Eye on Commodities - Corn - Soybeans - Wheat

The biggest movers to the upside on my commodity screen (only those relevant to the restaurant industry) this week were corn (+10.5%), soybeans (+9.8%) and wheat (+5.6%). Although none of these upward moves signal a change from the overall trends we have been seeing, they all represented a reversal from the prior week's declines (corn -2.3%, soybeans -0.2% and wheat -0.2%). Keith McCullough pointed to that week's downward trade relative to the upward trend on his portal on May 21st (please refer to CRB Inflation Index: Straight Up! ).
  • CORNCorn actually moved up 5% yesterday alone, which is not surprising after seeing the USDA's weekly crop report released earlier in the week, which showed that only 74% of the corn crop had emerged relative to the 5-year average of 89%. These big moves in corn prices will impact just about all of the restaurant operators as these higher corn costs will eventually translate into higher protein prices. That being said, the biggest movers to the downside in the past week were cattle and pork (-1.5% and -5.6%, respectively). Judging from Tyson's investor presentation this week (on which I commented on June 5), I would not be surprised to see these prices move higher.
  • SOYBEANSRising soybean prices will impact most companies as well as it relates to cooking oil, but P.F. Chang's stands out in my mind as the company highlights wok oil as an important component of its cost of sales.
  • WHEATAlthough wheat was up for the week, year-to-date, it has actually declined 11% and is down nearly 39% from the highs seen back in March. Wheat's current price of $7.86 per bushel still represents a 23% premium over the average 2007 price and a 94% premium over 2006. The companies most impacted by these huge year-over-year increases will continue to be Panera Bread and California Pizza Kitchen. Panera is locked in for FY08 at $14 per bushel (versus an average of $5.80 per bushel in FY07). California Pizza Kitchen is only locked in for the next few months on its pizza dough needs (at a 12% YOY increase), but is contracted for the entire year for its pasta needs. Neither company has locked in FY09 prices, but Panera stated on its last conference call that it will make a decision whether or not to do so in the June/July timeframe.

GPS: Breaks the Multi-Brand Cardinal Rule

Warning: This includes my opinion on product marketing.

It's rare that I will give a personal opinion on a company's web site or product marketing strategy -- particularly given the lack of impactful investment significance derived from one man's opinion. But Gap's '4 for 1' strategy, whereby a consumer can shop all of its sites at once, seems ridiculous to me.

I went to the Banana site and was bowled over by the picture below. Yes, convenient that I could buy shorts from Banana and match up shoes from Piperlime, and graphic Ts from Old Navy. But management is missing the big picture.

I go directly to Banana - Gap's highest end brand - and see cross-selling with Old Navy and Gap Stores? It's bad enough that Father's Day is approaching and the only pictures on the page are women. But GPS is violating the cardinal rule of muti-brand retail. It is letting the consumer know that a corporate umbrella even exists. Does the Club Monaco customer know that it is owned by Polo Ralph Lauren? Same for Converse/Nike. Arrow shirts/Calvin Klein (PVH). The North Face and Wrangler/VF Corp. No, No, No, and No. There is ZERO benefit to a Banana customer knowing that the brand shares the same parent as Old Navy. Why? Because such affiliations do not change the allure of the lower end brand, but they (sometimes permanently) cheapen the allure of the high-end brand.

I still think that Gap's biggest problem is that it has done a tremendous job on the cost side in recent years. But that was when there was meaningful sourcing optimization opportunity in an extremely 'easy money' environment for this industry. Also, SG&A stories in this business DO NOT WORK. It takes investment in talent and best-in-class capital allocation to grow consistently. Now SG&A structure remains quite low, but GPS can't rely on industry tailwinds to soften the impact of its past missteps. Getting efficient with web-selling is not the answer. The only answer is for GPS to rely on brand strength. Guess what -- -strengthening a brand takes capital, and we're not seeing that commitment at GPS yet. The bottom line is that I think that margins need to go down before they can go up again.

PS: Thanks to my colleague Andrew Barber for his role in this post. He showed up today in jeans and Chuck Taylors. I went to Banana to find an image to forward him to gently remind him of our dress code at Research Edge. I guess I need to go to

