Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Socks and underwear

For many consumers, this is probably going to be The Holiday of Socks and Underwear. For most retailers, that’s going to translate to sackcloth and ashes for earnings.

The consumer is facing rising unemployment, higher food prices, tightening credit, and the evaporation of their balance sheets. Consumers are buying food and basics, all other categories have fallen off the proverbial cliff. They’re trading down wherever and whenever possible, and buying on sale when they don’t trade down. The one unknown is how the recent fall in gas prices will adjust consumer spending (down 45% off the July highs, roughly -15% from this time last year), but my best guess is that other concerns will trump it.

In order to entice shoppers into their stores, the bargains have already started. This is partly because many retailers still have fall merchandise to clear so they can get holiday into the stores, and partly because shoppers have proven to not make a move toward their wallets until the signs say 40% off or more. (JC Penney Tuesday through Thursday: 75% clearance merchandise, 15% off everything else in the store. Why would anyone think retailers are desperate?) Bankruptcy clearance sales are putting even more pressure on the ‘healthy’ (or would it be more appropriate to say ‘not yet in horrible trouble’) retailers, as they have to compete with the clearance pricing.

The one safe haven has been discount stores, but even within that group there are the haves and the have nots. Wal-Mart is the poster child for this recession: the one retailer who after three long years of promises and pain had finally gotten its house in order, and at exactly the right time. Wal-Mart’s mix of food and general merchandise (roughly 60/40 consumables/gm) has served it well. Costco and BJ’s Wholesale also sell a mix of products leveraged to consumables, and their performance reflects that. That contrasts with Target that doesn’t sell nearly as much food (41% of what they sell is apparel/home). Dollar stores are also doing well, as is as Aeropostale a teen retailer that specializes in lower priced merchandise that is still similar to the higher priced Abercrombie and American Eagle.

Macy’s and Best Buy reported this morning. Macy’s is managing through this time by not marking down, controlling inventories, and putting out a feel good message (LOVE LOVE LOVE the ‘Believe’ campaign they’re running) as opposed to some of their competitors (JCP noted above) that are really marketing on price. Best Buy told us this is the worst they’ve seen it. Of course, they’re not selling anything that is absolutely vital to the consumers’ survival (despite what kids might say about having to have the newest computer games.)

Surveys are showing that a majority of shoppers are planning on spending less this holiday season than last year. Those purchases that are made are going to focus on value for the money. That doesn’t bode well for gift cards this year, since a savvy shopper can shop the sales, buy a $100 sweater for $60 (or less) and get the mental credit with the gift receiver for having bought a $100 sweater. On the other hand, if you give a gift card $50, chances are you have to pay $50 for it. Although, there are a number of signs of desperation from the retailers that include ‘buy $100 in toys and get a $10 gift card (Fred Meyer… a Kroger affiliate much like a small WMT) and Mattel’s current offer of ‘buy $100 in Barbie paraphernalia (any retailer) and get a $50 Barbie Visa gift card for mom.’

Specifically on stocks reporting Thursday:
* I’m expecting that WMT could beat consensus of $0.76, although since we’re talking about WMT, it should only be by a penny or two.
* Kohl’s has already guided down to the lower end of $0.51-0.56. They’re going head to head with the rest of the department store space, and it’s a very value conscious consumer. They’re a fabulous competitor and have been able to manage costs extremely well historically which is going to be necessary for success going forward.
* Nordstrom. ::sigh:: Nordstrom is going to be painful. All we know is that numbers will be below previous guidance for $0.32-0.37 (consensus was $0.36, now $0.31, and I fear still too high.) Love management, think they’ve got great systems and cost advantages (commissioned based sales staff), but I am concerned that they’re not only missing the aspirational customers but that now their core customers have pulled way back.

Be careful out there.

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