Retail Begins Picking It Up - Industry Outlook

By Zacks | Updated July 30, 2014 AAA

Retailers procure goods in large quantities directly from manufacturers or wholesalers and sell them in smaller quantities to customers through retail shops or online platforms. As consumer spending is the key to the viability of any economy, the health of the retail industry becomes an important economic indicator.

As a leader in the retail business, the United States provides ample growth opportunities for all types of retail companies. The retail industry covers everything in its scope, ranging from internet catalog sales, auto dealers, convenience stores, vending machines and clothing -- thus dividing retailers into numerous categories. Retailers of all sizes, including individual direct marketers or direct sellers, small- to medium-sized franchise unit owners, and large “big-box” store operators compete in the U.S.

From a labor intensity perspective, the retail industry ranks among the dominant U.S. industries and employs an enormous workforce. Retail sales represent approximately 30% of consumer spending, which itself accounts for more two-thirds of the economy.

Correlation with the Economy

Although the U.S. economy commenced the year on a sluggish note, the stock markets have shown momentum so far. The S&P 500 has gained roughly 7.0%, The Nasdaq Composite Index jumped about 6.6%, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 3.1% year-to-date.

The economic outlook for 2014 remains positive based on favorable economic data and an improved consumer and business outlook.

According to the data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for June declined to 6.1% from 6.3% in May, and reached its lowest level since September 2008.

The recent Conference Board’s data on Consumer Confidence Index reflected a 3.0 points improvement to 85.2 in Jun 2014, following a rise in May to 82.2. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment survey showed a 0.7% sequential improvement to 82.5. However, it declined 1.9% year-over-year.

Another data by the Commerce Department shows that consumer spending for May 2014 was up 0.2% after being flat in Apr 2014. Despite growth in personal income during May, spending remained cautious. Looking ahead, the Federal Reserve has been projecting stronger growth as it winds down its bond-buying program designed to stimulate the economy.

With economic activities gradually gaining traction, the Federal Reserve has so far reduced its monthly bond purchases to $35 billion, in 5 rounds of $10 billion tapering each month. The minutes of the latest Federal Reserve meeting indicate that it will likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps.

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) now plans to end its bond purchase program in October with a final reduction of $15 billion provided the economy stays on track. Till that time, the Federal Reserve plans to trim its bond purchases by $10 billion at each meeting.

However, the central bank said the decision to end bond purchases in October shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign that a hike in key interest rates is likely to begin sooner. The central bank plans to keep the rates near zero for a considerable period.

The strengthening manufacturing sector and improving labor market are positive indicators no doubt, and the retail sector is likely to hog all attention. These feel-good factors have abated fears of a derailed economy that arose after the first quarter of 2014, when GDP data revealed a 2.9% decline. While the BEA is expected to release the Real GDP ‘Advance estimate’ for the second quarter on Jul 30, market analysts’ continue to suggest about 3% economic growth (GDP) in 2014.

Key Metrics

The key data in the retail industry analysis is comparable-store sales (comps), as it excludes sales at newly opened and closed stores. The sales data of most retailers reveal that the industry has been picking up with better-than-expected comps reported for the fourth straight month, owing to huge promotional activities, favorable weather, Easter Sales, Memorial Day weekend sales and the recently improved employment and consumer credit data.

The latest key metrics data released last week reflect a positive sentiment with all but 2 of the 11 retailers that report monthly comps emerged as winners. The improved results in June were mostly attributed to a rise in traffic resulting from the positive economic factors like a 0.2% decline in unemployment rate and 7.4% rise in consumer credit as well as heavy promotions and favorable weather.

The list of gainers in June was led by drugstore operator Walgreen Co. (WAG), which posted a 7.5% rise in comps and an 8.9% increase in total sales. This was followed by Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) which posted a 6% rise in comps for June. The warehouse retailer Costco Wholesale’s sales grew 10% to $10.89 billion.

