Store Redesigns, Not Asset Sales, Top Lampert’s Priority List for Sears

Investors hoping Sears Holdings (SHLD) Chairman Eddie Lampert would quickly move to transform the company into more than just a retailer have been disappointed. Lampert clearly understands the tremendous value of his company’s assets, but thus far has not moved to revamp the company as much as his supporters would have liked. Instead, Lampert seems convinced that he can boost the company’s retail operating margins closer to industry averages with better management of the store base.

In fact, a press release issued Saturday sheds light into Lampert’s game plan:

Kmart Store Becomes a New Sears

MARIETTA, Ga., Nov. 17 /PRNewswire/ — The former Kmart at 4269 Roswell Rd is now a brand new Sears. Local Atlanta residents can expect a one-of-a-kind shopping experience that offers an expanded selection of merchandise including more national brands than ever before and a 23,000 sq. ft. Lands’ End shop featuring the largest selection of Lands’ End merchandise ever at Sears.

The new Sears will come to life by offering customers a “store-of-shops,” and a fresh design layout with different flooring, fixtures, and displays. Marquee brand names now found in the new Sears include Sony, Hanes, Workwear – by Craftsman, Carhartt, Timberland and Diehard apparel, Levi’s, and Nordic Track. The store will also feature expanded Home Electronics and Home Appliance showrooms, organized around favorite manufacturers, that will also help customers choose the right look, feel and function with other brands Sears carries.

A newly remodeled hardware department will feature innovative and interactive Garage Organization, Mechanics and Carpentry shops to help customers find the right item quickly and efficiently.

Five central internet workstations located throughout the sales floor will provide free high-speed Web access to enable both the customers and associates to quickly access the internet, verify prices, shop online and contact store personnel if help is needed.

The store will also carry a wide range of convenience items previously available at the former Kmart location including full pharmacy services, health and beauty, cosmetics and greeting cards.

This new format will help customers create the look they want and find the gifts they need all in one convenient location. Shoppers will find the quality brands they have come to know and love like Diehard, Craftsman, Ty Pennington, and Kenmore plus extended assortments of national brands from Nordic Track, Schwinn, Reebok and more. Customers can also shop for great fashions with the first 23,000 sq. foot mega Lands’ End shop that brings the legendary brand to life with items for women, men, kids, baby and home. Now families can touch and feel the quality and see the details of Lands’ End products. A special monogramming service is also available to easily personalize just about any Lands’ End item that will take a stitch. There’s even free shipping on any catalog or order placed from the store.

It remains to be seen if Lampert can boost profit margins further at Kmart and Sears. Initial attempts were successful, but 2007 has brought little improvement, due in part to the weak retail environment in both the low end consumer and home improvement/furnishing markets. That has resulted in Sears stock being down 28% year to date.

This press release is further evidence that Lampert is focused on improving store margins, not diversifying business lines. As a result, it indicates that the Sears investment thesis remains a long term story. By the way, if anyone lives near this redesigned store in Atlanta, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the new store.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Sears Holdings at the time of writing.

Crocs Stopped Dead In Its Tracks

If you’ve ever owned a momentum stock, you know that things are a lot of fun, until the company misses a quarter. Investors’ love affair with trendy footwear maker Crocs (CROX) ended last week, as the company’s third quarter earnings release left much to be desired for the momentum traders hoping for yet another blowout quarter. The stock has been crushed to the tune of 45% in just 3 trading days and now fetches $41 per share, down from its high of $75.

After such a move, it appears that there might be an investment opportunity here if you have a good understanding and expertise of trendy fashions. For such opinions, I am not your guy, as I have no idea what the future for Crocs will look like and won’t even fathom an uneducated guess. Lots of people surely think the company’s shoes are merely a fad. However, if you disagree with that, you might want to take a look at the shares as an investment.

Here’s why. Last week Crocs issued 2008 guidance of 35-40% sales and earnings growth but that was not enough to keep the stock from tanking. If you believe in the Crocs story (that the company can continue to grow from here), the stock is only trading at 15 times the $2.70 earnings guidance the company has issued for next year. If 2008 will indeed bring investors 35-40% earnings growth as predicted, and the company can grow (at all) in the years after that, buying Crocs today around 40 bucks will actually prove to be a wise decision. I don’t know enough about shoes to feel confident in that view, but I bet some people do. If so, the stock might finally be reasonably priced.

