Editor's Note: Below is a flashback on our short Stitch Fix (SFIX) research call from our Retail analysts Brian McGough and Jeremy McLean. Our team went short on 2/20/21 at $79.62. On a related note, we are pleased to announce our new Sector Pro product "Retail Pro." Click HERE to access our more in-depth retail research.
WHAT our team WROTE ON 2/20/21
Takeaway: Ran out of TAM. Chasing capital-intensive lower-margin growth. Short aggressively on reopening strength in upscale apparel.
When Stitch Fix went public in November of 2017 it was largely viewed as a broken IPO. Priced at $15 – well below the range of $18-$20. What people did not realize at the time is that the model as it existed in 2016/17 was the best that SFIX had to offer. The company captured the sweet spot of its TAM at ~1.5mm customers, who were spending $550-$600 with SFIX per year. The core customer here is someone who needs style advice, and is comfortable paying for a shipment (or a ‘Fix’) of apparel sight unseen, but curated for them specifically by extensive algorithms combined with (live) stylists. Keep what you like, send the rest back. If you send it all back you pay $20. Gross margins were 45-46%, and importantly its customer acquisition cost (CAC) was at trough levels of ~3% of revenue. The company turned its inventory at 18x, which is like lightning in a bottle for a retailer (apparel asset turns generally range between 3-4x), and it generated 60% return on capital and 80% ROE. The company had just earned $1.47 per share in 2016, though the fact that CAC was rising in 2017 and therefore pressuring margins scared people in what was a very different market than what we’re living in today. Goldman got paid on the deal, but better advice would to have been to not go public at all. We think it’s headed back to its IPO price, and then lower.
The problem here is that with the IPO came extremely high growth expectations, and in chasing them the company ran out of TAM way too quickly. The rapid-fire launch schedule of new initiatives has brought it too far beyond its core TAM, and way out on the risk curve into a territory that is simply destroying the (once attractive) financial characteristics of the business. It started selling to Women with the launch of the site in Nov 2011 after its first seed round in February of that year. By 2015 it had 867k customers at an operating margin of 10.6%. That was solid. The company should have frozen growth at that point. But it didn’t. In its peak earnings year of 2016, it launched Men’s, after which the company saw a 12% decline in spending per customer (while the company was in the IPO process). Men spend less than women on premium apparel, and they cost more to acquire. Period. Then, less than a year later, it launched Kids – which in and of itself is a big step down from Men as it relates to spending per capita (the company included 8-12 items per Kids Fix as opposed to 5 items for Men and Women to make up for the lower price point). By this time operating margins had fallen to 3.5%. Then, just two months after launching Kids, SFIX announced that it was launching into the UK in 2019 – the complexity of which cost SFIX another 200bps in margin. So over a 5-year time frame of spending more in CAC for a lower-yielding consumer, EBIT declined from $64mm to $23mm, despite adding $1bn in revenue and 1.5mm net new customers.
By our estimates, this brought the business model to a point where 50% of customers don’t make it past 2-3 months and up to 75% won’t make it through the year. If the company pulls back on sales and marketing spend then the net consumer additions will go solidly negative given the high churn characteristics of this business model. The top line would follow this trend and this company would lose its 4x Sales multiple in a heartbeat. This company NEEDS to spend in order to give the market what it’s paying for – top line growth.
Perhaps the biggest admission that SFIX had run out of TAM was in December of 2019 when it introduced ‘Shop Your Looks’, otherwise known as ‘Direct Buy.’ This offering allows shoppers to go online and pick their own assortment instead of a computer algorithm and a stylist doing it for them. So let me get this straight, a company that was built on custom personalized curation of apparel and charging a premium to the consumer that needs the styling advice decides to abandon that model and put the product selection decision in the hands of the consumers. How is this different from going to www.nordstrom.com? It’s not. Actually, Nordstrom has 10x the assortment that SFIX has – with the inventory and the discounting mechanism to compete aggressively for the business. SFIX tested Direct Buy for four months, and then rolled it out nationally in March – spot on with the start of the pandemic. Since the start of Direct Buy, the market cap of this company has gone from $1.6bn (March trough) to $10bn. It’s been a six-bagger – at the same time people have walked away from wearing the exact type of dressy/occasion apparel that SFIX is known for. By our estimate, Direct Buy is now up to 20% of sales for SFIX – an astonishing shift in just 12 pandemic-impacted months. To say that the market is excited about this initiative is a severe understatement.
Our sense is that Direct Buy will be 50%-60% of the business within 2-years, and we don’t think people quite understand the dramatic impact it will have on the company’s financials. Consider the following…
WHAT Our Team WROTE Today
This SFIX quarter was a complete validation of the short call that we laid out in our Short report just three weeks ago on 2/20. (See our original note above). The company missed on customer additions, spending per capita was down a very disappointing -7%, gross margins missed (partly due to shipping delays, and partially driven by clearing slower-moving men's product) -- down 184bps vs last year, selling and marketing (CAC) was up 18% on top of a huge 49% last year, and inventory turns were down by half a turn to 6.0x (that's notable for an apparel company). In other words, it's taking on the financial characteristics of a traditional apparel retailer -- yet still trades at near 200x EBITDA.
To be clear, though we'll take the severe after hours sell-off in the name, the reality is that our call was, and is, based on our multi-year view that the company has run out of TAM with its core customer and is extending itself too far out on the risk curve with new and return-dilutive investments to drive incremental top line growth -- a reckless expectation that was set at the time the company IPO'd (an event that we don't think should ever have happened). This management team is hell bent on gaining market share of the apparel industry -- with continued reference to the view that half of apparel spending will be online by 2025. Ultimately, we think that SFIX will continue to take share (albeit at a lower rate) and will face slowing spending per capita, severely degrading gross margins, higher customer acquisition costs (as it ran out of TAM) and much lower turns on its inventory (we think the inventory consignment and drop ship experiment is too limited to help the financials). Now the company is saying that come 4Q customers can opt in for the Direct Buy program without the need to be a paying Stitch Fix customer. Management continues to dodge margin questions around Direct Buy -- because quite frankly, we don't think it has the answers. All in, this is a complete abandonment of the core 'AI/Stylist-curated' model it marketed to the Street at the time it went public. We think that SFIX ultimately retraces its IPO price.
We're taking down our EBITDA forecasts for 2H -- sooner than we expected -- though we still don't think that the model really comes under fire until next FY after reopening. After all, nearly everyone that sells high-end apparel, including SFIX, is likely to see some benefit from closet restocking once we all start to dress like adults again. So if you missed this sell-off, you still have another $35+ downside in the stock. We'll always be short some of this name until the stock is a teenager. But you could potentially short more at a better price as the apparel economy reopens.