more on Whole Foods (WFM) and Amazon (AMZN)

I was reading an article from Fortune magazine about the AMZN takeover of WFM.  Although it echoed much of what the rest of the press is saying, I was struck by it–mostly because my expectations for Fortune are higher than for financial reporting in general.

Three ideas in the article stuck out in particular:

–that AMZN’s goal with WFM is to compete head-to-head in groceries with Wal-Mart (WMT)

—the implication that because the margins of grocery chains are low they have a poor business model

–that the price cuts made by AMZN on Monday are small, therefore they make no difference.

my take

–ten campers, including yourself, are being chased by a bear.  If the goal is purely personal survival, you don’t need to outrun the bear.  You only need to outrun one of the other nine.

Put a different way, the goal of, say, Zara or Suit Supply is not to compete head-to-head on price with WMT.  that would be suicide.  Instead, those firms intend to provide differentiated clothing to a more focused audience.  Yes, it’s still clothing, but it’s different clothing.  Initially, at least, that’s AMZN’s goal with WFM.  It wants to expand WFM’s appeal to a smaller, younger, more affluent audience, not steal traffic from WMT.

–the key to profitability in a distribution business is to turn inventory over rapidly, taking a small markup on each transaction.  This is surprisingly badly understood by most professional investors, as well as virtually all the financial press–and by WFM, as well.  This is one reason that as an investor I love distribution companies.

Low markups defend against competition and create customer loyalty; continual effort to keep the growth in inventory under the growth in sales creates positive operating leverage.

WFM appears to me to have chosen do pretty much the opposite–to take large markups on each transaction, a “strategy” that has stunted sales growth.  Inventory turns are higher for WFM than for other grocers, although I suspect that this is a function of differences in product mix.  In any event, something else (or, more likely, a bunch of other something elses) in WFM’s organizational structure is all messed up.  The income statement shows that its very fat gross margins are frittered away almost completely by high overhead expenses.

If I were AMZN, I’d figure I’d attack what I think is the abundant low-hanging fruit in operating inefficiency and lower food selling prices as I made gains there

–it’s very easy to lower prices.  It’s extremely hard to raise them again–a key reason that couponing is a favorite supermarket strategy.  So it would be crazy for a merchant to lower prices across the board on day one.  $.49 a pound bananas, displayed prominently by the store entrance, is aimed at setting customer expectations about pricing throughout the store.  It’s a symbol, a promise   …at this point, nothing more.

 

21st century retailing: my trip to Home Depot

This is another mountain-out-of-a molehill thing.

We have Toto toilets in our house.  Toto is the leading brand in Asia and has been making significant inroads in the US over close to two decades.  Yes, they’re the toilets that play music, heat the seat, double as a bidet and make fake urinating noises (a Japanese must)–but we just have plain old toilets.

The other day, I went to the local Home Depot, which, by the way, sells Toto toilets, to get a replacement part for one of ours.  A friendly employee showed me where the replacement parts were–all aftermarket brands, not Toto, but that was ok with me–and which was the right one. The replacement didn’t look much like the broken part, but the employee assured me that it would work.

It didn’t.  And, in fact, in looking back on my trip, the HD employee may, strictly speaking, have only told me that that was all they had.  If so, kind of embarrassing for me, since for most of my working life I was on the alert for verbal gymnastics aimed at papering over problems.

Rather than launch a telephone search for a plumbing supply store in the neighborhood that might carry the part I needed, I found it on Amazon.

 

Around the same time, I found I needed a replacement part for a Weber grill.  Same story.  HD sells Weber grills, but not replacement parts.  So, after a wasted trip to the local HD store, I ordered from AMZN.

 

What’s interesting about this?

In the early days of the internet, there was lots of speculation about the “long tail,” meaning that e-retailers like AMZN would make most of their money from selling obscure items that potential buyers couldn’t find in bricks-and-mortar stores.

A great story   …just not the case back then.  Just like bam, online exhibited the “heavy half” phenomenon, i.e., 80% of the business came from 20% of the items.

 

But maybe the long tail is beginning to come true.  It’s not because weird stuff that no one really wants has suddenly come into vogue.  Instead, I think computer-driven inventory control programs that eliminate slow-moving items from a store’s offerings may have gone too far.  Yes, carrying fewer items has the beneficial effect of requiring fewer employees and less floor space.  But at some point, the process begins to have negative consequences, as well.

For instance, it’s training me not to go to a physical DIY store, so I’m not passing by enticing end cap displays or being tempted by the sparkly high-margin junk arrayed along the checkout line.

 

My experience as an analyst has been that any cost-control measures always seem to go too far.  They work for a while, but the continual application of the same process somehow eventually ends up creating the opposite of the intended effect (yes, experience has made me a Hegelian, after all).  This may be what is starting to happen with inventory control programs that retailers use.