Full Disclosure: No position in CROX at the time of writing

What Does a 3.5% Stake by Ackman’s Activist Firm Pershing Square Mean For Sears?

I’m not going to try and sugar coat the last few quarters for Sears Holdings (SHLD) investors. Let’s face it, it’s been a tough time lately for shareholders of the retail chain. After an unbelievably strong performance in recent years on the heels of Chairman Eddie Lampert’s turnaround efforts, the current economic environment is something that the highly admired hedge fund investor can’t control. The main business at Sears Holdings has been negatively impacted by both sagging spending at the low-end consumer level (Kmart’s target market), as well as declining expenditures on new home projects (a big part of the picture at Sears — think Kenmore and Craftsman). As a result, the stock has been in a real funk since July or so.

Not surprisingly, the weak share price has attracted another very smart value investor. We have learned that Bill Ackman, who runs Pershing Square Capital, has taken a 5 million share (3.5%) stake in Sears Holdings. Given that recent weeks have seen SHLD drop down to the $125 area, from a high of $195 earlier this year, seeing a very successful investor like Ackman coming in isn’t surprising, but it has helped boost the stock a bit in the short term. Shares are trading up to the mid 140’s right now.

So what does this Ackman investment mean for investors? Well, Ackman has been very successful in retail-oriented investments that often result in him taking an activist approach with management. Investments lately in McDonalds (MCD), Target (TGT), and Wendy’s (WEN) have done very well, though the Target stake is new enough that big changes at the company have yet to be fully felt other than in the stock price.

There are two possible reasons we could be excited about the news that Pershing Square has amassed a $700 million stake in Sears; it represents a new investment by a very smart value investor, and it signals that Ackman plans to take a large activist role with the company and management, leading to changes that will unlock shareholder value. I agree with the first reason but am less optimistic about the second.

Obviously, interest in Sears from someone like Bill Ackman strengthens one’s conviction that the stock is indeed vastly undervalued. I have believed this for years (and the stock has risen sharply during that time) and my views have not changed despite the stock’s poor performance this year. But still, contrarian investors should still always be looking for things that either reaffirm or contradict their views on a particular stock. This announcement certainly succeeds in reaffirming my confidence in Sears as an attractive long-term investment.

That said, I think the assumption that Ackman will be able to successfully pressure Sears management into making drastic changes is more unlikely than not. Typically, activists investors can put heat on senior management because they own more stock than them. In essence, management is working for those investors and therefore a CEO would not want to anger enough large shareholders that it could cost him/her their job. In the case of Sears though, Eddie Lampert is the chairman of the board and the company’s largest shareholder!

Lampert and his hedge fund (ESL Investments) own 46% of SHLD, compared with Ackman’s 3.5% stake. How much pressure can realistically be applied given these ownership percentages is unclear. I suspect Lampert has a plan and is going to stick to it, despite a growing investor base (myself included) that wishes he would accelerate some of his plans due to the fact that his core business is facing several headwinds in the current economic climate that are beyond his control. All in all, this news is positive for investors and I agree that Sears Holdings stock represents great value, especially at recently depressed prices.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Sears Holdings at the time of writing

Best Buy Crushes Estimates, Silences Consumer Worries

Judging from the stock market in recent months, one would think that every consumer related area is extremely weak. The worst performing groups by far this year have been consumer credit focused financials and retail. I continue to bottom fish in these areas because the stocks are pricing in some very dire profit outlooks, which I don’t entirely agree with.

Results this morning from Best Buy (BBY) seem to support the claim that the consumer is not in as bad a shape as many would have you believe. In case you missed it, Best Buy reported earnings (for the quarter ending September 1st) of 55 cents per share, an impressive 11 cents above estimates of 44 cents. Sales grew 15% with comps rising 3.6%. The company now expects full year earnings to be in the upper half of guidance ($3.00 to $3.15) so we’re likely looking at 2007 profits of around $3.10 per share.

