In April, Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) filed for bankruptcy after a botched merchandising makeover. More retail bankruptcies could be ahead, noted the New York Times
Given the low unemployment rate and continued growth in consumer spending, investors must distinguish the retail winners from the losers.
After reporting first quarter results, two things separate the rising retailers from the falling ones:
Trend of consumer demand. Retailers focus on various groups of consumers. Wealthy people who pay to display it are still buying and less wealthy consumers are cutting back and delaying purchases.
Relative competitive positioning. The retailers whose competitive positioning best matches the needs of their consumers — for example, the ability to supply unique merchandise while maintaining tight control of costs to serve price-sensitive consumers — will prevail while those with weak strategies are at risk.
Read on for an analysis of two winners and losers; what is behind their strategies, and how investors can profit from this analysis. I’ve included a list of retailers considered to have an elevated risk of bankruptcy for those willing to bet on their declining stock price.
Retail Bankruptcies Ahead
Bankruptcies are at the highest level since 2010 — and BBBY is the most prominent of the retailers suffering this fate. According to the New York Times, more than 230 U.S. companies filed for Chapter 11 — the largest number since 2010.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020, companies have been whipsawed by rapidly changing tailwinds and headwinds. Early in the pandemic, a combination of government stimulus, low interest rates, and the success of working from home created tremendous growth opportunities.
As inflation persisted — rising as high as 9.1% in June 2022, the Federal Reserve Bank raised interest rates from near 0% to a range between 5% and 5.25%.
For heavily indebted companies dependent on consumers squeezed by persistent inflation, the drop in discretionary spending has contributed to their inability to meet their financial obligations.
Yet the economy has a big strength. In April 2023, the 3.4% unemployment rate and a 4.3% rise in consumer spending — which accounts for 70% of economic growth — kept GDP growing at a modest 1.1% in the first quarter of 2023.
This mixture of economic strengths and weaknesses aims the most pressure at specific industries. Retailers — such as BBBY and David’s Bridal — as well as restaurants are filing for bankruptcy because they are “typically among the most sensitive businesses to challenging economic conditions,” the Times noted.
However, my analysis of why BBBY went bankrupt suggests a gigantic strategy misfire was the primary reason for its failure, rather than a difficult economy. Last summer, BBBY burnt through $325 million in cash as revenue plunged 25%.
The reason was that activists who took over BBBY’s board saw private label goods as a way to boost the company’s profitability. In November 2019, the board hired Mark Tritton, the former chief merchandising officer at Target
who had overseen a makeover that included loading up Target’s shelves with private label goods.
Tritton — who neglected to consult store managers and customers ahead of time — bulldozed the private label strategy through BBBY. Before his arrival, store managers had the flexibility to stock up to 70% of their local shelves with goods that customers wanted — most notably, discounts on branded goods such as Cuisinart food processors and OXO cookware.
After Tritton forced stores to rid their shelves of branded goods and replace them with private label ones, consumers entered the stores, searched for and failed to find the branded products they wanted to buy, and began buying those items from Amazon
More bankruptcies are on the way as banks cut back on lending. Joe Davis, Vanguard chief global economist, warned that tighter financial conditions will force companies to cut costs, part ways with workers, and ultimately file for Chapter 11. Bank of America predicted that about $1 trillion worth of corporate debt — 8% of the total — could default, reported the Times.
More retail bankruptcies are likely. As BBBY’s Chapter 11 filing suggests, investors ought to analyze individual companies to distinguish the likely winners from the losers.
In my view, the winners will be companies with effective strategies that serve consumers eager to spend more while the losers will aim ineffective strategies at cash-strapped buyers.
2 Retail Winners
Investors reward companies that exceed expectations. Two retail winners reported better than expected sales and profits and raised their guidance.
Each of them share common traits: they target consumers who are eager to spend and they compete for market share through effective strategies featuring great products and tightly managed operations.
Here are two retail winners with a discussion of their stock prices, results, and growth strategies.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Stock Rises 30%
Mall retailer A&F enjoyed a 30% surge in its stock price on May 24 after reporting a surprise profit, raising its guidance and beating Wall Street’s sales and profit estimates, noted CNBC.
A&F benefited from strong demand from wealthier millennial shoppers buying return-to-office clothes from its namesake brand. As CEO Fran Horowitz told Yahoo Finance Live, “We really changed the brand from what people used to reference as a T-shirt and jeans brand to a lifestyle brand.” She said growth is increasing because consumers are buying more product categories from A&F.
While Hollister, A&F’s more economically sensitive product line, did not do as well, it exceeded analyst expectations. Moreover, A&F boosted its profit margin by better matching inventory to demand. This helped lower A&F’s product and freight costs and enhance its margins.
Analyst Neil Saunders said A&F management has improved the company’s merchandise selection. He cited the company’s “elevated casual offer,” “range of relaxed styles for men and women,” and “great strides in apparel growth areas such as activewear.”
For fiscal 2023, A&F raised its guidance for sales growth and operating margin. Specifically, it now expects “net sales to grow between 2% and 4%, compared with a previous range of 1% to 3% [with] operating margin to be in the range of 5% to 6%, compared with its previous outlook of 4% to 5%,” CNBC reported.