Drugstore chain retailer Rite Aid Corp. (RAD) occupied the third spot with 3.9% growth in comparable-store sales for Jun 2014, while total drugstore sales climbed 3.5% to $1.995 billion for the month.

Moving forward with the list, Washington-based retailer of sports-related teen apparel Zumiez Inc. (ZUMZ) reported a 3.1% increase in comps while sales improved 11.1% to $65.3 million from $58.8 million in the year-ago period. Apparel and accessories retailer Cato Corporation (CATO) reported a 3% rise in comps along with a 7% improvement in net sales.

Further, off-price retailer of apparels, footwear and accessories, Stein Mart Inc. (SMRT) registered a 2.6% increase in June comps, while total sales rose 3.8%. Comps of the clothing retail chain L Brands Inc. (LB) rose 2% with a 7% improvement in sales to $1.176 billion.

Meanwhile, warehouse club operator PriceSmart Inc. (PSMT) posted a 1% increase in comps for June whereas sales for the month rose 4%. The Buckle Inc. (BKE), a retailer of casual apparels, footwear and accessories for men and women, reported a 0.7% rise in comps while net sales increased 2.8% to $84.8 million.

On the other hand, the aggrieved retailers list for the month was topped by The Gap Inc. (GPS), which posted a 2% fall in comps and 1% increase in net sales to $1.54 billion for June. Another downer on the list is discount store operator Fred's Inc. (FRED), which reported a 0.6% fall in comps as against an increase of 4.5% last year. Net sales for Jun 2014 were up 2% to $191.2 million.

Though the comps and sales performances in June are encouraging, the recently lowered second quarter earnings forecasts by retailers like Tractor Supply Company (TSCO) and Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. (LL) indicate that there still remain concerns for retailers with the back-to-school selling season just around the corner. Retailers are worried about the low traffic trends in the second quarter as shoppers nowadays are more inclined toward online shopping which has led to a decline in store walk-ins. Furthermore, despite a rise in employment the low-income group still shy’s away from spending freely.

Trends to Rule 2014

The retail industry has evolved drastically with a dramatic change in consumer buying habits. Consumers today are knowledgeable, more inquisitive and choosy. Moreover, today’s customers have numerous shopping options at their disposal like in-store, online, mobiles, social media and so on, that influence their purchasing decision. Satisfying customers and enriching their buying experience require new strategies. Modern retailing, interestingly enough, is a new game with new rules.

The U.S. retail and food services sales data for May 2014 showed slight improvement. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the retail and food services sales rose 0.3% sequentially and 4.3% year over year to $437.6 billion.

Some of the trends that are expected to rule the retail sector going forward include increased technological solutions, incorporating customer feedback and targeting additional audiences with products and services.

Omnichannel Retailing the New Norm: The sluggish U.S. economy and continued weakness in Europe have driven retailers to focus on the buyers’ needs and lure them with innovative products, attractive discounts, free shipping and the ease of shopping through smartphones and tablets. As these efforts failed to pay off, retailers felt the need for a better channel to connect with customers and engage them by all possible means.

This gave rise to the “omnichannel” approach, which focuses on providing more touch points and multiple channels to customers. This approach facilitates the use of all possible mediums to engage consumers, including brick and mortar stores, online and mobile at the same time or alternatively.

This strategy provides customers the ease of selection, purchase and exchange of a product through multiple channels. For example, a customer may select a product online, buy it through his phone and will have the option to exchange the same by visiting a store without any hassle. Some retailers who are already benefiting from this strategy include Staples Inc. (SPLS), Macy's Inc. (M), Nordstrom Inc. (JWN) and Chico’s FAS Inc. (CHS).

Personalized In-Store Experience: With evolution to the .com era and  advancement of consumers, retailers are pulling up their socks to reinvent their marketing style, evolving from the previous mass advertising and promotions format to a more personalized method, which will impress today’s omnichannel customer.

