J.C. Penney’s Turnaround Turns Ugly

by Dan Burrows | May 16, 2012 8:23 am

J.C. Penney’s Turnaround Turns Ugly

When Ron Johnson was head of Apple‘s (NASDAQ:AAPL[1]) retail stores, he could do no wrong. Now, as CEO of J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP[2]), it seems very little is going right.

Shares in the mid-priced department store chain were set to crater Wednesday after the company coughed up a wad of bad news as part of its first-quarter earnings release late Tuesday.

Not only did Penney post a much wider loss than Wall Street was expecting, but it came up short on revenue, too. Margins, meanwhile, have now contracted for five consecutive quarters.

And if that weren’t enough to send traders scurrying for the exits, management withdrew its annual guidance. Penney admitted that, nope, it won’t hit its profit forecast of $1.59 a share in 2012. All bets are off.

But, yes, it gets even worse: In a signal the company needs to conserve cash, Penney pulled its dividend, which was yielding a healthy 2.3% before the selloff. By discontinuing the dividend, the company will save about $175 million a year, which Penney said it will plow into its turnaround.

Bottom line? Customers accustomed to bargain hunting don’t much care for the changes the former Apple impresario has wrought.

For the most recent quarter, Penney posted a loss of 25 cents a share. Analysts, on average, were looking for a loss of 10 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters data. Sales dropped for the second quarter in a row, this time by 20% to $3.15 billion. Analysts were looking for sales of $3.41 billion, marking the fifth consecutive quarter in which Penney has punted top-line results.

“Sales and profitability have been tougher than anticipated during the first 13 weeks,” Johnson said in a statement. No kidding. Sales at stores open at least a year, a key measure of a retailer’s health, fell 18.9%.

Analysts were skeptical that Penney’s plans to drop its usual parade of regular sales in favor of everyday prices would confuse, anger and alienate customers — and it looks like they were right. As Johnson said, Penney has “work to do to educate the customer on our pricing strategy.”

The only thing that appears to be going right is the company’s cost-cutting efforts, which are ahead of schedule.

“The company now expects savings to accelerate and exceed the run rate of approximately $900 million at the end of 2012, one year earlier than it had previously announced,” Johnson said. Too bad you can’t cut your way to growth.

Johnson has unleashed a wrenching, painful turnaround for the retailer — one that is, to be fair, very much in its early stages. But whether Penney can lure traffic back to stores with a compelling value proposition on its wares is a huge question. It utterly failed to do so in the first quarter — declining same-store sales, inventory writedowns and falling margins are ample evidence of that.

A while back, Johnson said to expect first-half earnings to be weak, with a rebound coming in the second half in the year. But pulling the annual guidance throws even that into doubt. If this was his first report card, he’s barely getting a passing grade, at least based on the market’s reaction.

Getting a bead on Penney was tough enough heading into earnings — Street estimates were all over the map. As Gilford Securities analyst Bernard Sosnick wrote to clients ahead of the report: “JCP is a guessing game about sales and earnings. It may be a day for ‘Wow’ or hoots of derision.”

Well, it looks like the raspberries won — and the guessing game has become only more opaque. The market hates uncertainty, and Penney just delivered it in bulk.

As of this writing, Dan Burrows did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

Endnotes:
  1. AAPL: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=AAPL
  2. JCP: http://studio-5.financialcontent.com/investplace/quote?Symbol=JCP

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