If I’m correct, this is another plus for AMZN.

 

thinking about retail: Dicks Sporting Goods (DKS)

DKS reported disappointing earnings Monday night.  Its stock dropped by 23% in Tuesday trading.  So far this year it has lost 49% of its value, in a market that’s up by 10%.  …this in spite of the bankruptcies of rivals Sports Authority and Gander Mountain, which should arguably have cleared the way for better results.

The obvious culprit here is Amazon (AMZN).

I’m sure that AMZN is a factor.  On the other hand, although AMZN is growing at 4x the +5% rate of annual expansion of sporting goods sales in the US, the online giant represents only about 4% of the total sporting goods market.  DKS alone is 50% bigger–and its bricks-and-mortar competition has shrunk considerably.  So online can’t be the whole story.

I think two other general factors are involved:

–Millennials vs. Boomers, with DKS, to my mind, clearly oriented toward Baby Boomers’ tastes.  This issue here is that although Boomers have more money than Millennials, their star is waning as Millennials’ is rising.

–a “normal” business cycle.  During most time periods and in most parts of the world, in my experience, consumers are constrained in their buying by the limits of their income.  As new households form and families rent/buy a residence, rent/mortgage and, sooner or later, things like furniture become significant purchase categories.  This means less money for other purchases–like new golf clubs.

From the late 1990s through 2007, however, that wasn’t the case. Universal availability of home equity loans enabled consumers to avoid budgeting and prioritizing purchases.  So the typical pattern of contraction in some retail categories while housing-related, expands was absent for an extended period.

Now it’s back.  My sense is Wall Street has yet to catch on.

As an investor, I’m not particularly interested in the sporting goods category.  But I think the pattern I see here isn’t an isolated phenomenon.  If I’m correct, we should be doubly careful of any traditional retailer.

 

 

new CEO for Tiffany (TIF)

TIF has languished for a number of years, for several reasons:

–the waning of the important Japanese market

–the shift of Chinese jewelry buyers away from foreign firms and toward local creations

–the recession, which lowered spending on jewelry worldwide

–perhaps most important, a lack of success in providing new designs for regular customers.

The company’s greatest strength is its brand name.  It’s unique in being able simultaneously to appeal to ultra-wealthy customers spending $10,000+ a pop and to ordinary people looking for a $200 trinket to have wrapped in the iconic blue box.

Oddly, in the discussion of TIF’s merchandising as being “tired” that I’ve been reading, analysts and (especially) reporters have been referring to this ability to serve low-end customers while still retaining the aura of exclusiveness that attracts the wealthy as a weakness.  Hard to understand.

At the same time, what’s being missed is the hole that has long existed in the TIF merchandise lineup–items that appeal to customers wanting to spend $2,000-$10,000. This middle ground is dominated by firms like Bulgari, which coincidentally have little presence among TIF’s customers in either of its market segments.

That’s wha’s so intriguing about the appointment of Allessendro Bogliolo, a former Bulgari executive, as TIF’s new CEO–something no one’s mentioning.

Whole Foods Market (WFM)–final round

As I pointed out last week, WFM has gross margins that are much higher than the average supermarket’s.  WFM also turns its inventory in a little less than two weeks, which is two or three times the rate of a typical grocery store.  Over the past several years, it has been generating over a billion dollars in annual cash flow.

On the other hand, sales are falling.  The largest use WFM has been making of the money it generates is to buy back stock ($2 billion worth over the past three years).  Its working capital management seems to produce much less cash for it than rivals–although this may be the result of an unusual product mix and/or worry that the current poor sales trend will continue.

In addition, it appears WFM is attempting to extend its brand downmarket with the opening of 365 stores–a tacit acknowledgement that its core high-end market is saturated.  In my experience, though, this strategy rarely works.  Its main effect is typically to degrade the upscale image of the main brand.  Tiffany is the only exception I can think of.

what interests Amazon (AMZN)

–WFM has a well-known brand name, that stands for healthy, high-quality, and ethical behavior.  But it also stands for “whole paycheck,” an attribute that AMZN can most likely eliminate without damaging the rest of the image

–an ironic plus, WFM doesn’t appear to have kept up with the times in pricing, computerization or inventory control.  So there’s arguably low-hanging fruit to be picked

–WFM has a physical distribution network that culminates in 430+ physical stores covering most major markets in the US

–the NPD Group, a leader in consumer marketing research, points out that:

—-WSM stores are located in areas that are younger and more affluent than average

—-52% of online grocery buyers are members of Amazon Prime, and therefore arguably disposed to by groceries through AMZN if the company had an adequate delivery mechanism

—-60% of Millennials bought at least one item from AMZN last year vs. 24% who bought something from WSM.  So AMZN has, at least on paper, the potential to deliver a large new audience to WFM

–according to a Morgan Stanley survey, which I read about in the Wall Street Journal, 62% of WSM’s current customers are already members of Amazon Prime.  Arguably, there’s a big opportunity for AMZN to increase the frequency/amount of WSM purchases through the Prime network.

my take

From its high in early 2015, the WFM had almost been cut in half–in a market that was rising by 15%–before Wall Street began to anticipate a couple of months ago that the company would be either restructured or sold.  Although I’m by no means an expert on WFM, that negative price action is hard to ignore.  So, too, the declining sales trend.