DRI - EYE on Capital Allocation

From the very first conference call announcing his promotion to the post of CEO, Clarence Otis, wanted to make an acquisition. His rational has always been that DRI could add 2-3% points to the top line growth rate. Personally, I never thought he would pull the trigger. I always found that to be counter intuitive to the success the company was seeing. For the first part of this decade, DRI outperformed its competitors with significantly lower revenue growth. DRI's rational pace of new capital deployment was the best in the industry, which allowed the stock to significantly outperform it peers. The company's slower growth rate allowed the company to focus on the existing system, while returning significant amounts of cash to shareholders. In the past we have referred to this as sustainability and DRI was the best in the casual dining class.
  • To me, the Rare Hospitality transaction was a game changer. The acquisition gave Clarence his top line growth, but at the expense of capital allocation. This is not to say the Rare deal was bad or a mistake, it just changed how the company deploys its capital, and DRI's stock price has since reflected the fact that it was an expensive acquisition and a poor short-term (1-2 years) allocation of capital. Unfortunately, for DRI, since the acquisition, the world has changed and the U.S. has entered into a consumption recession. For DRI to capture faster revenue growth, it needs to increase its spending on growth capital expenditures. Relative to other alternatives, this has the lowest potential return. So, DRI is accelerating growth at a time when the industry is slowing. On top of that, one of the new growth vehicles is seeing slippage in same store sales and increased commodity costs. That being said, overall, DRI has maintained the best same-store sales trends in casual dining.
  • Needless to say, the best thing that could happen to DRI shareholders would be for the company to reallocate how it deploys its capital as a return to more rational capital allocation should again be reflected in DRI's stock price. DRI is one of the strongest companies in the casual dining space and has a rich history of making shareholders money. Clarence needs the RARE acquisition to work, and integrating the two cultures of the company is critical, especially the employees at LongHorn Steakhouse. I believe management will get there. Right now, there is a full court press on getting the integration right.
  • From a cost perspective, the company is about two quarters away from lapping the big disaster that caused a significant amount of pain for shareholders. So the two key things we are keeping our EYEs on are signs of improved capital deployment and how happy the employees of LongHorn are!

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Here's a GES nugget. I'm going through all the recaps of same store sales trends. I love the Bloomberg interview with Marshall Cohen, NPD's retail guru. In talking about the standout brands and stocks that he likes, Cohen noted how much he likes Guess?. The comment sounded something like this... Foreigners are going to resort areas on vacation and are spending with 'reckless abandon' on high end product. They're turning them into 'shop-cations.' This is one of the main reasons why Marshall likes the stock.

First off, Mr. Cohen has no business making stock calls. He data is a very good concurrent indicator of business trends, and as such he's got some good insight into consumer spending patterns. But a trend guy making a stock call? Big no-no. (Full disclosure, Research Edge is one of NPD and Mr. Cohen's clients).

In a roundabout way, his comment about 'reckless shopcations' supports my bearish view on GES. As I noted yesterday, I think that GES underinvested at the top of its sales, growth, margin, and FX cycle, and therefore printed too much operating margin. No one knows, or cares, right now when business humming and the perceived returns are 40%+. But perception is far from reality in retail.

This actually smells a bit like the sentiment around Dick's Sporting Goods last year. The company could do no wrong, and no one cared about DKS' aggressive lease structure and deleverage risk. Two weeks ago DKS shareholders found out the hard way.

I think we'll see the same with GES.

YUM - Thailand Speaks

Yum's China Division includes mainland China, Thailand and KFC Taiwan. Yum Restaurants International (Thailand) Co., Ltd., or Yum! Thailand, owns, manages, and awards franchise licenses to the KFC and Pizza Hut quick-service restaurant chains in Thailand. Currently, there are 306 KFC stores in 56 provinces and 75 Pizza Hut stores in Bangkok and major provincial cities throughout the country.

The Bangkok Post reported that Yum Thailand has not yet raised prices in response to rising petrol prices. Sran Smutkochorn, Managing Director of Yum Thailand, said ''Our costs are rising due mainly to runaway oil prices and [costs of] other ingredients. It does not matter if you are in the United States or Thailand operators need to be very careful about raising prices, as consumers are suffering from significantly higher costs of living. However, Mr. Sran said, the company would consider adjusting KFC prices if oil prices go up to 50-60 baht per litre in the next few months. - The price is now 41.09 baht per litre.

In contrast to KFC, Pizza Hut has raised its prices by 2-3% since March, according to the article. Despite the political uncertainties and sluggish economy, Mr. Sran is maintaining 2008 sales growth of 15-20% (1H sales grew 15%.) In 1H08 KFC sales grew 16%, including a 7% increase in same-store sales rise. The article stated that delivery represents 11% of KFC sales, up 27% YoY. Interestingly, the significant growth in delivery can partially be explained by higher petrol prices. Delivery also carries a higher average check.

Research Edge - In the current environment, a strong marketing calendar and cost reduction initiatives is the best way to protect margins.

TSN - Implication for the Restaurant industry

According to the CEO of Tyson (TSN), Richard L. Bond, it is cheaper for Americans to cook most food at home, but the cost of food at the supermarket is rising faster than menu prices at restaurants; 4% at restaurants and nearly 8% in the retail grocery channel. TSN has raised prices on some products, but not at the same rate of inputs costs, especially chicken prices. According to Mr. Bond, the lag of higher priced corn is just now hitting the products that TSN is introducing to the market place. Four of the largest QSR restaurant companies have introduced chicken sandwiches at breakfast.
  • Cutting production - TSN has taken three facilities out of operation decreasing its slaughter capacity by 8,000 a day.
  • Shrinking Herd - The chart to the right is a graphic picture of the heard size going back to 1988. As you can see the inventory of cows peaked in the mid-90s and we have seen a continuous decline since then. In 2008, the inventory will be down about 1% and down about the same amount in 2009.
  • Chicken and coffee are driving breakfast transactions.......

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