Heightened supply risk for 2019. During 3Q18, retailers took a turn for the worse, as inventory increased modestly at a faster rate than sales. With no ability to raise prices to drive comp, retailers must rely on increased unit volume to drive sales growth. Note that this is a snapshot entering 4Q18. Most results, save for a few exceptions (e.g., TGT – PP, COST – PP, covered by Scott Mushkin, and LULU-OP), have missed holiday sales. We expect inventory exiting 4Q18 to show even higher inventory-related business risk.
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The December reading rose for the second consecutive month, suggesting with valuations pulling in short sellers may be derisking. The November reading was 2 out of 10. In December 39.1% of retailers posted a short position >15% (was 42.2% in November). Since we last published this report on 12/17/18, the XRT is up 6% vs. the S&P 500 +2%. We rank Sector Sentiment on a scale of “1” being the most negative sentiment to “10” being the most positive sentiment. The basis for the ranking is based on the number of retailers in the sector with >15% short positions.
We believe 2018 may have been “peak season” for retailers. We continue to believe in the Retail Death Curve phenomenon. The 2018 lift in mall traffic was against easy compares and pent-up demand. Despite clean inventory in 2018, there was no evidence of broad-based pricing power. Retailers were as, if not more, promotional than prior year and “bought the comp.” Tax reform savings were reinvested in store-related wages and deferred capital spending – both contributing to a higher fixed cost infrastructure than before tax reform – adding to greater deleverage risk.
It’s preannnouncement season. Post-holiday preannouncement season is here. With up to 85% of sales completed, retailers know their 4Q fate. As such, we are publishing a post-holiday promo tracker update with our call outs on upside and downside performance for the quarter. Often, the holiday success or disappointment translates into a similar outlook for the forthcoming year. With valuations pulling back in 4Q, we believe our positive call outs are worth a look ahead of 4Q18 preannouncment season and as long-term outperformers in the sector. We expect preannouncements from at least the following companies: ANF, AEO, PLCE, EXPR, CPRI, LB, LULU, ULTA, URBN, W.
Sector Sentiment 2, on a Scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best): The November reading rose from the October reading of 1 out of 10 with 42.2% of retailers posting a short position >15% (was 44.4% in October). Since we last published this report on 11/14/18, the XRT is down 11% and therefore investors may have taken some money off the table. We rank Sector Sentiment on a scale of “1” being the most negative sentiment to “10” being the most positive sentiment. The basis for the ranking is based on the number of retailers in the sector with >15% short positions.
3Q18 Consumer Sentiment Poll scores 5. 1 out of 10 (vs 6.2 in 2Q18). Each quarter, we send out a brief survey to gauge investor sentiment prior to earnings, where 1 is “Terrible” and 10 is “Excellent.” Thanks for replying, if you did! Survey results are completely anonymous, and the greater the response rate, the more conclusive the results, so please consider participating next time.
The October reading exceeded the September reading of 2 out of 10 with 44.4% of retailers posting a short position >15% (was 43.5% in September). This is the third straight month of percentage increases. The last time the sector sentiment was a 1 was in July 2018 when 45.7% of retailers posted a short position of >15%. We rank Sector Sentiment on a scale of “1” being the most negative sentiment to “10” being the most positive sentiment. The basis for the ranking is based on the number of retailers in the sector with >15% short positions.
3Q18 Promo Rating: “Flat;” 2Q18 Rating: “Flat.” Our 3Q18 Promo Score was 39 out of 100 (vs 40 out of 100 in 2Q18). Our Promo Score tracks YoY promotional activity as a proxy for merchandise margin direction. We pay particular attention to end-of-quarter changes in promo activity as it is indicative of whether inventory units are on plan. Click here for the Wolfe Promo Tracker excel model.
The quarter was solid across the board with top-line upside driven by Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman. Coach brand continued strength at full-line and the higher-priced Edit line at Outlet performed well, and Kate Spade synergies are beginning to boost margins. Gross margins benefited from improving synergies at Kate Spade as well as lower average unit cost at Coach brand. Having seen the spring 2019 new Kate Spade product, it appears clear that this brand is on the mend and will see accelerating growth and margin contribution as we turn the corner into 2019. Nonetheless, concerns of the Chinese consumer and lack of underlying bid caused shares to trade -1% in an otherwise strong tape.
As we enter the most critical period for retailers, we thought it an opportune time to provide thoughts on structural trends in U.S. retailing. With 2H18 by all measures expected to be solid, we look ahead to the set up for 2019. This note addresses why we believe 2018 may be as good as it gets and highlights the parameters for long-term winners, as well as how to navigate the choppy trading backdrop. We discuss 1) the current backdrop, 2) the investor base driving stock performance in 2018, 3) why we believe long-horizon money is unlikely to invest at current levels, 4) the looming pressure of wage inflation and potentially tariffs, and 5) why the oversupply problem will continue to weigh on 2019 and 2020 margins.
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