The picture that emerges to me is of an high-end retailer that has saturated its niche and whose chief product–healthy, but expensive, food–is being commoditized by rivals.  To date, management has marshaled no adequate response to this competitive threat.

AMZN provides a face-saving way for WSM to retain its counterculture self-image while turning over its market problem to more competent hands.

 

 

 

 

continuing apparel retailing woes

I haven’t been watching publicly traded apparel retailers carefully for years.  For me, the issues/problems in picking winners in this area have been legion.  There’s the generational shift in spending power from Baby Boomers to Millennials, the move from bricks-and-mortar to online, the lingering effects of recession on spending power and spending habits.  And then, of course, there’s the normal movement of retailers in and out of fashion.

I’m not saying that retail isn’t worth following.  I just find it too hard to find solid ground to build an investment thesis on.  Maybe the pace of change is too rapid for me.  Maybe I don’t have a good enough feel for how Millennials regard apparel–or whether retiring Boomers are using their accumulated inventories of fashion clothing rather than adding to them.

Having said that, I’m still surprised–shocked, actually–at how the current quarter for apparel retailers is playing out.  It seems like every day a new retailer is reporting quarterly earnings that fall below management guidance, usually the latest in a string of sub-par quarters.  That itself isn’t so unusual.

But the stocks react by plummeting.

You’d think that the market would have caught on that Retailland is facing structural headwinds.  Or at least, that the retail area that made the careers of so many active managers over the past twenty or thirty years doesn’t exist any more.

 

Is it robot traders?  Is it an effect of continuing buying by index funds?  I don’t know.  But the continuing inability of investors to factor into stock prices the continuing slump of apparel retailers is certainly odd.

the Sears “going concern” warning

the auditor’s opinion

On my first day of OJT in equity securities analysis, the instructor asked our class what the most important page of a company’s annual report/10k filing is.  The correct answer, which escaped most of us, is:  the one that contains the auditor’s assessment of the accuracy of the financials and the state of health of the company.  The auditor’s report is usually brief and formulaic.  Longer = trouble.

Anything less than a clean bill of health is a matter grave concern.  The worst situation is one in which the auditor expresses doubt about the firm’s ability to remain a going concern.

a new financial accounting rule

In today’s world, that class would be a little different.  Yes, the auditor’s opinion is the single most important thing.  But new, post-recession financial accounting rules that go into effect with the 2016 reporting year require the company itself to point out any risks it sees to its ability to remain in business.

the Sears case

That’s what Sears did when it issued its 2016 financials in late March.  What’s odd about this trailblazing instance is that while the firm raised the question, its auditors issued an “unqualified” (meaning clean-bill-of-health) opinion.

what’s going on?

Suppliers to retail study their customers’ operations very carefully, with a particular eye on creditworthiness.  That’s because trade creditors fall at the absolute back of the line for repayment in the case of a customer bankruptcy.  They don’t get unsold merchandise back; the money from their sale will likely go to interests higher up on the repayment food chain–like employee salaries/pensions and secured creditors.  So their receivable claims are pretty much toast.

Because of this, at the slightest whiff of trouble, and to limit the damage a bankruptcy might cause them, suppliers begin to shrink the amount and assortment of merchandise, and the terms of payment for them, that they offer to a troubled customer.   My reading of the Sears CEO’s recent blog post is that this process has already started there.

It may also be, assuming I’m correct, that the effects are not yet visible in the working capital data from 2016 that an auditor might look at.  Hence the unqualified statement.  But we’re at the very earliest stage with the new accounting rules, so nothing is 100% clear.

breaking a contract?

Sears has complained in the same blog post about the behavior of one supplier, Hong Kong-based One World, which supplies Craftsman-branded power tools to Sears through its Techtronic subsidiary.  Techtronic apparently wants to unilaterally tear up its contract  with Sears and stop sending any merchandise.

Obviously, Sears can’t allow this to happen.  It’s not only the importance of the Craftsman line.  If One World is successful, other suppliers who may have been more sympathetic to Sears will doubtless expect similar treatment.

Developments here are well worth monitoring, not only for Sears, but as a template for how new rules will affect other retailers.