There is a difference between sharing assumptions and setting expectations. Here’s some great color we’ve picked out from some key industry players whose views are anything but similar.
One thing we find consistently surprising are managements’ comments about how “if all else fails, the consumer will absorb the cost of inflation.” In retail, that is almost never the case. Based on what the retailers, brands, and manufacturers are saying, the consumer will need to grow the size of their wallet by 3-5% on like-for-like product this year, and fork it all over to maintain peaky profit margins on so/so businesses.
What do Wal-Mart, VFC Corp and to a degree Macy’s all have in common? They’re forecasting healthy consumer spending in 2011 without meaningful margin erosion. How in the world can they do this with 87% of the year left to go and we’re two months away from the point where the highest raw material headwind the modern retail industry will hit margins?
Headed into 4Q earnings, these companies felt the need to give some context about their go-forward assumptions for FY11 – which we think is fair. But there is a difference between sharing assumptions and setting expectations. A company that shares assumptions is likely to be more pliable with any outside forces that may impact cash flow. On the contrary when optimistic expectations are set so early in a year, the risk/reward rarely ends up in a good place.
Before we dive into the new information we got today on retail, there’s one thing that’s vital to consider. There are three stages of grief as it relates to raw materials.
1) Control what you can control.
2) Workup a strategic plan as to how you think your supply chain partners will react when faced with a meaningful change in their cash flow. I’m referring to a brand like Adidas being on the lookout for how Nike plans to dramatically reinvent the ‘toning’ space (as the iPad did to Kindle).
3) In addition to the two preceding points, plan for how a supply chain partner will look to squeeze when it’s hurt in other categories.
> For example…what happens if the ‘food inflation pass through’ is maxed out and Wal-Mart needs to face a food price increase at risk of losing additional traffic?
> Why not push it through to more discretionary and highly fragmented categories like apparel and toys?
> Go out and ask a CEO of a ‘basics’ apparel company if he knowingly funded markdowns in fresh fruit. He’ll say no, and he’s not lying. He’s simply unaware.
Let’s look at some of these recent comments and assumptions, to see if we can set our own expectations.
Here are the limited comments from WMT re: apparel. Most interesting is the point about consolidating suppliers and adding back some exposure to footwear and accessories. Clearly some of the category shifts in 2010 are being unwound.
- “We posted mid-single digit negative comps in apparel. We have seen improving sales trends in men’s, ladies plus, and women’s, offset by a pull back in juniors. Customers are also buying closer to need, particularly in seasonal apparel. I’m encouraged by recent trends, as we add back assortment in key apparel categories, including shoes and accessories.”
- “Space and assortment changes are now under way to improve our merchandise presentation, particularly in apparel, sporting goods, toys and hardlines in most of our U.S. stores.”
- “Labor and higher cotton prices are affecting apparel and home categories. In softlines, we’re consolidating suppliers to improve purchasing power and leveraging our buying power with raw material suppliers. We continue to work with our suppliers to reduce inflationary pressure where possible and only pass on price increases when they cannot be avoided.”
Hedgeye: Translation…Wal-Mart is changing its assortment to maximize productivity, along with consolidating its softline vendor base. When they run out of rope, they need to ‘work with suppliers’, which basically means “get better pricing from vendors.”
Not a ton of surprises in the current quarter as they had previously pre-announced, but a surprisingly confident outlook for 2011. Keys to ’11:
- 3% same store sales guidance on top of a reported 4.6% would make this the greatest 2-year performance in over a decade.
- Management is bullish on e-commerce and continues to invest heavily in e-com infrastructure. Growth in the .com is worth about 100bps to overall comps. Allows for potential reduction in clearance over time as SKU’s can be held centrally and distributed on a DTC basis.
- Reiterated that strength in top-line is being driven by fashion-related items. This is the key to management’s belief that they can take some pricing. They will remain competitive on basics, but fashion remains the focus for the company. Traditional brands (not specific here but I’m guessing JNY, etc.) are laggards and need reinvigoration from vendors.
- Inventories well managed despite pulling inventory receipts forward to meet demand after successful post-holiday demand. Inventory growth should mimic comp store sales momentum. Sounds like there is real discipline here on the part of inventory management which is driving a cycle of better gross margins as well as reduced markdowns.
Hedgeye: Net/net, Macy’s is confident that their merchandising initiatives (My Macys, private/exclusive brands, and emphasis on fashion) will help drive a second year of LSD positive comps. If successful, this will be the single best two year sales run in the modern history of the company.
