Everything’s up in the air at Aéropostale Inc. except the stock price — that’s down and maybe even coming in for a hard landing.
Shares of the retailer, which quietly split its business into two parts last month, fell another 15 percent to 22 cents Monday as Wall Street tried to puzzle out the nature of its dispute with Sycamore Partner’s MGF Sourcing division, its prospects and the likely outcome of Aeropostale’s search for strategic alternatives.
The share price decline came after a disastrous 46 percent retreat Friday that was fueled by the uncertainty. The two days of declines left the company with a market capitalization of just $17.6 million.
It’s been a tough descent for Aeropostale, which has 810 total locations in the U.S. and Canada but has been struggling to match up its offerings with the customers coming into its stores. Sales fell 18 percent to $1.5 billion last year as net losses narrowed to $136.9 million from $206.5 million in 2014.
Chief executive officer Julian Geiger, in his latest and most drastic attempt to align the company’s product offering with the realities at the cash register, basically split the chain in two as of the end of February.
About 60 percent of the company’s stores are now considered “Factory Stores” and some are tagged that way. The plan is to offer a narrow and deep assortment of basics at those doors while the balance of the fleet targets higher-end consumers at better malls with edgier fashions.
Geiger’s immediate focus will be on the factory doors.
“The customers at these stores have an appreciation for a more classic overall assortment, which includes a higher mix of our key basics and logo merchandise,” he said on a conference call last week, which did not include any of the usual back and forth with analysts. “The customers are not only teenagers, but are families looking for a strong value proposition on key items. These stores tend to be located primarily in outlets and in select B- and C-malls and as such, become our Factory Chain.”
The other stores will be called “Mall Chain,” the ceo said, and will feature “a merchandise assortment focused on updated classics with a twist and a reduced assortment of logo merchandise, which in aggregate we believe will resonate with the more fashion-oriented customer.”
Just how many B-malls are keen on having their Aéropostale store switch over to Aéropostale Factory and how shoppers react remains to be seen, but Geiger and the company seem to have more-pressing concerns at the moment.
While disputes with vendors are not uncommon, they usually don’t spill out into the open and the current troubles are threatening on a number of levels.
“While we have seen a perceptible improvement in the overall business due to the merchandise and the institution of the Factory and Mall allocation strategy, regrettably we are experiencing a disruption in our supply of some merchandise due to a dispute with a key vendor,” Geiger said.
Aéropostale’s position is that MGF has violated their sourcing agreement with the company. It’s a dispute that’s a thorny one for two reasons. First, it’s costly. Second, and more complicated, is that MGF is owned by Sycamore — and the private-equity firm extended a $150 million term loan to Aéropostale to help shore up its beleaguered balance sheet.
David Dick, the retailer’s chief financial officer, told investors that first-quarter adjusted operating losses could be negatively impacted by up to $8 million if shipping delays from the dispute continue.
A spokesman for Sycamore’s MGF has said: “Contrary to Aéropostale’s assertions in its earnings release, MGF Sourcing is not in violation of its Sourcing Agreement with Aeropostale. In fact, MGF has taken action to protect itself by reducing payment terms as permitted under the agreement.”
That could ultimately add up to more than a war of words.
Guggenheim Securities analyst Howard Tubin noted that, “In the apparel business, when vendors start to look at customers in sort of a more critical light and maybe reduce payment terms with a retailer, stuff like that can spread. If one sourcing partner is doing it, others could potentially follow suit. Aéropostale suddenly finds itself having to offer tighter payment terms and it doesn’t help their case.”
Tubin said the company has tried to appeal to shoppers with more fashionable merchandise in a variety of ways over the past five years and found that while it didn’t work across the chain, it worked in certain stores.
But he said that “the jury’s still out” on the new bifurcated approach. “We can’t read too much into basically three weeks of business in these stores. It looks like they’re trying just about everything they can do. The issue with MGF is certainly not helping matters; it’s probably making matters worse.”
With little known about the dispute and neither side talking, speculation has taken center stage.
Mizuho Securities analyst Betty Chen said, “There’s been some conspiracy theories out there thinking that Sycamore sees the writing on the wall and wants to minimize their investments or that they could potentially accelerate Aéropostale’s path toward bankruptcy, in which case they would potentially get a bigger stake in the company at a more attractive valuation.”
Sycamore has already snatched up a number of struggling specialty retailers, including Talbots, Hot Topic and Coldwater Creek. It also acquired and then split up the Jones Group, bought Belk and has investments in the dollar-store space.
If there’s a deal to be made for Aéropostale, Chen said Sycamore would be well positioned, noting that other financial players wouldn’t know the company as well as Sycamore and that there probably isn’t much interest from strategic players.
Chen said Aéropostale still has some leeway and could tap into its revolving credit line to carry it through this year.
That could offer enough time for the new strategy to prove itself and win back skeptical investors. Or not.