August 15, 2014 in Business

Back-to-school sales promising for stores

Major retailers’ discounting, upgrading may hurt bottom line
Anne D’Innocenzio Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Julie Wilkins helps her grandson, Griffin Brady, 3, put a box of crayons in a shopping cart while shopping for school supplies at a Target store in Memphis, Tenn., in July.
(Full-size photo)

JCP narrows losses

PLANO, Texas – J.C. Penney Co. reported a narrower loss for its second quarter that beat Wall Street expectations.

The beleaguered department store operator also said Thursday that sales rose 6 percent at established locations during the period, the third consecutive quarter of growth.

The results offer some encouraging signs that Penney is recovering from a botched transformation plan by former CEO Ron Johnson that resulted in massive losses and plunging sales. Johnson, the mastermind behind Apple’s retail concept, was ousted in April 2013 after 17 months on the job. The board brought back Mike Ullman, who had been at the helm for seven years, to turn around Penney.

Ullman is trying to win back shoppers by restoring sales events and basic merchandise that the company ditched under Johnson’s tenure – discontinuing some of the new trendy brands like William Rast and Joe by Joseph Abboud and bringing back store labels. Penney also increased markdowns to get rid of the excess inventory.

While it attempts to revive sales, Penney is also focusing on cutting costs. In January, it announced it was cutting 2,000 jobs and shuttering 33 stores.

Penney, based in Plano, Texas, said it lost $172 million, or 56 cents per share, during the period. Excluding one-time items, it lost 75 cents per share. That wasn’t as bad as the loss of 98 cents per share analysts expected, according to Zacks Investment Research.

NEW YORK – The back-to-school shopping season is off to a promising start, but retailers may be sacrificing profit for sales.

The National Retail Federation expects the average family with school-aged children to spend $669.28 for back to school items, up 5 percent from last year. That would be the second-highest amount since the industry trade group started tracking spending in 2004.

But major retailers like Wal-Mart and Macy’s are discounting merchandise and increasing spending to upgrade their stores and websites just to grab the attention of U.S. shoppers during the second biggest shopping period of the year. All that discounting and investing has worked to start the season off strong, they say, but it also hurts their bottom lines.

“Stores are going to have to invest in price and e-commerce aggressively in order to be competitive,” said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a retail research firm. “The pie is not growing, and they’ve got to do everything they can to keep them from losing market share.”

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, says it’s been investing in several ways to attract shoppers this season. The company cut prices on 10 percent more back-to-school items compared with last year. It also increased the number of back-to-school products sold on its website by 30 percent to 75,000 this year from last year.

The company also has made some long-term investments. Wal-Mart said it’s doubling the number of smaller stores it has this year to compete with dollar chains. And it has increased its spending on its e-commerce operations to compete with online competitors like Amazon, a move that contributed to it slashing its annual profit outlook.

“In an environment where customers have so many choices about where to shop and how to buy, and many of them are feeling pressure on their budgets, we have to be at our best,” Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon said in a pre-recorded call Thursday.

But all that investing has hurt its results. On Thursday, Wal-Mart reported that its profit in the latest quarter was virtually flat.

Kohl’s Corp. also reported flat profit in its latest fiscal quarter on Thursday, as it cut prices, revamped its beauty departments, and spent on services such as one that enables it to ship online orders directly to shoppers from its stores.

The department-store operator also has started to roll out a loyalty program where shoppers get one point for every dollar they spend, with them receiving a $5 reward for every 100 points.

The retailer is hopeful its moves will boost business during the back-to-school shopping season: Kohl’s said that in July it had its first gain in revenue at established stores in several months.

“I believe our customers will be excited by the newness that they find in our stores and when shopping online this fall,” Kohl’s CEO Kevin Mansell told investors Thursday.

Still, Mansell says the period is not a predictor of how shoppers will spend during the holiday shopping season in November and December, which traditionally is the biggest shopping period of the year. “Last year, we had a really good back-to-school business and then business died mid-September,” he said.

For its part, Macy’s Inc., which owns Macy’s and upscale Bloomingdales chains, reported on Wednesday that its profit and sales for its latest quarter missed Wall Street estimates because it did so much discounting of merchandise.

The retailer also has been investing in its online business. The company said it just finished rolling out a program that allows shoppers to order on and then pick up their order in stores. Additionally, the company said that it has sharpened its focus on customers ages 13 to 30, which has re-energized the back-to-school business.

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