Best Buy stock has been hit hard, closing yesterday at $44+ per share. I think the stock is attractive in the mid forties, as I have written about before (Best Buy Looks Attractive), given a 2007 P/E of 14. Investors are really going to focus on 2008 as we close out this year, and estimates are nearly $3.60 for next year. Should a leading retailer growing its business 15% really trade at 12 times forward earnings? Maybe if the consumer was really, really hurting, but today’s results from Best Buy do little to support that argument.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Best Buy at the time of writing

I Hope Eddie Lampert Is Mulling a Deal

What could be worse than trying to turn around Kmart and Sears? The only thing I can think of is trying to do that when the low end consumer is being squeezed from all angles and the housing market is weak. Today’s earnings warnings from Home Depot (HD) and Sears (SHLD) aren’t that surprising when we look at the macro view of the economy domestically, but even still, the Sears number was pretty bad and Home Depot only escaped a wrath of selling because of their enormous buyback. Sears announced a $1 billion buyback, but that is just a drop in the bucket for them (4% of shares outstanding).

Home Depot got lucky. They timed the sale of their supply business well enough that they can just use that money to buyback shares above the market price and keep their stock up even when earnings are declining. Sears has a problem, though, in that it hasn’t diversified yet like everyone thought it would. The Kmart/Sears merger was supposed to be about real estate, excess cash flow, making more acquisitions, becoming the next Berkshire, etc. What happened?

Well, Eddie Lampert decided to try and fix the retail business as best he could. That’s a perfectly fine idea (just look at what JC Penney has been able to do over the last five years and you’ll see retail turnarounds like this do happen) but given we have the low end consumer getting squeezed and a weak housing market (which just happen to be the two core focuses for Kmart and Sears), the fact that Lampert hasn’t diversified Sears Holdings yet is a problem right now.

Long term investors (myself included) likely aren’t overly concerned because they know the retail weakness won’t last forever, and they know Lampert has other ideas for excess cash. But, given the stock price weakness lately, he really needs to do something to get the shares moving again, a la Home Depot. So what should he do?

Quite simply, a deal, any deal. I don’t mean just any deal that happens to be available (it has to make sense), but it also does not have to be an outright buyout of another company. Surely Wall Street would applaud the purchase of something at a bargain basement price, preferably outside of retail completely, but even an internal deal could boost shareholder morale.

The most logical would be a large real estate deal like many investors have been hoping for since Lampert bought Kmart out of bankruptcy and leveraged that stake to takeover Sears. Eddie hasn’t sold underperforming locations as fast as many people thought he might. It is clear he wants to try things before giving up on certain locations. However, a deal to monetize some real estate would accomplish two things that would help the stock price.

First, it would show to investors that the real estate actually does have meaningful value. It has been debated exactly how much the Sears real estate is worth. Everybody has their own forecasts, but in reality, something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay. Selling stores would give investors a way to value that real estate (which is likely understated in most valuation models focused mostly on retail profits) and also show them that Lampert is willing to cut his losses on more stores.

The second thing it would do would be to help the bottom line. Selling underperforming stores not only gives you money to diversify with, but it also boosts your earnings, which are already under pressure due to the economic environment. Surely there are stores that aren’t making any money, even after many have been closed. Closing those underperforming locations will help boost retail margins, which would also boost investors’ perception of what the company’s retail business is worth.

All in all, Sears is in the unenviable situation of trying to turn around a retailer during tough times. Since this makes it harder than usual, if they want to continue down the retail road, it is imperative for the company to make some moves to diversify away from low-end retail and housing. The only way to do that is to free up some cash, or use cash you already have on hand, and do a deal. Either sell some real estate and reallocate that money, or use the money you have now and buy something unrelated to Kmart and Sears.

If Lampert does something like that sometime this year, Sears stock can get moving again. As long as he waits it out, the odds are good that the stock is dead money for a while. I’m confident he will make the right moves, which is why I’ve owned the stock for years and will continue to hold it, but after Tuesday’s earnings warning, I think it is important for him to do something sooner rather than later. If not, he will eventually lose some of his loyal supporters.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Sears Holdings

Where Does Buffalo Wild Wings Go From Here?

A reader named Hayward writes:

“Chad, how about a new update on BWLD now that it exploded to the upside.”

No problem, Hayward.

Sports bar and grill chain Buffalo Wild Wings (BWLD) is a stock I have been very bullish on for a long time. Hayward is referring to my post from eight months ago entitled A Wildly Bullish Quarter for Buffalo Wild Wings. The stock has since doubled to more than $42 per share.