Dick’s Sporting Goods Stock Increases 2%
Sporting goods retailer Dick’s reported better than expected sales and profits on May 23 — sending its shares up slightly. CEO Lauren Hobart said “its core customer base of athletes purchased more, purchased more frequently and spent more each trip,” according to MarketWatch.
Dick’s competitive strategy contributes to its superior performance. Dick’s strong vendor relations give it better merchandise and its strong internal operations enable it to earn double-digit profit margins while its weaker rivals are falling short of sales and profit targets as they struggle with higher inventories, D.A. Davidson analysts noted.
2 Retail Losers
Two retail losers in the clothing industry blamed cash-strapped consumers for their failure to meet investor expectations.
Analysts at UBS confirmed the problem. They found consumers are deferring clothing purchases more than any other category. Specifically, the apparel purchase deferral rate increased to 42% since the beginning of the cycle, compared with 23% for other discretionary categories, MarketWatch reported.
Children’s Place Stock Fell 25%
Specialty apparel retailer Children’s Place reported wider-than-expected losses and cut its guidance in a May 24 report. CEO Jane Elfers blamed forces outside the company’s control, noting: “Our first quarter results were negatively impacted by the ongoing macro-tension which resulted in outsized pressure on our core customer by limiting their purchasing power,” according to a statement.
My guess is that merchandise selection and insufficient control of operations contributed to the disappointing results. Core customers spent less in the first quarter with same store sales down 8.2%. Moreover, higher cost of good sold contributed to a 9.2 percentage point drop in its gross margin, noted TipRanks.
Children’s Place blames macroeconomic headwinds for a lower 2023 revenue forecast. After a 10.8% drop last year, the company expects revenue to fall another 12% in the current fiscal year.
American Eagle Outfitters
Shares Shed 20%
Shares of clothing and accessories retailer American Eagle Outfitters fell 20% on May 25 after it reported revenue and earnings per share that met expectations and forecast a drop in second quarter revenue, according to CNBC.
American Eagle lowered its operating income and full-year revenue guidance.Specifically, the company “anticipates full-year revenue to be flat to down low single-digits, lagging the flat to up single-digits it projected before” while it forecast a 10% drop in operating income — to a midpoint of $260 million — compared to its March 2023 estimate, CNBC reported.
American Eagle has opportunities to improve the appeal of its merchandise to consumers and to boost efficiency. In a news release, CEO Jay Schottenstein said the company should “chase profitable growth” and become more efficient by imposing “inventory discipline” and cutting costs.
What Investors Should Do
I think investors should evaluate their risk and reward preferences before deciding whether to bet on either retailers that are doing well or against retailers that are struggling.
My hunch is that the potential for gain is greatest for investors who are willing to take a risky bet that an at-risk retailer will file for bankruptcy.
Investors willing to take this risk could borrow shares in the company, sell them in the open market, and hope that the company stock plunges on the way to bankruptcy. If that happens, they can repay the stock loan by buying back the shares in the open market at pennies per share and pocket the difference.
Retail Dive considered six retailers to be among those with an elevated risk of bankruptcy on March 6. 2023.
They are ranked in descending order of their likelihood of going bankrupt based on their Financial Health Rating which measures their risk of default by March 2024 — ranging from 0 = highest risk to 100 = lowest risk.
For each company, I have included its short interest, stock price performance, cash burn and ending cash balance for the most recent period, according to the Wall Street Journal.
(19). While 31.3% of its shares are sold short; as of May 26, its stock had risen 12% in 2023. The company burned through $234 million in free cash flow in the March 2023-ending quarter — when it held $970 million in cash.
Blue Apron (29). 10.9% of its shares are sold short; as of May 26, its stock had fallen 25% in 2023. The company burned through $11.2 million in free cash flow in the March 2023-ending quarter — when it held $31.7 million in cash.
The RealReal (29). 14.5% of its shares are sold short; as of May 26 its stock had risen 33% in 2023. The company burned through $40.2 million in free cash flow in the March 2023-ending quarter — when it held $247 million in cash.
Boxed (30). 20.6% of its shares are sold short; as of May 26, its stock had lost 99% of its value in 2023. The company burned through $13.5 million in free cash flow in the September-2022-ending quarter (its most recent financial report) — when it held $35.3 million in cash.
ThredUp (38). 12.2% of its shares are sold short; as of May 26, its stock had risen 92% in 2023 to $2.27 a share. The company burned through $8.1 million in free cash flow in the March 2023-ending quarter — when it held $51.2 million in cash.
Farfetch (42). 8.4% of its shares are sold short; as of May 26, its stock had risen 8% in 2023. The company burned through $169 million in free cash flow in the March 2023-ending quarter — when it held $486 million in cash.
While the two winners I mentioned above could keep rising, investors who do not wish to bet on the decline of weak retailers may be better off investing in a sector propelled by a powerful tailwind — such as the adoption of generative AI — rather than in shares of successful retailers fighting strong economic headwinds.