The consumer today seeks a more direct communication through an app on their smartphone or an Internet chat with an executive on the company’s website. Moreover, the customers prefer tailored offers and recommendations online as well as in stores.

Increasing Use of Mobile Wallet Technology: With everything in retail undergoing a sea change, the modes of payment used when shopping have also evolved drastically. The increasing use of smartphones, tablets and mobile technology has given rise to a new mobile application called ‘mobile wallet,’ through which customers can be make payments instantly using their smartphones or tablets. Though cash and credit cards will remain the primary payment methods, the use of mobile wallet is catching up quickly among mobile users for the convenience it offers.

The popularity of this app among customers is driving retailers to adapt this payment mode by collaborating with some of the mobile wallet providers available in the market like PayPal, Google Wallet, Square Wallet, Dwolla, and more.

In a recent stride in this direction, leading car rental company Avis Budget Group Inc. (CAR) fused its express rental service “Avis Preferred” with the Google Wallet application. Moreover, the PayPal app has gained recognition with a wide array of retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (ANF), Advance Auto Parts Inc. (AAP), Aeropostale Inc. (ARO), American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEO), Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS), Foot Locker Inc. (FL), Guitar Center, Jamba Inc.’s (JMBA) Jamba Juice, J.C. Penney Company Inc. (JCP), Nine West, Office Depot Inc. (ODP), (JOSB), Rooms To Go, Tiger Direct and Toys “R” Us.

Technology-Friendly Brick & Mortar Stores: With shoppers increasingly becoming tech savvy, the brick and mortar stores need to brace themselves and move from their old-fashioned layouts adopting innovative in-store technologies. The simplest way to do this is the adoption of in-store mobile devices, through which customers can make payments, see product demonstrations, gather information and connect to social networks.

This was recently demonstrated by Apple Inc. (AAPL), which equipped its associates with iPhones enabling them to assist customers and receive payments anywhere in the store. This reduces billing queues and ensures efficient management of space, making stores less congested.

Further, retailers are exploring new ways to use mobile devices in-store. They are looking for mobile apps that track customers as they shop, sending them tailored offers related to the store’s section they are in; recommending items based on past purchases; or allowing shoppers to program automated shopping lists.

In-store technologies, that customers look for these days include mobile point of sales, price checkers, self-checkout payment lanes, information kiosks, digital signage, etc. Other innovative technologies that will prove effective to engage customers both in-store and elsewhere are smart shelves, Wi-Fi hot spots, point-of-sales (POS) systems, virtual storefronts and endless aisles.

Reinvention of Loyalty Programs: Loyalty programs offer an edge to retailers as customers come back for more offers. However, the age-old reward programs are losing popularity among shoppers as the offers are sometimes irrelevant and benefit accumulation is slow.

With the trends changing in retail, retailers are now perking up their loyalty programs replacing loyalty cards with customized offers based on social information, behavioral patterns of shoppers, frequently bought items and other such details. Retailers who have shown stringent focus on enhancing rewards on their loyalty schemes include Nordstrom, Rite Aid Corp., Office Depot and many others.

Impact of Social Media on Shopping Decisions: With the growing use of social networking sites by the masses, business firms have also entered social media to promote their business. Through the social platforms retailers can advertise their brand and launch new products and campaigns. Companies also offer mobile coupons exclusively through these platforms, largely influencing the buying decisions of shoppers.

Additionally, these social platforms provide an insight into what the customers will buy in the stores based on the interest shown by them regarding products featured on these sites.

Investing in Big Data to Track Shoppers: With the growing need for giving personal attention to shoppers, retailers are widely investing in analysis software like “Big Data” that help accumulate information regarding the behavioral patterns, history and background of customers. The analysis of this data facilitates the prediction of customer reaction, formulating pricing strategies, offering shopper-specific discounts and providing personalized recommendations to shoppers. Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) is one retailer which has been involved in data analysis for quite some time now, offering tailored product recommendations based on the customer’s previous purchases.

