchases, while 24 percent will rely on a smartphone. Respondents, at 49 percent, also said they either already had started or planned to start the majority of their shopping in September.
The International Council of Shopping Centers is forecasting a 4 percent rise in sales at shopping centers during the November-December period. ICSC cited the rebound in the U.S. labor market as a contributing factor. The trade organization for shopping centers also is projecting a 2.8 percent growth rate for apparel and accessories during November and December.
Still, heading into the holiday run-up, September’s comp sales gave many retailers a bit of a spring in their step. Among the teen retailers — which generally were expected to post increases of about 2.5 percent — reporting on Thursday, Zumiez Inc. was on fire, posting a 6.6 percent comparable-store sales gain, compared with expectations of a 2.6 percent increase. According to Stifel analyst Richard Jaffe, the comp gain was “driven by higher comparable-store transactions and by higher dollars per transaction.” He noted that hard goods, men’s, juniors and accessories comped positively, while footwear and boys’ comped negatively. Jaffe concluded that “Zumiez’s efforts to narrowly focus on trend-right brands continues to be effectively executed.”
The Buckle Inc. missed slightly against expectations of a 2.4 percent gain, coming in at 2.2 percent, but still a positive comp for the month, given how troubled the teen sector has been of late. Thomas B. Heacock, Buckle’s treasurer and controller, said strong categories in the men’s business included denim and casual bottoms, knit shirts, outerwear and accessories. In women’s, casual bottoms, woven and knit tops, sweaters and active apparel were the top segments.
The apparel retailers, as a sector, were expected to post a comp gain of 2.1 percent, but, of those reporting, most beat that estimate.
Specialty women’s chain Cato Corp. registered a comp gain of 5 percent, 2 percent higher than expectations. Stein Mart had a comp gain of 4.9 percent, versus a 3 percent estimate.
Over at L Brands, comps rose 6 percent, above the 3.5 percent estimate. By division, Victoria’s Secret matched expectations at a gain of 4 percent, although that was well above the 1 percent comp increase posted a year ago. The surprise was Bath & Body Works, which saw comps jump 10 percent, compared with estimates of just 3.4 percent. Amie Preston, chief investor relations officer, said during a conference call on the September results that the comp gain at Victoria’s Secret was driven by Pink and lingerie. Victoria’s Secret Direct saw September comps increasing 5 percent, driven by growth in Pink bras and sport. The direct channel continues to clear merchandise from its apparel segment, a category the specialty chain has elected to exit. The jump at Bath & Body Works was due, in part, to customer response to its We Love Fall theme.
The exception was The Gap, which on Wednesday reported comps as it revealed its chairman and chief executive officer Glenn Murphy was exiting in February and handing the baton to Art Peck. Gap Global saw comps slide 3 percent, compared with an estimate of negative 0.9 percent. Old Navy Global saw a comp gain of 1 percent, below the estimate of a 3.5 percent increase. Banana Republic met estimates of a comp gain of 2 percent.
FBR Capital Markets’ Susan Anderson said that, in terms of Gap’s weekly comp cadence, “week two was the strongest, while week five was the weakest.” She also noted uncertainty about product execution at the Gap brand. Her “market perform” rating on shares of Gap is based on current and expected promotions that will weigh on margins, weak retail traffic at the stores and uncertainty surrounding product execution, offset, in part, by growth in the international markets and in outlets as well as margin-expanding initiatives in supply-chain improvement and omnichannel development.
Another exception was Costco, which saw a 6 percent comp gain in its U.S. operations, excluding gas sales, against a 5.7 percent estimate. Costco International, also excluding gas, saw comps increase 6 percent, too, although that was below the 9.3 percent estimate.