This Fading Retailer Is Ripe for a Short

by Lawrence Meyers | March 26, 2013 10:10 am

Wall Street is littered with the bodies of retailing stocks, as it’s one dangerous and fickle business to be in. 

That’s why companies like Francesca’s (NYSE:FRAN) should be admired[1]. The growing retailer — which has gained 16% so far this year and is rapidly expanding its store count[2] — has figured out that there are certain novelties consumers look for … and if you offer some diversity among those novelties, you can have a business that isn’t as risky.

If you don’t offer the right selection, though … well … consumer tastes can change on a dime[3]. Just ask companies like Chico’s FAS (NYSE:CHS[4]) and Christopher & Banks (NYSE:CBK[5]), which have been victims of shoppers’ whimsical desires in the past.

See, the usual pattern is that some hot new retailer shows up and expands rapidly, while people pile into the stock. Then growth cools — usually in the form of a big earnings miss — and the stock collapses.

Christopher & Banks was a twenty-bagger between 1999 and 2004, nearly reaching $30. Now it’s at $6. Chico’s, on the other hand, went from the mid-$1 range to $48 in roughly the same period (but through 2006), then slipped to low-single digits before recovering to $17.

Now, a similar reality is hitting Buckle (NYSE:BKE[6]) hard … and, even more so, Guess (NYSE:GES[7]).

The latter’s stock went from $2.50 in 2003 to over $50 in 2007. It then cratered to $13 in 2009 and now sits at $25. I think even worse days may be ahead for it, though.

Don’t be fooled by its earnings report from last week; even though Q4 EPS beat by 8 cents, that was a 5% drop in earnings on a 5% increase in revenue. Plus, management announced that this year was going to be rather dismal. On an adjusted basis, earnings for fiscal 2012 came to $3.05 per share. Fiscal year 2013, which just ended in January, was $2.15 — a 30% decline. To top things off, fiscal year 2014 will earn $1.70 to- $1.90 per share.

Then again, management thought FY12 would be around $2.60, so one may not want to bet the farm on this guidance.

But also look at these horrible trends — all thanks to fickle fashion trends and global economic weakness: Total revenue fell 2% and was flat in Europe and North America. Same-store sales, where companies like Francesca’s are seeing 9% growth, were down nearly 7% in the U.S.

Things were worse in the company’s current quarter, too, which hasn’t even finished yet. Already, same-store sales are down in the low-teens.

Plus, another downside to retail plays like Guess is that not only are they subject to economic factors and fashion trends, but they must also grapple with commodity prices — such as cotton — which are rising. And as inventory gets stale, the company must discount the merchandise, which impacts margins.

The company trades at 14 times estimated FY14 earnings — which, mind you, are expected to again fall. The company is not in any kind of liquidity crisis and its stores have solid cash flow.

But I see the next ten points more likely to be down than up, and for that reason, I would consider shorting here. Things will get worse before they improve.

As of this writing, Lawrence Meyers did not own a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

  1. should be admired:
  2. rapidly expanding its store count:
  3. can change on a dime:
  4. CHS:
  5. CBK:
  6. BKE:
  7. GES:

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