Growth of Retail in Emerging Markets: Having tapped most of the potential in the domestic markets, a pattern recently noticed among retailers is their venture into the emerging markets. Most retail chains are witnessing growing demand for their products in countries like Brazil, the Middle East, China and India and aims at growing their exposure in these countries over time. Some of the retailers venturing into these markets include The Gap, The Clorox Company (CLX), Ralph Lauren Corp. (RL), V.F. Corp. (VFC) and Tiffany & Co. (TIF).

Challenges and Some Remedial Measures

The retail industry is highly competitive and encounters significant challenges. With a slow economic recovery in the U.S., consumers remain exposed to macroeconomic factors such as interest rate hikes, increase in fuel and energy costs, credit availability, unemployment levels and high household debt levels, which may negatively impact their discretionary spending and eventually adversely affect growth and profitability of retail companies.

Macroeconomic Conditions: Retail is no different from other U.S. industries, and is highly dependent on the economy to prosper. Such heightened dependence on the economy and factors like job growth and interest rates indicate that a speedy recovery of the economy is vital to the retail industries’ health. While the unemployment rate has decreased considerably over time, consumers are now beginning to draw out their savings to spend, anticipating economic recovery in the future.

Lack of Focus on Research & Development: Despite the shift of focus on consumers in retail, there still remains a conservative approach among retailers when it comes to research and development budgets. Looking from another perspective, given the rising use of digital and social media, retailers lag behind from customers when it comes to adopting new technologies and platforms.

The ever-changing technological scenario demands continued investment in research & development to remain updated. For example, the mobile point of sales technology introduced some years back as a new innovation has now become a must-have in retail stores.

To prosper in this high-tech era, retailers need to hold back on the adoption of every new technology and focus only on the ones that will help enhance their brand proposition. Identifying the best options and investments in that direction will help fetch results.

More Data Analysis Raises Consumer Privacy Risk: Though the tracking systems developed to study consumer behavior are doing well for retailers, their sustainability is questionable as customers might get irked by such tracking over time. As a result, they may register for ‘Do Not Track’ systems to prevent tracking.

In order to address this issue, companies should educate shoppers on the benefits of such data analysis. Customers need to be informed that the tracking systems installed in the stores are solely for data collection and will not hinder their privacy in any way.

Zacks Industry Rank

Within the Zacks Industry classification, Retail/Wholesale (one of 16 Zacks sectors) is divided into two categories -- Nonfood Retail-Wholesale and Food/Drug- Retail/Wholesale under the Medium (M) Industry Group and further sub-divided into 14 industries at the expanded (X) level -- Building Products-Retail/Wholesale, Internet Commerce, Retail/Wholesale Auto/Truck, Retail-Apparel/Shoe, Retail-Consumer Electronic, Retail-Discount, Retail-Drug Store, Retail-Jewelry, Retail-Miscellaneous/Diversified, Retail-Restaurants, Retail-RGN Department, Retail-Supermarket, Retail/Wholesale-Auto Parts and Retail/Wholesale CMP.

We divide the 16 Zacks sectors into 60 M-level industries and 250 X-level industry groups. We rank all the 250 plus industries in the 16 Zacks sectors based on the earnings outlook and fundamental strength of the constituent companies in each industry. To learn more visit: About Zacks Industry Rank. http://www.zacks.com/stocks/industry-rank

As a point of reference, the outlook for industries with Zacks Industry Rank #88 and lower is 'Positive,' between #89 and #176 is 'Neutral' and #177 and higher is 'Negative.'

The Zacks Industry Rank for Retail/Wholesale Auto/Truck #1, Retail/Wholesale-Auto Parts is #11, Retail-Jewelry #11, Retail-RGN Department #29, Retail-Restaurants #89, Retail-Drug Store #178, Retail-Consumer Electronic #183, Retail-Apparel/Shoe #189, Internet Commerce #200, Retail/Wholesale CMP #202, Retail-Discount #213, Retail-Miscellaneous/Diversified #227, Building Products-Retail/Wholesale #247 and Retail-Supermarket #247.