The company is guiding toward 8%-9% top line in 2011. Let me repeat… Guiding to 8%-9% top line in 2011.
- Remember that the old model called for 3-4% growth from the base business and 3-4% from acquisitions. This time, however, there is no mention of acquisitions.
- VFC did not put up organic top-line growth like this since midway through last decade.
- Guidance is based on 8% top-line with flattish margins y/y (GM down 100bps offset by SG&A leverage). Don’t you think that just MAYBE this is a little optimistic?
One of the X-factors here is the competitive dynamic between Levi’s and VFC (Lee and Wrangler). These brands are the $20-$30 mainstay at WMT. Levi’s intends to take price increases in one fell swoop. VFC will likely be more measured and gradual. Notable VFC comment:
- “In terms of 2011 for our Jeanswear America businesses, we anticipate men's single-digit growth in revenues. At the same time, unit volumes are expected to decline at a mid single-digit rate, offset by new programs in pricing...Some initial price increases have taken effect in February, with some additional increases planned as the year progresses. On the cost side, we're keeping a tight reign on expenses and reengineering products. Nevertheless, the combination of pricing and cost controls will not fully mitigate the increases in product cost, and as noted earlier by Bob, our domestic Jeanswear margins will be down this year.”
Hedgeye: In men’s, the only growth will come from whatever pricing sticks. If competitors break price, then pricing is at risk in one of the most stable and profitable businesses for VFC. Keep in mind that expectations call for pricing to largely offset unit declines in the domestic business with international growth both in Europe and Asia the key drivers of global top-line results. Overall, we’re perplexed as to why and how the company set these expectations so far out with so much uncertainty yet to come.
- “I can tell you in this environment all apparel companies are raising prices and retailers are seeing it everywhere. They’re seeing it from U.S. suppliers, Central American suppliers, Asian suppliers, and as I said, we’ve implemented price increases, some of which took effect this week. And we’ve also solidified pricing through back-to-school and you’ll see higher promotional prices and prices in the marketplace than you did the prior year.”
- “What I’m seeing is a lot of retailers be willing to push branded basics a little bit more and they are going to be a little bit more cautious for high price point, high fashion, high mark down risk items especially I think in back-to-school and leading into the holiday season.”
- “Overall, I think you’ve got a lot of people that understand that if you’re raising prices in a certain category, that volumes are going to come off. There’s a question, obviously, about how much. And as I alluding to earlier, what a lot of retailers are doing is they’re making those decisions in a lot of the apparel categories that they pre-buy which is the bulk of apparel. They are cutting units and more where they realize that they have more mark down risks. So I think what the retailers are trying to do is to make sure they don’t end up with a huge mark down exposure, for example, next holiday.”
- “So if you saw prices come down from these levels substantially we’re probably, they’re just starting to match the price increases that we’ve secured in the marketplace for back-to-school. And, as I said, if they stay at these levels you’re going to see us continue to increase price and actually the retailers fully understand that. We’ve been communicating with them on that all along and they’re hearing that from other suppliers around the world.”
Hedgeye: We know that Wal-Mart is consolidating vendors and changing up its mix. HBI did well with WMT last year – though it got a mini shot in the arm with Carter’s down and out. Will it be using its cost cuts to gain more share at WMT?
- “I think consumers, especially at the mass-market, are a little more sensitive to price – elasticity in price movement. But there’s definitely room. If I look at the way the pricing has gone in the past, I mean, you can buy, in certain cases, nine pairs of underwear in a bag. Do you need nine pairs for a week or do you need seven pairs for the week? So there’s ways to keep price points down at retail by reducing the assortments and other things, let’s say, for example that could mitigate the price increases. And that’s – we work through with the retailers.”
- We have strong sell-through from retailers in the men’s and boys’ socks categories in the quarter
- I mean, the cost in Asia has skyrocketed. I mean, T-shirt prices in Asia have gone up over $9 a dozen since last year this time. They’re just not competitive. The pricing out of China, in all categories not just our basic T-shirt category, but every – across the board everywhere are up anywhere between 15% and 25%. So what’s happening is that retailers are scrambling in general the find product. And I think it’s going to play well for people that are producing in this hemisphere, ourselves and the industry at large, to capitalize on what we think is going to be a big shift in terms of where people looking to manufacture and source their products. We have a lot of inquiries from people that are calling us now looking for product
Hedgeye: Interestingly, the perennially bullish GIL management team has one of the more lucid opinions on the retail environment. That said they are the only company we’ve heard call for a “soft landing” in cotton prices.