Here’s the deal…you have five minutes alone with the CEO of a company, leaving time for maybe three questions. If you value your time you’re likely to focus on the key critical uncertainties that exist in the market. And make no mistake, they exist for every company out there.
We’re going to explore these key questions one company at a time, and we’re going to start with Target – which we think is one of the better shorts in retail.
Here’s what we’d ask CEO Gregg Steinhafel if we had five minutes or less.
1. Who Are You Guiding? Who are you talking to with your guidance, Wall Street or Main Street? We’ve never had to ask this question before to a CEO. But the reality is that you’re saying that you are going to comp positive this year, AND Gross Margins will be up (in the US and in Canada). And all of this will happen while you are lowering prices to win back customers who left after the data breach. It seems like an impossible combination. That leads us back to the question – are you giving that guidance to Wall Street or Consumers? This is kind of like what Cruise Companies do during their peak booking season – they generally have positive comments because they’re talking to travel agents, not to Wall Street. If they say that bookings are weak, then agents will discount price more heavily. Similarly, is Target sending out this perplexing message to keep consumer opinion high, even if it means the potential to lower expectations with Wall Street later in the year.
2. Share Loss. Who do you think is gaining the most business from the customers who left? For argument’s sake, let’s assume that it’s Wal-Mart. Do you think that WMT is prepared to let that business go so easily? Will you match Wal-Mart if it comes down to price? In reality, the people that left did not leave because of price. They left because of trust. You might be able to buy back trust, but you’ll have to undercut Wal-Mart on price rather significantly. If that’s true, refer to question #1.
3. What does Target want to be? That sounds like a ridiculous question at face value. But the reality is that it used to be Wal-Mart vs Target – in share of market, share of mind and share of investment dollars. But as bad as Wal-Mart’s rap sometimes can be, it has over 10,000 stores under 71 banners in 27 countries. It has several formats – from Supercenters, to warehouse clubs, to neighborhood markets, and it is even beta-testing C-stores/gas stations. At least it’s trying to evolve. Target has just has one primary format in North America, with a token operation in India. The point is that Target used to be right there with WMT – but now it seems to be somewhere between WMT and Kohl’s. When you look out five to 10 years, what will Target look like?
Bonus Question (if he hung around an extra 2 minutes).
Do you think you fired your customer? JC Penney fired its customer. Ron Johnson said at the time that he did not. Lululemon fired its customer. Chip Wilson said at the time that he did not. Both of those retailers will likely take 2-3 years to get an acceptable portion of customers back. Do you think that you have fired your customer? Your guidance suggests that the answer is No. (Note: we’d give him all the credit in the world if he said Yes – because it would suggest he’s doing something about it).