On analyzing the Zacks Industry Rank for the constituent industries in this space, it is apparent that the overall outlook for the Retail/Wholesale sector is Negative.

Earnings Trends

The Q2 earnings season has just started with only 14% of the broader Retail/Wholesale companies releasing their financial results. Though it is difficult to arrive at a precise trend for the quarter at this time, the earnings and revenue growth rates are broadly in-line with the trend seen in the first quarter of 2014.

So far, the earnings "beat ratio" was 16.7%, while the revenue "beat ratio" was 66.7%. Total earnings for this sector improved 2.7% year over year, while total revenue improved 5.2% in the quarter.

With a large chunk of the results yet to come up earnings and revenue projections for Q2 stand at 2.6% and 5.0%, respectively, for the Retail/Wholesale sector. This is compared with a 2.2% earnings decline and 3.8% revenue growth registered in the first quarter of 2014.

Looking at the consensus earnings expectations for the quarter ahead, the picture looks slightly bright with earnings expected to grow 8.7% in the third quarter of 2014, registering full-year 2014 growth of 8.5%. Going into the next year, earnings expectations look encouraging with projected earnings growth of 14.0% for the full-year 2015.

For more details about the earnings of this sector and others, please read our ‘Earnings Trends’ report.

Conclusion

Retailers are trying to remain competitive primarily by shifting focus to the long-term horizon and finding innovative solutions to create value, reduce operating costs and mitigate risks throughout the enterprise.

Right-sizing inventories, enhancing efficiency and competence and bringing in technological advancements are the key agendas that retailers are focusing on. Moreover, cost-containment efforts and merchandise initiatives to improve margins are top priorities.

Retail, owing to its huge spectrum, remains a lucrative investment avenue for investors. The sector reflects consumer spending trends, an important parameter to gauge the health of the economy. Thus, identifying future winners from this sector would be a good investment decision.

We recommend few stocks in the sector at this point, as these companies are showing significant growth despite the secular headwinds. The stocks in our coverage with a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy) include AutoNation Inc. (AN), BJ's Restaurants Inc. (BJRI), Brinker International Inc. (EAT), Tiffany & Co., CarMax Inc. (KMX), Restoration Hardware Holdings Inc. (RH), Sonic Automotive Inc. (SAH), The Men's Wearhouse Inc. (MW), Christopher & Banks Corporation (CBK), Citi Trends Inc. (CTRN), Under Armour Inc. (UA), Columbia Sportswear Company (COLM), Michael Kors Holdings Ltd. (KORS) and Hanesbrands Inc. (HBI).

Additionally, we prefer stocks with a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy), namely Big Lots Inc. (BIG), Zumiez Inc., Gap Inc., Nordstrom Inc., Foot Locker Inc., Five Below Inc. (FIVE), Barnes & Noble Inc., Finish Line Inc. (FINL), The Children’s Place Inc. (PLCE), Conn’s Inc. (CONN), Dillard’s Inc. (DDS), J. C. Penney Co. Inc., Marinemax Inc. (HZO),  The Kroger Company (KR), Signet Jewelers Ltd. (SIG) and Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance Inc. (ULTA).

On the other hand, there are stocks that do not hold promise in the near term, and carry a Zacks Rank #4 (Sell) and Zacks Rank #5 (Strong Sell). These include Amazon.com Inc., Bebe Stores Inc. (BEBE), Chico's FAS Inc., Chuy's Holdings Inc. (CHUY), CST Brands Inc. (CST), Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI), Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. (DKS), DSW Inc. (DSW), Express Inc. (EXPR), Lululemon Athletica Inc. (LULU), Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc., PetSmart Inc. (PETM), Target Corp. (TGT) and Stock Building Supply Holdings Inc. (STCK).

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