The investment thesis was fairly simple back in October and nothing has changed on that end. This is still a popular concept restaurant with very strong growth prospects. BWLD has more than 400 locations with a large portion of them located in Ohio, the state where it was started years ago. With a long term target of 1,000 restaurants, there is enormous expansion potential and few barriers to get there.

The stock has had a huge run as the company trounced earnings estimates, which caused me to trim the position recently as it became a large holding and traded at 30 times next year’s earnings. The stock is no longer cheap, but I still believe the stock will do well in coming years as they approach a national footprint.

I would suggest investors take some profits but still hold onto some of their stock. Since the store base can still more than double from here over the next five years, the stock should beat the market over that period, even if it isn’t cheap anymore at this point in time. Right now Peridot is holding an average sized position in the name, whereas in prior months it was a larger position due to P/E multiple expansion potential (which has since occurred).

I hope that helps, Hayward. If anyone would like to suggest possible topics for future blog posts, feel free to let me know by using the blog’s contact link at the top of the page.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Buffalo Wild Wings at the time of writing

Fitch Says RadioShack Bonds are Junk, I Disagree

If you invest in junk bonds, here is an opportunity for you. How on earth Fitch determined that RadioShack (RSH) is more likely to default now than six months or a year ago is beyond me. Full disclosure: I own the stock.

From the Associated Press:

Fitch Downgrades RadioShack Ratings
Thursday June 21, 12:02 pm ET

CHICAGO (AP) — Credit-ratings agency Fitch Ratings on Thursday downgraded ratings for electronics retailer RadioShack Corp.

The company cut RadioShack’s issuer default, bank credit facility and senior unsecured notes ratings, all to “BB” from “BB+.” “BB” is the first speculative or “junk bond” rating and a plus or a minus indicates the ratings position within the category.

The rating outlook is negative. The downgrades reflect weakness in many of RadioShack’s business segments, especially its wireless products and services segment, according to Fitch.

“RadioShack has continued to report negative comparable store sales driven by weak operating trends across most of its business segments,” Fitch said in a statement. “Of ongoing concern is the increasing competition in the consumer electronics and wireless businesses from national big-box retailers and discounters as well as wireless carriers and other new wireless distribution channels.”

Why Best Buy Looks Attractive and Eddie Lampert Should Buy Circuit City

It’s rare for me to like several competitors’ stocks all at the same time. However, fears of a slowing economy, housing meltdown, and higher inflation have really hurt the consumer discretionary sector so far this year. In fact, it is one of the worst performing groups along with financial services.

Is it silly for me to praise three electronics retailers in such an environment? Some people will absolutely think so, but let me explain why I think they can all be owned. I’ve written about RadioShack (RSH) a lot since January, so I’ll spare you from reading more about them. Do a site search from the sidebar if you need a refresher.

As you may have seen, Best Buy (BBY) shares were hit hard after releasing poor results for their fiscal first quarter. Product mix was the main culprit, pushing down gross margins for the quarter, but the company expects a rebound later in the year. Best Buy also is accelerating their expansion plans in China.

Most people, myself included, believe BBY to be the creme of the crop in the consumer electronics space. Granted, that might not be saying much when you compete with RSH and Circuit City (CC), but I truly believe Best Buy’s success has a lot to do with a good management team that knows what they are doing. Personally, I love shopping there and whenever I get the urge to treat myself to some discretionary spending, it’s one of my top destinations.

What makes the stock attractive right now? Very simply, valuation. The shares are sitting near multi-year lows and look very cheap on a P/E to growth rate basis. Earnings guidance for this year was cut to $3.05 from $3.18 per share. At the current price of $44 and change, BBY trades at 14.6 times this year’s estimates. Given their leadership position in the industry, a below-market multiple, a stellar balance sheet ($5 in net cash per share to use for buybacks), and a double-digit earnings growth rate going forward, shares of Best Buy appear to be attractively priced. Assume 15% earnings growth in 2008 and a market multiple and you can justify a $56 price tag sometime next year.

The situation at Circuit City is a lot uglier. This company has been trying to find a way to get back on firm footing and stay there for a long time. Every so often they appear to be making progress but then falter and change strategies. The same thing is happening now. The stock has been cut in half over the last year, to $15 and change. Why is the stock attractive? I really don’t think it can go much lower and there are some catalysts that could push it back into the 20’s.

