Will People Continue To Buy Clothes In Stores?

It is always interesting to me when Wall Street takes a few select situations and uses them to make dramatic conclusions about how the world will change forever. If you have read much about consumer spending in recent months you might come to a few conclusions, such as:

  1. Millennials are the only consumer group that brands should care about because they now outnumber baby boomers
  2. Millennials don’t spend money on clothes
  3. Instead Millennials spend money on travel, eating out, live experiences, and consumer electronics

I want to focus on where consumers are spending money because I think the idea that retail shopping is dead due in large part to a de-emphasis on clothing and accessory purchases is presenting excellent investment opportunities right now. Many leading department store chains as well as specialty retailers focused on apparel and accessories have been crushed in the public markets. They are trading at equity valuations that imply their businesses are in permanent decline due to a combination of shopper preference changes and increasing market share for online-only retailers. Even though the bricks and mortar companies have spent billions of dollars building out their online capabilities to complement their store networks, investors largely do not believe these investments will show solid returns.

First, I find it odd that investors do not want anything to do with the apparel and accessories category right now. Are we going to somehow stop wearing clothes? If not, are there technological advances in the space so great that wearing clothes will no longer result in them wearing out and needing to be replaced? The view that there is an irreversible trend toward spending materially less on clothing and related products appears suspect to me.

If you agree, then it makes sense to continue down the road and examine other supposed reasons why retail is supposedly “uninvestible” today. For instance, I hear many people point to the fact that Amazon is going to surpass Macy’s in clothing sales in the United States. Even if this is true, should we conclude that Macy’s is therefore doomed? If I think about it, it seems logical that Amazon will surpass many retailers in various categories. After all, Amazon allows any company to list their products on their site. Conversely, Macy’s has a limit to how many items they can sell, as both their stores and distribution centers have finite capacity. Isn’t this therefore an apples and oranges comparison? Honestly, I would be concerned if Amazon could not sell more clothing than Macy’s given their vastly different business models.

Macy’s stock has dropped from $73 to $33 per share in the last 12 months, bringing its equity value down to $10 billion. To give you a sense as to how negative investors view the company’s prospects, it has been widely reported that the Macy’s flagship store in New York’s Herald Square (which they own) is worth at least $3 billion. Add two more valuable stores in Chicago and San Francisco and there might be $6 or $7 billion of real estate value in just three of Macy’s 800+ store base across the country. This discrepancy tells me two things; 1) there is a large margin of safety in Macy’s stock, and 2) investors don’t think very much of the company’s retail business despite more than $25 billion in (very profitable) annual sales. Another interesting fact is that Macy’s stock currently yields 4.5%, which is higher than the yield on Macy’s corporate bonds that mature in 2023 (about 4.1%). Typically investors accept lower income payouts on equities in return for more capital appreciation potential. And in case you were wondering, Macy’s is more than adequately covering the dividend with free cash flow.

There are many other examples of retail stocks that I believe are being mispriced today. Some have inherent real estate value due to owned stores vs leased stores. Others have high dividend yields that actually point to undervalued stocks rather than distressed operations. Others have no dividend or owned real estate, but instead have real growth opportunities ahead of them and simultaneously are trading on public markets as if they are shrinking in size. Because the opportunities vary in shape and size, I recently began buying a basket of five names that I find particularly attractive as a way to spread the risk around (retail will always be an extremely competitive business) but make a macro bet on the apparel space continuing to operate quite profitably. There are many values to be found if you, like me, believe that clothing and accessories is a retail category that will remain in style for decades to come.

Full Disclosure: Long Macy’s and many other retailers at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time