If the latest round of restructuring doesn’t work, I really think Circuit City will be sold. There have been interested parties in the past, but the company has resisted. Personally, I think a buyout is the best way for them to turn things around. I would love to see Eddie Lampert buy Circuit City. It looks like his kind of thing, namely a brand name and a bunch of customers, but no consistent profitability.

The stock is really cheap, one of the cheapest well-known retailers I can find. While profits are sporadic, if existent at all, the company trades for 0.2 times sales and has $2 of net cash on the balance sheet. A market cap of $2.7 billion with no leverage issues and nearly $13 billion in annual revenue is about as low as the stock can get, in my view.

If the turnaround works, the stock sees the twenties. If they finally agree to sell to someone who is willing to make dramatic moves to turn things around, the same thing happens. At $15 and change I just think the stock is pretty much near rock bottom. The risk reward is very favorable even if the company’s results have not been as of late.

So, I’m surprised to be saying this, but I think all three of these electronics retailers can be owned. If you are looking for places to reallocate some RadioShack profits, look no further than their competitors.

Full Disclosure: Long Best Buy and RadioShack at the time of writing

Home Depot’s New Stock Buyback Amounts to 30% of their Shares

There are stock buybacks and then there is the new Home Depot (HD) buyback. In case you are wondering why shares of the home improvement retailer are surging $2 this morning to more than $40 per share on news that was leaked to the market earlier this week with little movement in the stock (the company’s $10 billion sale of HD Supply), it’s because of the company’s new buyback program. Home Depot has decided to couple the $10 billion in proceeds from the sale of their wholesale business with $12 billion from a new senior note issuance to initiate a buyback of $22.5 billion. Yes, that’s not a typo, a $22.5 billion buyback.

Regardless of your view on share buybacks, there is no doubt that they are a hot concept right now. Home Depot’s market cap before today was only $75 billion, so this new buyback is truly enormous, representing 30% of the company’s outstanding shares. The company says it will complete the program as soon as is practical.

In case you are wondering how long that might take, Home Depot repurchased 174 million shares in 2006, for $6.7 billion. Given influx of cash they will be seeing shortly, it’s likely they could accelerate that pace a little bit at the very least. It seems reasonable that they could complete the buyback in three years with no trouble, and perhaps faster if they wanted to really be aggressive.

It remains to be seen what type of impact this could have on the company’s earnings. We know it will be accretive but by just how much is more of a question. Home Depot intends to update its guidance (ex HD Supply) in July. We could dig through the company’s past SEC filings to determine the impact from jettisoning HD Supply from their results, but until we hear whether expectations for the core retail business will have to be slashed yet again, we won’t really have a good idea of how much the buyback will boost the stock’s declining earnings.

Full Disclosure: No position in Home Depot at the time of writing

Goldman Sachs Buys Huge Stake in RadioShack

Through SEC documents filed Monday we learned that Goldman Sachs Asset Management has bought a 12.6% stake in electronics retailer RadioShack (RSH). Normally this would not be very newsworthy, as the largest asset management firms usually have big stakes in companies that require reporting. Fidelity is the largest mutual fund manager and is on top ten institutional holders lists all the time. What is interesting about this Goldman disclosure is that they bought a lot of RSH and did so very quickly.

As of March 31, 2007, with RadioShack trading at $27 per share after being the best performer in the S&P 500 during the first quarter, Goldman owned just 1,755,884 shares (about 1% of the company). In a little more than two months they have increased their holdings by a factor of ten to become the second largest holder (behind Fidelity’s 15%) and that news helped send the stock up nearly 2 percent on Monday.

Should investors go out and buy RSH on this news? Not at all. Such heavy buying explains why the stock has remained strong in recent weeks. Given that Goldman filed with the SEC, we can assume they are done buying large blocks of stock. Investors in RSH who own it for the potential for further earnings per share gains (above current estimates) are justified, but a purchase just for the sake of following Goldman is a bit too late.

Recently I trimmed some RSH positions in accounts where it got to be a top holding. I still expect the stock to move toward $40 per share, but the bulk of the gains for 2007 are likely behind us, unless something unforeseen happens. Interestingly, I have been looking closely at the other electronics retailers recently and RSH is not the only one that looks attractive from an investment standpoint. Perhaps I’ll go into more detail in a future post.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of RSH, as well as January 2009 $10 LEAPS